Well, here I am…back in South Africa, my old African playground! For this trip, I planned not a single thing. I left that completely in the hands of my Australian buddy, Will.
He’s more of an upscale comfort traveler as opposed to me, where I’m fine sleeping on the grass outside in the middle of the Serengeti (not really but you get the idea). A little luxury never hurts once in a while (although I literally just spent a month at a luxury resort), so I told him to book whatever, wherever. “Take my credit card!” He’s one of the very few people I trusted to plan a trip for me.
He booked us a four-night stay at Cheetah Plains Private Reserve, in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve just on the cusp of the world-famous Kruger National Park. It. Looked. Glorious!
I met Will at the Hoedspruit Airport where we had a scheduled pickup drive us a couple hours to the Sabi Sand. The Cheetah Plains Reserve was a super exclusive, super private lodge situated in the middle of the wild African bush. We spotted giraffes and hippos just a few meters outside of our compound gates. We possibly may not even have to drive around, the animals are just outside! Other than the twice-a-day game drives we would participate in, the best part about the lodge was that everything was all-inclusive. We could eat and drink to our heart’s content! Fun fact: I’ve never done an all-inclusive trip in my life!
Our goal for our daily double safari game drives? To spot as much wildlife as we can including the elusive Big Five of Africa:
Black and White Rhinoceros
Apparently, these are the five most difficult animals to hunt on foot. This lingo was adopted into the world of safari pundits.
Each day we would wake up early in the morning in order to be ready for the sunrise game drive. We’d come back to the lodge, have a breakfast buffet, relax by the pool with drinks and do whatever. Have lunch later, then go on a sunset drive for a few more hours, followed by drinks in the bush and then a generous three-course dinner with the other patrons at the lodge. Rinse and repeat over four days!
Each drive lasted roughly three hours. Will and I sat in the back of an open safari jeep every single time. Two knowledgeable guides (a driver and a spotter) would lead us on our trail into the wilds. We saw three of the Big Five on the first day: an elephant, rhino, and a leopard.
This elephant was prepared to charge at us. Is it terrible to say that I wanted it to charge at us?
By the way, three distinct differences between the African elephants and the Asian species are: African elephants are generally larger, Asian elephants are generally hairier, and the shapes of their ears are different—Asian elephants have ears shaped like India and African ones have ears shaped like Africa. A good rule of thumb!
The rhinos aren’t very black nor certainly white at all. They are all a stony gray. However, the most prominent difference between the two is the shape of their mouths. The white rhinos have wide (white) mouths as compared to the black ones.
The African leopard is generally among the most elusive of the Big Five, but we saw more of these than any of the others.
We saw plenty of other wildlife in the reserve, including warthogs, zebras, giraffes, vultures, hyenas, and all sorts of antelope.
We eventually found two lionesses who were lounging in the middle of a pasture. But no cape buffalo at all! You would think they would have been an easy find. Arguably, the lamest of the Big Five, if you will. Thankfully, this wasn’t my first rodeo. I’ve been on many safaris in the past, including the most famous of them all, the Serengeti. I saw the Big Five there so I wasn’t particularly concerned this time around.
Each evening before the sun disappeared, our guides would drive to a clearing where they would serve us drinks and biltong, which is specialty South African dried meat similar to jerky.
By the fourth and final full day, I was done with going on the drives. Will felt the same but still, we went to at least get our money’s worth. It was amazing, but after three days of it, we had more than enough of our fill.
The Cheetah Plains was costly but much deserved and my reward for successfully making it to continent number five of my personal Quest to the Seven Continents.
To my Adventurous Readers,
Thinking about going to the Cheetah Plains? Well, you will have to wait for the 2019-2020 season. In 2018, Cheetah Plains is rebuilding their entire property, updating just about everything. It’s gonna look even more amazing than it did when I was there!
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I just want to say–Vegas was incredible as usual! It was great catching up with some of my friends and hearing what’s been happening at home since I left a little over three months ago. I also got the chance to skydive again and it was just as amazing as my first time in South Africa! Speaking of Africa, I found myself constantly thinking about one of the greatest summers I have ever had. Matt, Bryan, and the others would ask me about my trip, but I had a hard time figuring out where to begin telling them; I have done and experienced so much!
