5 nature photos to inspire your next trip

Geological rocks of Meteora

What captures your attention and provides the optimal sensory elements that help shape and define your greatest trip memories?  Is it the food, the architecture, the local art and culture, music and nightlife, or the people you meet? And, including some or all of the above, are you also besotted with dramatic landscapes and the opportunity to leave with beautiful nature photos destined to be framed as your next prized pieces of wall art?

My sister CJ (and best travel buddy) will be the first to tell you “impressive man-made structures have their place, and they’re several iconic landmarks scattered all over the world matching that description.” But for her, the pièces de résistance, the vacation takeaway masterpieces so to speak, always lie in nature.

We’ve been to more than a dozen countries together and she inevitably comes back with images of landscapes, seascapes, clouds, plants and animals. She takes other pictures too, of course, but her beloved nature photos far outnumber anything else.

So for this post, I asked her to help us see the world through her Samsung Galaxy 6 lens and describe what drew her eyes to each scene.

Jamaica

Jamaican countryside

Nestled in the hills of St. Elizabeth there is freedom.  Freedom from the trappings of commercialization and bustling streets that create a cacophony of intrusive noises.  This lone home, enveloped by lush vegetation and surrounded by lung-friendly, pollution-free air, sits atop a hill like a beacon.  Untouched land, friendly people, and rich culture showcased Jamaica at its finest.

South Africa

insects in south africa

Cape Town is steeped in history and known for its popular V&A Waterfront as well as prominent landmarks, but one of my favorite places to visit, other than my safari and Robben Island tours, was Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens.  Found on the eastern side of the famous Table Mountain, it is home to several spectacular species of flora and fauna and the immaculately groomed grounds are presided over by a bust of Nelson Mandela, which is near the entrance.

The aromatic and abundant plant life is a potent elixir for the cutest insects. This little fellow was oblivious to all the tourists milling around as he hung out all by his adobrable and lonesome self.  Clearly, there was sonly one thing on his mind…”Gotta get the pollen! Gotta get the pollen!”

Greece

Meteora rock cliff

Taking a bus tour can often be mundane and long, but when that trip is transporting you from Athens through the northern highlands to Meteora, there are beautiful natural landscapes and geological sites to behold.  The feeling of catching your first glimpse of the giant monolithic rocks on which several monasteries were built is not something that’s easily described. It is an emotion best experienced in person.

Mexico

Paradise Beach_Tulum Mexico

Tulum, Tulum, Tulum. What’s not to love about Tulum?  Found in the Quintana Roo region of Mexico, the area is home to the ruins of the Mayan walled city, and it once served as a port for Coba.  Today it is a treasured UNESCO Heritage Site. 

I’ve been around beaches all my life, but nothing could have prepared me for the sight of this gorgeous shoreline bordered on either side by turquoise waters and craggy rocks. Not only do you get to stroll through the impressive ruins, you can kick off your shoes and dip your toes in the soft, squishy sand if you are not short on time,

Southwest Florida

PineIsland Sound_Florida

Famous for its shell-lined beaches, Southwest Florida is also known for absolutely amazing sunsets.  No two light shows are ever alike because they were ‘painted’ by the greatest artist ever known. He is Elohim.  It was a perfect evening when the lone bird took flight and a few, friendly dolphins frolicked in the ocean below.    

Those are some of my sister’s top picks. Do you have any tips on other cool spots for beautiful nature photos that you’d like to share? Please drop their names in the comment section below.

5 Nature Photos to inspire your next trip

The intersection of race and travel: A few lessons to note

Those of us who live in America are reminded of simmering and overt racial tensions far too often. We see it in news images of black effigies being hung from a tree in a front yard while the homeowner goes on record saying that the world shouldn’t be ignorant; he just wanted to make his place scary for Halloween.

We also hear it in the quivering voices of grieving family members who, having lost loved ones under questionable circumstances, have had to face intruding cameras to try and make coherent and dignified statements when the justice system sets the aggressors free. And many of us can’t help but connect with the raw emotion of kids like the courageous nine-year-old Zianna Oliphant, who felt compelled to make a desperate plea to her city council to “stop killing our fathers and brothers”.

