Thursday, November 20, 2008

Thank you to everyone who read my journals about my journey through Africa. Please see a gallery of some of my photos at:

I would love to tell stories and talk about my trip any time. I love to share my experiences and my passion for traveling and that fascinating place that has captured my heart. I can't wait to return to Africa, and I hope to do so within the next few years.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Last Day in Africa

Sorry for the lack of updates - a combination of very limited internet access, time constraints, and having a blast means that I haven't had a chance to write at all. Since my last post, I have:
- white water rafted on the Zambezi River below Victoria Falls
- met an amazing group of people on my overland tour
- visited Chobe National Park
- taken a mokoro (dug-out canoe) safari through the Okavango Delta in Botswana
- taken a scenic flight over the Okavango Delta
- looked across the Namibian border to Angola
- been to Etosha National Park
- pet a cheetah and a baby giraffe
- been to Spitzkoppe, an amazing place in the middle of nowhere in Namibia
- been to Swakopmund, Namibia
- went SKYDIVING over Namibia's Skeleton Coast!!!
- rode a horse through the Namib Desert
- went sandboarding near Swakopmund
- been to see the highest sand dunes in the world (Namibia's Sossusvlei region)
- seen the second largest canyon in the world, Fish River Canyon in Namibia
- did a wine tasting in South Africa's wine-growing region
- returned to Cape Town

Now I'm spending my last day in Africa in Cape Town with the great new friends I've just made on the overland tour. I don't want to waste any more time on the computer, so a more thorough update when I arrive home on Sunday (I fly out from South Africa tomorrow afternoon). Cheers!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

2 hours in Zimbabwe

This morning, I decided to go to Zimbabwe just to see Vic Falls from that side of the border. I'm glad I did - the view is more extensive and, I think, better than from Zambia. I can also add another country to my roster! I took a local minibus for 60 cents to the border, walked from Zambia across the bridge to Zimbabwe, then strolled around at the Falls for a while. It was amazing coming back to Zambia and realizing how many Zimbabweans are not just fleeing the country, but simply coming over the border to buy food because there's no good food in Zimbabwe. I held a 50 billion dollar note in my hand from Zim - that's how bad inflation is there. And that note? Worth about $10, if you're lucky.

I watched a few bungee jumpers from the Victoria Falls bridge and got nervous just watching them. Tonight, I'll meet my overland group (although I've already met a few girls in my group and they seem really fun). Then tomorrow is white water rafting, and then onwards to Botswana.

Other events in the past few days: a microlight flight over Vic Falls (incredible!!! such a beautiful view of the falls, the setting sun, and animals on the Zambezi River, including a bunch of elephants. I even got to fly for a minute, which is another item on my Bucket List!), curio shopping (spent too much money. again.), hanging out at Jollyboys with new friends, and changing lots of Zambian kwacha into US dollars. Niagara Falls cannot compare to Victoria Falls - Vic Falls is twice as high, I think twice as long, the forest around it is lush and pristine, and it just evokes a sense of power and raw nature that Niagara can't even touch. Just breathtaking. You also get completely soaked by the spray coming off the falls - it's literally like being in a monsoon. The locals call it "Mosi-oa-Tunya", which means 'the smoke that thunders' - and that's probably the perfect description.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Livingstone, Zambia

I spent my last couple of days in Tanzania staying in Stone Town, Zanzibar. I met a couple of Scottish med students, and between our various tours and activities, we managed to get dinner and drinks together a couple of nights in a row. I'm glad I met them, as they gave me some much-needed company. Two days ago, I flew from Zanzibar to Johannesburg. At first, I wasn't too keen on spending a night there (horror stories of violent crime, at least in the city center), but I stayed in a backpackers lodge for the first time about 2 kilometers from the airport. It actually was great to stay somewhere fairly Westernized for a night - the shower was so hot, and the water pressure was so good, that I was nearly scalded and knocked over at the same time. Wonderful!!!

Yesterday, I flew from Joburg to Livingstone, Zambia in the center of Southern Africa. We were greeted at the airport by traditional dancers (who were there to greet someone more important, but that's okay), and I was picked up by a shuttle, along with two other girls, to the Jollyboys Backpackers Lodge. What a great place! A pool, lots of places for lounging, a bar/restaurant, gift shop, internet, a desk where you can book all your activities, a book exchange, and it's full of people. This is my first time backpacking, and I have to say, I rather like backpacker 'culture'. I'm staying in a dorm room - 4 bunk beds which hold 8 people - for $10 a night.

Last night, I very spontaneously decided to go on a sunset cruise on the Zambezi River with an Australian girl I met on the shuttle from the airport. I'm glad I went with her, and didn't decide to go another night when I didn't know anyone, because it was a very small crowd. It's nicknamed the 'booze cruise', and we had unlimited drinks for the 2 hour cruise, along with a barbecued dinner. We met a couple of Japanese guys who are in Africa volunteering for 2 years. After the cruise, we had a few minutes at a campfire with a few performers playing marimba and other instruments in the background. The ride back to Jollyboys was interesting, but so much fun - riding in an open-sided safari car along a fairly bumpy road, belting out songs at the top of our lungs (and sounding terrible while we did so) and laughing a lot. We chilled with our feet in the pool for a while when we got back, then hit the sack pretty early.

