Life continues to be an amazing journey. I just had the good fortune of sharing some of my favorite South African destinations with my family who flew here from various corners of the world – Sami, Scott, Maia and Ben from Geneva, and my dad from Houston.
I was beyond elated to reunite with family. Plus, it was the first time that Sami and my dad had visited me while working overseas (ironically, I seem to see Scottie all the time, as his malarial work with Global Fund often brings him to this part of the world). And it was the first time for Maia and Ben, ages 10 and 8 respectively, to explore Africa.
We decided to take it easy that first day and ventured close by to the Lion and Rhino Nature Reserve. It’s always mind-boggling to believe that within a forty-five minute drive from my home I’m able to view unparalleled wildlife. The park has more than thirty species of game, including lions, rhino and buffalo.
And they’ve also introduced the endangered wild dogs into the park, which in my opinion, are some of the most remarkable looking creatures on this planet. Their markings are so unique, with irregular patches of red, black, brown, white, and yellow fur. They look so tame – as if they were a domestic breed – yet, they can be incredibly dangerous. In fact, packs of wild dogs can hunt wildebeests, antelopes, and other large game.
And no trip to the Lion and Rhino Park would be complete without going to the Animal crèche where you can pet the baby lion cubs. The enthusiasm and excitement from Ben and Maia made it all worthwhile.
The next day, we loaded up the car and headed towards the Botswana border in the North West Province to Madikwe Game Reserve, the fifth largest game reserve and one of the lesser-known parks in South Africa. As such, it’s often considered one of South Africa’s hidden gems…and is definitely my favorite game park to date.
We stayed at the stunningly beautiful and rustic Madikwe River Lodge, situated on the banks of the Groot Marico River. Upon arrival, we literally wasted no time and immediately set out on an afternoon game drive.
I loved seeing Maia and Ben’s reactions to wildlife! And one of our first sightings was a leopard! In all my years of going on game drives, I’ve never seen a leopard up close and personal. It’s always been one of those sightings where one needs to get out their binoculars and look WAY OUT on the rocks in the distance. Yet, this beautiful creature was almost at arm’s length. AMAZING!!!
I let Maia borrow my spare camera, and between the two of us we must’ve taken hundreds of images of this magnificent animal within minutes! The leopard had recently killed an impala and had dragged it up a tree. Granted, when we initially saw him he was napping in the tall grass, with his big belly heaving with every breath.
Unfortunately, there was a long line of safari vehicles waiting for their turn to see this animal, so we moved on after a little while and continued to look for elephants, buffalo, wild dogs, birds, lions and the like.
My mom, a.k.a. Merryland, who is an avid birder offered the kids $1 for every species of birds that they identified. Now that’s one way to turn two children into bird watchers. They consulted with our guide, Benson, who provided a ‘Birds of Madikwe’ list. Both Maia and Ben were enamored with the variety of birds, and even got pretty good at identifying them. In the end, I think they identified eighty-one species. Not a bad way to make a few bucks.
In the evening, we had a big braai at the boma, complete with African singing and dancing around a bonfire.
We went on a series of game drives, and saw the big five (e.g., lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo and elephant) each day. We even went back to see the leopard…and miraculously, we were the only vehicle there and the leopard was back in the tree eating the remainder of the impala carcass. By far, the biggest highlight of the trip….and for me, the best sighting of any safari I have ever been on. Truly remarkable and magnificent!!!
After returning from Madikwe, I thought we should check out some of the concrete jungles and booked us a bike-riding tour of Soweto (an abbreviation for South Western Townships), spanning 41 square miles with a population of close to 1.5 million.
Soweto was created in the 1930s when the predominantly white government started separating blacks from whites. During apartheid, when the Afrikaner-dominated National Party gained power in 1948, they accelerated their pace of forced removals of Black South Africans from their homes to townships outside legally designated white areas.