I’ve been home in Michigan for a day or two now and everyone is interested about what I’ve been up to and what interesting stories I have. A lot of them kept up with me on this blog, which I was really, really glad to hear. Those times of searching aimlessly for decent internet in the middle of Africa paid off. You guys have no idea just how tedious that was. It wasn’t just internet I had to find, I had to find a place with connectable wi-fi. I wrote my blogs on my iPad, connected that to a wi-fi hotspot to upload to this WordPress site, and then from a computer I could place photos and finally publish a post for all of you to see. This explains those long gaps between publishing certain posts; it’s not because I was lazy and didn’t write anything, it’s because I had no access to the internet.
I had friends say I looked humbled and completely refreshed when I saw them again. That could be true because I was in complete bliss my entire time in Africa (even on summit day on Mount Kilimanjaro). I’ve done just about everything I wanted to do although the stuff I missed I’ll save for my return one day. However I won’t get to ride an ostrich, I weigh 15k too much haha! I do miss all the fantastic people I have met over the last few months; my Rec 13 (and Palmer) house, my Old house (and New house), my safari squadron, my LX6 Kilimanjaro family, the SASTS volunteers, my Zanzibar rafikis, the Zulu family, and some of the locals I met in SA and Tanzania, and especially all of the kids I had the pleasure to teach and spend time with. The kids in Muizenberg and Arusha were some of the happiest children I have ever met, even under their subpar living circumstances. And then there’s the kids of Kayamandi, specifically Aphiwe, Fudo, Atha, RiRi, Ski, Chester, Avele, and Mawande–I miss those guys more than I care to admit. I wonder what they’re up to right now?
I’m glad I was able to share what I experienced in Africa with you all. A lot of my friends and family never really understood exactly what I do when I travel and volunteer in other countries. Now, as you can see, I have the most absolute best time of my life! My main focus in writing this blog was to inspire everyone and show off what else is out there on this humongous planet, from the perspective of an average guy such as myself. I received lots of e-mails from strangers who read this blog asking me a bunch of questions because they want to do the things that I did too. Flattering. I am completely open to answering any questions or giving any advice with anything pertaining to any of my posts.
So keep tabs on me you guys. My stint in Africa may be done for now, but I am already in the beginning stages of planning another big trip abroad. I don’t know where (Southeast Asia?), I don’t know when (maybe next summer?) but it WILL happen soon. Also this time, maybe I won’t go alone? Maybe I can tempt a friend or two or three to come along, now that they’ve seen what I have done. I can’t see myself stopping anytime soon, it’s my drug. And of course, I will be sure to blog about it again. This isn’t the end my friends, it’s just where I begin again. Until next time, be safe folks and happy travels!
Here’s a little something extra for you guys, check it out!
36 hours until I reach Las Vegas, Nevada. That’s 36 hours straight of flying and long layovers…ugh. Cape Town to Dubai to Seattle to Las Vegas. The flight between Dubai and Seattle is going to be the longest flight in the history of the world! I am typing this blog on that flight now and I can tell you, I have no idea what day it is or what time I’m landing. It’s daylight outside, but I’m extremely tired. Dubai is almost exactly halfway around the world from Seattle so I wasn’t sure if I would be flying east or west; turns out I’m flying north. In a few hours this plane will be right over the North Pole. With the amount of timezones I’m flying through, I’m sure my internal clock is going to be all sorts of jacked up haha!
The main reason I’m not sleeping right now is because of the amount of entertainment that is at my disposal! This is the first time I have flown with United Emirates Airlines and I can safely say it has taken the top spot as my favorite airline. Every passenger has access to over 1,200 movies and tv shows, a massive amount of music spanning decades, and maybe about 50 video games to play. In addition to that, the food is pretty decent and it’s the cleanest airline I have been in to date. The major hook for me is that they offer the complete fourth season of Mad Men to watch! Needless to say, right after I’m done writing this, I’m going to go back and continue watching what happens with Don Draper and his crew. This is why I can’t sleep.
It still hasn’t sunk in quite yet that I will be home soon. It probably won’t until I step foot on familiar American soil. I am pretty pumped to see some of my friends in Vegas that I haven’t seen in three months since I left Michigan. This isn’t my first foray in that awesome city; I’ve been there multiple times. I even went right before I left to Africa haha! Every time is always a blast and this time should be no different.
My buddy Matt is getting married in late September so he and his groomsmen (myself included) are gonna live it up proper for the occasion for a few days.
I won’t be blogging while I am there because…let’s be honest, who writes while they are at a bachelor party in Vegas?? I just hope my boys are ready for a special present I brought them specifically for the occasion — Konyagi. I brought it from Tanzania, and it’s something you HAVE to try if you ever visit the country if you want to feel like a local. However, trying it just once is enough! Trust me. I packed it in with all of my dirty African clothes. I planned ahead though; before I left for Africa, I gave Bryan some of my fresh clothes to take with him to Vegas for me.