In a little over an hour, I'm going to see Victoria Falls! More updates soon.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Stone Town

The past few days on Zanzibar have been great. If you can get around the touts always hawking you for business, the atmosphere still retains an age-old aura. Diving was wonderful - lots of really gorgeous fish. It felt great to be diving again. Saw a few dolphins during our surface interval, but unfortunately none while we were in the water. Matemwe was a beautiful, quiet little village, and every morning we watched dozens of people wade into the water to gather seaweed and fish. It seemed so timeless, with the feeling that they've done this for centuries - which they probably have.

We've been in Stone Town for the past few days, taking in the sights and shopping (and spending entirely too much money). We stayed at the beautiful Tembo House Hotel, right on the waterfront. Yesterday was our Spice Tour, which took us into the countryside to show us how various spices, fruits, and medicinal plants are grown. Zanzibar is nicknamed the Spice Island because it's so famous for these spices. Finally, last night we celebrated Mom's last night in Africa, and my onward journeys, with dinner at the Tower Top Restaurant at a fancy hotel in the center of town. It literally is on the top of a tower, with a circle of low cushions and little tables where you sit cross-legged like a Sultan. I wore a new dress and sandals I bought in Stone Town, and it felt nice to dress up a bit after roughing it and being pretty dirty and rugged for weeks on end. We watched the sun set over the tin roofs of Stone Town from what seemed like the highest point in the city. It was a fixed menu, and we had so many courses - hummus and pita to start, then soup, king fish, sorbet, chicken massala with coconut rice, and finally a chocolate cinammon mango cake. Mmmmm! Way too much food, but delicious. In between courses, there were several local dancers and musicians that performed for us. A wonderful way to top off this portion of the trip.

This morning, we visited a museum in the center of town and did some last-minute shopping. After saying goodbye, Mom headed for the airport to fly home. I'll be in Stone Town for a few more days, including more diving tomorrow, before continuing on. I'll be on my own until July 12, when I join an overland tour (description of what my overland is at Basically, you travel with up to 30 people in a "truck" that carries your food, water, camping equipment, etc. Camp out in tents every night, travel to a new place almost every day, help shop for food in local markets and prepare it, too).

Good news that I got today (and that relieves a lot of my anxiety) is that my overland tour, which was supposed to start from Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, has been re-routed to avoid that country (due to the major political unrest) and will begin from Livingstone, Zambia, just over the border and where I was planning to stay for a few days prior to the trip anyways. It's sad that Zimbabwe is in such a terrible situation right now, but I'm glad I am now able to avoid it.

So, here's my general itinerary for the rest of my trip:

July 5 - July 7: Stone Town, Zanzibar
July 8: Fly from Zanzibar to Johannesburg, stay overnight
July 9: Fly from Johannesburg to Livingstone, Zambia (Victoria Falls)
July 10-12: Enjoy the sights at Victoria Falls from the Zambian side
July 13: Overland trip begins from Livingstone, Zambia
July 14-15: Chobe National Park, Botswana
July 16: Maun, Botswana
July 17-19: Okavango Delta, Botswana
July 20: Rundu, Namibia
July 21-22: Etosha National Park, Namibia
July 23: Cheetah Park, Namibia
July 24: Spitzkoppe, Namibia
July 25-27: Swakopmund, Namibia (sleep in a real bed!)
July 28: Sesriem, Namibia
July 29: Fish River Canyon, Namibia
July 30: Orange River, South Africa
July 31: Cederberg, South Africa
August 1: Cape Town, South Africa (another real bed!)
August 2: Fly home from Cape Town

Whew! I can't believe what I'm able to do in this trip. I'll see most of Africa's famous natural wonders - Kruger National Park, the Kalahari Desert, the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, Kilimanjaro, Zanzibar, Victoria Falls, the Okavango Delta, the Namib Desert, and Fish River Canyon - among many other wonderful sights. I continually feel so lucky to be on a journey like this. While I've felt a few twinges of homesickness lately, I know the next few weeks will just fly by. In less than a month, I'll be back in the States! I'm not sure I'll know how to take a normal, 10-days-or-fewer vacation again after spending 3 months traveling.

Monday, June 30, 2008


Yesterday, we flew from the Kilimanjaro airport to ZANZIBAR, the spice island! Just the name Zanzibar conjures up so many romantic connotations, and so far, I'm finding that they're pretty well-founded. This place has the architecture and music of Arabia and clothing and people from Africa, the Middle East, and India. Last night, we walked along the waterfront and saw an Indian music video being filmed, very fresh fish and octopus being sold in a market, a Muslim man praying on the beach at sunset, and traditional dhow sailboats skimming across the water as the red sun illuminated the western sky. I'm not exaggerating - it really is that magical. Of course, it still has dirty streets and run-down buildings like mainland Africa, but there's a sense of charm and history here that masks the ugly and makes it exotic and vibrant. We met up with Victoria and Jenny, two girls from my climb who are staying at the fanciest place in town, and had sundowners and dinner while listening to Middle Eastern music and watching some local people play in the surf. While our hotel wasn't quite as nice, it's still beautiful, and I'm happy to have any sense of luxury after living in a tent for 9 days.