However, it wasn’t until June 6, 1976 that Soweto came to the world’s attention with the Soweto Uprising, when mass protests erupted over the government’s policy to enforce education in Afrikaans rather than English. Police opened fire on 10,000 students marching from Naledi High School to Orlando Stadium. Twenty-three people died that first day, including 13-year old Hector Pieterson. A news photographer took an iconic image of the dying boy being carried by another student while his sister ran next to them, which was published around the world.
While we were on our bike-riding tour we stopped at the Hector Pieterson Memorial. I was overcome by grief and sadness as our guide retold the story of the Soweto Uprising, in which hundreds of people lost their lives. I was fighting back tears and became emotionally choked up as I tried to comprehend the enormity and complexities of apartheid. Can you imagine going to school and literally, over night, being forced to read and write in a foreign language? Even the teachers, many of whom didn’t speak Afrikaans, were forced to teach in that language. And to this day, Afrikaans remains the most ubiquitous language in South Africa – especially in Pretoria!
Nelson Mandela also lived in Soweto on Vilakazi Street from 1946 to 1962. After his release from prison in 1990, he returned to his modest home in Soweto. In his autobiography, Mandela says:
“That night I returned with Winnie to No. 8115 in Orlando West. It was only then that I knew in my heart I had left prison. For me No. 8115 was the centre point of my world, the place marked with an X in my mental geography.”
By and large, Soweto remains one of the highlights from my family’s visit. And it also left a lasting impression on Ben and Maia, who couldn’t get over how warm and friendly everyone was, despite their impoverished surroundings.
Seeing that my dad has grown up around horses, I wanted to do something that I knew he would enjoy. As such, I organized a horse-back riding safari and walking with lions tour in Cullinan. And much to my delight, my dad was definitely in his element sitting atop that horse…
We spent several hours horse-back riding through the bush, admiring zebras, blesboks, impalas, and warthogs. After the ride, we went on a lion walk – which is part of a family-run wildlife conservation initiative to breed and release lions in the wild. What an amazing experience…to be in close proximity to these gorgeous cats. And who can resist baby lion cubs?
No trip to South Africa would be complete without the obligatory trip to Cape Town. We did all of the touristy things…from chilling out on the waterfront, to taking the ferry to Robbin Island, to driving over Chapman’s peak, to seeing the penguins at Boulders Bay, to exploring the beautiful Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, to walking along the beach in Camps Bay.
Interestingly, Sami, Scott, David and I backpacked throughout South Africa in 2000. So we enjoyed revisiting some of the same destinations that we saw together so long ago. What was most striking was our experience at Robbin Island, famous for its imprisoned inmate, Nelson Mandela, where he served 18 years of his 27-year sentence.
When we first went to this Alcatraz-like island almost 15 years ago, the feel was quite different. Robbin Island was declared a World Heritage Site in 1999, and similar to today, tours of the island and prison were led by former inmates. Yet, there was a certain grittiness to the tour back then…the tour groups were small, and the former inmates went to great lengths to tell their personal story. We really got a feel for what they went through during apartheid, the pain and torture of life in prison, the impact of their imprisonment on their family, and the beauty and the significance of the motto, ‘each one teach one’.
Yet, on this tour, we all felt that the teaching moment was lost. It’s become big business, as 1800 people per day are shuttled through the island. The intimacy of interacting with the former inmates has been lost, and there’s an assumption that people going through the tour are already familiar with South Africa’s past. That may be true for adults, but the meaning may be lost on the younger generations. I still felt like it was a good trip, but it’s definitely become a bit lackluster.
Another sight that we revisited was the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point. However, this beautiful destination remains just as pristine today as it was long ago. But I think Maia and Ben were the highlight for a group of Asian tourists who took turns taking pictures with them. Literally, an entire busload of women took turns taking pictures with Ben and Maia…which was pretty hilarious.
By and large, we had an incredible time and made many life-long memories together.
I’m in the process of renewing my contract for three more years (fingers crossed), so will remain in this glorious country for now! I’m hoping to return to the states at some point in August…will keep you all posted.
Sending much love,