Category Archives: Africa

Photo Essay: Sossusvlei, Namibia: The Number One Place on My Bucket List

[Photo by: Like_the_Grand_Canyon/Flickr]

I recently learned of a new magazine called Trunk. The first issue is loaded with ethereal photographs–truly some of the best images I have laid eyes on. It’s no wonder the new glossy is off to a good start–the founder David Cicconi, used to be Travel + Lesisure’s photography director, so he’s done this kind of thing once or twice before.

Here is a glimpse of the imagery (it’s of the Namibian desert–a place I yearn to visit); hoping the publication delivers just as it did this time around with each new issue.

“Life on Mars”

http://www.trunkmag.com/photography-award/

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Photo Essay: African Giraffe

Experienced this glorious sight a few days before my departure from Phinda Game Reserve in South Africa. The photo is stunning, but observing the living image through the naked eye was simply spectacular.

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The Juxtaposition of Existing and Living: Memoirs of My Journey to Africa: Part V

The flight over to Phinda was excruciatingly torturous – a two passenger plane that could barely fit me, my husband, and the overly plump pilot and his scrawny co-pilot sidekick.  Not being able to hide the horror on my face, I continuously attracted the attention of the pilot as he seemed to think that by turning around –- diverting his attention from the airy abyss that was swallowing us whole —  and cracking some “look no hands” joke would make me feel all better inside.  I also came to the conclusion that our brawny pilot must have been using his powerful legs to jump jet streams Flintstone-style as the icy air and turbulence caused a perturbing stiffening throughout my entire anxiety ridden body.

Finally we began to descend and I did the only thing I knew that would keep me from focusing on crashing planes — I closed my eyes and sang repetitively — “Everything’s gonna be alright” from the lyrics of Bob Marley’s No Woman Cry. Touchdown was so smooth that I barely knew we landed and I felt like a jerk for hating the talented pilots who so effortlessly traversed the sky in such a diminutive concoction.  Like a knight in shining armor, the pilot offered his hand as I jumped out and into a warm subtropical sanctuary.  We thanked him for delivering us to a new paradise and headed off to find our guide.

Although we were still in South Africa, the landscape was dramatically different and pleasurably clement.  Once again, we were greeted by one of the andBeyond staff members named Richard.  He informed us that he would be our ranger over the next six days during our stay at the Phinda Forest lodge.  Charismatic and witty, Richard began telling us about the phenomenal sand forest we would be living in, along with its intrusive vervet monkeys that were notorious for stealing the meals of guest and providing a soothing lullaby of drumbeats on rooftops all throughout the night.

As we drove to the lodge, I was astounded by the variety of ecosystems we traveled through in only 45 minutes.  Vast floodplains set against a back drop of rocky hillsides cloaked in an abundance of plant life. A massive crater hid a secret garden of somnolent waters, enchanting fauna, and imperiled creatures. Subtropical woodlands of lala palm, marula, bushwillow, and terminalia trees leading into a mythical sand forest whose floor was that of the oceans’ millions of years ago, all interspersed within the magnificent reserve.  It was quintessential, glorifying, and so Out of Africa.

Upon arrival we were greeted with a traditional welcome drink, but this time it was a refreshing glass of mango juice to cool down from the Sun’s intense rays.  A woman named Eunice walked us through narrow windy paths confined by tall lichen- ridden trees that led to an open-air lobby.  We were introduced to a petite, spunky young woman named Seranne who identified herself as the camp manager.  A brief overview of the lodge was given and then we were escorted to our room.  As we followed Eunice, a sequestered world unfolded right before our eyes.  Tiny deer-like creatures called duiker scampered inches from our feet, stoic Nyala grazed at every turn, playful monkeys swung from treetops overhead, and brilliantly colored birds sang boisterously from the swaying canopy.  There was something about the warmth meshing with the gentle breeze and the fragrance of the forest that was so invigorating.  I felt as though I was on another universe — one that was perfectly molded  —  its beauty untouched and life unscathed.

Eunice brought us to our villa which was elevated on stilts for privacy and optimal game viewing.  We entered, and once again were completely taken back by the tasteful minimalist glass wall bedroom and exquisite eggshell soaking tub, dual sinks, and carved stone rain-shower in the bathroom.  The room was almost enticing enough for us to lie down for an afternoon nap but we could not resist the urge to explore the forest and prepare for the game drive.  And so we wandered and discussed our plans to visit the local Zulu tribe, searched for a variety of animals endemic to the forest, pondered over whom we would meet throughout our stay, and continued to obliviously meander until daylight began to fade and dust slowly set in.