Today, we head for Matemwe and scuba diving on the northeast coast of the island! We'll be back in Stone Town (where we are now) for a few days to wander the streets and go to the Festival of the Dhow Countries, an annual event that celebrates Zanzibar's unique history of trading between Africa, the Middle East, and India by joining together these cultures for a big party of music, art, dance, a film festival, and more!

Saturday, June 28, 2008


Now that I have a space bar that works, I can elaborate more...

I MADE IT!!!! On June 26th at 2:26 PM Tanzania time (7:26 AM at home), I made it to the summit of Kilimanjaro! It was easily one of the greatest experiences of my life. After nearly a week of climbing, and a net gain of over 12,000 feet, I reached Uhuru Peak, the Roof of Africa, at 19,340 feet.

This time of year, there's quite a bit of snow on top, which makes for both pretty pictures and tricky climbing - thank God for trekking poles and mini-crampons. The weather throughout our journey was excellent - sunshine every day, with a few clouds and misty weather at lower altitudes. Apparently, it was rainy in Moshi (at the base of the mountain) all week, but we were literally above the clouds, so it didn't matter. We began at about 7,000 feet in rainforest, sometimes almost knee-deep in mud. On our second and third days, we passed through a heather and grassy moorland zone - the heather reminded me a lot of the fynbos of South Africa, and then I remembered it's because they have a lot of the same plants since they originated from the same place millions of years ago. Finally, we left living things behind as we climbed through the dusty alpine desert and eventually came to the snows of Kilimanjaro.

After summiting, I was one of three in our group (out of ten people) who felt well enough to camp at Crater Camp at 18,370 feet! It was just the three of us girls, a guide, and a few porters at the top of Africa. The next morning, we hugged a glacier and hiked up to see the inner crater and the ash pit, which still spews out sulfur gas, so we couldn't stay long. I'm really glad we spent extra time on the top of Kibo - we didn't just run up and down to bag the summit, we enjoyed the views and savored the moments that were our reward for a week of hard hiking.

Our climbing company, Tusker Trail, was excellent. The twice-daily medical checks, where they asked how we were doing, checked our pulse-ox, and listened to our lungs, helped put me at ease since I'd never been about probably 11,000 feet. They were very proactive about solving any health issues, and at the first sign of a high-altitude headache, they gave me some dexamethasone, which relieved the problem and meant I never felt really bad, even at 19,340 feet. No nausea, no hallucinations that I know of - just a mild headache.

The people I met were great. We had quite a diverse group - I was the youngest, there were a few other college-aged girls, and the oldest were two guys in their 60's. Despite the age range, we all got along really well, and I sincerely hope to stay in touch with all of them. They are all so accomplished, too - one of the other girls has been living in Oman for the last year teaching at a school there, a couple of people have climbed Mt. Rainier, one was a plastic surgeon, the other two girls just graduated from Yale, two women are marathon runners and one recently quit her job and sold everything to travel and live in Italy for a while. Seriously, amazing people.

I never saw the mountain before I climbed it, but the day we got back to our hotel, the skies were clear and Kili was in full view. Looking at the mountain, I couldn't believe I had just climbed it, and that I spent at night at the top - it's huge! I stared at Kili for probably an hour and watched the setting sun illuminated Kilimanjaro's southern glaciers. It was the perfect ending to my expedition. I felt almost like it was Kili's reward for me, for having made it to the top - I finally got to see the mountain in its full glory.

Leaving was hard. I haven't let myself get emotional on this trip (or haven't had time), but leaving Kilimanjaro and Moshi behind left me with a few tears in my eyes. I've dreamed of Kili for so long, and now that it's over, it's hard to move on. It was a milestone, and it made me realize how blessed and lucky I am to be able to do these things in my life. No matter how many more mountains I climb in my lifetime, Kilimanjaro will always hold its own place above the rest.

It's really hard to summarize my climb in just a few paragraphs and a photo or two. If you'd like to hear more about my climb, I'd love to tell you more, and I could go on for ages if you want - just ask me and I'll tell.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Back in Moshi

We've spent the last two days in a village on the lower slopes of Kilimanjaro with the doctor that Mom is volunteering for. The little house we stayed in was bustling with people, mostly children from neighboring houses and a few Mama's. We were all dancing to the radio last night and it reminded me that kids here are just as silly as we always were (and are). The people in Tanzania are so, so friendly and beautiful. I watched my mom see a few patients, then a few of us went to a waterfall. The dirt roads wind up and down hills, and it felt great to walk around for a few hours. The forest is so lush and green, and with all the waterfalls, it feels like the Garden of Eden. We're seeing a side of Tanzania that tourists rarely see - our experiences at Gonja with the church services, getting traditional food served to us, staying in very rural villages up in the mountains, etc. It's wonderful - this country is beautiful and peaceful, and our time here is just flying by. My Swahili is slowly, but surely, getting better - I know a few key phrases now, but still can't hold a conversation.