Image source: Affinity Magazine

Since I write about travel, I couldn’t help but ponder how narrow-mindedness and bigotry affect people who go on vacation in this country and abroad. Make no mistake my fellow globetrotters, this sort of incendiary behavior isn’t limited to the United States alone. If a billionaire like Oprah Winfrey can have a retail sales assistant in Switzerland refuse to show her a handbag because she felt she couldn’t afford it, and Solange Knowles (Beyoncé’s  sister) and mother can get screamed at on a train from Milan to Basel when no one else is being treated that way, you’ve got to wake up and smell the coffee. The intersection of race and travel could converge around you!

I wrote about my first encounter with racism here, and I encourage you to read that story when you finish this post. Below, I share a few other incidents that resulted in valuable insights along the way. My experiences may be different from yours, but the lessons are universal.

Lesson #1: In-your-face racism can happen when you least expect it. If you are not in physical danger, stay calm and try not to let it get to you.

I remember once when I was a kid, my family and I went for a dip in a pool at a time-share in Daytona Beach, Florida, and everybody inside suddenly remembered they had someplace else to be – at the exact same time. We simply splashed around for a short while after the mass exodus, then left with our heads held high.

Also, on another occasion when I was on a business trip to West Palm Beach, I went to exercise at the ritzy hotel gym that doubled as a private club. Almost immediately, I felt daggers shooting from the eyes of a few older patrons who appeared startled when I displayed a legitimate room key that guaranteed my entry. One gentleman was so put out, he left. With the palpable rancor in the room, I was tempted to leave myself, but I remembered Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and other civil rights activists who risked their lives and limbs so that I could be free to go wherever I pleased. That knowledge kept me rooted in place. Facing the staring squad, I raised eight-pound dumbbells in quiet and dignified defiance.

Lesson #2: Sometimes the encounters are more subtle, which makes it difficult to tell if you’re being profiled because of your race, your accent, or your nationality. It will irk you, but don’t do anything to give the individuals justification to take the harassment to another level.

Case in point: I was pulled out of the immigration line in China and questioned in halting English about the validity of my picture, despite having the required visa (issued by my local Chinese embassy) in my Jamaican passport. After a few moments of apprehension, I was able to figure out the “issue” that caused me to be singled out, while everyone else in line went through without any additional interrogation. They thought I looked older than my passport photo.

A faulty picture? Yeah, right. More like an unfamiliar and “third world” passport.

Miraculously, upon more detailed review, tangible evidence of access and travel to “first-world” countries in the form of U.S. and U.K visas and stamps seemed to make me less of a possible border threat. Eventually, I was allowed to go.

Lesson #4: On occasion, prejudices can affect your trip budget. Always have access to back up funds that you can tap into when faced with unforeseen circumstances. 

Italy remains one of the most alluring countries I’ve ever visited, and I love it, but unfortunately there are people with biased predispositions residing there, too. Years ago, when I took a spring break trip to Europe, my best friend and I were denied entry at an inn in Milan because they mistook us for African immigrants. We were students crisscrossing Europe by train with no set itinerary or agenda, and because it was the era before Airbnb and travel apps, as soon as we arrived in the city we went directly to the tourist board to get help with securing budget-friendly accommodations. The officials there gave us recommendations and called ahead to one of the facilities that said it had available rooms.

When we arrived at the address and rang the buzzer at the gate, they spoke to us through the intercom system (which had a prominent camera in place). Suddenly, they had no space.

We argued our case to no avail, and when we went back to the tourist board to let them know what happened, the people there apologized profusely. They called the innkeepers back and challenged them about confirming the space then turning us away, and they admitted to thinking we were not the persons the tourist board had sent over. I still chuckle when I remember they had the gall to invite us to come back.  Naturally, we were having none of that. It was on to the next prospect, regardless of cost!

Lesson #4: Narrow-mindedness reflects on the individual spewing the hate, not necessarily on everyone who resides in the country you’re visiting. So, never let one negative incident color your overall impression of a place.  

