Day 6: Hot Air Balloons and Monkeys

Another day, another South African adventure: this time high, high in the air. We were going on a hot air balloon ride!

We made the 45 minute drive to the hot air balloon field and by 5:30AM we had warm cups of coffee in our hands, several biscuits, and had a front row seat to the inflation of the balloons. This was a very fun process to watch, and took about 30 minutes. There is a LOT of air that goes into these balloons!

After everything was inflated, we got a brief safety briefing and we all jumped into the basket. The “jump” was actually more of a climb – these things don’t have doors! We scrambled over and got settled in for our 1.5 hour ride. We started by shooting straight up. I am extremely nervous about heights, so I was a bit nervous about this activity. However, I trust science, and LOVED it! I wasn’t scared a all! This was extremely weird for me – even when hiking I get terrified at the top. I frequently have trouble driving over bridges and get freaked in elevators. This was crazy! And the fact that I wasn’t horrified made me even more excited!

Or trip started in the middle of a valley, and us and one other balloon shot straight up to watch the sun rise over the mountains. Stunning.

We wandered over to the edge of the valley, and got so close to the tree tops that someone in our basket even picked some leaves off of one.

The silence and the view was just so stunning, it’s hard to explain.

We even saw giraffes in the wild! That was something I don’t think I’ll ever forget. Wild giraffes from a hot air balloon – wow.

We landed in a small valley over the mountains about 1.5 hours later, and I was so sad for this amazing experience to end. We were served lovely mimosas upon arrival as the balloon was deflated and packed up, and then headed back to the balloon field. We indulged in an amazing and delicious breakfast with a stunning view of the mountains now that the sun had rose.

All in all, this was by far one of the most amazing mornings of my life! It was quite a thing!

After dragging ourselves away from the breakfast buffet (always a challenge), we headed to our next destination – a monkey sanctuary! This facility adopts animals that are no longer wanted. Some were pets, move stars, trained pick pockets – you name it, these animals did it. There are about 200 animals in the facility, and they roam freely as you walk through. I got to hold one’s hand and I fell in love – she was awesome.

Another monkey was a bit more devious and managed to plop onto Teddy’s head a snag his glasses. This was extremely concerning as he has horrible eye site and had to drive us home! Ahh! After hoping that the monkey would drop them for a good ten minutes our guide called in a backup and that person bargained with the monkey to trade the glasses back for marshmallows. When Teddy (thankfully!) got his glasses back 20 minutes later they were completely mauled – bit marks all over the lenses, bent out of shape, but still wearable! Yay!

We held onto our belongs a bit more after that harrowing experience, but it was still awesome! I’m a big monkey lover, so it was extremely fun to see these guys running around everywhere. They were so cute and friendly, too. The work this facility is doing really is amazing, so it was great to support such a wonderful cause.

After a rather adventurous day we headed to a local brewery for a flight of South African beers before heading home. What a day!


Day 5: The Cradle of Humankind

Our morning started off bright and early, heading towards something we’d been very much looking forward to: a visit to the Cradle of Humankind. This world heritage site has been the location of some of the most impactful and astounding discoveries regarding the history of humans and their related species.

We stared at the Maropeng Visitors Centre, an excellent museum dedicated to the history of all human ancestors. It was perhaps the most entertaining museum we’ve been too – entering involved a literal water ride through caves including lights and sound effects! Very fun! We spent our time learning and exploring the exhibits. The breadth of discoveries made in the area is truly incredible.

When we made it to the back of the museum, we found the special exhibit sponsored by National Geographic featuring the Homo naledi. The discovery of the extinct species of hominid was announced just a few weeks before our trip, and is the most recently added member of the extended family of humans – it’s being called essentially a “cousin”. While exploring this exhibit, who walked in but the lead scientist of the exhibition, Lee Berger! We had the amazing opportunity to hear him discuss the research in more detail, and Teddy even asked him a few questions. So cool! We totally science-geeked out here.

After exploring the museum a bit more, and trying to get over our excitement of meeting Dr. Berger, we headed to our next stop: Sterkfontein Caves.

This system of caves is an active excavation site, and another component of the World Heritage Site of the Cradle of Humankind.

We took our time exploring the museum here, too (I think Teddy and I want to be archeologists in our next lives) before donning the ultimate in cool hear: hard hats and hair nets.

This style statement was well worth it – for the next two hours we scrambled through tiny crevices, wandered over underground lakes and saw tiny slivers of light streaming into massive underground caverns. We even got to see where archeologists were still working as they continue to find amazing specimens in this cave system.

We had an extremely fun tour here, and felt like the entire day was super educational and exciting. Win!

We headed to our next hotel, and after a quick trip to the grocery store to pick up provisions and some extremely inexpensive South African wine, we relaxed for the rest of the evening with a beautiful view of the mountains. We had an early wake up call the next day, but we were excited!