For somewhere around 30 hours, my friend Hannah and I zoomed around the highways South Africa in a rented Polo. Hannah handled the driving – as I am an ashamed 27 year old who can’t drive stick – and I scanned maps and road signs to direct us to our next landing spot. We stopped for roadside attractions and picnics along the freeway. We played nearly every song on each of our iPods and gawked and the “real African” scenery.
It was all-American road trip without the America.
The idea for the holiday came a few months prior. We discussed a large group trip to Mozambique and then a smaller one to Botswana. Because of my school’s early start and Hannah’s personal commitment, we had only five days to squeeze in some type of vacation before the end of the winter break so we decided to do a Big 5 game park.
Weeks went by as Hannah and I agreed that we need to make plans for the vacation, but none actually formed. We eventually had to submit our leave requests to Peace Corps (just like any job, we accrue vacation days and are only allotted so many each month) and left most of blank because all we had was dates – no lodging. We emailed friends and supervisors and finally agreed on Hluhluwe/iMfolozi Game Park near the upper east coast. Less that a week before leaving, we haphazardly decided to spin a few days in the nearby costal town of St. Lucia. That was our plan, no real plan at all but a couple of spots on a map. It felt vaganbond-ish and rouged. It felt so unlike me, and that felt good.
We set out on the open road with a heap of Google Maps, some junk food and iPods stocked of dance music and This American Life episodes. Hannah quickly picked up the left-hand driving and weaved in and out of traffic like a pro by the end of the first day. It was freeing to be in the open road and we giggled each time we passed a packed taxi, thankful for the roomy Polo and luxury to stop and go as we please.
Our first stop was at Hluhluwe Backpackers, literally two kilometers from the park’s main gate. Because each of our half of the car – not including petrol and the unforgiving tolls – cost about what we make in a month, we decided to reserve camping spots, sleep in the car and do all of our own cooking. Dave, the owner of the backpacker, wouldn’t have it and gave us a room for the two nights we stayed there. He also made sure we had plenty of beer to drink and offered up a delicious braai with a few other guests on our last night. Dave makes me want to abandon all other life ambitions and open a backpacker somewhere warm and hospitable. He had great stories of wondering travelers and wildcats; his life seemed at ease and full of adventure. We were so grateful for his hospitability that we promised to recommend him to all other volunteers wanting to visit a Big 5 park.
Our main reason for this trip was to cross “African Safari” off our bucket lists. We lingered on the idea of Kruger National Park – the largest in South Africa – but feared the park’s touristy prices. Another volunteer recommended Hluhluwe – the oldest park in the country – so we decided to give it a try. We looked into tours, but our volunteer salaries can’t handle those prices so we decided to splurge for a map and do it on our own. Hannah had read that the game are most visible at dawn and dusk, so we woke up very early Friday morning, ate some eggs and toast and were on the hunt.
The Big 5, if you are not familiar, are lions, cheetahs, buffalo, rhinos and elephants and Hluhluwe claimed to have them all. For 12 hours, our Polo took us up and down trails of the park as Hannah and I scoured for animals. A safari is like gambling: you lose and lose but, when you hit big, the jackpot seems possible. We saw wildebeests, several types of antelope, zebras, warthogs, wild dogs, distant giraffes, the back of a rhino and monkeys. While stopped for lunch at a picnic area, a baboon greeted us, like we were old friends and it was not at all ridiculous that he was chilling with us.
The best part of the day came in our final loop before returning back to the main gate. We hadn’t seen anything for hours and knew that 6:00 p.m., the park’s closing time, was fast approaching. We made our way around the bend and there were two giant rhinos about 400 meters from us. They were huge and majestic. They didn’t mind our gawking as they chewed some grass and we couldn’t take our eyes off these gigantic creatures. We were so thrilled and felt like it was a great ending to our day, when we met another friend. Less than 100 meters from our car, we saw a giraffe casually chomping on leaves and keeping an eye on us. It was the closest we had gotten to an animal and he was so incredibly beautiful. We wanted him to be our friend, he wanted us to leave him and his dinner alone, but whatever.
We were finally heading back to the main gate and pretty thrilled about our scoping loot. We had hoped for lions and elephants, but were so satisfied with the last half hour of our hunt that it didn’t matter.
As we sped through the path to get back in time, we noticed the car ahead of us stopped. We pulled over too and there were two thuggish hyenas. They grimly stared in our direction and turned their bodies to face off. Both cars turned off the lights and they continued on their way, off to do the bad things we all know hyenas as accurately documented in “The Lion King.” The other car was still, but we moved past and got next to the hyenas. Hannah was literally inches from one, but I screamed at her to step on the gas, nervous they would whip out some gangsta hyena move.