I recall being on a walking tour in Buenos Aires in which the Mexican-born guide was reciting the city’s history. out of the blue, he mentioned that Argentina was “lucky” they didn’t get any African slaves when the Europeans arrived. To this day, I still wonder if that was a deliberate statement or a factor of details getting lost in translation. His English was not very good, but the guy had been nice to me up to that point. Shortly after boarding the bus he had found out I was Jamaican, and we’d had a brief conversation about cricket, and my country’s uncanny ability to excel globally in music and sport.

I pondered saying peace out and walking away after that explosive comment,

but it was my one extra day in the city after a week-long conference, and I wasn’t going to allow him to dim my glow. I’d already paid for the tour. Plus, I was getting to spend time with my buddy from college whom I hadn’t seen in years. He was from Argentina, and he assured me that the man’s views were not reflective of his people and his country, so I bit my lip, ignored him, and got back on the bus. Surprise, surprise! The dude turned out to be an equal opportunity abuser with a serious case of verbal diarrhea, because he went on to say unflattering things about people from Paraguay and Chile, too.

A few ensuing moments of lulling vehicular motion helped me to zone out the negativity of that “transplant” to the extent that I was able to get through the last hour of the tour. I’ll confess there was a certain amount of poetic justice to the fact that he had to drop me off last – the only black person on the bus –  at The Four Seasons.

Lesson #5: There may be individuals who actually feel they have the right to invade your personal space because they consider you intellectually or socially inferior. Stand your ground!

I will never forget the white Afrikaans woman who sat behind me and my mom on a South African Airways flight to Johannesburg. At four o’clock in the afternoon, she decided we had no right to have our window shutter open because she wanted, and was entitled to, a dark cabin to sleep. It didn’t matter that it was about 30 minutes after takeoff, nor that she had an eye-patch issued to her by the airline (like the rest of us), or that the price of her ticket was the same as ours – perks free.

Without any request or other form of conversation, she took it upon herself to reach across my Mom to slam the window shut, brushing her shoulder in the process. We could hear the accompanying harrumph punctuating the self-serving move.

Our jaws almost fell to the floor. Naturally, we were having none of that.

“I beg your pardon!” Mom turned around and said indignantly. My darling mother wasted no time pushing the shutter back up.

The crazy woman then started ranting about how we clearly didn’t know the protocol on international flights, which in her world meant you closed the windows right after takeoff, even if it was still daylight. Seriously, who needs to sleep for 15 hours straight? Of course, I didn’t feel it was important to list how many international flights we’d been on up to that point, but we shut her down nonetheless – in a manner that could never be misconstrued as ‘angry black woman’ mode.

Pretty soon, multiple flight attendants came running over to avert the brewing situation. At the same time, we started getting thumbs up signs and notes of encouragement passed down to us from neighboring passengers who were as outraged as we were at this woman’s pompousness.

She eventually simmered down when she realized no one was taking her side. It took her a little time to realize she wasn’t dealing with ignorant or submissive folk. I won’t bore you with all the details, except to say the incident resulted in me writing and submitting a formal report to the airline about her obnoxious behavior. Upon deplaning, the purser and flight crew met us at the door to apologize again, and to thank us for how well we had handled the situation.

Lesson #6: Don’t let fear of possible racial slurs or uncomfortable situations keep you from pursuing your desire to travel. To be forewarned is to be forearmed, and negative incidents are usually few and far between. First ensure your safety, then deal with whatever comes your way with grace and dignity.

In spite of the bad eggs in the bunch, my wanderlust hasn’t ceased, and my travel wish list just keeps growing. When taken by surprise, I always push myself to remember a quote from Nelson Mandela about his time of imprisonment. He said in part, “we would want it [Robben Island] to be a triumph of the human spirit against the forces of evil, a triumph of wisdom and largeness of spirit against small minds and pettiness. A triumph of courage and determination over human frailty and weakness.”

