SOUTH AFRICA

Earlier this year, as Brian and I contemplated which country we wanted to visit next, it didn't take long for us to land on South Africa. We'd explored a bit of Northern Africa in the fall and fell in love with it, but we wanted to see something a bit different. Home to some of this world's most incredible paleoanthropological sites (making it a dream come true for me), gorgeous animals, and a jaw-dropping, varied landscape, it took no time at all for us to fall in love with the country. And thankfully, it was just the beginning of what would prove to be one of our favorite trips abroad yet.

 Before turning in for the night, Johanne, our guide, spotted this juvenile, male leopard under a bush along the road. We could have missed him so easily. Thankful we didn't, as he turned out to be one of our favorite wildlife encounters in our time in Africa.

Before turning in for the night, Johanne, our guide, spotted this juvenile, male leopard under a bush along the road. We could have missed him so easily. Thankful we didn't, as he turned out to be one of our favorite wildlife encounters in our time in Africa.

Kruger national park

After spending a short time in Johannesburg, Brian and I set off for the famous Kruger National Park with our Intrepid group members. This wasn't my first safari, but it was Brian's, and I was eager for him to experience the magic a safari brings. After a long - though enjoyable - six and a half hour drive to the park, we split up with a few other group members who would be staying at a nearby lodge and set off with our guide Johanne to find our campsite. Twenty minutes later we arrived to the Timbavati Safari Lodge. The lodge has several little bungalows, a shop, bar, swimming pool, and campsite. We pulled alongside what we came to learn was our kitchen / hang out / charging area, and dragged our bags over to the pre-erected dome tents we'd be staying in. It was clean, green, and quaint. Even the warnings of scorpions and a curious leaopard couldn't put me off. I was in heaven. 

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game drives

We camped in the park for four days. Each day we woke at 4:45-5:00am, ate a quick breakfast (bread, banana, cereal), packed up, and took off for the gate. We were there mid-April, and it was cold each morning and evening. If you are planning on going on a safari, be sure to pack one thick, warm coat with you. I wore several layers and was still uncomfortably cold. Thankfully, Johanne provided blankets (and I think many safari operators do), but just think about that as your packing for your trip.

As soon as we were in the park and through Orpen Gate (one of Kruger National Park's central gate entrances), we grabbed a coffee at the small coffee shop, used the restroom, and drove. And drove. And drove. 

African fish eagles stared hungrily into the river. Elephants grazed and sprayed mud atop their backs. And impalas huddled close in the chill of early morning. Some might wonder how twelve plus hours in a car doesn't get old, but I can honestly say I would have spent weeks out in the bush watching the animals and never tire of it. It was a truly special experience.  

There were, of course, quiet moments. Moments when we didn't see many animals at all. (Though impalas were never far off.) But that wasn't a concern for us. I suppose it may have been had we only a half day in the park, but thankfully that wasn't the case. We filled those quiet moments by simply taking in the vastness of the park. Something that was equally impressive and satisfying. Quintessential Knobthorn trees sprinkled the landscape, stretching as far as the eye can see. Red dirt shifted beneath the weight of the truck, casting pinkish plumes behind us; the only evidence of our having been there. 

Everything feels truly wild here. Unlike the national parks I'd visited in Tanzania (granted it was high season), I loved that in Kruger we rarely came across another vehicle. It was just us, our guide, the animals, and the wild. Exactly how it should be. My only gripe was having to hold my pee for hours on end since we weren't allowed to exit the vehicle on the road. Hard to stay hydrated on safari sometimes!

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To fill the time, Johanne our guide would slow down and point down to the road. "You see there? Those prints are those of a lion and her cubs. They're fresh tracks, too. From early morning." I loved when he did this. Not only was it interesting to see different tracks of the animals, but it also got us excited about the possibility of running into these animals as we made our way deeper into the park.

In all honestly, I was a little skeptical that we'd actually be able to track any animals by following their tracks along the road. It was not for lack of faith in Johanne's tracking abilities, it was simply that the park is massive, and the bush was so thick and green I felt it would obscure most animals we came across.  Even those just off the road. But at one point it really paid off. Not long after coming upon leopard tracks, we were alerted that one was a couple kilometers ahead by one of Johanne's friends. Thank goodness for the radio.

Sure enough, right off the side of the road, there was a juvenile, male leopard. One of the most beautiful animals I have ever seen. I'd seen a couple in Tanzania, perched up in a tree with a fresh kill, but I had never been so close to one as I was here. I could have watched him for hours and hours. Not a bad way to conclude our fourth and final night in the park.

It's crazy to think that we could have so easily have missed out on one of our favorite parts of our trip to Africa. We almost changed our travel plans to fly in to South Africa a little later so we could save some money and not miss so much work. In retrospect, that seems quite silly. 

If there is one thing travel continues to prove to me it's that money is just money. It comes and it goes and you'll probably never have as much as you want. But as long as you are living and breathing on this earth, there is one thing you should "blow" your money on and that is experiences. Whether it's a trip up the road to the mountains to do some biking, a flight to see Alaska's wild frontier, or a safari in Kruger National Park. Just do it.

In the end, you won't remember what you've spent or even what you've made. You will remember what you've done. And in my opinion, a full life is a life rich in experiences. Those acquired both near and far.

Work will always be there. But I can promise you that leopard won't.