I’m going to get back to Mad Men now though. My next and final post (for this adventure at least) will be when I get back in Michigan. I’ll see everyone at home soon!
Before I came to Africa, I knew I would spend a size-able portion of my money on getting the kids I met a substantial amount of school supplies, so I included that into my budget. I never thought to ask people for donations because…honestly, I don’t know why; I have no good reason. I figured I had enough saved up to buy a lot for them already. A couple of weeks ago, some friends read about all the great things I was doing for these kids and wanted to help out. One of those friends, Kelly Ellsworth, suggested I open a PayPal account so she and others could donate money and help out too. I already planned on getting these kids a lot, but now with their donations I could get them lots more! Thanks to all of you who have sent these kids money, I was able to buy them a few extra thousand Rand worth of goods in addition to the few thousand Rand I had already put aside for them! Now the next step was to find out exactly what these kids needed. How about everything haha! I personally asked some of the teachers at my school and they suggested a few things that they were in desperate need for. The main item: pencils!
You won’t believe how difficult it is to find a pencil with a rubber (eraser) on top of it in South Africa! In the States, you can go anywhere and buy a pack of reliable pencils, but not here; you have to hunt for them. I’ve bought pencils for a few classes before, but they would lose or break them within a day or two. It’s unsettling to know these children aren’t very responsible with their things, but hopefully at least with my elite eight, I can tell them how much money people have given up to get them nice things and hopefully they will be more careful with them and appreciate it more. I planned on taking an early leave from school on Monday to go into town and buy everything. Oh yeah by the way, on my way into town, three guys made an attempt to mug me. Let’s just say, they need to try harder next time. True story. But anyways…
I went wandering around Stellenbosch to see where I could get the most bang for my buck. I found a few places, relatively near each other. One of the places, Juves Bookstore, had a lot of things my kids needed and the manager was very cooperative and even game me a 10% off discount because I spent so much. I had bags and bags of stuff, too heavy to carry around. I didn’t even think of this fact prior to. I had to hire a taxi to lug me around town with all my things, and also make a few stops along the way to other stores. I bought tons of things though. Here’s a rundown of supplies I bought for them: packs and packs of notebook paper, piles of notepads, black and blue pens, coloring pencils, coloring markers, big rubbers, little rubbers, big pencil sharpeners, little pencil sharpeners, folders, filers, plastic sleeves, drawing paper, glue sticks, pencil cases, white-out markers, labels, backpacks, easy read magazines, highlighters, rulers, book covers, and a truckload of pencils, some with rubbers on top and some without. It wasn’t just all school supplies, I also got them each several dozen action comics (Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Iron Man, etc), Ben 10 stickers, bags of candy, and a couple of paperback books. These boys would be entering high school soon, so I bought them each some Axe Body Spray to attract the ladies and packs of minty fresh gum to keep those ladies around ;). Knowing these guys, the gum will probably be gone by the next day though. That’s not all, I owned a few things they liked that I decided I would give to them. My rugby balls, my portable speakers, my wrestling belt, and some shirts that had the University of Michigan logo on them. I even drew them each a picture of their favorite Dragonball Z character, with a personalized note from myself (I will give those out to them right before I leave.) The amount of school supplies I bought each of them should last for more than a whole school year. Besides taking care of my group of kids, I thought I should at least spread some love to my grade 6. I bought each learner in grade 6 and 7 a pencil and rubber and I even had enough to distribute to the grade 5 classes.
After school on Monday, I told the boys to come over because I had something I wanted to show them. I never told them that I would be getting them all of this stuff. One by one they all came over and saw the table and floor full of school supplies. They looked like kids on Christmas Day! But before that, I took them all into Stellenbosch and got everyone one of my favorites desserts in the world, Cinnabons! They never had it before but loved it almost as much as I do haha! I took them to lunch, or probably dinner at this point to McDonalds (yeah yeah I know). Soon we made our way back to Zulu’s. I gave each of them a bag and distributed the items as evenly as possible. Over these past few weeks with them, I had to keep telling them to say ‘please’ and ‘ thank you’ because they rarely ever said it. That night when I gave them all those things, they were full of ‘thank you’s’, which I was happy to hear. I had to explain to them, that a few people, including myself have paid a lot of money to buy all these things for them so they needed to be responsible and take care of it all. I think they understood because they were silent and completely focused on me when I was telling them. Usually they stay over until around 8 or 9, but they all wanted to run home to their parents and show off their things, which was completely fine.