My country’s most famous icon, Bob Marley, also talked about emancipation and the fact that “none but ourselves can free our minds.” So, I say forward and onward in this generation, my fellow black travelers. And do it triumphantly!

Do you have any stories to share? What happened, and what did you learn from it?

Why I love traveling with my mom

Have you ever traveled with a parent as an adult? Some people say they don‘t enjoy themselves when they do, but my experience has been the total opposite.

I. Simply. Love. It!

This is how the chips fall with my folks. My Dad is a stay-close-to- home kind of guy, but once the destination forecast says clear skies and good weather, my Mom will have her bag, passport and swimsuit packed in a heartbeat. I know I may be totally biased here, but I think that ready-to-explore at the drop of a hat trait, especially as a senior, is utterly cool.

Easter Monday Beach Lime in Grand Cayman
Easter Monday Beach Lime in Grand Cayman

So here are all the reasons I love traveling with my Mom. [I invite you to share your stories about vacations with your parents at the end of this post.]

Mom ALWAYS has snacks on her. I don’t know how she does it or even when she stashes them in her handbag, but I am absolutely certain I can count on her to have a few save-me-from starvation treats just when I need them most.

She is very low maintenance. I never have to worry about any troubling mood swings, diva-like silences, or loud outbursts when we’re together.

Taking a brief time out in Bimini The Bahamas
Taking a moment to enjoy the calming sea breeze after a dusty and humid walk downtown in Bimini, The Bahamas

We enjoy the same things so planning day excursions is never a hassle. Cultural immersions? We’re both into them. Scenic drives? Oh, yes! Historic and educational tours? Let’s go.

Reading the fine print of the sign next to the four statues in Nobel Square in Cape Town, South Africa

We can read each other like a book so it’s easy to communicate without words, especially in large groups.

She can make friends with almost anybody, and she asks a ton of questions, so I always end up with more local insights when I travel with her.

Quizzing the tour guide on some finer detail of the oral history lesson. Pedro St James, Cayman Islands

For someone who makes no bones about using all her senior citizen privileges at banks and other places of business, she still has a joie de vivre and sense of adventure that is superior to most people 1/3rd her age! 

Camel ride in Egypt
Camel ride in Egypt

She is a ready-made roomie so I can forego paying additional dollars for the single supplement to have my own room on packaged group tours.

I never have to worry about getting all my souvenirs to fit into my luggage for the trip home. I must admit I’ve learned a trick or two over the years but my mom is still the best packer I know.

She’s not shy about taking goofy pictures. Oh, no. I just share my creative vision for a shot and she’ll gladly pose or go behind the camera to snap me.

Playful pictures with Statues in Key West
Grab their suitcase, Mom! [Playful pictures with Statues in Key West]
And finally, at the end of an exasperating or exhilarating day, her hugs are still FREE and they come with no strings attached.

Sunset shot at Table Mountain, South Africa
Sunset shot on top of Table Mountain, South Africa

Can you tell I just LOVE my momma?  I do!

Five reasons to visit Table Mountain in Cape Town

No visit to Cape Town is complete without a trip to the top of Table Mountain. From this famous landmark, which is 3,567 feet (1087 meters) above sea level, you truly experience what it feels like to be on top of the world.

Dramatic views all around
Dramatic views all around

Below, I’ve listed five reasons why I think you should add this attraction to your to-do list.

The climb

A huge part of any journey is the anticipation involved. Some people get anxious. Others, like me, are like high-spirited horses who chomp at the bits to gallop away.  I am a keen observer of people and those differences were apparent during the five-minute cable ride to the peak.

Cable ride
Cable ride

As we took that feet-tingling ride up the mountain, you could see the fear of heights in the eyes and body language of the some people in the 65-person-at-capacity cable car. In others, especially the palms-splayed-wide-on-the plexi-glass-kids, the overarching emotion was uninhibited delight.

Going up...and up...
Going up…and up…

The hike

If you are a true adrenaline junkie, you don’t have to take the cable car. Hiking and exploring at your own pace is the way to go. There are three trails to the top of the mountain and if you choose that option, you are encouraged to complete the hike in groups.

