When the wife and I were discussing our plans for future vacations, she stated she wanted to go on safari. Taken aback by the statement coming from a woman who needs her creature comforts, I queried her how that was going to be reconciled. She assured me there were camps that provided for her needs. So we put the area in the mix and decided 2016 would be the year we go to see Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh my! OK, no tigers or bears, but a slew of other unique animals on the African continent.
We started our trip in Cape Town where we began our first night at a Passover Seder. The timing of the end of tax season, when we left on our trip and Passover made it challenging this year. One of the joys of being Jewish is somehow you can connect to the Jewish Community in almost any country to which you are traveling. We have done that in many countries. It was particularly easy this time because of all the South African Jews in Los Angeles.
Other than the joy of celebrating Passover, two distinct things came from the dinner. We had our initial experience, which has been validated many times over, that the people of South Africa, both black and white, are quite nice and friendly people. The culture breeds a certain joyful attitude. The second thing was we quickly learned how badly the country is run. The current exchange rate is 14 rands to a U.S. dollar. One guest told me not too long ago it was eight rands to a dollar and he fondly remembered three rands to a dollar. We soon saw the effects when meals would cost a third to a half of what we would pay in the States.
I suggested they may want to convert to using U.S. dollars as their currency. The gentleman I was speaking to shuddered at that thought, but I told him nine countries currently do that including neighboring Zimbabwe where the dollar is the primary currency. It certainly would stem their inflation and stop their political class from destroying the value of their money.
When we arrived in Zimbabwe we discussed their change to U.S. currency which happened about ten years ago. Our guide told us it has been great for them. Then he gave us the gift of an actual former Zimbabwe dollar bill as a souvenir – It is a 500,000,000-dollar bill. We feel rich.
Nelson Mandela was truly a great man. But his long stint on Robben Island did not necessarily prepare him to properly run his country and leave a government with a strong foundation.
If Mandela was wise about how to run his country, he would have flown to Singapore and met with Lee Kuan Lew, the founder of modern Singapore. He would have said to him, “Please tell me how you transformed your country from a poor, malaria-infested backwater to one of the most vibrant, financially-strong countries in the world. What are you doing right?” But he did not. Mandela started with a much stronger base than Lew did and he could have built on that base.
Though South Africa has a lot of elements of modern society, it likewise has a lot of challenges. The economy is currently producing limited opportunities. You are warned about crime before you go and then upon arrival the reason for it is quite evident. There is barbed wire everywhere protecting areas, and guards wherever you go. Even in the wine country, there is barbed wire protecting the land of the wineries; something you never see in California wine regions.
Mandela would be embarrassed by the current state of his country’s leadership. While in this country, the high court reversed a lower court ruling letting 783 corruption charges proceed against President Jacob Zuma. They called the lower court ruling irrational. This followed on the heels of a ruling a month prior that Zuma had taken government funds to pay for upgrades at his personal estate. For that he apologized and then won a vote in parliament to throw him out, but still the stench of corruption is everywhere. The fact that the economy is weak and during his term the rand has plummeted in value has created a feeling of despair among the locals about their leadership.
But enough of that – we came here to see animals. We did not even have to wait to go on safari. As we headed to the Cape of Good Hope for a visit there, we were confronted with road signs: Baboon Crossing. That is not something you see every day elsewhere. Then we saw a troop of baboons playing and eating on the side of the road. Quite special. But not as special as the visit to the penguin colony near the Cape. What is it that makes these waddling animals so beloved? They are just so adorably cute to watch.
On to big game hunting. We arrived at our lodge in Kruger National Park where the accommodations blend in with the natural habitat and where sometimes elephants (and always monkeys) come to visit your room. We soon met ranger Rudi who would be our guide through the next three days. We were introduced to our vehicle: a specially-adapted Toyota Land Cruiser with tiered, open seating, a rifle racked to the top of the dashboard and a perch seat up front for our tracker, Jonas.
You soon begin to appreciate both man and machine. The vehicle goes through quite a thrashing driving through underbrush, up and down gullies and over whatever is in your way to get the proper viewing of the animals in the vicinity. Our guides work long days beginning by waking us at 5:30 A.M. to start our morning safari at 6:15 a.m. They take us out for 3+ hours then return us for breakfast and a break until we go out for our second safari of the day at 3:30 P.M. That lasts for another 3+ hours until we return when they may need to join us for dinner. They are a fountain of information on the animals and the terrain. One can tell they truly love what they do. They also have a very interesting schedule, working six weeks on (every day) and then two weeks off which we were told they really like. Can you imagine what the employment police in the U.S. would say about that work schedule?
Off to the hunt, we were instructed we would particularly be looking for the Big Five – Lions, Leopards, Rhinos, Elephants and Cape Buffalo – a term drawn from real hunters for which we have significant disdain. We are soon taught that the animals have become impervious to the ubiquitous vehicles because the vehicles offer no danger to them.
You have not lived until your guides have hacked through the underbrush with a machete so you can squat under a not-quite-fully-grown leopard sleepily hanging from a tree branch. Or when you have had a group of elephants lumber five feet from your vehicle trying to consume their daily meal of 5% of their body weight. When the fully grown ones weigh seven tons or more, you can imagine that is a lot of eating to get done. Or when you nest yourself in your vehicle watching 20 feet from three lady lions on a hunt for food circling a waterhole. Or sat watching two male lions just lying on their backs in the grass taking a snooze. Or witnessed a herd of 500+ Cape buffalo moving across the range to and through a watering hole. Or follow a mature male lion strutting past you, just two-feet from your vehicle, impervious to your existence because, after all, he is the King of the Forest.
We were not just looking for the designated Big Five. We were treated to a tower of giraffes, a herd of gnu (wildebeests), crocodiles co-existing in a pool of water with hippos that we are told have sensitive skin (someone get them some sunscreen), the now- beloved warthogs, the never liked hyenas, the beautiful zebras and the multitude of other antelope genre (gnus are antelopes) such as springbok, kudu and impala. You have a feast for the eyes when you see the massive rhinos moving toward you feeding away. We are told all of these animals are herbivores that serve as dinner for the cats which are carnivores. The only ones that they do not generally go after because of their massive size are elephants, rhinos and hippos. The Big Five have basically one natural enemy – man.
Going on safari is a fascinating contrast to current life. It is a very sedentary activity where you need to maintain quiet during many periods. You may sit and watch a herd or a lion doing almost nothing for 20 minutes or more. You may drive around tracking a leopard all morning and never finding it. We wondered whether younger generations who are so conditioned to constant activity from the smart phones or other devices would be able to appreciate the rhythm of a safari without external stimulus for extended periods of time.
We were left wholeheartedly fulfilled by our experience – overwhelmed by the magnificence of the unique animals that inhabit the African continent. Protecting all of them from useless killings and preserving them to exist in their natural structure for future generations is a mission for us all.