About a week or two ago, Chris came up with the idea to start some kind of education fund for these kids to help them out because they really need it. Setting up a PayPal was a baby step in the right direction but we are currently in the midst of figuring out the best way to execute the idea. That may take some time, but once we figure something out, we’ll be sure to let everyone know!
This whole month, my kids have been talking about swimming and how much they wanted to go to the pool but unfortunately, this South African winter weather has been less than suitable for that. It’s always cold and rainy here, and if the sun is shining, it’s still never warm enough to go for a dip. But unbeknownst to them, I knew of a place where I could take them swimming in Cape Town that had a heated indoor pool. I promised them, before I left Kayamandi that I would take them, all eight of them. I had one more weekend with these boys so I wanted to make it a memorable one. So for the week prior, I have been telling Avele, Mawande, Fudo, Atha, Ski, Chester, Aphiwe, and RiRi to tell their parents that I would be taking them to Cape Town on Saturday. I planned on being there all day so I made sure to tell them everyday that they must be at my house by 7am on the dot or else they would be left behind. It was a bit early of a time, but I had a lot planned for us. I also told them to bring shorts to swim in, but besides that, they knew of nothing else I had in store for them.
Chester, Mawande, Ski, and Avele actually ended up spending the night on Friday because they were afraid of waking up late and missing out! We woke up the next morning, got ready, and Aphiwe, RiRi, and Fudo showed up. It was now 7am and there was no sign of Atha. I even waited a couple more minutes and walked slower than usual to the train station to see if he would be running to us. I felt bad, but to be fair, I did warn him numerous times. I bought everyone’s train ticket, and as we waited, we saw Atha running towards us on the train tracks. Once I spotted him, I ran and bought another ticket before the train came! He made it just in time and now I had the whole crew with me; the elite eight.
After a little more than an hour, we arrived in Cape Town and the kids became excited because they didn’t know where I would be taking them in this big city. First, we walked along Long Street to the indoor pool. The pool here was very large and went up to about 10 feet deep, I wanna say. We all swam, except for Fudo and Aphiwe who forgot their shorts. Most of the time, the boys splashed around on the shallow side while I did laps back and forth across the pool. There was no lifeguard on duty but no worries, I used to be a certified lifeguard during the end of high school (even though I actually didn’t do anything with it). I’m like a fish in the water, so I felt confident if something were to happen, I could save them. At one point, I wanted to teach RiRi and Avele how to do a proper dive. RiRi got the hang of it, but after a few misfires, Avele’s nose started to bleed so I had him sit out for a while. He handled it like a trooper though. After about maybe an hour or so of swimming, I got out and dried off. As I was, a security guard came up to me and started asking me questions about the kids, and where I’m from, and what my background is and blah blah blah. He then had the courage to tell me that I shouldn’t worry about my bag being stolen while in the pool, but if it were to happen, it would be the whites that would most likely take it. Ugh…I knew where this conversation was headed. He started to get into this whole ridiculous spiel about color and race and all that junk. Next time I come to Africa, I’m going to wear a shirt everyday that reads “I don’t give a $h%# about colors!” I summoned the boys, got changed, left the pool and went to get some grub.
I didn’t want to go to McDonald’s again, but it was literally right there, right across the street. So that’s where we went and all had burgers, chips, and drinks. I made a promise to myself though, that once I get back to America, I will avoid McDonald’s for the rest of the year. While eating, the boys had no idea where we were going to next, and kept asking me for hints. “You’ll see!” is what I kept saying. I think not knowing made things a bit more entertaining for them.
We headed to the South African Museum and Planetarium. To my surprise, they were pretty excited about it. I bought tickets for all of us to the next showing of “The Sky Tonight”, which started in about 90 minutes. In the meantime, we went to explore the museum. This museum is a whole lot better than any museum I have been to back home. It’s a giant storied complex and the amount of exhibits and showcases were almost endless! Every kid wanted to take a picture with everything! My memory card is packed with pictures they took here, which I prepared for. I bought a new card pretty much for that reason.
In due time, we found our way to the planetarium and nabbed seats for the show we booked.
