Friday, October 17, 2008


Occasionally, I'm lucky enough to be, ahh..., forced to travel as part of my job. Shockingly, I don't have to travel very often. Just enough that the next trip seems exciting and not an exercise in physical endurance, sleep deprivation and jet-lag.

This time, the trip was to Cape Town, South Africa. The story of why I had to go there are best reserved for another time. Suffice it to say that flights from Cape Town back to the United States are some what limited. Ours was at 7 PM the day after our last meeting. Being a collection of maniacs and hyperactives, we all decided that we could handle getting up at 5 AM, check out of the hotel, hit the road by 6 AM and endure skipping breakfast so we could see one of Africa's famous safaris, then drive frantically back in time to catch our plane. The nature of the meeting produced a plethora of MD/PhD's for our adventure and one of them, knowing lots about the deleterious effects of low blood sugar, had the foresight to run into the closed restaurant and purchase food from a rather surprised manager. It's called leadership and clear direction. That's why we pay him the big money.

We hit the road only a few minutes late. The two cars were packed high with our luggage. It would be an interesting return trip since we had one more passenger in the second car that was on the return flight but only one car going to the airport. Oh well, cross that bridge later.

It was a lovely drive. At 6 AM-ish on a Saturday morning, Cape Town traffic wasn't too bad. We made good time out of the city and onto the highway. The drive through the African countryside was fantastic. We were frantically shooting photos out the windows of the car. Some of us were already bewailing the antiquated technology in our three year old digital cameras. There was the sunrise, the mountains rising slowly in the horizon, the clear, crisp colors, the lovely banana, the soft and chewy muffin, the nice sugary somewhat fake tasting but still awesome juice box...even after devouring breakfast, our stomachs were growling away. Unfortunately, it was dinner time in California and our tummies were not to be fooled or placated by carbs. Nope, they wanted protein. Suddenly, we felt keen interest in the exact species of each of the Big Five. The Bigger the Five, the better. And more precisely, were they edible? Saute, fricassee or stew? Up until now, we'd hoped the Big Five would be giraffes, rhinos, elephants, gorillas and lions. Suddenly, antelope, wildebeest, elands, kudu, springbok and other delicacies of the South African braai (or barbecue) seemed like the Big Five we really really wanted to shoot.

Luckily, we were distracted when the road turned from asphalt to dirt. Nostalgic stories of Australian and New York driving, legendary potholes and old cars poured out. I was one of those college students so poor I had never having owned an old car and felt a little left out. Somehow, stories of me jumping the ferocious teeth-rattling speed bump outside of the Chemistry building on my bicycle just didn't cut the cake. We were so enthused by those old cars that we drove straight past our exit. However, something about driving over a mountainous pass when the game reserve was on a flat plain ignited our suspicions and we turned back appropriately. That's why they gave us them advanced degrees. Ayup.

Once back on the correct turn off, it was only a short distance to the game reserve. We zoomed into the reserve via the back gate and drove around without any clear sense of what to do since all the directions were located at the front gate. But all was corrected when we randomly drove by the front gate. We pulled into the carport and popped out of the car just as two cheetahs on steel leashes walked by. As well-trained tourists are wont to do, we all whipped out our digital cameras and started snapping. Once the trainer with the cheetahs disappeared, there wasn't a soul in sight. But the guest area was phenomenal. We excitedly wondered just how much would it cost to change our flights and stay here one night extra? But we all had appointments immediately after our return to California, so it could not be...

We took a short walk around the guest area. It was clearly a luxurious place to stay with spic and span bungalows, outdoor dining, the large fire pit, a swimming area, an intriguing area with wire fencing and cheetahs...

The trainers eventually came out and shooed us away very gently all things considered. She warned us the fence wasn't actually strong enough to keep the cheetahs from knocking it down and flashing cameras might annoy...

We wandered back to the central guest area. We were all gear heads and loaded up with memory for our digital cameras. Actually, we ALL had laptops and could download our photos off the cameras on the spot and start all over again if we ran out. So we started snapping pictures of everything: odd sculptures in the garden, flowering succulents, trees, sparrows that looked like they'd migrated to the Cape from New York, the fire pit, the bungalows, the reserve's tour Land Rover, the coffee...


