Days 9+10: Safari Part Two

Going on safari is incredibly relaxing. We followed the below schedule each day:

  • Wake up around 5:15AM, brush teeth and get dressed quickly.
  • Head to the main camp for coffee and biscuits at 5:30AM
  • Morning drive from 6-9AM
  • Enjoy a huge, 2 course (cold and hot) meal from 9-10:30 or whenever we’re done.
  • Head back to camp, shower, nap, relax or read, maybe explore camp a bit
  • 2:30 head back to the main camp for fresh juice and snacks
  • Afternoon drive from 3-6PM
  • Head to tent, freshen up
  • 7:30-10 enjoy an incredible, multicourse meal with wine and excellent company
  • 10PM head back to the tent to sleep

It really can’t get more relaxing. Camping, incredible animals and scenery, superb food and relaxation. The last two days of our safari were just as memorable as the first. Again I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

Going on safari is something I’ll never forget. We’re already trying to figure out our next safari adventure because it was truly one of the best experiences of our lives.

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Days 7+8: Safari Part One

SAFARI TIME! When planning a trip to South Africa, there was one thing on our minds: a safari. We ended up traveling with Outlook Safari’s, and can’t say enough incredible things about this company. They catered to our every desire, and we really loved our experience. They truly made it a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Our safari was four days: we flew in from Johannesburg on the first day, and headed to Cape Town on the last day. Since we saw so many cool things, I’ll break this into two parts.

Our quick flight from Johannesburg dropped us at Skukuza airport – very convenient since we were staying at Skukuza rest camp. This is a very family-friendly camp, and I’d recommend it for budget traveling. It’s easy to access and the game viewing is amazing.

Our guide picked us up, and even on the drive from the airport (10 minutes to camp) the wildlife spotting began.

Impalas! These guys are everywhere. After setting up shop in our tent (very cozy!) we headed out for an evening drive. About half of the drive was during daylight, and the other half was after the sun set. Almost immediately we started seeing animals. I’ll let the pictures do the talking from here – suffice it to say, the drives were incredible.

Seeing these animals in the wild was awe-inspiring. Our guides were incredibly knowledgeable and clearly had a love for this place and the animals. Every drive brought something new and incredible. It was amazing. We couldn’t wait for more.

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!

Day 4: A Cultural Village tour and some animals

We made the quick trip back to the Johannesburg airport to rent a car, and before we knew it we were off, driving on the wrong side of the road (again!). After a quick 1.5 hour drive (during which we were extremely glad to have a GPS) we made it to Lededi African Cultural Village.

This location is a tourist village which celebrates the cultures and traditions of seven different peoples in South Africa. As we had very little knowledge of the cultural traditions of the country before our trip, both Teddy and I were very much looking forward to exploring this more.

We were greeted by our guide, a member of the Zulu tribe, viewed a brief film about the history of South Africa, and were brought on a tour of the area. Each tribal area showcased traditional dwellings, languages, clothing, crafts and lifestyles. It was so interesting! I appreciated how open and willing everyone was to share their traditions. Though this is very much a “tourist” experience of the area, we loved getting a glimpse into a way of living that we’ve had very little exposure to.

After the tour we were treated to an amazing music and dance show. This was awesome! We loved seeing the traditional dress, instruments and dancing styles unique to each region. The host of the show also did an excellent job of explaining the purpose of each dance so we had a bit of background. Overall, we really enjoyed this experience!

 

For the remainder of the afternoon we explored the local area. A beautiful lake was about a 40 minute drive, so we headed in that direction. The landscape was absolutely beautiful, and very different from what we’re used to at home. It was so interesting to see people thatching roofs, selling fresh fruits, or walking to work. We really enjoyed being out of the city and experiencing a bit more of “authentic” South Africa.

We also stumbled upon an animal sanctuary! We had a fun time exploring and learning a bit more about animals indiginous to the region. They also had some “exotic” species, including a North American raccoon! We found this hilarious.

After a busy day, we headed back to the cultural village where we were staying the night. We loved being able to experiencing a Zulu hut from the inside! Though ours was certainly a tourist version of the traditional home, it was a very fun and unique experience.