I've been thinking a lot over the past few days about how health care is so needed in places like this, and maybe I should be a physician... but when a skinny dog showed up at dinner time and stuck his head in the door, wagging his tail and hoping for food, my heart when out to him, and all I could think about during dinner was how to sneak food to him (but the people we were staying with did feed him). I realized I really am meant to be a vet; no matter what kind of medical doctor I become, human or animal, I'll be saving lives and making a difference. And in a developing country like Tanzania, the health of your cow or your chickens can mean that your family gets proper nutrition, stays free of disease, and is able to sell the animal to buy your kids a pair of shoes or pay for them to go to school. People always assume veterinary medicine is all about the animals, but really, it's about serving the people who depend on those animals, too.

I've thus far survived the transportation system in Tanzania. Africa is notorious for bad road safety. We initially rode big buses, like Greyhound, which were pretty decent, although they drove too fast. In the last few days, we've started to use daladalas - mini-vans that they stuff full of 20 to 30 people. They seem to average 25, and by the end your limbs fall asleep and you really can't tell where you end and someone else begins. Quite an experience - and cheap, too. An hour or so ride costs about $1.50.

Now we're back in Moshi, at the foot of Kilimanjaro, and the clouds have cleared below the peak, above the peak.... but I still have yet to see Kibo, the top of the mountain. Hopefully I get to see it before I actually climb - it's hard to believe I'm really here when I can't see the mountain. Just a few clouds are between me and the mountain I've dreamed about for so long. Tomorrow, I meet with my guide and fellow climbers, and then on June 20th, I hit the trail! I should summit on the morning of June 27th if all goes well. Here's the route I'll be taking - 9 days total. Thoughts and prayers are appreciated as I try to reach the Roof of Africa!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Very brief update

I don't have much time, but we've spent the last couple of days around Same and the Gonja Hospital visiting with the missionaries who have helped me coordinate the shipment of medical supplies. It's been an amazing and inspiring experience, and we've even gone to a confirmation and a worship service at the church. The people here are thankful, beautiful, happy, and a real joy to work with. I'll have to update more later - just wanted to let everyone know that things are going well!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Layover in Arusha

I'm back in Arusha after a wonderful safari! The Serengeti is beautiful, and Ngorongoro Crater is simply breathtaking. We've seen, among other things, 28 lions, 8 cheetahs (including 4 cubs!), a leopard with its kill in a tree, a few servals, an elephant 20 feet away from me in our campsite, huge male lions a few feet from the car, and heard the sounds of lions and hyenas in the night; one hyena even stole the camp trash can and dragged it up a nearby hill. Our driver, David, was great, and the cook, Jof(rey), made some delicious food. I've picked up a few phrases of Swahili, and David called me 'dada', which means 'sister'. We visited a Maasai village which, although much more commercialized in feel than we would have hoped, was still neat. I've been more covered in dirt and dust than I remember being for a very long time - but personal hygiene has a new definition when there are no showers available for a few days and everybody else is just as, if not more, filthy as you are. A few curio vendors have taken us for more money than their wares were worth, but I've still bought some beautiful souvenirs. Despite a few hassles, be it pushy street hawkers or a stubborn tent zipper, I love Tanzania and I can't wait to see more of this beautiful country. I still haven't seen Kilimanjaro (too cloudy), but hopefully I'll get the chance when we go to Moshi tomorrow, which is at the foot of the mountain. We head off to Gonja Hospital, the center I fundraised for, the day after tomorrow, and then I begin my climb in just over a week. More updates soon!

Friday, June 6, 2008

Goodbye South Africa, hello Tanzania!

My last few days in South Africa were awesome. Great white shark diving was absolutely amazing. I thought I'd be scared out of my mind, but once the sharks came and I saw other divers in the cage, all I wanted to do was get in the water! Being 6 inches from the gaping jaws of a great white... there's nothing like it in the world.

Cape Town was a lot of fun. We went bar hopping on Long Street, where we taught at least one person in every bar "Go Green! Go White!" I've met quite a lot of South Africans on this trip while out on the town, and they all seem to want to talk about their country, the U.S., politics, and development/poverty issues, which is fine by me - I love to hear the opinions of people here in Africa about the problems they're having and any solutions they might see. I even got to talk to a guy from Malawi about the recent xenophobia, and his insight was very interesting.

