The planet is getting smaller for me and a tad more pricey to travel. I had my heart set on going to South Africa and Victoria Falls in 2014. So sometime back in 2013, I was doing my traditional research into who’s going to offer the best tour and at the best price (because, I have no money and am close to selling a kidney). Looking at the various tour companies we have used in the past, we settled on Smartours South Africa & Victoria Falls extension for 17 days. The whole thing was just over $4200 including airfare from New York, bus, tour guide, fabulous hotels, all breakfasts, some lunches and dinners and entrance to most attractions on the tour. My friend Beverly and I put down the $300 deposit and were jumping up and down in my office for joy at the thought of our upcoming trip. Then Mariela and Tony jumped on board. Finally, Big Shawn joined the team as a fifth wheel (fifth and sixth if you count his 6’7”, 280 lb. frame). Naturally, just after we locked it down, Beverly’s landlord decided to sell her condo that she had been renting. She had no choice but to do the financially smart thing and buy her condo which meant backing out of the trip. We were sad but completely understood. I promised to tag her on the butt of every animal we came across to her amusement.
So now that the trip is reserved, I start sending emails to the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge that we will be staying at during our extension requesting information about swimming in the Devil’s Pool. I’d seen a picture of it online and immediately knew I had to do it! Colette with the Safari Lodge replied back with the prices and informed us that we had to get a Yellow Fever vaccination because we were crossing into Zambia and it’s a prerequisite if we want to come back across the border into Zimbabwe. I start calling around to health departments and doctor’s offices and no one has the vaccine on the shelf because it only keeps for about 4 days. We end up going to Passport Health Services in Tampa to get the shot and pay $195.00 per person! This cost more than the actual excursion to Devil’s Pool for the record. We all get our shots, everything is great! Or not. . . Tiny (Shawn’s nickname I provided him) has a bad reaction to the shot and ends up with chills and a rash and generally feeling like crap one week before the trip. Thankfully, he recovered and no one else had any problems. Other than the fact that there was an Ebola outbreak in WEST AFRICA (over 3,000 miles away) and everyone told me that they would hug me goodbye but wouldn’t touch me when I returned. Thanks guys! Never mind that they flew the Americans home to USA and found a cure for it. Everyone expected me to cancel my trip and hide under my bed which you know is not my style.
August 17, 2014 – Shawn and I fly on Jet Blue to New York and grab our rooms at the hotel. Tony and Mariela came on another flight and were already checked into their room. We stayed at the Lexington Hotel right by Jamaica Van Wyke subway stop for convenience and it had some decent ratings on Hotels.com. Walking in, I was nervous because it looked like they were shooting a rap/porn video in the lobby. Shawn, who’s head is on a permanent swivel and I say that his safari started when we landed in NYC, enjoyed the scenery. The hotel turned out to be great though. We dumped our luggage and headed to Grand Central Station to grab a train to Pleasantville where Tony’s sister JoAnne lives. When we hopped off the train, there are no taxis in Pleasantville and the one car to hire was obviously busy. No worries! We walked to JoAnne’s house which was less than a mile. Pretty houses along this surreal street in a very small town. We ended up having dinner delivered from an Italian place down the way and the eating begins… After stuffing ourselves and harassing JoAnne, we call for a car to return us to the train station. A guy shows up in an old Honda Accord and the front passenger seat is broken. He takes one look at Shawn and starts throwing his stuff from the front seat into the trunk and figuring out how to load us. Back to the station, back on the subway to the hotel and this lovely little girl starts singing at the top of her lungs (incorrectly), “this girl is walking on fire!!!!!” It went on for about 15 minutes and Shawn made a video of it just in case any of us managed to get it out of our heads. The mom was just sitting quietly while her six year old daughter pole danced on the subway screaming out the song for us. The mom said she was a rapper and trying to tire out her daughter. Thanks for making us suffer!
August 18, 2014 – Up in time to grab the included “eh” breakfast and take the train into the city to the 9/11 Memorial and the new One World Trade Center. The Freedom Tower is gorgeous and there was some other construction going on around it but the city is bustling as always. After taking pictures from every angle we headed toward the two memorial pools that are placed at the footprint where the foundation for the two towers stood originally. The pools have all the names of those who perished and they have an interactive map so if you wanted to look up someone’s name, it would give you the coordinates to find them. I typed in Helene just out of curiosity and found Karen Helene Schmidt. It showed her picture, where she was born and when, where she lived and who she worked for. I looked at the coordinates and then headed toward the South Pool. I found her name inscribed and it was a very surreal moment putting a name with a face and feeling like you met them.
We left there and proceeded to walk around Manhattan and I realized my travel wedges were starting to come apart! I found a shoe store and ran in for a quick repair. After the little man came back with the shoes all patched up and brand new, he says, “We need to try these out to make sure they are okay.” He takes my hand and we start dancing salsa with turns, spins and dips to the other patrons amusement. Mariela was snapping photos the whole time trying to catch me in a dip. Satisfied with his work (and my following ability), I paid the man and off we went into the city again. Shawn wanted to hit the Apple Store which was a zoo. I just walked around and kept loading different stories from my travel blog (travelkiddo.wordpress.com) on all the computers. We ended up meeting my friends Anusha and Sudeip (I met them in Easter Island) and my friend Sandra and her boyfriend at a Flamenco Tapas restaurant called Sala One Nine. It was great catching up and enjoying good food and sangria and dancing. I was determined to go to a rooftop bar in NYC to see the skyline. My friends told us to go to PhD at the top of the Dream Hotel. Get to the 12th floor and it’s a beautiful nighttime view of the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building and the rest of the city in between. We had very expensive drinks but worth the price for the view. Tired and wanting to get a good night sleep before the agonizing 16 hour flight to Johannesburg the next day, we headed for the subway and back to the hotel.