Fearless hiker
Fearless hiker

You can trek both ways, take the cable car up and hike down, or do it the opposite way. The truth is, even if you don’t plan to hike down you might have to.  I found out AFTER I visited that daily weather conditions determine if the cable car runs, so a return ticket doesn’t necessarily guarantee you a ride down on an extra windy day. Yikes!

The view

Words fail me when I try to describe the 360-degree view from the top of Table Mountain.

The view from the top
The view from the top

While the far-away outline of the city lies below you, there also are craggy cliffs and dramatic scenery that stretch out for miles on either side.

Craggy cliffs
Craggy cliffs

It’s stunning, jaw-dropping, breath-taking, AND awe-inspiring all at the same time; a physical onslaught to the senses.

Majestic mountain range
Majestic mountain range

The flora and fauna

As part of a World Heritage Site, Table Mountain has an abundance of flora and fauna that makes it a treat for the nature lover. Reported to have more than 1,400 different species of plants, one of the most vibrant and distinctive is the yellow Fynbos, which is Afrikaan for ‘delicate bush’.

The "delicate bush". Such a vibrant yellow!
The “delicate bush”. Such a vibrant yellow!

Find a hidden cubby hole or look over a rocky edge and you also could spot frogs, tortoises and different lizards in their natural habitat. If you’re lucky, you might even get to see a Tahr, an animal that closely resembles a goat.

The sunset

Last but by no means least, is the sunset.  You’ve heard the saying: a picture says a thousand words, right? In that case, let’s do this the easy way – I’ll share two thousand words with you right now.

Sunset
Sunset

Another angle
Another angle

Editor’s Note:

There is Sunset Special that runs from November 1 to December 19, and from January 8 until February 28. After 6pm, return tickets are half price.  The regular rate for an adult is R225 roundtrip and R115 one-way. Children aged four to 17 pay R11 one-way and R58 one-way.

Other things I suggest while in South Africa are:

An unforgettable visit to Robben Island

I follow a popular blogger who recently tweeted this travel tip: “You can’t understand the present if you don’t know the past. Read up on the destinations you are visiting.”

A section of the maximum security prison.
A section of the maximum security prison.

It’s a simple reminder that is extremely profound.

For that reason, I recommend that you read or listen to an audio version of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, “The Long Road to Freedom” if you intend to visit Robben Island when you are in Cape Town.

Will it be emotional? Yes.

Will it also be educational? Yes.

Will it add depth and texture to your experience? Oh, yes!

(For this post, I decided to share excerpts from Mr. Mandela’s recollections of Robben Island that will help to provide greater context to your visit. It enhanced mine.)

___________

AT MIDNIGHT, I was awake and staring at the ceiling–images from the trial were still rattling around in my head–when I heard steps coming down the hallway. I was locked in my own cell, away from the others. There was a knock at my door and I could see Colonel Aucamp’s face at the bars.

“Mandela,” he said in a husky whisper, “are you awake?”

I told him I was. “You are a lucky man,” he said. “We are taking you to a place where you will have your freedom. You will be able to move around; you’ll see the ocean and the sky, not just gray walls.

He intended no sarcasm, but I well knew that the place he was referring to would not afford me the freedom I longed for.

That is how Nelson Mandela described the night he was told he was being moved to Robben Island – the stark, cold place that robbed him, and others, of simple freedoms many of us take for granted.

On the bus tour, I found out that in its heyday the island was ‘the most iron-fisted outpost in the South African penal system.’ It also served as a leper colony, an animal quarantine station and a hospital before it became known as a place of banishment and terror for activists opposed to apartheid.

Leper Graveyard. Robben Island
Leper Graveyard. It shows that beautiful things can grow in even the most unfavorable conditions.

We landed on a military airstrip on one end of the island. It was a grim, overcast day, and when I stepped out of the plane, the cold winter wind whipped through our thin prison uniforms. We were met by guards with automatic weapons; the atmosphere was tense but quiet.