We went to the Cape of Good Hope, which is beautiful, and saw the African penguins! Every time they waddled by me, sometimes inches away, I broke into giggles. They remind me of 2 year old children learning to walk. Sort of like baby elephants, too, who don't know what to do with their trunk, their ears, their tail... so they run around as fast as they can holding all of these up in the air. On Wednesday, we went to Robben Island and saw where Nelson Mandela and all of his anti-apartheid comrades were held in prison for decades. When we entered their cell block, I felt like I was entering a hall of champions, where even when the jail guards tried to segregate by giving non-blacks more food than blacks, they shared and overcame the segregation. We went out at the waterfront for our last dinner in South Africa, then returned to an Irish pub for live music and a round of drinks. Since I had to leave for the airport at 4:45 am, everyone decided to just stay up with me and hang out in the hotel, which was awesome. I'm really going to miss everyone.

Yesterday was spent on planes all day long, from Cape Town to Joburg to Dar es Salaam to Kilimanjaro. Even from the air, Tanzania seems much more vibrant and lush than South Africa, and it feels like I'm actually in the "real" Africa now. Everything is green here since the rainy season just ended, and I can no longer blend in being a mzungu (white person) - I stick out like a sore thumb, and all the street vendors take advantage of that. I met Mom at the airport last night, and we headed for Arusha this morning. We've spent all day shopping, and already spent too much money. A few times we've discovered that we've really overpaid for something when we see it a lot cheaper elsewhere, but I guess that's how you learn, right?

I loved my study abroad program in South Africa, but if I was not continuing on to other parts of Africa, I would have been disappointed by the lack of cultural immersion... but no longer! I am immersed and loving it. I didn't have much culture shock when I went to South Africa, and I never truly left my little bubble of American friends, but I definitely felt some culture shock here. I wish I had learned more Swahili before coming, but even the few words I'm picking up here and there are helping. It might even be more of a culture shock once I get back to the U.S. after being here for 3 months than I'm experiencing just now - I'm not sure I'll even remember which side of the road to drive on.

Tomorrow, we head for the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, and Lake Manyara on a 5 day camping safari. Then after that, I'll visit Gonja Hospital, and then on June 20, start climbing Kilimanjaro! I really do love Africa, and I'm having the time of my life.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Southern Tip of Africa

I've been in the Western Cape of South Africa for a few days, and I absolutely love it. It feels what I imagine Ireland or Scotland is like - not Africa. While I wasn't sure I could handle living in some of the other areas of this country, whether due to the arid climate or crime or whatever, I could definitely live here with no problem.

We visited De Hoop Nature Reserve for a few days in the fynbos, a very unique ecosystem that is only found on this coastline. It's full of over 8,000 species of plants, many of which are found nowhere else. We've been staying in some beautiful places. I thought I'd lose weight on this trip already, but not with the way they've been feeding us! We're living like kings. When we arrived on Thursday, we headed straight for the beach where I got my first view of the Indian Ocean! Yesterday, we hiked up Potberg Mountain in the morning, which felt great after a few weeks of sitting in the safari van. In the afternoon, we headed back for the beach, where we saw two southern right whales and swam in the frigid Indian Ocean - it's winter here in South Africa!

Today, we headed for Cape Agulhas, the southern tip of Africa, where I had my left foot in the Atlantic and my right foot in the Indian Ocean. Now, we're staying overnight in Hermanus, and tomorrow we go cage diving with great white sharks! Then, it's off to Cape Town tomorrow night, Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela was held in prison) and Table Mountain the next day, and the Cape of Good Hope and penguins on our final day in South Africa. On Thursday, June 5, I'll fly to Tanzania. This has been an incredible time in South Africa, and I can't believe it's nearly over. I love this country, and I already am looking forward to returning someday soon.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Quick update after the Kalahari

So much has happened since my last update, I'm not sure where to begin! If you've heard about the riots in Johannesburg and Cape Town, don't worry about them - it hasn't affected us and we won't be in the townships where they are happening.

Since Kruger National Park, we've been to Pilanesberg National Park, a beautiful place in an ancient, collapsed volcano, where we saw more amazing wildlife, including more than 40 white rhinos, lots of hippos, hartebeest, tsessebe, and lots of cool birds.

Then, we headed off to the Kalahari Desert, and on our first night, saw a huge thunderstorm that brought more than 1/4 of their average annual rainfall. We had some spectacular stargazing, and we watched the moon rise over Botswana - we also officially entered Botswana when we weaved through the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. Our second night in the park, we were sitting in a wildlife blind/hide when the moon came up and a lion was roaring in the distance. We've been cooking for ourself in the Kalahari and managing to scrounge up some pretty good meals.

On the way out this morning, we stopped and bought some really neat things from a San bushman, including a bow and arrow, a carved ostrich egg, and a carved stone. The bow was probably a bad purchase, since it's a pain to get back, but one of my friends is taking it back for me, since he bought two himself. I've also managed to try lots of game meat, including eland, impala, ostrich, kudu, crocodile, gemsbok, and springbok.

Tomorrow, we head to Cape Town! Only about a week left in South Africa before I head to Tanzania. This trip has gone so fast! I can't believe this study abroad is nearly over. Our days have been jam-packed with activity, so maybe things will take a slower pace when I'm traveling on my own schedule and I have time to relax.