August 19, 2014 – Luggage ready, ate breakfast, taxi here, ready for the airport. Where’s Shawn? Every time the elevator opened, we would glance and it wouldn’t be him. Finally he showed up and we loaded into the taxi for JFK. (In Shawn’s defense, he’s not a morning person. For the 19 days with us, he never slept passed 7:00 am.) At the airport, Shawn checked in and then I checked in and along the way, we would see the ones with the orange Smartours luggage tags. Then I hear someone calling my name and I look and it’s Tony. He’s not happy. They just informed him that they both need 4 blank visa pages before they can let them on the plane. They can get on but they will turn them around and send them back on the next flight. They had blank amendment pages in the back of the passport but didn’t realize those can’t be used according to South African Airways. We call Smartours and they tell him to go to the city and get additional pages and they will put him and Mariela on the next day’s flight so they will only miss one day. So bummed! It was strange leaving my travel partners.
Shawn and I headed for the gate and boarded the plane. We verified that he had an aisle seat and I had the window but I was afraid of the 16 hour flight and what it would do to him. He was a trooper the whole way shoe horning himself into every seat and smacking his head on everything he came across. Luckily for him, when he gets to the back of the plane where our seats are, there is a row two from the back that is missing a seat in front of it so he talks the attendant into letting him sit there and stretch out his legs, threw his sweatshirt over his head and went to sleep. I woke him up in time to have dinner. He came to sit with me for dinner and that was fun. The tray table couldn’t even sit flat because of his legs but he made it work and we ate dinner together. Back he went to his stretched out seat and I started chatting with Katia and Jake from Montreal who are on our tour for the first 14 days. Jake is 14 and his grandmother, Katia, took him on this trip for his Bar mitzvah. Then the Duty Free cart comes around and Katia buys a pretty bracelet. I see that they have a pendant of Africa with three giraffes cut into it and small diamond chip. I thought about all the times I didn’t buy something because I thought I could find something better or cheaper elsewhere and went home disappointed. So I say to the attendant, “Today I turned 45 years old. I’m going to buy this for myself!” She gets the necklace for me and I put it on and then she hands me a bottle of Champagne wishing me a wonderful trip from South African Airways! Yeah!!!! Free booze!
August 20, 2014 – Two movies, one Xanax, four hours of sleep, one dinner and a breakfast, we arrive in Johannesburg, South Africa. I had managed to eat junk food on the plane so I was feeling funky. I actually had to use the airsick bag as we landed. Nothing like looking out the window, taking pictures of Johannesburg as we land and tossing your cookies in a bag. Finally get off the plane, get our luggage, go through customs and they have the NERVE to stamp the last page in Shawn’s passport! I kept thinking that Tony would have been so mad if he knew. Recheck the bags, go get some SAR or South African Rand (10 to 1 pretty much so adding was easy) and then head for the flight to Cape Town. We met a flight attendant named Marsha on the shuttle bus that takes you to the plane who just came from vacation in Germany and was heading back to work. Shawn is his own circus act because he’s tall and funny and okay looking I suppose (my friends said he looks like Gerard Butler – don’t tell him that or his head won’t fit through the door). He was like my brother on this trip and made me laugh the whole time. Marsha found him amusing and that’s how the conversation started. She asked if we were a couple and I said “NO” quickly. Shawn says, “Honey, this will never work if you keep denying us!” Isn’t he funny? And then he would check out the girl next to us from top to bottom in such an obvious way that she should have slapped him.
Once we arrive in Cape Town, we get our luggage and head for the bus. We met our guide, Ron McGregor and he started the “herding of cats” getting us all together and organized. Stefan, our rugby playing bus driver was hilarious and had no end to the jokes he would whisper to us as we walked by. We get on the bus and start checking out the tour group. Every tour group has it’s “special people”. This one was no exception. We had people from Canada, Florida, New York, Austin, and Los Angeles. Many retired folks thanks to the fact that most Americans can’t take vacation for three weeks. We immediately spotted Miriam. She’s a single lady from New York and wore a blue and white headband the whole trip. We knick named her Karate Kid because of the headband and her spunk. She was traveling with Linda, a Jewish woman whose accent and mannerisms reminds you of Sofia from Golden Girls. There was the Taiwanese group who were the nicest people but had to be at the front of everything and we laughed because the ladies and I would always pass each other in every bathroom along the way. Same nervous bladders. I joke that I am on a tour of toilets when I travel. We loved Frank and David from New York, Selma and Jeri from New York, Elizabeth and Suzanne from Trinidad, Tom and Helen from Austin and of course Katia and her grandson Jake who was almost as tall as Shawn at 14 and followed him around like a younger brother. Tom would linger behind us and between Ron’s commentary on the tour, he would throw out these zingers and sexual innuendos. You had to laugh. His wife Helen found him amusing and they were a great couple. Every time he would call his wife (Helen), I would shout, “It’s Helene!”