Five seriously jet-lagged tourists for the day converged on the coffee pot ignoring the enormous tea selection. The owner of the reserve smiled. Les Americans.

After a continental breakfast of caffeine and sugar, we meet our guide. To get the day off to a good start, we had a group photo shoot with our guide and the Land Rover. Then up into the Rover with plenty of blankets since the vehicle was open.

We began with a wildly exciting view of a pride of lions. Big sleek lions. Our knowledgeable tour guide knew all of them and their personal histories. Turns out there are "canned safaries" for tourists who want to shoot big game. As in, with rifles, not cameras. The safari operators raise big game specifically for this purpose. It's illegal of course, but Africa is a big place and quite a lot of people there are desperate for jobs and money. Lions raised this way are, err..., kinda overfed and lousy at hunting on their own. They aren't too good at running away from people or defending themselves either. The owners of this game reserve had decided to purchase these "canned" lions rather than let them be shot. Since, there is a an over-population of lions, these canned lions had been fixed as well. Now, lionesses stop going into heat when they are pregnant or nursing but these lionesses were fixed which meant they went into heat... the day we showed up. And a gallant lion has got to do his duty... for all of the ladies. Oh my. I do have some x-rated lion videos.

After all that action...


Right, the cheetahs were pretty calm compared to the lions. The herd (cheetos?) of cheetahs was pretty large. Mostly, they lay in the sun and enjoyed showing us their noble profiles. Occasionally, one would get up, stretch slowly, take a few steps and settle down again, all in profile. I'm willing to swear these animals knew they were being photographed and were modeling for us. Our guide, perhaps unaware of our morning transgression with the cage, told us that cheetahs only hunted smaller prey and generally did not regards humans as prey. Except for babies. Thus, cheetahs could be somewhat domesticated.

From the cheetahs, we proceeded to the more open reserve. There were quite a large number of species but these were the more nomadic varieties and we'd have to drive around to find them.

The first one we ran into was Grandpa, the oldest giraffe in the reserve. He was the big one who'd done his share to ensure giraffe survival and continuity in Africa. Now, the younger bulls held the alpha positions and he munched his hay in peace. But not before he gave us all a lesson in bladder capacity. We all wanted to video the performance but for once our chip capacity was not enough. Either we got Grandpa performing and give up on other photos until we got back to our laptops or we delete the video. Darn. 15 minutes plus...

After Grandpa, our guide drove us around to find the rest of the herd of giraffes. Now, I'm sure by now, you're wondering "What is so special about going on this safari? So far, every single animal is found at your local zoo under much more convenient conditions." This though crossed my mind too, although I must admit x-rated lion videos and giraffe restroom breaks were not something I'd ever seen at any zoo. But getting close to the giraffes was really something. You don't want to get too close, they kick something ferocious. Even the little baby giraffes stood taller than anyone in the group and clearly their legs could pack a wallop, even if they did have the most adorable eyes and longest lashes you ever saw.. I really got the full sense of adventure (aka, personal danger) when I looked at one of those giraffes and decided there was no way I'd outrun this herbivore if it decided to knock in my noggin.

After the lions, cheetahs, giraffes, the animals started to blur in my memory. It is blurry because my camera had a grossly inadequate zoom and all I can see for this sequence of photos is a bunch of rather blurry blobs. I guess this would be where the dazzle of zebras sprang past us... or the flock of ostriches zooming by... or the herd of springbok as they bounded past gracefully. My advice, if you really want to view your safari from behind the lens of your camera, bring a good camera. Otherwise put the camera away and use your eyes.

Luckily, the rhinoceros and Cape buffalo didn't do anything as undignified as moving. They stood or sat as the driver inched the Land rover up to their favorite bush/tree and let us gawk and snap away. I managed to catch some good photos and some good looks.

It was a half-day safari but felt longer and very filled with excitement. Part of what made the experience special was the landscape. It was dead flat with mountains on the horizon, a very large, scenic pond and indigenous Cape plants including the finbos . Our Cape Town host always praises the flavor of the lamb in South Africa because they graze on finbos and produces a uniquely flavored and delicious meat. I had some and it was delicious. Apparently quite a lot of other people agree as we drove back from the safari past what seemed like hundreds of miles of sheep farm.

Then, we heard a bump and the car stopped running out there in the middle of nowhere.

But that's a different story.

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