Days 3+4: Johannesburg

When researching the best way to see lots of Johannesburg, we stumbled upon another travel favorite – the Hop On, Hop Off bus. This brings you directly to the most popular tourist destinations while providing interesting commentary in open top buses. We’ve done this in several other cites, so were pleased to see that Johannesburg recently started this bus. It was the perfect way to see lots of the city!

 

 

We started at the main train station, and headed through the city towards the Apartheid Museum. This museum was exceptionally interesting – we could have easily spent much more time there than we did. The amount and detail of the material was excellent, and there was an incredible temporary exhibit about Nelson Mandela. We learned a lot about the history of the country, the challenges it has faced since the Apartheid, and the changes it has seen in the very recent years.

After stopping for a quick snack, we jumped back onto the bus and enjoyed learning more about the city. We soon landed at our next stop, Constitution Hill. Formally the location of a horrible prison, this is now the location of South Africa’s equivalent of the US Supreme Count – the highest court of the land. Here we joined a tour of the area and learned about the extreme conditions in which the inmates were forced to exist. We then were able to tour the court and listened to a very interesting discussion about the state of the government in South Africa. Many of the members of our tour were actually from South Africa, so it was extremely interesting to hear their perspectives regarding the politics of the day, areas the country still has to improve, and how many changes have been implemented since the end of the Apartheid. We walked around the area and enjoyed lovely views of the city before heading back to the main train station, and eventually back to our hotel.

 

That evening, we went to a local Indian restaurant for a lovely meal before packing our things up. Another big day was in store.

Days 1+2: A Day in Paris…and two LONG flights

It’s vacation time! Teddy and I have been planning a two-week escape to celebrate the completion of a very large work-related project and have been very excited to get away from everything. We decided to travel in the fall to avoid summer crowds, but it’s certainly been difficult watching everyone take lovely beach vacations! Needless to say, we were thrilled to start the long journey to our final destination – South Africa!

 

When we booked our flights we realized that it would be able to fly direct due to the nature of our plans. Making lemonade out of lemons, we decided to have very long layovers – in Paris!

 

After leaving Boston on Friday night, we arrived in Paris on Saturday morning a bit tired, but thrilled to finally be on vacation! First stop: crepes. We found a vendor on the street and each downed a coffee and split a cheese and a nutella crepe. When in Paris!

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Our timing ended up being perfect for jumping onto the mid-morning Sandman’s walking tour! We’ve done these tours in several other cities that we’ve visited (Dublin, Munich, Amsterdam…we are basically walking tour groupies). It was an excellent way to see a lot of the city and get some great history. I’ve been to Paris a number of times before, but it was Teddy’s first time. I’m glad we were able to see so many of the highlights on such a short layover! Notre Dame, the Louvre, Tuilerie Gardens, Place de la Concord – the list was quite long. Our tour guide was great, and before we knew it we were finishing up near the Arc d’Triomphe. We decided to walk over to the Eiffel Tower and enjoy some snacks, since we were starting to get tired.

 

With our second wind we jumped onto a beautiful sunset boat ride down the seine. Next time I’d prefer to go with the classic Bateau Mouche, but we got a coupon for tickets through our walking tour and still got to see all the monuments along the river light up as the sun goes down. Doesn’t get more beautiful than that!

 

Finally, we made the long walk along the seine from the Eiffel Tower over to Notre Dame to jump back on the train to the airport.

 

After another 11 hour flight and extensive lines at customs, we made it to Johannesburg, South Africa! We had arranged a cab from our hotel to pick us up, and I’m glad we did – the airport was super chaotic and our hotel was in the suburbs. We ended up checking into our hotel a bit early and headed out to explore the area. Time for a third wind!

We headed towards the Johannesburg Botanical Gardens. This was a long walk, and we were tired (might I just point out that by this point we had slept on a plane two nights in a row – i.e. we were running on fumes). The garden was more like a public park and it was pleasant, but we had a difficult time enjoying it. At this point I could barely keep my eyes open. We decided to take the “short way” back to the hotel – famous last words. What can only be described as a forced march on my part ended up being an exceptionally long, uphill walk in the African heat. Not fun.

 

On the bright side, we finally made it back into town and headed to a local café for a lovely meal – Teddy had an ostrich burger! I inhaled a veggie burger and we crashed in bed by 6pm. I don’t even think it was dark yet! Oh well. Bed = good.