We get to the hotel in Cape Town and it’s about 4:00 pm. Shawn and I find our rooms and check in (they are lovely and Shawn finds out that even though the price was cheap, the rooms are not! We either had a view of the waterfront or Table Mountain from the 15th floor.) The only problem was of all the electric plug attachments I brought, not one of them fit the South African wall socket. I got an adapter from the front desk but when I plugged in my power strip that I brought, I took out the power to the whole room. Oopsie. Shawn found the main breaker for the room and reset it and I kept blowing it until I just threw the power strip away and borrowed more adapters to charge everything. We hit the bar and start joking with the bartenders. They keep asking me why I won’t date Shawn. Then Shawn asks if they have Tinder in South Africa which makes them both laugh. We had read in the paper how Tinder had become popular in South Africa. Basically it’s an app that shows who of the opposite sex is around and within how many miles and their photo – I call it the “hook up app”. I started drinking Pinotage on the plane and loved it. So thankful that South Africa has decent local wines. I suffered so in China and India. We went to the little store across the street to get water and by the time we came out, everything was closed. It was 6:00 pm. Most people that work in Cape Town live outside the city so at 6:00, they all literally run for the train/bus and head home to their families. I like the concept but it was just odd seeing a major city shut down like that in the downtown district. We were too tired to head to the V&A Waterfront that night and wanted to wait for Mariela and Tony anyway. There was a welcome dinner that was included and that’s where the buffet and my expanding waistline started. Everyone introduced themselves and where they were from and it looked like it would be a fun group. We were hoping that Mariela and Tony had their passport sorted and were on the plane heading to South Africa. We actually were able to Skype with them while they were sitting on the plane ready to take off out of New York so that was a relief!
August 21, 2014 – Got to bed at a decent hour from exhaustion and popped up early to get breakfast and be on the bus by 7:30 am. For the next 17 days, this was how our day started: “Shawn, come on! You will miss breakfast!” “Shawn, we have to get on the bus! We are going to be the last ones again!” I nick named him Snuffelupagus from Sesame Street. The elephant that moves super slowly. Due to the fog covering Table Mountain, Ron, the guide, decided to change up the tour a bit which was great because that means that Tony and Mariela would be able to go. We went to the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens which were beautiful. Lots of flowers and greenery. Ron would point out the plants that were native to South Africa. Ron says, “Look around you! There are NO trees in South Africa!” and of course there were trees everywhere. He says, “Wait a minute! Oh, that’s right, White-y likes to plant trees!” So basically, when the white man arrived, they brought trees from their native land and they have covered the land with them. He also showed us the Acacia Tree and said that this tree is the one that giraffes love. The giraffe comes upon the tree and starts stripping the tree of its tasty leaves. When it gets to the second tree, it doesn’t taste as good. By the time it’s to the third tree, it tastes terrible! It’s because the Acacia Tree when its being attacked (leaves eaten), it starts emitting a toxin to defend itself that actually spreads through the air and roots to other trees to warn them. Amazing! We finished walking through the gardens and I hit the bathroom and the gift shop. I collect wine toppers and the first thing I see when I walk in the shop is a set of five wine toppers of the Big Five animals in Africa. I laughed thinking I can completely relax now and not have to shop for the rest of the trip but every day I found another wine cork at another stop along our tour until I came home with about 25 of them. Hi, my name is Helene and I have a wine topper addiction.
We did a small city tour of Cape Town and ended up at the South African Jewish Museum. Obviously because of Apartheid and the Nazi’s, South Africans and the Jews had much in common. Both were ostracized by ridiculously stupid white people. Ron told a story about when the Apartheid laws were put in place, they didn’t count on the fact that the large business they were doing with Japan would be affected. The Japanese were not allowed to stay in the White hotels, eat in the White restaurants, or live in the White neighborhoods. When the White South Africans realized this, they actually nominated the Japanese as “Honorary White People”! Then the Chinese said, “These stupid white people are so dumb that they do not know the difference between Japanese and Chinese.” So the Chinese would get all dressed up and head out to dinner at a White restaurant and all the people would whisper, “Hey, those must be the Japanese investors!” When that worked, the Chinese bought houses in the White neighborhoods. White-y never knew better. Superior? I think not. After touring the Jewish Museum, we also went through the Holocaust Museum, which is always very hard for me – too emotional.
Shawn and I signed up for a Cultural Tour of Khayelitsha. The migrant workers that were brought in to work for the city were made to live in barracks outside of the city. When they had saved up enough money, they would put Shanty houses together and bring their families in from the outlaying bush regions to be together. Our guide kept saying “Don’t feel sorry for the Shanty dwellers! They were happy to have employment and most importantly, their family together!” Mind you, they lived in mud huts out in the bush so the Shanty was an improvement. We drove through District 6 which the white man decided to force out the blacks (indigenous Africans) and colored people (Chinese, Indian, mixed, etc.) and they wanted this prime real estate for themselves. Well, businessmen who know that those people are customers too refused to build on that property out of embarrassment and economical reasoning so the land was vacant for years. One man used to come back to the steps that once belonged to his house and sit every day even though his house had been bulldozed down. Then they took us to the Philani Woman and Children Nutritional Development Center. Basically, these woman are grandmothers who have inherited their grandchildren because of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and losing their children. They learn to weave and paint t-shirts and other crafts that they sell and get 50% of the profit. I found a purple, pink and black throw rug that I wanted. They found the woman who made it and we took a photo together and I thanked her for her work. The ladies in the t-shirt painting room started singing a song while they worked and were dancing and it turned into a real party! Of course, everyone one of the small ladies wanted a photo with Shawn.