I was bundled up when I stepped off the ferry – in sweater and scarf with long jeans – and the brisk wind still gave me goose bumps. I can’t begin to imagine what Mr. Mandela and his colleagues must have felt when they landed that day and were stopped to be processed.

Prisoners arriving
Wall mural depicting the arrival of a batch of prisoners.

We were driven to the old jail, an isolated stone building, where we were ordered to strip while standing outside. One of the ritual indignities of prison life is that when you are transferred from one prison to another, the first thing that happens is that you change from the garb of the old prison to that of the new.

The prison was divided into two distinct areas.  There was the general prison, known as sections F and G, which contained communal cells, and a quadrangular shaped area with single cells known as sections A, B, and C. Those cells and a guard station bordered a courtyard.  Mr. Mandela was placed in cell 466 on Block B.  Each cell was outfitted with a bucket, a cup, one dish, and a blanket. There were no pajamas issued, and none of today’s basic prison necessities like bunk beds or sheets.

Communal cell that housed up to 60 inmates.
Communal cell that housed up to 60 inmates. The mat on the ground is an example of what they slept on before the bunk beds arrived.

Nelson Mandela's Cell.
Nelson Mandela’s Cell.

Apartheid’s regulations extended even to clothing. All of us, except Kathy, received short trousers, an insubstantial jersey, and a canvas jacket. Kathy, the one Indian among us, was given long trousers. Normally Africans would receive sandals made from car tires, but in this instance we were given shoes. Kathy, alone, received socks. Short trousers for Africans were meant to remind us that we were “boys.”

Our tour guide, a former political prisoner himself, explained that there was differential treatment for other things as well.  Meals, for example, varied for blacks and coloreds. (Only Africans and Indians were sentenced to spend their terms on Robben Island; women and Caucasians were sent elsewhere). Persons also were placed into one of four categories: A to D. Those in groups A and B were allowed four letters per month while the Cs and Ds only got one.

Segregated Meal Charts
Segregated Meal Charts

That first week we began the work that would occupy us for the next few months. Each morning, a load of stones about the size of volleyballs was dumped by the entrance to the courtyard. Using wheelbarrows, we moved the stones to the center of the yard. We were given either four-pound hammers or fourteen-pound hammers for the larger stones.

Our job was to crush the stones into gravel. We were divided into four rows, about a yard-and-a-half apart, and sat cross-legged on the ground. We were each given a thick rubber ring, made from tires, in which to place the stones. The ring was meant to catch flying chips of stone, but hardly ever did so. We wore makeshift wire masks to protect our eyes.

Picture that captured men working in the courtyard.
Picture that captured men working in the courtyard.

The guide told us that the task gradually advanced to eight hour days spent breaking stones in a limestone quarry. Prisoners were exposed to all elements of weather, and forced to work with the most primitive of tools under the supervision of 15 guards who had dogs.  Many ended up with permanent eye damage because of the harsh glare of the sun and the ever-present stone particles.

Symbolic pile of stones erected by a gathering of former political prisoners and friends to honor Mr. Mandela's release from prison, after 27 years behind bars.
Symbolic pile of stones erected by a gathering of former political prisoners and friends to honor Mr. Mandela’s release from prison, after 27 years behind bars.

On occasion, the men would relieve themselves in a small cave at the back of the quarry. It was the only place that they could escape the watchful eyes of the guards. We were told that they also carved out time to teach each other how to read and write in the dirt there.  It became known as their ‘prison university’ and ‘informal parliament’. I’ve since read that it is quite possible that a significant portion of South Africa’s current constitution was written in that cave.

The limestone quarry with small cave to the back.
The limestone quarry with small cave to the back.

Other noteworthy tidbits that I gleaned from the tour are listed below.