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The Juxtaposition of Existing and Living: Memoirs of My Journey to Africa: Part Four

Feeling the safety of the still ground beneath me as I hopped off the land cruiser, I slowly began to feel the adrenaline leak from my body as the cold surreptitiously seeped in. Nights in Kruger seemed frigid compared to the warm sun-kissed days, and I was beginning to wonder if I would wake up with pale blue frost- bitten limbs from a night in our non-heated jumbo hut. The dry, crisp air was filled with the wintery incense of burning wood, a sure sign that our boma dinner was about to convene. Under an starry sky, a rural fortress of tall sticks enclosed a rustic dining area of long beautifully dressed tables, caldron fire pits, illuminated acacia trees, and an impressive buffet displaying authentic African fare.

I was immediately drawn to the spitting flames as I drew my body as close to the small blaze as possible without baking my organs or singeing my eyelashes. The guests and rangers were beginning to trickle in, all gravitating to the glowing fiery swirls as they rubbed their hands profusely using the heat and friction to warm their cold bodies. Nothing seemed more appropriate than a robust glass of red wine and an enthusiastic toast to compliment the outrageous evening we had all just shared. Once our muscles gave way to the warming stimulation of a glass of Constantia, an outbreak of personal stories began to flow as fast as the fragrant butternut squash being poured into our porcelain bowls. Tales of past safaris, trips to the Orient, Middle East and Europe, political debates and constant questioning about how my husband and I remained US citizens throughout little Bush’s administration fueled hours of insightful conversation. Although we barely knew one another, the experience we had shared just hours before had created an instantaneous friendship that seemed to link us somewhere in the midst of nowhere from scattered origins across an expansive globe. To make things even more memorable, the staff performed a traditional tribal dance of powerful, upbeat, melodious song which flowed in tune with the passionate, rhythmic whirls of light-hearted choreography to end the evening in congruity with a spectacular day.

With the dawn of each life-breathing sunrise the beauty of the dry vast landscape became one with the ebb and flow of my inner being.  Majestic creatures roamed free, allowing a glimpse of a world that so few ever really understand and respect. Witnessing the compassion of an elephant matriarch nurturing and defending her adopted young, or watching a lioness leading her pride through a laborious hunt, or gazing as Cape buffalo court one another through hysterical facial expressions, could only be described as mythical. It was as if this completely separate, fascinating world existed unscathed and isolated.

It is hard to describe the kind of attachment one can form to such a dynamic place. I fell in love with the tick of nature’s clock, living the way humans were meant to live. Copious amounts of sunlight, breathing unenclosed oxygen, and stopping to observe the tiny enigmas that in a very unexpected way, made me feel so completely whole. I knew with an unquestioning instinct that this was the way our species was supposed to exist– a part not apart — from the natural world, as caretakers not destroyers of the one planet we have to call home.

As my husband and I left for the airstrip I leaned on him searching to be consoled. I did not want to leave as I knew a part of me would always be searching for the peace I had found here. I knew that more good was to come in our next excursion to a rare sand forest, but it was unbearable for me to think that I would most likely never again see the people we came to know as friends. Tears streaming down my face, I said goodbye to Exeter and Sabi Sands taking in a gulp of sweet air. It was time to move on to the next part of our journey, and to become acquainted with a different Africa; one of unforgiving circumstances and astounding beauty.

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The Juxtaposition of Existing and Living: Memoirs of My Journey to Africa: Part Three

As we circled towards the runway I could see the open-top Land cruisers waiting by the strip.  I closed my eyes as we approached and was jerked with a “bump!” as we touched down.  “Thank freakin God” I thought to myself as I quickly gathered all my gear and bid “adieu” to the tiny plane.  Stepping onto the sandy savanna in search of our vehicle, we realized our new destination resembled no part of the world we left.  We were in remote wilderness encompassed in nature’s raw, fascinating world as low man on the food chain.  Once again the crisp air consumed me; its sweetness seemed to adjust the serotonin levels in my brain to “blissful aura”.  I was in a state of shock, feeling so far from home yet never closer.

A smiling African man with an eccentrically beautiful accent was waiting with an Exeter River Lodge sign to escort us to the lodge.  We boarded the vehicle and bundled up as the whipping wind pounced at our faces once we started cruising through the rugged terrain.  Our guide told us to take out our camera in preparation for animal sightings.   “Animal sightings!” was I ready to see a lion or a cyclopean herd of elephants?  “Yes, yes”.  I reasoned with myself that I was fully capable of handling this; that all would be just fine if I kept my hands in the vehicle and did not stand or rock in my seat.  “Wait, were those instructions for safari or “It’s a Small World”?