Last stop on the tour was to the Intlanganiso Secondary School where a choir of school kids sang for us. These kids made a CD and were invited to Germany to a college to perform in October. Many of them have only seen the planes flying overhead let alone had a passport, been inside the airport, or gone anywhere outside of their neighborhood. I was so excited for them that as we left, I hugged each of them and told them to have the best time ever. We all donated money for their trip and it just makes you realize how well we have it most times. Housing, color of our skin, access to jobs, malls, clothes, shoes, travel. Trips like this help you to never take anything for granted. (Of course, I was embarrassed to be white so I started telling people that I was colored.)
Back to the hotel and Mama and Papa are there!!! We ordered drinks and ran to their room to welcome them. They had jet lag like we did but were ready to catch up. The day Shawn and I left for South Africa, they turned around and re-checked into the Lexington Hotel and went straight to the city to the Passport Office. Both passports were set to expire in 2016 so instead of paying $100 for extra pages to be added, they just paid $150 for new passports with additional pages so this never happens again. They said the Passport Office had tons of people in line for the same reason. But now they are here, we caught them up on what they missed that day which they were okay with and then took the shuttle to the V&A Waterfront. They have a massive mall there and five minutes in the building and I bought a silver charm bracelet with a lion charm and a giraffe charm. Then we headed to Baia for dinner. Sat outside on a patio that was enclosed (it was cool at night) and the server was cute and had us laughing. He was panicked that we didn’t order our main course because it would take a while. I told him, “We aren’t THOSE Americans who want their food in 45 minutes or less. We want to just relax. The relief on his face told us that he’s FAMILIAR with those Americans. We started with some shrimp and escargot appetizers and then I had the curried crawfish that were huge and tasty. Shawn had the game trio which was Ostrich, Kudu (like a large buck) and Springbok (like a small deer). We all sampled each other’s food and it was so good! We were able to sample their Amarillo which is the South African liquor and it was delicious. Full and tired, we head back in the shuttle to the hotel and crash.
August 22, 2014 – Up at it early, we are heading to the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic Ocean. My “big brother” Wendell Hepson made me promise that I wouldn’t do a Shark Tank Dive after everyone watched Shark Week and saw “Submarine” who is supposed to be a 38 foot great white shark that eats small boats and people in them. Well, the spotting of Submarine was in Hout Bay and we noticed there wasn’t anyone swimming at all as we passed through and stopped at an overlook to take pictures. We get to the Cape of Good Hope and there is a sign with the longitude/latitude markings and I want a picture before it gets crowded. As I run up to get behind the sign, Karate Kid says, “You should do that as we leave because we don’t have a lot of time.” I replied, “Well, I’d rather do it when no one is here so I don’t miss my chance.” She insists that I wait until after. I immediately felt like my parent was on this trip. Annoyed I shrugged it off and up the hill we all climbed, including Karate who was not having a good time of it. She had her headband on her head and a cloth bag hanging off her shoulder trying to climb the rock made stairway to the top. Shawn offered to help her and we all lent a hand. At the top we found an ostrich hanging off the side of the cliff and a beautiful shot of the ocean point. We were taking pictures and some of us wanted to climb up higher but Karate said, “We need to start heading back.” Knowing she would need help, I agreed and we started down. When I looked back, Tony, Mariela and Shawn were climbing higher (thanks Shawn!). Back to the bottom, Karate was sweating pretty good and so was I nervous she might fall but she hung in there and earned her name. Naturally there is a queue to get a photo with the sign. (Not happy). I love the Chinese but they don’t think twice about just stepping into your photo and then they all take turns handing the camera off to each other and stepping into your photo. There was a teacher named Cheryl on our trip who was a real free spirited, curly long blonde hair, fun accounting teacher. People were trying to get pictures and she decides to just stand on the side of the sign to get her picture instead of waiting so she’s in half of the others photos. I made them all move and took my picture happily and we loaded back on the bus.
Off to the Cape Point lookout. We took a funicular to the top where there is a lighthouse and the scenery was breathtaking. We loved the “Don’t Feed the Baboons” signs everywhere. They actually had to engineer a trashcan with locking lid to keep the baboons out except the only problem was the humans couldn’t figure it out but the baboons did. I picked up more wine corks (ridiculous) and Tony bought a beautifully decorated Ostrich egg (which was twice what they were charging everywhere else). We ended up at Boulders Beach for a lovely lunch and I was able to go stick my feet in the water and collect my sand for my collection. Someone spotted whales off in the distance. Shawn swears they were just rocks. I was hoping they weren’t referring to me after day two of Buffet Eating. After a beautiful fish lunch we made a short walk to the Boulders African Penguin Reserve. They were so cute and everywhere. I had to laugh in the gift shop when we asked what the staff thought of them and the woman rolled her eyes and said, “They are so noisy that they keep you up all night with their squawking!”