  • Wardens were replaced at regular intervals because some of them were swayed by the arguments
  • Prisoners in the communal cells slept on the floor and often huddled together for warmth on cold winter nights
  • Baths were allowed twice per week only; on Wednesdays and Sundays
  • Prisoners with blisters were not attended to by doctors yet they could not complain. They were forced to use every means possible, including the ammonia from their own urine, to try to achieve healing
  • Hot water and bunk beds in the communal area were not available until after increased pressure from the outside world
  • Today, only former inmates serve as guides for the prison segment of the tour

Given what you see and hear on the island, it would be easy to walk away from Robben Island a bitter, sad, or heavy-hearted individual. But thanks to Mandela’s unifying spirit, and the outlook of many of his fellow prisoners, you leave instead humbled and grateful for their sacrifice. The sign at the entrance and exit best sums up the legacy of Robben Island. It is pictured below.

A sign with a powerful message
A sign with a powerful message

Tata Mandela himself later expanded on that sentiment even more:

“While we will not forget the brutality of apartheid, we will not want Robben Island to be a monument of our hardship and suffering. We would want it to be a triumph of the human spirit against the forces of evil, a triumph of wisdom and largeness of spirit against small minds and pettiness. A triumph of courage and determination over human frailty and weakness.”

Statue of Nelson Mandela outside of the prison from which he was released.
Statue of Nelson Mandela outside of the prison from which he was released.

________

Editor’s Notes:

To get to Robben Island, you take a ferry from at the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront in Cape Town.  Look for the Nelson Mandela Gateway that houses a museum shop, a restaurant, and a multimedia exhibition.

The boats leave on the hour between 9am-3pm, and the journey can take anywhere between 30 minutes to an hour depending on the weather. When you arrive on the island, you are taken on a bus tour that passes by the Lepers’ Graveyard and the tiny house where another famous political inmate, Robert Sobukwe, lived in solitary confinement for several years.  He was the only prisoner who was allowed to smoke, and he died of lung cancer at the ripe old age of 54.

You also get to see two of the oldest buildings on the island; the Irish church built in 1841, and the lighthouse that was built 25 years later.  There is also a guest house where President Clinton and his wife stayed when they visited with Mr. Mandela in the late 90s.

Of course, there is also the obligatory gift shop. Allocate about three and half hours for the complete tour.

My South African Safari

Does music ever factor into your trips? I’ve found that it has an amazing ability to transcend language and cultural differences and connect people in a memorable way.  Plus, listening to my favorite songs at the end of an exhausting yet exhilarating excursion helps me to relax and reboot for the next day.

It’s also great to have access to earphones and a playlist-ready device when you’re on a long flight or a bus tour. Because at some point, you will need to drown out that annoying traveler who either talks too much or asks the most oddball questions.

Well, I didn’t take music on this trip but the mental soundtrack for my safari adventure included all the playful and infectious songs from the Lion King. I can sense that you don’t believe me. Read on.

Thornybush
Thornybush Nature Reserve, South Africa

As my bus driver navigated the bumpy dirt road from Hoedspruit airport to the lodge, I was silently humming and snapping my fingers to Hakuna Matata (click on link for audio). I’m being serious, for the duration of that ride, I also stole glances out the window and hoped for the real-life Pumba (warthog) and Timon (meercat) to appear. SA_PHOTO_BIG 1059

Later, when I met the enamored Texan honeymooners, Craig and Kristen, at our first bonfire dinner, it was the melodic strings from Can You Feel The Love Tonight that filled the air.

Keep rolling your eyes, there’s more.

The Stately Giraffe, Runway Model in the Animal Kingdom
The Stately Giraffe, Runway Model in the Animal Kingdom

During my first night ride, a leopard darted in front the jeep as she whisked her cub to safety across the dirt road. The driver pulled up; and every hair on my head and arms stood up. Why? At that point, yours truly was trying valiantly to drown out the menacing bush sounds with the soaring chorus of The Circle of Life.

The Elusive Leopard.
The Elusive Leopard.

No. I am not crazy. (Okay, okay…maybe I am just a little bit nuts )

I guess you’ve figured out by now that the Lion King is the reason that I agreed to a safari adventure when my sister decided to do something really different for her birthday. On an average day, I am quite possibly the most animal-averse person on the planet.