“Impala!”

I saw our guide point to the right towards a herd of tawny, sleek antelope that harmoniously scattered using their agile frames to navigate through the thorny bush.  It was like witnessing a poetic dance between kin on an elusive stage.

We pulled up to the lodge and were greeted by the kind Exeter staff with some warm hot chocolate. The genuine welcome of each person that passed by radiated a sense of comfort and calm that was unexplainable.    Our luggage was taken and we were escorted to the common area of the lodge.  This alcove was an open air pavilion built on a hill overlooking the arid bush.  Breakfast was offered as a way to ease into our morning and enjoy the sights and sounds of Africa.  A man named Ronnie introduced himself as our porter.  Tall and thin with a contagious laugh and boyish smile, Ronnie, was just the person I wanted to get to know and understand during our stay at this magical place.  We ordered omelets and some honeybush tea and headed over to a spread of fresh fruits, breads, yogurt, and homemade jams.  I could not help but feel utterly blessed as I ate with my husband and absorbed the operatic songs of birds as they exposed psychedelic colored wings fluttering through the wiry branches, the vista of elephant lazily grazing in the distance, and baboons foraging through the tall spiny grass.

A short plump man named Oscar approached our table waking us from a deep state of contemplation by offering to show us the grounds and our room.  We gratefully obliged as we carried our hot tea and camera bag.  The area where guests could roam was fairly small due to the security issue of sharing space with ferocious man-eating carnivores.  There was a 24 hour surveillance kept by the staff and trackers, but who really wanted to test the obedience of our bad tempered “guests?”

“Now before we enter your room I want to assure you that the window will be replaced later this afternoon.”

“Um why would our window need to be replaced?” I blurted.

“Well yesterday a few baboons got in because the door was left unlocked and mistook the window as a point of exit while we chased them with sticks”, Oscar said hesitantly.

“They can turn the handle!?” my husband shouted.

“Oh yes, very easily, but don’t worry, if you lock the door you should have no problem at all.”

“Fantastic” my husband slurred sarcastically.

As Oscar swayed the door to our temporary abode, my mouth slowly widened with each glance of the large space.  The room was like a palatial oasis with a king size bed, living area, stand-alone tub, and dual rainshower heads that stood completely open facing a glass wall that looked out to the savanna.  Rewind to the beautiful glass wall and insert shattered glass wall.

Wow! That baboon must have been quite a big primate” I said

“He was definitely determined to leave and I can assure you that he will not be back” replied Oscar. “Your game drive will begin shortly so you may want to change and get settled before leaving…oh and remember to lock your door”.

“Oh right!” my husband and I said simultaneously as we ran to chain every possible nut and bolt available.

The afternoon game drives began at 4:00 pm just in time to soak in the last bit of sunlight and catch the memorizing sunset.  We were introduced to our ranger Ryan, and tracker, Phickson, both having cowboy written all over their adventure- seeking faces, and two couples: one from Dubai the other from Dublin.   Once the sun had exchanged places with the moon, the bush turned into a maze of open, low running rivers inhabited with agitated Hippos, dry sand beds, scrubby bush, and open grasslands.  It was in these grasslands that we met our first pride of lions.  Driving like a crazed man, Ryan was sure that these animals were stalking their dinner.  Shuttering out of my skin a rush of fear and dread ran through my veins as we pulled alongside the pride and the Impala that had just been slain.  All at once the pride began ripping the helpless creatures into shreds no more than 5 feet from the vehicle.  I turned away but I could not block the booming roars, daunting growls and putrid odor of fresh blood permeating the air.  Deep in a feeding frenzy, the lions fought one another for food, interlocking in a flesh stripping embrace tearing with knifelike claws pushing their weight around to exert dominance.   They paced furiously around the vehicle, only inches from us, searching for prey to quench their veracious appetite.

I wanted to cry, scream, and run in every different direction but everyone else seemed to be having a grand ole’ time calm as a clam, snapping away and cheering the carnivores on.  I felt as though I was watching one of those gory Discovery Channel documentaries on the hunting patterns of the night prowler; the kind of programming that causes instant perspiration and nausea.  The feeding seemed to last eons as I would slowly allow a sliver of light to pass through my cupped hands exposing an eyeball to the fiasco in front of me.  The more I peeked the more I became tempted to free my eyes as my adrenaline pumped and curiosity stirred.  The sheer size and strength of these magnificent beasts was humbling and in a very strange way I was completely intrigued.