Finally we head to Table Mountain and there is a little bit of cloud hooked on the edge of the mountain like a beard. We took the funicular to the top and it was soupy. We walked around and kept seeing signs about the Dassie which is an animal on this mountain that looks like a giant hamster. After walking more away from the entrance we started seeing these guys everywhere. We took pictures of them thinking they were so elusive and by the time we were leaving, it was like, “Uh, another Dassie…” A lot of cool birds were at the top and we snapped pics of them, grabbed a hot chocolate and the clouds cleared just enough for us to grab some shots of Cape Town down below. Seen enough and decided to take the funicular down. As we exited the funicular vestibule, Mariela decides to stop and take a photo of the funicular car. I walked into the gift shop and the automatic door closed right behind me locking her in the vestibule. She couldn’t open it and we just laughed and took pictures of her in her prison. Tony tells the clerk, “Hey, my wife is stuck in the funicular!” Turns out, if she backed up just a bit, a sensor goes off and opens the doors. We enjoyed it. We loaded back on the bus and they took us through this colorful Indian neighborhood called Bo Kaap where all of the houses were painted pretty bright pastel colors and then back to the hotel. We took the shuttle back down to the waterfront and ate at an outside waterfront restaurant called Tasca. It was Portuguese but it was a typical touristy restaurant. Atmosphere and location were fabulous but the food was less than and they had heaters spread out to warm the customers but if that didn’t work, they brought us blankets to wrap ourselves in. We had some nice entertainment from these men who sang African songs for us and Tony bought their CD. Mostly because some jerk behind us wanted them to leave and was calling the manager so we wanted them to know that we enjoyed it. Some people will never be happy in life.
August 23, 2014 – We signed up for the optional excursion to Stellenbosch Wine Country. Ron made it very, very clear that this WAS NOT a wine tour. He said it was a tour to the beautiful countryside where they grow the wine and that it would include a wine tasting but was more than that. Nothing was stopping me from drinking all day anyways and I wanted to see more country. The town of Stellenbosch was a lovely unexpected college town. We drove through the mountains and hills to the countryside and found this quaint little town and were able to walk through the main streets to shop. We had just gotten off the bus and Ron was going through details of how this town was founded. I look over and Karate is squirming and her face is pinched and after watching her for a few minutes, I whispered, “Are you okay?” and she replied that she had to go to the bathroom really bad. She looked like a four year old trying to hold it poor thing. When Ron was done, she shot off to the bathroom and we headed for Church Street to do some shopping. Everyone mentioned that you need a hat for the hot sun in Africa (Ron says that they are located right underneath the hole in the ozone). Shawn came with his safari hat that he paid an arm and a leg for (along with his mosquito repellent clothing – he looked straight out of Adventurer’s Monthly). Strolling through the shops, I find a bright red safari hat with the chin string to keep it from flying off and talked him down to 100 SAR or $10 USD. Selma, one of the lovely ladies on our trip says that if I find another red one, I need to get her one. Her and Jeri were fun to have on our tour. They always had something funny to say. Ron had labeled them “bad walkers” so they could get to the front of lines and not have to stand long or walk far. Jeri brought her own cane/seat with her and when we stopped, she would pop the seat out and sit down. Nothing was slowing her down. Shawn and Jake were great about helping them on and off the bus and snapping pictures for them. Jeri heard me talking about being single and loving it and whispered to me, “You know Helene, I’ve been married five times, lost four to death, one to divorce and currently have a boyfriend. I love that you are single and enjoying yourself! You are a smart girl!” And we were attached forever after that. Jeri was also taking pictures with her iPhone and one of the African kids said, “You are too old to know how to use a cellphone.” And she replied, “I guess not! I’m using it, aren’t I?” and she would snap another great picture. Love them.
We stopped for a hot chocolate in this restaurant called Helena’s. Just before we walked in I asked Shawn to take my photo with my restaurant and there was a cool lady standing on the sidewalk with these fabulous shoes on and she says, “That’s my name too!” Needless to say, her and I had to get a photo together. After a quick snack, Shawn smacking his head on another doorway and a bit more shopping, we ended up taking the bus to this winery called Boshendal and Ron showed us the main house and how it was only one room but then how they expanded it until it’s the house we see today. The wines were lovely but I learned a long time ago not to try to schlep wines from other countries. (I brought seven bottles from Santorini, Greece only to find I could find it locally at Acropolis Restaurant in St. Petersburg, Florida.) Most times you can find something in your local wine store very similar. If not, you can go online and order wine from the place you visited and have it shipped. After the wine plantation tour and tasting, we stopped at the statue of Nelson Mandela that marks the entrance to the Drakenstein Correctional Center, formerly known as the Victor Verster Prison, where Mandela spent the last three years of his incarceration after being moved from Robben Island. Once back to the hotel, we shuttled back to the V&A Waterfront for a late lunch/early dinner and had ribs and burgers at a place I can only call a Wild West Chuckie Cheese. Every 20 minutes, they would pipe the “Happy Birthday” song through the restaurant and there was a game room for the kids and it was just odd but the food was good. Did some walking through the mall and Shawn picked up some binoculars that he found paid for themselves quickly. Then we headed back to the hotel to pack and be ready for a 4:30 am wake up call. Blah!