The next day, after a deep sleep, we made breakfast and sipped coffee in the warm African light. We planned to make it to St. Lucia that day but were in no hurry, so after our bellies were full, we continued on. We decided that if we saw anything interesting along the road, we would stop. We weren’t even on the highway when we stopped at a pineapple shack. On the way to the park, we saw signs for the region’s delicious pineapples and decided we must try one and picked up one at the shack along with a few other gifts. Back on the road, we saw several women selling them along with bags of green something. Again, we stopped and were delighted to find the biggest avocados we’ve ever seen. Of course, we needed one.
Back at the hostel, Hannah had found a poster for a cheese farm and was nearly giddy that we might run across it. Sure enough, half way to St. Lucia, we saw signs and pulled over. It was an adorable shop with samples and we ate the most delectable cheese I’ve ever had, lemon pepper goat cheese.
Eventually, we made it to St. Lucia and had one thing on our mind: beach. We bought a six-pack and grabbed our picnic items – including the fresh pineapple and avocado – and suits for a leisurely afternoon. It was too cold to swim, but we enjoyed the ambiance of the ocean and sand. We told deep stories and revealed in the break from the mountain cold we’ve endured for the previous three months.
That night, we made our own dinner in the hostel and had a drink on the town. We were hoping to meet some people from Dave’s at a bar but it was dark when we approached it. We decided an early rest was better and prepared for another day.
That morning, with the advice from our country director, we decided to explore iSimangaliso Wetlands Park before beginning the journey back. The park seems smaller as the animals were quite concentrated. We ran into antelope, wildebeests, zebras, warthogs and buffalo. We even spotted a few hippo treading in a swamp. It was the perfect end to our animal adventure.
The trip back was stressful as we struggled to find a place to stay and weave through road construction. I also go in a crabby mood that I couldn’t explain and felt like the world’s worst co pilot. We did stop for McDonalds because it seemed like the appropriate thing for two Americans on a road trip to do and it was the best McFlurry I’ve ever had. It also brightened our spirits a bit.
By dusk, we still didn’t have a place to stay and used limited airtime and service to find the name of a backpacker in a town along our 10-hour drive home. We had a street name, but took the wrong exit. We were so lost and Hannah decided to pull into a driveway to check the number and we suddenly realized that was it – the backpacker. Naturally, we were the only customers on a Sunday night and the couple, whose house is attached to the hostel, set us up. We were even allowed to use their kitchen, which had a glass-top stove, dishwasher, washer and a battery operated can opener. Hannah and I kept changing expressions of, “Where are we?” as we made mashed potatoes and beans.
The next day, we arrived at the border town where we rented the car and enjoyed some pizza before hitting the border. On the other side, cold, new school terms and harshness of village life awaited us and it was hard to cross. But we did and Hannah and I both ran errands in Maseru before returning to our respective villages.
On the taxi ride home, I thought about this vacation and the different emotions I possessed throughout it. I wasn’t always a fun camper to be in a car with and I struggled with some internal issues that I thought I was making real progress on but learned still need quite a bit of work. I thought about the beauty of a road trip and how it feels like you are in constant transition like the airport or the week between the end of frustrating job and the beginning of an exciting one. In some ways, these two years are just transition between an old life and a new one. I also realized that this dark, hard spot on my heart that I held for someone was now gone, after years of trying to let it go. Some how, on this trip, I realized that I no longer have hate for this person, just lots of well wishes.
My vacation was over and school was starting in two days, but I wasn’t sad or depressed. I was content. I am happy with my life here and am not filled with anxiety as I return to it after great a holiday the way I cried on return flights to Idaho during my short time there.
Although I wasn’t always at my best, this vacation reminded me of the person I believe I can be, that I am (yeah, that’s a line from TAL). I am not perfect, but I am not sure what that is. What I do know is that a new person took over, one who loves adventure and can handle not having every minute planned out. That is refreshing, almost as much as a hot shower after three months without.
Slowly, I am teaching myself that life without a plan is OK, even great. This vacation stressed me up until the moment we left because it wasn’t planned, but it turned out great. Sometimes, I need to remember to let go and just enjoy the open dirt road. It has so much more to offer than the mapped one.
So I bet you are saying, “Pictures would be really great,” and you are right, they would. But, my camera is completely dead and I can’t find my charger at the moment. When I do, or have another sent, I will make sure to post a few photos. I’ve got some good ones.