Finally the lions began to wean off the carcass and starting coming dangerously close-our cue to leave if we wanted to keep all limbs intact.  Ryan escorted us back to lodge as we all screamed and ranted about the experience we had just had.

“Brilliant!” “Fascinating”! “Surreal!” “Sexy!”

We all stopped at the disturbing comment from the dirty-minded Irishman and dropped our heads to keep the mounds of laughter from piling out.  I phased out for a moment as I looked up at the perfectly transparent black sky to the Sothern Cross.  The same constellation I had starred at from the plane, only this time I was here, I was in Africa, living it, breathing it, embracing it and for the first time in a long time I felt so alive.

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The Juxtaposition of Existing and Living: Memoirs of My Journey to Africa: Part Two

Upon arrival in Johannesburg I began to feel the voodoo of jetlag possess my body.  I was sure that I had a blood clot in my leg and that I had contracted a scalp infection from the seat head rest.  My husband assured me that it was just my usual sleep-deprived crankiness that was making me feels so shoddy.  I concurred reluctantly and pressed on to the gate where a staff member from the tour company was scheduled to greet us.  The gate gave one the sense of being a rock star amidst a barricaded crowd of anxious fans.  Hundreds of people were shouting out names and holding up signs as they pushed and shoved one another against the bars that confined them.  My eyes traversed the vines of swaying people in search of RUSSO scribbled on a manila card but the closest I could find was Rossol.  I had decided that if our tour man did not show up we would simply go with the bloke who was clenching the Rossol card and tell him that their company had made a terrible spelling error.

“Howszit!” Like an angel that had transcended from a “Where’s Waldo” fantasy, a small, beedie eyed, South African man appeared before us.  “Howspit” I replied (did I actually just say “HowSPIT”? I had practiced Afrikaan so many times!).  “Welcome to South Africa folks”.  He handed us a muddy-colored leather-bound journal, an envelope of transportation vouchers, and a clever looking, beige messenger bag.  “Follow me” and so we obeyed and followed the man to our next destination: The Intercontinental Airport Hotel.

Winding about the turnstile doors as I exited the airport, a blast of cool air struck my face and exposed extremities.  It was 7:30 in the morning and the magnificent African Sun was beginning to thaw the chilled ground below.  I inhaled deeply filling my lungs with an unfamiliar, but pleasurable floral scent of the city’s air.  I closed my eyes for a moment tilting my face toward the brilliant sunlight and smiled; the pain from my blood clot and scalp infection subsiding.

The Intercontinental was the most superior airport hotel I had ever stepped foot in.  Soothing white marble walls illuminated stunning ash-colored African art accented by sheer, flowing curtains whispered relaxation throughout.  We checked in, bathed under a heavenly rainshower spout, and changed into comfortable clothing.  After feeling starved from the miniscule, rubbery, non-edible material the airline introduced as food, I felt it was the appropriate time to gorge myself in African cuisine.  The chefs created a meticulous spread of exotic fruits, porridges, cured meats, cheeses, raw honey, and beautifully sculpted pastries.  I ate till I could no longer lift my fork from the fatigue of shoveling so much food to my mouth.  I lugged my jetlagged, bloated body up to the glass encased rooftop pool and settled down for an afternoon nap.

The next morning we boarded a very small aircraft en route to Sabi Sands within Kruger National Park.  At this point I could not contain the concoction of elation, trepidation, and titillation that was circulating through every inch of my safari- seeking self.  The moment I had been dreaming of for the past eight months was finally about to arrive.  The jet soared down the runway and projected gracefully into a stunning wild blue yonder.  As I peered out the window I could see the bustling city of Joburg slowly fade as we entered a foreign world of stark sand dunes, arid savannas, and stunningly desolate plains.  I clenched my husband’s hand; a gesture stating that we were experiencing something awesome together.

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The Juxtaposition of Existing and Living: Memoirs of My Journey to Africa

Globe-trotting 19 hours in a combustible, tin, bird-like structure was never a feat I was willing to undertake. I’ve always enjoyed traveling, and have nothing against flying short distances; it was just the thought of levitating half way around the world with no intermission to greet the ground that was slightly perturbing.