August 24, 2014 – Headed to the lobby with bags at 5:15 am to a bunch of other sleepy folks. They had coffee, juice and some pastries for us since the dining room was not open yet. Loaded on the bus and headed to Cape Town airport for our 7:30 am flight to Johannesburg and then our connecting flight to Durban. Only negative side of the transportation on the trip since there was a direct flight to Durban arriving the same time but Smartours already had a deal through JoBurg. We get on the plane and Jeri is sitting in Shawn’s aisle seat because she’s traveling with Selma. I had the other aisle seat but moved over one seat to give Shawn the aisle seat and Mariela and Tony were behind us. Poor Karate had requested a kosher meal and the airline brought her fruit which she explained later would go right through her so she couldn’t eat it which meant she couldn’t take her medicine, etc. It was only an hour flight but she wasn’t having it. She stormed up to the front cabin and gave them what for and came back and was bouncing madly in her seat which kept smacking Shawn’s knees. Of course, when we told her he was behind her and barely fit without her moving, she felt bad. As soon as we landed, off she went to put in a written complaint to South African Airways. She was not happy.
Finally in Durban, we pick up our bus that we would have for the rest of the trip in South Africa. We head immediately to the beach on the Indian Ocean in Durban. The sand was soft and tan and I managed to snatch up a bottle of it for my collection. Ron had warned us that the waves were deceiving and regardless if we get wet or not, there would be no going in the belly of the bus to get our luggage to change. Whatever! I’m a beach bunny. I know waves! The four of us go racing out to take pictures by the water and one by one we all get soaked unexpectedly when a wave comes crashing in farther than we thought. Wet with sand everywhere from our waist down, Ron just shakes his head. Tony had to dry off his camera. Mariela’s pants were wet and so were Tony’s jeans. Shawn’s running pants were wet. I had yoga pants on and they were soaked. Oh well, we kept walking and playing on the beach. There were squid washed up on the beach and when I picked one up, it was still alive and I could feel it moving. Tried to throw it back but it kept washing up. Tony said I was lucky I didn’t get inked. Back on the bus, I go to the back where we sat most of the trip and grabbed my carry on with a pair or dry pants inside and had them stand guard for me while I yanked off the wet pants and put on the dry ones.
We drove to the Bushlands to the Emdoneni Lodge where we would stay for the next two nights. The little bungalows were decorated so nice and they even provided bug repellant lotion, which just freaked Shawn out all the more. He had already brought long sleeve pants and shirts that had repellent built in and was putting bug spray on every night on his neck, hands and feet and had even brought blue painters tape to tape up the bottom of his pants so no mosquitos could get up inside his clothes. Paranoid? Slightly. Others on the trip were taking Malaria tablets even though our doctors and the tour guides told us we didn’t need it since it is Winter in August/September! We load up with bug spray and head off to the dining room for our included buffet dinner. The food was great all along the trip. We loved the Boboti, a Malay dish which is like meatloaf with raisins and with baked egg on top, and is often served with rice and chutney and of course the sausage made from kudu or springbok. I continued to eat too much every day. We would just buy the entire bottle of wine wherever we went for cost and convenience. As I’m ordering my bottle at the lodge bar, I hear a familiar song and realize it’s the African version of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”. I asked the bartender if they ever get sick of that song and he said no which was good because I love that song and it was my dad’s favorite song and I proceeded to sing along which made the bartender laugh. After dinner, a group of us sat outside where they made a fire and we had drinks and chatted and watched as Trevor, the lodge housecat would walk by, fall on his back and wait for you to pet him out of obligation.
August 25, 2014 – No wakeup call! What! Seriously? Well, I set my own because I wanted to enjoy a calm breakfast without rushing my food down and ending up with esophageal spasms like the past four mornings. That and at 9:00 am, we paid $16 USD to do a “Cat Walk”. Wasn’t sure what to expect but why not. Pieter met us and had us rub some sanitizer on our hands before letting us into the compound. They only let you go in when the cats are just waking up or later in the day when they are tired/hot. We see African Wild Cats which look harmless but aren’t and they are disappearing. We also saw the Caracal which is one bad kitty! They had to put it behind two different fences because it managed to jump the one fence and killed 50 of the neighboring farmers sheep in 30 minutes. It’s got the best ears though with these long hairs that look like feathers hanging off of them. Looks sweet but Pieter said it would disembowel you with its back claws in 10 seconds. Then we walked to the Cheetah section. This was what I was looking forward to. When we go in, Pieter tells everyone that they should only approach the cheetah from the back, if it looks at you, look away and most importantly, don’t smile or show your teeth because that’s an aggression. Lastly, don’t run because unless you can get to the gate in 4.5 seconds, you won’t make it. Everyone lines up and Pieter lets Juba, the male cheetah smell his hand and then he pets him and gets him ready for the group. One at a time our group goes up to get a picture petting the cheetah. When I went, Juba decided he was too tired for this so he put his head down flat and went to sleep. After everyone had gone, I had asked if I could go one more time to get a better picture. Pieter said it was no problem so as I walked toward the cheetah, Juba sat up and looked straight at me with the most beautiful golden eyes I’ve ever seen. So naturally, I stared at him and smiled big! Pieter jumped down and started wrestling with Juba trying to distract him. Whenever I would look over at Juba, he would look right back at me and I would turn away quickly. I hear Pieter say, “You like her hair, don’t you?” realizing my hair is the best cat toy ever. Finally he has him calmed down and tells me to come sit behind him. I do and get some great pictures. I look down and Juba is stretching and his front paw extends a 3” claw that looked deadly. As I’m pointing at the claw and slightly freaking out, Pieter says, “He’s gonna flip over. Just let him.” I put my hands up and was like, “What?” and Juba rolled over towards me and started snuggling in my lap. I was near tears from excitement and emotional attachment and just started petting him like it was my Persian Angora cat Sasha that I had when I was a kid. Everyone was taking pictures and shooting video (maybe in case Juba decided to eat me…). They started calling me the Cat Whisperer. It was hard to walk away but at some point we had to leave. Mariela and I both had to take a Benadryl because we are allergic to short haired cats and never thought of the cheetah being included in that. It didn’t matter because I was in love with Juba. We went to some other cats but my head was still swirling thinking of my experience.
