When online travel agency Tourradar suggested a solo trip to Africa, my first reaction was for me to laugh, actually guffaw, at the suggestion. The whole idea seemed preposterous to me. I replied, Do you know me? I am not exactly the adventure type. I am more of the Eva Gabor in “Green Acres” type. Give me Manhattan anytime. I don’t own a dog. I haven’t even bothered to see the “Lion King”. Despite my protestations to the contrary, I couldn’t get the idea of an African safari out of my head. So I decided to look into it further.
Tourradar kindly provided me with a selection of affordable accommodated tours that were geared towards travelers who wanted a bed, shower, and toilet most nights. I chose a tour that traveled through South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Botswana for 2 weeks because it would afford me some of the best opportunities to see a wide variety of animals. Seeing the Big 5 game animals -lions, tigers, rhinoceros, hippopotami, and Cape buffalos- is the goal of most safari goers.
After months of preparation and a touch of anxiety, I finally arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa. I don’t know what I expected Africa to look like, but certainly not South Florida. As I was driven from the Johannesburg to my hotel in Pretoria, the landscape was dotted with gated communities, malls, and parks similar to what I see when I visit my mother in Delray Beach, Florida. I arrived in June, which is the start of the winter season in Africa meaning temperatures were a balmy 70 to 80 degrees. From the first day, I learned it was wise to throw out any preconceived notions I had of Africa.
Early the next morning, I boarded the van eager to start what turned out to be a 3400-mile trek through Southern Africa and meet my fellow travelers. As it turned out, there was only one other participant on the tour for this particular departure. The two of us were fortunate enough to have a private safari for 2 weeks for approximately $3700 each. As luck would have it, Match.com couldn’t have done a better job of matching us up. My fellow traveler Nancy* was an Australian who lived half the year in Italy. She was my exact age, and twice divorced to my single status. While I was surprised to find 2 single women on this tour, our tour guides told us that the majority of their customers for tours in Africa were women.
Simon, our tour guide for the first half of the trip, was originally from a rural village of Zimbabwe although he lived in Victoria Falls between assignments in order for his daughter to attend a good high school. The international sanctions imposed on Zimbabwe forced him to come to South Africa for work. As he showed us pictures of him and his family, he introduced all of them in what I came to learn was typical African fashion. “I am from the Shona tribe. My wife is from the Tonga tribe,” explained Simon. “I paid 6 cows for her. I will finally finish paying it off this year after 17 years of marriage and 3 children.”
Off we went, three people – me from the United States, Nancy from Australia, and Simon from Zimbabwe – united by a common language but divided by three distinctive accents. Despite traveling more than 300 miles from Pretoria to Kruger National Park on the first day, the time flew because we were so excited about the possibility of seeing lions and tigers the next day. Staying nearby at Nsele Lodge, owned by an Afrikaner couple, we were able to arrive at Kruger National Park bright and early. As this was my first game preserve ever, I didn’t know what to expect. Kruger turned out to be the Garden of Eden crossed with Noah’s Ark except with more animals.
Quite simply, safaris are both mesmerizing and exhilarating. The car grew quiet when we saw a pack of animals because all of us were so in awe of the magnificence of the scene before us. Words were inadequate. It was as if a magnificent oil painting had come to life. I could have sat for hours watching the animals at each of the sites we stopped. We only moved because our tour guide Olaf reminded us there was an abundance of such opportunities in the park and we might be missing something better. I was the best at spotting the animals. It seemed that my years as a celebrity paparazzi had honed my animal spotting skills.
To my surprise, I learned that zebras weren’t actually black and white, but had black, brown and white stripes. I posed so often with the frisky beasts that my safari guide coined a new word – zelfie. The so- ugly- they- were- cute warthogs that ran so fast on their tiny legs made me laugh every time I saw one. No matter how long I studied them I still can’t figure out why JK Rowling named the magic students in “Harry Potter” warthogs.
