Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A slight detour from Merida

For the last couple of years, we have tended to use our vacations either to see family (no easy task when they are on opposite sides of the planet!) or to visit Merida.  This spring, though, we got an invitation that we couldn't refuse.  Friends from Johannesburg, South Africa, invited us down for a visit and to meet their new baby.  Although it had been less than a year since we saw them last (here in Atlanta), we jumped at the chance.  Neither of us have been anywhere in Africa before, so the trip would be a first for both of us.  It would also be the fourth continent that we had visited with Deidre since she and Darren first met on an international teaching program in 2004.

Darren and Myra at the Blyde River Canyon
We got a great deal on direct flights from Atlanta to Johannesburg, and 15.5 hours after we left, we touched down in South Africa on Saturday evening.  We managed to sleep a few hours, and on Sunday morning at 5 a.m. we set out with Deidre, her husband and her parents, both children, and the two of us for the Blyde River Canyon in Mpumalanga Province and then on to the Kruger National Park.

A gigantic anthill

Although we are both in our 40s, this trip was just like the road trips that I took with my parents 35 years ago.  Deidre's mom packed sandwiches and drinks for the day-long drive, and her dad brought coolers full of food for barbeques and dinners after we arrived in the park.  We stayed for four days in the Mopani Camp in the Kruger National Park in a stone cottage with a thatched roof (and a/c and a refrigerator), and each day we drove out into the park three or four times to look for animals.  And there were LOTS of animals!

It wasn't like anything that I had ever seen...sort of like a zoo turned inside out.  The camps are set up like safe zones within the open range that belongs to the animals.  The camps are surrounded by high electrified wire fences and huge gates to keep the animals out and the people safe inside, and the gates stay closed from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.  It reminded me of Jurassic Park, only the animals were outside and the people were inside.
The only gate into or out of the Mopani Camp

It was all very comfortable, and the quiet evenings around the barbeque, with no television or other distractions, was a great way to catch up with our friends.  On top of all of that, I don't think I've ever seen so many stars!
Our family-sized bungalow at Mopani

We saw lots of giraffes, zebra, buffalo, wildebeest, hippos, elephants, crocodiles, impala, water buck, and ostrich, and smaller numbers of hyena, warthogs, tsessebbe, and kudu.  We even saw lions, although they weren't easy to photograph.  I would go back in a heartbeat.

After our time in the park, we headed back to Johannesburg and spent our last few days just visiting with our friends.  We stumbled upon the movie Invictus, with Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela, while flipping through channels one night.  The movie provided some insight into South Africa's recent history, which is more complicated and nuanced than I had realized. We ate take-out pizza and spent a shocking amount of time napping.

We spent one whole morning building a robot for Myra out of a cardboard box, and as a thank you she taught me how to say "booger" in Arfikaans.  It was a short trip (only one week) but very nearly perfect.

We are now back, and both back at work.  It is hard to believe that just over a week ago we were being checked out by a curious hippo, challenged by a cranky elephant, and generally ignored by herds of zebra.  The trip went by so quickly that if it weren't for the pictures, it would hardly seem real.

If you've ever considered a trip to Africa to see the animals, it is possible to do it without spending tens of thousands of dollars for the experience.  Travel like a local, stay in the National Park camps, and remember to pack your egg salad sandwiches.  You will be glad that you did! 


  1. What a beautiful trip! I have dreamed of doing this for so many years.... Someday! Love your photos.

  2. What a dream trip! Amazing photos. What size zoom did you use to get those close-ups?
    We're counting the hours now until our jaunt to Yucatan.

  3. Carlos and Pat, thanks! Although it helped having friends there to get over the trepidation about going, in reality this would be an easy trip for anyone who has traveled internationally. The trick is not buying into the hyped up need for a "luxury safari." John and Alan, most were taken with a 55-250mm lens, although the bottom elephant (the one that took a dislike to our car) was shot with the plain old 50mm. We are waiting for your first dispatch from Centro!