This internet cafe is expensive, and there are people waiting, so more updates later!

Monday, May 19, 2008

Back to Pretoria

I don't have much time to update, but I'm back in Pretoria tonight after leaving the Southern African Wildlife College and the Kruger area this morning - bittersweet since I loved it there but now we move on to new experiences. Tomorrow, we head west towards Pilanesberg National Park, then to the Kalahari Desert, and finally the Cape Town area for the last segment of my study abroad program. I probably won't have internet access for the next week or so, but the next time I update, I should have some great stories to tell! I'll make sure all my photos from this trip go online at the end of the summer, but a few snapshots here and there will have to do for now.

Friday, May 16, 2008

First Week in Africa

Since I can't update every day, I'll just post on here some journal entries I had and extra thoughts along with the correct date.

5/10/08 (on the plane, 2 hours from landing in South Africa)
I just woke up to my first view of Africa. The rest of the plane is still asleep, but I turned on the channel that shows the view from a camera mounted on the plane's tail looking down (so cool!), and just beyond a blanket of clouds was the clear, beige Skeleton Coast of Namibia. That's when the reality of this trip set in - when I realized I really am just 2 hours from landing in Johannesburg and starting this whole adventure. If I wasn't surrounded by a tightly-packed motley of sleeping passengers, I would probably be crying with amazement right now. After months of planning and a lifetime of dreaming, I'm finally here - AFRICA!

I can already tell our study abroad group will have so much fun. We've already managed to take silly pictures at the airport with cardboard cut-outs of the presidential candidates, mess around with the sleeping masks they gave us on the plane... and we haven't even technically started the trip yet.

The airline service is amazing. They bring around refreshments all the time, probably every hour, and with our sleeping masks we got socks so we can walk around the plane without putting our shoes back on or ruining our own socks.

Back to the textbook - I don't think anyone has finished the required reading yet.

(later in the flight): Apparently, the reason the entertainment system kept malfunctioning last night was that we were STRUCK BY LIGHTNING just past the U.S. coast. I'm glad the pilot waited to tell us until we were over land and just about to arrive. Sheesh.

I've only been in this country for a day but I'm already having the time of my life. After arriving in Pretoria, we all went out to Hatfield Square, a big courtyard of bars and pubs where all the local young people hang out. After ordering drinks - legally! - and trying Castle, the South African beer, we ate at an Irish pub. We migrated to another bar, then we somehow met these people who took us to a club called Good4. Apparently, South Africans really like American music because that's all they played. One of the South Africans girls we were with had the
DJ give us a shout-out. We migrated (eventually) to the bar upstairs with one of the girl's friends. At this point, it was me, Jordan, Kaye, Lindsay, and Teresa, who wasn't really there as she had the tendancy to meet people and wander off. Also, South Africans don't bump and grind. To pop music, the girls dance in a circle, the guys in their own circle. But to rock music, the ballroom dance! The South African guy, Christi (short for Christian?) asked me to dance, and we did. I was horrible, but he kept asking me to dance! And he's a cute surfer boy from Cape Town - kind of the epitome of an attractive foreigner.

Today (May 11) we had a a beautiful drive to Kruger in the northeast corner of South Africa. We passed through the Drakensburg Mountains and eventually reached the lowveld. Form the road, looking into private game reserves, we saw giraffe, zebra, eland, warthogs, and baboons!

The Southern African Wildlife College is beautiful. I didn't expect phones or internet, but they have both. Our room has a screen door that faces the bush so we can listen to the sounds all night. I finally feel like I'm in Africa.

Before dinner, we tried walking the perimeter fence in the dark to look for game. We saw bush babies in the trees in the compound, and thought we heard warthogs calling. After a half hour of looking for them, we were told the sound was male impala. Still, game tracking on foot at night, even through a fence, is still a "Wow, I'm in Africa!" moment.

At the start of our braai (barbeque), we were treated to dancing and singing from local children. I tried pap at dinner, which is the local staple made from maize. Tastes halfway between rice and potatoes, and it's pretty good. Met some students here, found the Southern Cross constellation, and tried to watch if the toilet flushes the other way.

South African is beautiful, but the scars of apartheid are still raw. There were no blacks at the club in Pretoria, except in the kitchen, and there seems to be little intermingling. I haven't seen anyone other than blacks serving food or cleaning bathrooms. I find I like talking to black South Africans more than whites sometimes - a different experience, accent, and perspective.

Surprised Mom with a Mother's Day phone call. I didn't think they'd have phones out here, so she was happy to hear my voice a week earlier than expected.

They also call traffic lights "robots", and my ears are ringing, it's so quiet out here. I can't believe the names of all the places I'll be - so exotic, yet so familiar. Today, I've reached the first of these places - the Timbavati and Kruger.