I originally thought the lions, being king of the jungle, were going to be my favorites. But I was fascinated by the elephants, zebras, impalas and other antelopes, giraffes, hippopotami, rhinoceroses, and Cape buffalos traveling in packs. I was able to watch animals caring for their young, playing in the water, crossing the road directly in front of us, elephants eating by vacuuming up tree branches, antelopes flirting and having sex, hyenas talking to each other, and leopards coming towards me.
Giraffes became my favorite animal because I could relate to them. Similar to myself, they had an awkward gait. Giraffes walked one side at a time, both right legs or left legs, rather than the typical 4-legged animal gait of 2 front or back legs. Giraffes only sit or sleep when they feel safe because it takes time and effort for them to getting up from the ground. A broken ankle that never healed makes it also difficult for me to rise quickly. A giraffe in the Okovango Delta, Botswana must have sensed our simpatico. He followed me on my walks and displayed his love for me by prancing.
In between animal sightings, Olaf taught us the history of South Africa from his perspective as an Afrikaner, the descendant of white Dutch settlers. He unsuccessfully tried to justify apartheid as the only choice of the white minority since without it the white Afrikaners would have been thrown out of power.
The next morning, we set off for Zimbabwe. It was in Zimbabwe that I fell in love with the African people. The Zimbabwean economy, rife with governmental corruption, has been crippled by international sanctions. Exiling former Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe had not been enough to set the country on the right path. His successors had been equally as corrupt. Unfortunately, it was the good people of Zimbabwe who really paid the price for their leaders’ malfeasance.
The sanctions resulted in water shortages, electrical blackouts, long lines at the gas station when there was even fuel in the pumps, and the inability to process hard currency or international credit cards. Our rooms at the Traveller’s Guest House in Bulawayo were in perfect order when we arrived despite all these difficulties. The staff at the lodge and the restaurant next door worked with dignified pride in order to provide us a level of service that was far superior to the United States. When the lights went out during dinner, the waitstaff didn’t offer excuses. They quickly sprang into action and brought lanterns to our table within seconds. The cashier would shortchange the restaurant in order to give us proper change.
Bulawayo is where we meet our new tour guide Servius, the fourth of 24 children. His father, who is chief of a small village in Zimbabwe, has 3 wives although the practice of polygamy has now faded away. Servius is grooming his son to take over as chief. The women in his village, which consists of 25-30 families, walk a minimum of 2 kilometers daily to fetch water during the summer season. For $5000, the shame of it is that this burden could be eliminated. That is the cost of hiring engineers to bore a hole for water in the best location and install a pump and solar panels to power them.
We toured the nearby Matobo National Park, which was the former estate of British businessman Sir Cecil John Rhodes. Matobo was the only national park where we were allowed to get out of the car. We were on the hunt for rhinoceros, found 4 and were able to get close enough to snap a selfie. Rhinoceros might appear fierce with their horns and immense girth, yet they paid as no mind as we posed for pictures. I went to bed that night happy that I was able to check off another one of the big 5 animals.
The following couple of days we saw a more urbanized version of Africa in Victoria Falls, which is named after the waterfalls of the same name that are considered the world’s largest. While while touring the falls, which are twice the size of Niagara Falls, I relished getting wet from their spray on a hot day. The chef at a local restaurant offered the delicacy of Mopani worms. I wasn’t brave enough to try even though eating them came with bragging rights in the form of an official certificate of your adventurous palate. However, I did sing, dance, and play the Congo drums for my supper.
No trip to Botswana is complete without a trip to the Okvanago Delta, a UNESCO Heritage site. I pretended to be Katherine Hepburn in “The African Queen” as the poler pushed our mokoro (canoe) through the delta. Unfortunately, my inelegant sprawl as I got into the vessel told a very different story.
Our campsite offered us a front row view of the hippopotami sunbathing on the shores of the delta. My giraffe beau, tired of my looking at the other animals, pranced to get my attention. We started our courtship the old fashion way with a walk in the woods. Unfortunately, our night was cut short when I had to zip myself in my tent at night lest the other animals attack me.
*Not her real name