Next we went to a Zulu Warrior Tribe Cultural Experience. They have a village set up to show what tribal life is like. We were greeted at the entrance by a Zulu Chief who tried to make Suzanne from Trinidad his 6th wife for 11 cows. After a ceremonial “knock on the door” by beating a drum, they replied with beating a drum to say “come in”. There were villagers showing how spears are made and the woman are weaving baskets. It was interesting because two woman had red hats on and a poncho of sorts and the guide tells us they are married. The other two women are single and the guide says, “And now we will show you how the single women act during the dating ceremony.” And one woman stands up, takes off her sarong, puts a basket on top of her head and stands there in just a beaded skirt. All the guys start taking pictures. That’s one way to date. So I wanted to take a picture with her and as I walked up, I took off my sling-pack, my light sweater and started to remove my tank top shirt. Half way up, I smiled and said, “Just kidding!” The tour group laughed but so did the Zulu woman. Then one of them had me sit down with them and started braiding my hair. We move on to the tribal dance demonstration and the drinking of the home made beer (double yuk!). Watching them strain whatever it was out of the beer and then passing the coconut around for each of us to drink out of was not appetizing at all but we all tried it. It’s alcohol! Can’t hurt. Can it? Then the dancing started and we were all clapping and getting into it. Finally the one warrior comes up close in my camera and I thought he was just posing but he took my camera and handed it to Suzanne and then brought me out to the middle of the area and had me follow his lead. At one point, maybe out of sheer nerves, I did the “butterfly” move to my tour groups amusement but then when he had me doing the high kicks, I knew I was in trouble. A lot of bootie shaking and a video I’m sure I’ll want to burn but I had a blast and my group was proud. So far, it was panning out to be a great day! We had another included buffet lunch and more shopping (i.e., wine corks).
Next we were off to the Hluhluwe Game Reserve. Every time someone would ask where we were going on our tour, when I would get to this name, I did my best making it up. Finally I looked it up and the Wikipedia says: pronounced SLOO SLOO WE. Naturally! This was our first game drive and we grabbed a hold of Pieter quickly when we found out he was driving one of the jeeps. They hold 8 people. Our truck had Pieter driving and Tony in the front passenger seat. Then Mariela, Karate and Linda in the 1st row. Suzanne and Elizabeth in the 2nd row and Shawn and I in the 3rd row. It was tiered so we could see easily. We enter the park and find warthogs immediately. Then Pieter gets all excited because he’s looking off in the distance and thinks he sees lions (which are difficult to see there). Tony follows Pieter’s direction and zooms in and Shawn is looking through his binoculars and sure enough, there is a lion! I had to zoom in with my camera, take a photo and then zoom in on the photo to get a glimpse. Of course, Karate has a 20X optical zoom lens on her point and shoot camera and can’t get a picture. So she’s asking Pieter to stop and fix her camera or take the picture for her. We finally figured out that she would zoom in to 20X and then couldn’t find the animal when actually she was looking at the fleas on the animal. We helped her back out of the zoom, find the animal and then zoom in. It was a great camera, she just needed a quick lesson on it. We got to see rhinos, baby rhinos which were the cutest ever!, buffalo, kudu, springbok, and African geese. Pieter was really wanting to see the elephants because they had been gone for a couple days. We finally stopped for a potty break at this little resting point by the river. Pieter went to use the park bathroom and Shawn and I walked down to the riverbed. Just looking around and then I hear Shawn say, “Crap! That’s an elephant!” Sure enough, on the other side of the river was an elephant drinking water at the edge. I ran up to get Pieter and he ran down with us and brought us to a safe spot to look at them (we didn’t think about the crocodiles that like to hang out in the river – duh!). As we watched, a second elephant came out of the trees down to the river and started bathing the first one. It was great! Back in the jeep after our break and off to find more animals. We saw Guinea fouls, monkeys, zebras and finally had to head to the exit of the park. It was funny because we were walking around the parking lot waiting for the bus and a warthog with long tusks came running out of the bushes. A guy that was the closest was trying to get a picture and Shawn reminded him that the King in Game of Thrones was killed by a warthog and we all laughed. Still better to stay at a distance. Back to the lodge, we borrowed four glasses from the bar and popped open my SAA Champagne and toasted to our great game drive day! A great dinner and then drinks by the fireplace, hanging out with Pieter, David and Frank and laughing ourselves sick. Karate came in just long enough to tell us she felt sick to her stomach and was going to throw up. We got her laughing a bit and I think she forgot about it. On the way back to our rooms, we saw a bunch of impalas grazing through the lodge grass area. Great day!
