Out of Africa
People lose their senses at charity auctions. For example, I once bought a puke-ugly, cloth seat cover because it had a bunch of zippered pockets. My dad one-upped me. He bought a South-African Safari.
"I thought it would be a neat father-son adventure," he said of his impulse purchase.
The package was for two hunters and two non-hunters. In his mind at the whimsical time of bidding, he had imagined his three sons and him riding around the African Savanna, maybe even atop an elephant, mouths agape, filming everything and creating memories that would outlive us all.
"Except, none of us are hunters," I replied, dutifully fulfilling my responsibility as a son to wreck my father's dream.
"I neglected to read the fine print," he admitted and shrugged.
Fast forward a year, past an unresolved conflict that excluded my brother Danny, and I was on my way to South Africa with my father, my youngest brother, Doug, and my good friend, Mike Cejka, owner of Mind and Body Fitness and happy exploiter of Danny's misfortune.
With the exception of my father, none of us had traveled such a distance. South Africa is accessible through a fifteen-hour flight from Washington D.C. and operates eight hours in the future, meaning when you sit down for your evening meal in Oklahoma, it is already tomorrow over there.
It was to be an adventure. We had been vaccinated against numerous maladies, we had armed ourselves with loads of videotape, and we were curious whether water really drains the opposite direction in the southern hemisphere. Ready or not, we were giddy with excitement.
Arriving in Johannesburg jet lagged and dreary eyed, we let an unpleasant lady stamp our passports and wave us through customs with barely an inquiry as to the contents of our luggage.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime ranks South Africa in the top two for murder and assault and number one for rape per capita. Though Mike and I are martial arts instructors, he with a fifth-degree black belt and I with a third, we found ourselves glancing over our shoulders as we stepped out of the Johannesburg airport. Three of us had purchased a large wallet (something we affectionately began to call our "man purse"), which we kept secured around our neck. Mike and I had also purchased a belt with a hidden zippered pocket for storing currency.
While Mike spent the next three days with an "internet" friend, my father, my brother and I enjoyed a camping tour within Kruger National Park, a national game preserve roughly the size of Massachusetts. We traveled day upon day in an open-air vehicle, spotting numerous wildlife in their natural habitat.
believe our guide knew more about animals than Noah. From him we learned: lions are pretty boring in the daytime unless you jump out of the vehicle and rustle around in the grass like injured prey; zebra is pronounced zeh-bra, not zee-bra; giraffe is pronounced jur-off, not jir-aff, and the kori bustard (a bird) sounds rather funny when pronounced by a local.
Afterward, we met up with Mike and set off for the safari game lodge. While my brother, my dad and I were out scouting the bush for wildlife and sleeping on foam cushions next to a snoring Canadian, Mike had attended a professional rugby match, been to a native wildlife center, and slept comfortably in a bed and breakfast.
The game lodge was extraordinary, very comfortable, and decorated with more animal remains than the Museum of Natural History. Lamps made from Kudu horns, a "foot" stool made from an elephant foot, ashtray stands made from zebra legs, and impala-fur rugs were among the décor. Additionally, intricate wood and horn carvings ornamented everything from doorknobs to bed frames.
"The coolest thing is the outdoor shower," Mike said of the room-size shower for two with shoulder-high walls and thatched roof.
The economy in South Africa, aside from influencing a high crime rate, allows for cheap labor. Andres, our hunting guide, told us that the average wage for an unskilled laborer in South Africa is around fifty rand (eight dollars) for a full-day's work, thus allowing for construction of elaborate accommodations for not much money.
While this luxury was appreciated within the lodge, it made it difficult to enjoy when passing by what might be deemed a "squatters camp" and seeing entire families living in tin shacks. Even with nothing more than a glass of unpolluted water, Americans are blessed.
The animals at the safari lodge, which are purchased and bred onsite for hunting, are not so blessed. Since the lodge required at least one of us to hunt, Dad conceded by shooting an impala and absorbing the exorbitant trophy fees and extra taxidermy costs. Doug stayed close by to film it all while Mike and I enjoyed a nice 12-kilometer jog through the 80,000 acres, running near several giraffe and a galloping herd of about a hundred impala.
During the last few days of Africa, we split up. Mike met a friend at an elaborate resort called Sun City. I left dad and Doug at the resort and took a plane from South Africa to Zambia, where I stayed at a hostel in a room with 15 other international travelers. I also bungee jumped 111-meters (364 feet) off a bridge over Victoria Falls, one of the seven natural wonders of the world.
Back at the airport, Mike said, "I learned some new Afrikaans," referring to the Dutch-based language spoken by the South African people.
"I learned a few phrases in Swahili and ate a Mopani worm, which is a caterpillar," I added.
"We ate some of our impala," Doug replied.
Dad thought for a moment, rubbing his two-week beard, and replied with a statement that seemed to capture what the four of us, now seasoned international travelers, had discovered about Africa.
"I never did see a difference in the direction the water drained," he said, and then we boarded the plane.