I haven’t been to a planetarium in ages and I forgot what it was actually like. The room became pitch-black and the faux stars sprinkled the top of the dome. A guy started lecturing about the planets, stars, and our galaxy. He lectured pretty much the whole time. Lectures lull me to sleep, and that’s what happened haha! I fell asleep maybe ten minutes into the presentation. I have to give pats on the backs to the boys, they were able to sit through quietly (well quieter than I expected) for the entire duration. The whole time they said they were waiting for a movie or something to start haha!
Next up, we went to the Aquarium at the Waterfront. We walked about 30-40 minutes to get there, as opposed to taking a taxi van because I wanted them to see the city by foot. The kids have never been to the Aquarium before and were anxious as to what exactly this kind of place was. I bought everyone tickets and we went inside. This aquarium had everything; penguins, sharks, loads of colorful fish, crustaceans, reptiles, insects, everything but whales and dolphins. I saw a sign where people could go scuba diving in one of the humongous shark tanks. I needed to know more information! I let the kids explore the aquarium on their own as long as they stayed together while I went to the information kiosk to ask about the diving. The lady there explained it all to me. It costs a lot (which I was willing to pay) but it takes three hours of training before we even went inside the shark tank. I told the lady that I already received some scuba training about a month ago in Zanzibar. “It’s different here though” she said. “You have to have a license.” I have to put that on my list of things to do: get a scuba diving license. I couldn’t go into the shark tank anyways because three hours is too long and would take up the rest of our day. The boys would grow restless! I would have to save this on the list of things I must do whenever I come back. Afterwards, I reunited with the kids who were under the shark tunnel. I thought this place was pretty neat and I’m glad they enjoyed it as well.
Next up, the giant ferris wheel! I don’t think any of them had ever been on one of these, let alone know what a ferris wheel even was. I bought the boys tickets, but I sat out and watched. This wheel was gigantic and revolved a lot; longer and more often than it does back in the U.S. The boys were on there for quite a while! That gave me time to watch the marimba players nearby and nab a quick ice cream cone.
We were all hungry again and we all had a hankering for thick, juicy ribs and as luck would have it, the Waterfront occupied the kids’ favorite restaurant, Spurs. We went through the mall (which looked very nice by the way) and requested a table for nine. I let them each order whatever they wanted and they all ordered their own personal slab of ribs with chips and sodas. I ordered the same but with buffalo wings as well. “You eat buffalo!?” asked Aphiwe. I started to laugh. “You eat chicken heads!” I responded back. They all thought I was eating actual buffalo. Since when do buffalo have wings? Haha! The main attraction of Spurs that the kids love is the video games they have in the game room. They always went to the one in Stellenbosch, but never to this one. This one had different games for them to play. I couldn’t blame them for always wanting to come here. When I was a kid, I practically lived in the game areas of every child friendly restaurant I went to. Eventually, not too long, the food came and we pigged out.
They were finished super fast and rushed back to play more games. I asked Avele to stay behind as the others went off. Avele is going to be moving to the Eastern Cape soon, so whenever I do comeback to South Africa, I will most likely never see him again. So I bought him and I dessert as a going away gift; waffles covered with syrup, candy coated chocolates and ice cream. Not to worry though, I eventually bought the other kids ice cream cones as we made our way back to the train station.
My aim today besides it being my last Saturday with the kids, was to give them a chance to do everything they wanted to do in Cape Town without having to worry about money. I wanted them to have a glimpse of what else is out there outside of the poverty-stricken township of Kayamandi. A whole day of doing the fun stuff every kid would dream to do in this city. Maybe seeing the city freely like this would give them the motivation to get out of Kayamandi one day? To do that, I told them they have to do exceptionally well in school and I guarantee that they will go to parts of the world they never even imagined. Don’t get me wrong, Kayamandi isn’t a terrible place, it’s just hard to grow and develop fundamentally there, especially for a child. There are people who spend their whole lives there, because that’s all they know and can afford. These kids are still young enough to head on the right track in their lives and it starts with staying in school and doing well in their academics (and I will help them with that later on in upcoming posts). However, its way too easy for the kids in this township to get caught up with the wrong crowd of people and be led astray; being misguided away from their true potential. All eight of these kids are truly unique from one another and I always enjoy my time with them because with a mix of eclectic personalities like these ones, I’m always entertained! It’s rare for a kid in this area to get an opportunity to have someone from the outside world to help them positively grow, hang out with, and pretty much spoil them for a while with no worries and otherwise do what they could never do before. It’s even rarer to get a second opportunity. It started first with my friend Chris and now with myself. I just hope they don’t take all of this for granted.