Three years ago my husband and I ran into some old friends at a local Starbucks. We got to talking and learned that they had just returned from a trip to Botswana.  Two lattes and a cupcake later, I was dreaming about Africa.  That night I stealthily stalked their Facebook page and rummaged through the photographs of their journey. Images of vast golden plains dotted with magnificent herds of herbivores living among the formidable “Big Five” became the most spectacular landscape I had ever laid eyes on.  These raw photos jolted an addiction that has been the root of my travel-fiend existence ever since.  And so began the process of booking a trip to Africa.

My husband and I purchased every possible “Complete African Safari Planner” available, and set to work.  Any free moment was spent in rumination over which country to travel to, what biodiversity to see, and the crucial decision of where to stay.

South Africa out bid the other countries based on its appeal of “A World in One Country” and the “developing” nation status.  This was going to be our first time traveling to a different hemisphere and we wanted to be reassured that there would be running water, post medieval means of communication, and standard medical care just in case we were to lose an eye to a baboon (I’ll get to the baboons later).

Choosing the tour company took five grueling months.  It became a constant negotiation between my husband and the agents on how many nature reserves we could visit without spending a year’s mortgage payment.  We considered Abercrombie and Kent, Micato, andBeyond, Africa Adventure Company, and Ker and Downey.  All are top luxury tour companies, but andBeyond won out due to their special rates, superior service, and exclusive lodges that lie nestled in remote wilderness.

As the trip grew closer panic began to set in.  We scheduled several inoculation appointments, and filled our anti-malarial/cipro prescriptions.  Then there was the surfeit of vitamins, bug spray, khaki clothing, first aid equipment, and sunscreen.  Each time I approached the checkout counter the register sounded like nails lacerating a chalkboard that were just waiting to slide down into my pocket to slash it open.  Nightly visits to the US Dept. of Travel website soothed my anxiety as I would read and reread the phrases “Food and water are generally safe, and a wide variety of consumer goods and pharmaceuticals are readily available.”

I reasoned that this trip was to be an experience of a lifetime, one that would become a transcendental revelation in the way I viewed the world, so all the preparation and nervousness would be completely worth it.  Travel had been at the forefront of our existence since all the other aspects of our lives were completely and dreadfully mundane. Each experience introduced us to extrinsic cultures and places opening our proverbial world to the possibilities of a life spent uncovering earth’s most intriguing venues.  I was sure that Africa would reawaken my soul, and it did.

The night before our departure was spent tossing and turning between REM cycles filled with nightmares of lions mauling me and planes plunging into large bodies of water.  I remember waking up and looking out the window to a blackened sky absorbing a palette of crimson, coral, and amethyst hues.  It was a memorizing sunrise that put my restless body at ease; I was sure it was a sign of the magnificent journey ahead.  After showering, dressing in my most comfortable North Face sweats, and dabbing a bit of concealer on the purple circles under my eyes, I was off to JFK.

The moment of truth had arrived.  I was about to board a beast of a plane comprised of three massive engines and a wingspan that would put any wandering albatross to shame.  It was truly a magnificent flying apparatus and I felt quite privileged to be spending the next 19 hours with it. The South African Airways crew was friendly and very accommodating even to common economy folk like myself.

My husband and I had two isolated seats so there were no possibilities of being next to a screaming child or snoring adult.  The seats seemed spacious, but only time would tell if there was truly enough room for proper blood flow and stretching.  A traditional international travel packet was distributed complete with an eye cover, toothbrush and toothpaste, and a very red pair of socks.  The saving grace was the petite television screens built into the head rests.  I felt calm, confident, and ready to become intoxicated.  I would have approximately 28 minutes till departure, just enough time for some down to business drinking.  I figured what better way to enjoy the flight than not to remember it at all?

“Sweetie?”  My mind was in slow motion.  A slurred resonance of chimes rolled through my brain.  I could feel something wet on my chin.  “Sweetie?”  “Please stop Sister Mary I am not the choir singing kind of girl.” “Sweetie!”  I awoke abruptly to my husband’s lips at my ears.  “Sweetie, you’re drooling.” “Oh, sorry.”  I felt terrible that I had become that gross passenger that I detest.

“Where are we?”, I asked him.  “Not sure, but you can see the Southern Cross to your right out the window.”  My heart raced as I looked out into a starry abyss.  I shuttered at the sight of the Southern Cross and felt tears welling up in my eyes.  My eyes shot to the tracking map on my TV screen and saw that we were leaving Botswana heading straight for Joburg.  I was in Africa!  Glued to the magnificent celestial vista I wanted to spend every moment of the last hour and a half of our flight entranced by the brilliant Milky Way and the idea that Africa lie waiting for me.

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