Today we started with a talk about Peace Parks, which is a brilliant idea. Then we went to Moholoholo Rehab Center where I got to hold a cape vulture! The handler asked if I'd done it before, and when I said no, he told me I was a natural. We also saw lots of big mammals up close, including a hyena. I didn't know they were so big!

Afterwards, we headed to the Khamai Reptile Park, where we learned about all of Africa's major venomous snakes, most of which can be found right in the camp at the Wildlife College where we're staying - boomslangs ("tree snakes", one drop of venom will make you bleed to death over a course of seven days), puff adders (one of the quickest strikers and the one that kills the most people in Africa), black mambas, and cobras. This trip is intense! We could probably die at any given moment, so it's a wonder people can live in villages out in the bush. It seems there is nowhere else on Earth with such a high concentration of deadly animals. Quite a comforting thought.

At the reptile park, I also held (get this!) a scorpion and a baboon spider (aka a tarantula)! Who'd have ever thought I could with my arachnophobia? It seems this trip is all about pushing my limits, facing my fears, and living to the fullest. However, I won't promise I'll be happy if I find a scorpion or a big hairy spider in my room.

Tomorrow we enter Kruger National Park proper! (though I discovered the Timbavati, where we are, is one of the private reserves adjacent to Kruger with no fences between).

This morning, we left at 5:30 am for Kruger and saw our first African sunrise on the way. Along the road were 3 hyenas just before we reached the gate. On our way into the park, we were talking to a Kruger staff member, Willie, who is apparently Robert Mugabe's cousin! (Robert Mugabe being the president of Zimbabwe, and has been for 28 years). Even though he's a terrible president, meeting his cousin was cool. Willie, when I asked if he liked Mugabe, said yes as family, but no as anything else. Zimbabwe's preparing for a second round of voting soon, and I hope the country is in decent, non-turbulent shape when I'm there in July.

The morning was spent on a great game drive - jackals, giraffes (including a young male), elephants, baboons, kudu, waterbuck, crocodiles, hippos, hornbills... and of course, impala around every bend. We drove out to the bush to look at fire and herbivore research sites and talk to a scientist about these things.

Satara is a beautiful camp in the heart of Kruger. Our "huts" are very nice, there's a great gift shop (though naturally overpriced), and we cooked our own dinner tonight outside our hut with a braai for everybody.

The crowning piece of the day was the night game drive. Not only is going out at night seemingly more exciting and adventurous, we spotted four of the Big Five in just two hours - elephant, buffalo, lion, and leopard. The lionesses had young cubs, and we saw one nursing, but they seemed sickly, so they probably have TB, a big problem here. A big male lion was just up the road, and we got within 15 feet of him. The leopard was wonderful, especially since I wasn't sure I would see any, they are so elusive. We also saw a giraffe, waterbuck, wildebeest, a few hares, and more impala.

Yesterday we were supposed to help with a giraffe capture (!) but helicopter problems forced them to reschedule, which means we weren't able to participate. It would've been soooo cool. Despite the disappointment, we had a good day of drives, seeing a lioness and cubs as well as a secretary bird, among other game. We watched hippos from a blind for a while, and saw lots of cool birds.

Later, by pure luck, we saw the burn team start a fire in the open savanna. It was very cool to watch. Though Smokey the Bear would have us believe fire is bad, it's actually an integral part of the ecosystem, so there were quite a few prescribed burns today - on an annual basis, about 1/3 of Kruger burns, which is a huge area. The smoke from the extensive fires gave us a brilliant sunset and I got lots of gorgeous photos.

I was put in charge of dinner, so I delegated tasks, and apparently dinner went well. We tried some South African wine, and most of us, on Roger's suggestion (one of the South African instructors) tried Amarula. Great stuff! Tastes like a blend of chocolate milk and fruit. Mmmm! We all hung out in our hut last night so we didn't keep the neighbors up,. I've only known these people for six days, but we already seem so close.

This morning we finished off our Big Five sightings with four white rhino! It was really cool to see all the Big Five within 36 hours. In the afternoon, we had a lecture on bovine TB in lions from Dr. Keet, one of the Kruger vets. It was really interesting, but a little disheartening - not much can be done for the animals. That's one reason I'm not sure wildlife/conservation medicine is for me - despite my medical abilities, there will be nothing I can do for many animals.

I learned how to sex elephants by looking at their head - adult females have an angular forehead, while males have a domed head. Also, an elephant nearly ran into our van, or we nearly ran into it, when our cards startled it as it was about to cross the road.

After driving through the last beautiful stretch of Kruger, we re-emerged to "civilization". It seemed like it had been ages since we had seen real roads, houses, business, buses, and hordes of people, even though it had been only a few days. We all fell asleep as soon as the last excitement of our Kruger safari was over, and woke up to see the sun setting behind the gorgeous Drakensburg Mountains.

Dinner was at the Wildebeest Lapa, and was excellent. We all ordered drinks on a group tab which, although the money comes out of our program fee, felt like Jim was buying everyone alcohol. I went with amarula on the rocks and two Hunter's dry ciders. For dinner, I had "venison" pie, made from impala, and tried a bit of someone's eland filet. Both were quite different from any meat I'd tried before, but I really like them, they were delicious. After a great time sharing laughs, we headed back to the wildlife college and enjoyed each others company before getting to bed.