With several countries in Africa to choose from, initially it was a bit overwhelming to decide where to go. She knew that there was no way I was going to spend more than three days in the bush, so we had to find a location with other attractions to enjoy for the rest of our 10 day trip. After reviewing our options, Robben Island, and Cape Town sealed the deal for me, so we settled on South Africa. (I’ll share some of those highlights in another post.)

The Rooms at Waterbuck Game Lodge, with a balcony looking out to the wild
The Rooms at Waterbuck Game Lodge, with a balcony looking out to the wild

We opted to go to the Thornybush Nature Reserve, which is situated on private land adjacent to Krueger National Park. Everything at our hotel, the Waterbuck Lodge – fireplace, staff, and setting – was wonderful.

En suite bathroom with perfectly private views.
En suite bathroom with perfectly private views.

Our package included two game rides per day in an open Land Rover (at dawn and dusk); breakfast coffee and sundowner cocktail stops; delicious group meals; and cozy and intimate accommodations. The maximum number of lodge guests allowed at any one time is eight.

Another bonus to choosing the private game reserve option, is that our rangers were allowed to go into the bush to track the animals. Rangers in public reserves have to stick to the roadways. It was well worth the extra dollars because those spontaneous detours yielded many of our most memorable moments.

Rhinos on the run
Rhinos on the run

Imagine dodging flaying tree limbs as your driver and tracker pulled out machetes to hack away at minor obstacles. All in a bid to get the jeep into an area where vultures hovered over the remains of fresh kill!

Or picture being left unarmed and totally helpless in an open jeep while your guides got out of the vehicle to track the lions by their footprints. Those few minutes on our own felt like hours.

L-R: Loderick (Tracker) and Gareth (Ranger) tracking the lions
L-R: Loderick (Tracker) and Gareth (Ranger) tracking the lions

We also pulled over on the side of the road to allow rhinos to get to their watering hole, and got off the beaten track to see a testosterone led turf war. PRICELESS.

SA_PHOTO_BIG 1296
Testosterone fight.

Our ranger (Gareth) and tracker (Loderick) were excellent guides. Thanks to their bush savvy and persistence, we saw all of the Big 5: lions, elephants, rhinos, buffalos… and the elusive leopard. No safari can guarantee you will see everything, so we were lucky.

Over the three days, we saw a diverse number of wildlife as well. Animal sightings included giraffes; deer; zebras; antelope, and their sub-species: kudus and impalas; monkeys; baboons; wild boars; crocodiles; water bucks; hares; and civets, among others.

There were interesting species from the feathered family too.  I remember seeing a lilac breasted roller; guinea fowl; owls; grey heron; black bellied bustards; bald eagles; a blue reeve (female in the ruff family); and ducks.

The creepy crawlers weren’t left out either. We saw centipedes, large lizards, and a chameleon change from bright to dark green as Gareth plucked him from the side of the road and placed him in the grass. IMG_2694SA_PHOTO_BIG 1194

I will end by saying that the lions, the famed and feared kings of the jungle, were a bit of a let down. When we found the pride their bellies were full, so they were content and lethargic. It was a real-life case of The Lion Sleeps Tonight.

Sleepy lions
Sleepy lions

Queue the drums and bass guitar here, and join me as I attempt that lovable high-pitched solo:

A-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh) A-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh) In the jungle, the mighty jungle The lion sleeps tonight…  __________

Editor’s Notes: I visited South Africa in November 2012 when the weather was just starting to warm up. The peak of their winter is June/July. However, I have heard that for optimal visibility, the best time to plan a safari in South Africa is between May and October – their dry season.

I got my malaria tablets as a precaution, although I was told that you did not need to worry about it there – unlike in some other African destinations. I booked my trip through South African Airways Vacations and the package included domestic and international airfare, some meals, accommodation, game rides and Cape Town tours.

The beauty of any trip is that you can choose what suits your personality and pocket. Even if it means going on safari in a public park, and sleeping in a rest camp that houses tents, caravans, or forest huts – with or without private bathrooms. It’s still an adventure!

Look out for my posts on CapeTown soon.