This morning we headed out to Manyeleti, a provincially-owned park that borders Kruger. The park was originally established during apartheid for blacks, since they couldn't go into Kruger. The main camp is in a state of disrepair and felt like a ghost town - a stark contrast to the well-maintained camps inside Kruger.

An even great contrast came when we visited Tintswalo, a luxury safari lodge in Manyeleti. Wow, what a gorgeous place! There were elephants and buffalo just feet away from the fence surrounding the Manor House, where we had a lecture on ecotourism. We also got a tour of the Presidential Suite, one of the nicest hotel "rooms" I will ever enter - it was practically its own luxury lodge set off by itself in the bush. Just beautiful - I think I found my honeymoon spot. :)

Despite the smiles of awe the fancy rooms and perfect atmosphere brought, the stark contrast between this fantasy world and the true Africa, where just a few miles away people live in abject poverty, did not escape me. Our guide to Tintswalo mentioned he even gets uncomfortable when a staff member from a nearby village has to take a client's expensive steak back to the kitchen because it isn't prepared just right, yet the server eats simple pap/maize every night. But he also said the workers are proud to work in an upscale resort. Some things - actually most things - in this world are just backwards and unfair.

I'm also realizing that white conquest has created inequality and ruined lives all over the world, from Africa to the Americas, and as far as the South Pacific. What did we think gave us the right to come and take what was never ours? And why have things still failed to change?

Later, we got a lecture on wildlife diseases and the human/livestock/wildlife interface from a vet. Then, we did a postmortem on an impala! I definitely jumped right in, from feeling the shattered mandible from the bullet when it was shot to cracking the ribs open with hedge trimmers! While I've done dissections before, hearing the perspective of a vet, and the procedures of a necropsy and pathology investigation, was really cool.

Basically, I'm having the time of my life.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The Trailhead

In a little over a month, I'm leaving for what will probably be one of the greatest adventures of my life: three months on the African continent.

"Every dreamer knows that it is entirely possible to be homesick for a place you've never been to; perhaps more homesick than for familiar ground." I cannot think of a better way to phrase my longing to travel to Africa, or a more perfect description of how anxious I am to go there. A childhood fascination for African wildlife has blossomed into an outright yearning to go to Africa and feel for myself the red dirt beneath my feet, watch herds of animals sweeping over the savanna, visit with Maasai, and climb to the top of Kilimanjaro, the Roof of Africa. It is hard to say how I was first inspired by the animals and people of Africa, but I feel, as strange as it is, that I have a passion for a place to which I have never been.

I'll first journey to South Africa on a month-long study abroad program through MSU, learning about conservation and biodiversity while traveling to some of the most beautiful places in the country, including Kruger National Park, Blyde River Canyon, Pilanesberg National Park, the Kalahari Desert, De Hoop Nature Reserve, and finally the Cape Town area.

Then, I'll head to Tanzania for another month, where I'll meet up with my mom and see Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti, visit the hospital for which I've been fundraising for the past few months, climb Mt. Kilimanjaro (Africa's highest mountain at 19,340 feet), and spend a while on the exotic island of Zanzibar. Even the names of these places - the Serengeti, Kilimanjaro, Zanzibar - conjure up such romantic, mystical connotations that it's amazing they actually exist - and that I'm going there.

Finally, I'll top off my journey with an overland trip from Victoria Falls to Cape Town. Traveling in a truck, converted to carry passengers, eating local foods, meeting local people, and camping out in the African bush every night, I'll get to white water raft down the Zambezi below Victoria Falls, visit several game parks, spend a few days in the Okavango Delta of Botswana, and see the amazing sand dunes of Namibia.

Altogether, I'll be in six countries - South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia - totaling 85 days in Africa. While it seems I've made a complete list of what I'll see and do, I hope spontaneity sweeps me off my feet and brings adventures both unexpected and unforeseeable. I chose to travel to Africa not only because I've always wanted to go there, but because I don't want a typical vacation. I don't want to stay at fancy resorts, eat in fancy restaurants, or experience yet another developed, Western civilization. I want to be uncomfortable - to see poverty on a daily basis, camp for weeks at a time, do things that scare me or things I've never done before. I want my eyes opened to new cultures and places, the harsh reality of inequality and what it means to be an "underdeveloped" country. As one of my new favorite quotes emphasizes, "A ship in the harbor is safe, but that's not what ships are built for." I know already that this will truly be a life-changing experience, even though I cannot yet predict exactly how.

I hope not just for the journey of a lifetime - that would suggest that this is the type of thing I'll never do again. I look forward to this trip as a catapult into a lifetime of journeys, as an experience that sets a precedent for positive, global action as well as adventure.

So, here's to a summer of exploration, revelation, and transformation.

Here's to Africa.