August 26, 2014 – Checked out of our lovely lodge, said goodbye to Pieter and boarded the bus to Swaziland. I had forgotten that Swaziland is a completely different country smack in the middle of South Africa’s territory. We had to cross the border and get our passports stamped (yeah!!!). The people everywhere we went were so friendly. People would wave at us as our bus went by. I loved looking out the window and waving at everyone and seeing their big smiles. We stopped just inside Swaziland’s border at the Sambane Restaurant and Craft Market. We watched the people carving the giraffes out of wood right in front of us. We all ordered burgers for lunch and then went shopping. I found my sister a soapstone turtle even though I promised not to get her one but it had the big five carved into the back of the turtle’s shell so I had to. Finally we get to the hotel where we are just staying one night while passing through Swaziland heading to Kruger National Park. It was a nice hotel and we found the gift shop quickly. Mariela bought me this beautiful African woman ceramic that I was staring at for a long time. She said she knew I loved it and had to have it for my non-birthday. I was just hoping she would make it home in one piece. We decided to take the shuttle to another sister hotel that had a casino and better restaurants. The casino was full of smoke and I don’t gamble anyway so we opted for the outside pool and funky drinks. Abby, one of the ladies on our trip was sitting by herself at the bar and when we invited her to join us she politely declined with that look on her face that we all had at one point in our trip – I just want to be alone for five minutes! We headed to the restaurant for dinner and ran into Frank and David. Ron also stopped in to say hello. He had previously mentioned that the next day we had options of riding on the bus through Kruger Park to our hotel which was included or we could pay $75.00 per person to go by open jeep. Well most of us wanted to go by jeep but Tony and I thought the same thing at the same time – “How much for just the four of us to have a jeep?” We weren’t trying to be antisocial or avoid anyone. We just wanted the opportunity to spread out and take pictures and spend time together. Ron found out that it was $100 per person and we were sold! I know some of the others wanted to be on our jeep because we were “the cool kids” or the “Fab 4” as Ron called us. Dinner was great and I went back and hugged the chef and told her I was taking her to America so she grabbed her hat and was ready to leave! Time to pull out the fat pants!
August 27, 2014 – On the bus and heading to Kruger National Park. We had to go through the border crossing out of Swaziland and back into South Africa and then when we reached the park, everyone was heading to their jeeps. As we stepped off the bus, I see this driver standing there and I said, “Okay, who wants me?!” and he laughed and said, “Are you with the four?” I said yes and hugged him. We got in our jeep with Dawson our driver and you could tell the rest of the group was slightly jealous especially every time we passed them during the drive. It was worth every penny because we were sliding back and forth across the seat to either side without blocking anyone else’s pictures. We got to see lots of giraffes and other animals but were hunting our leopard. Very difficult to find and Dawson said it’s been a couple of days that they hadn’t seen one. We stopped for lunch at this park restaurant and shops. We find a table on the patio overlooking the river and eat lunch while elephants and hippos swim in the water. After lunch we hopped back into the jeep with Dawson and off on safari again. We finally come upon some lions sleeping in the sun up on some rocks (which Shawn kept calling “Pride Rock” after the Lion King – he’s so silly). Much closer but not close enough for Dawson. Finally we come upon a pride of lions where they had just eaten. You could see the dried blood around their mouth and they were sitting under a tree. Three of them. Then he inched a few yards forward and found more under another tree and a male laying out in the sun on his back, stretched out like Al Bundy on the sofa with one leg in the air. I laughed and said, “Buddy, I know how you feel after the buffets here!” Beautiful big lion looking like a big baby. This trip keeps getting better! We kept looking but no leopard. We knew we still had one more day but Dawson was disappointed he didn’t find us one. Finally we leave the park and enter the Kruger Park Protea Hotel and it’s beautiful! It’s an eco-lodge built up off the ground so that the game reserve is protected. Said goodbye to Dawson and told him to save us four seats the next day on his jeep for us. He was a great driver and personality and we didn’t want to lose him. Off to change and get ready for dinner. Dinner was another buffet but they had an Asian pasta bar which Shawn basically moved into. I was trying hard to cut back my portions before having to just buy a moo-moo and call it a day.
August 28, 2014 – I popped up early to grab my relaxed breakfast for the day and on my way to the dining area, I was able to watch the sunrise over the river running behind our lodge. I met some guys who were filming a documentary about endangered animals in Kruger. He said they went to a crime scene of a rhino that was slaughtered and it’s horn removed. So sad. I got his card and can’t wait to see their final product. Off to breakfast and meet up with the group. We had made arrangements with some of the others to join our jeep which Ron loved because it was less dividing and conquering he had to do. He basically said, “Tony and his group, head to this jeep.” And pointed at Dawson. Tony had invited Frank and David and Suzanne and Elizabeth to go with us. I didn’t know that so Karate was upset when she found out she couldn’t go with us. I felt bad. I told her we would grab her another time. So Frank and David have these matching safari jackets on and are looking “fab-u-lous!” Then Frank goes to Shawn and says, “You know Shawn, it takes a real man to rock a pink camera.” We all fell out laughing. Shawn bought his mom a hot pink Cannon point and shoot camera and decided to bring that on the trip but I guess at 6’7”, it doesn’t matter what color it is. The first half of our game drive was mostly cool birds which Dawson would pull out his book and show us the name of it. We come upon a watering hole and Dawson parks the truck and hops out. I spot a turtle sitting on a rock in the middle of the water and as Dawson walks toward a sign that he wants to get a better look at, five turtles appear on top of a hippo that they were sitting on that I mistook for a rock! We all whispered loudly to him to get back in the truck. He didn’t seem to be too worried as he calmly walked back to the truck and got in. I’m not saying we would have left him but he is the one who told us that the hippos are the most dangerous.
Rolling along, we heard Shawn shout, “Cheetah!” but meant “Leopard!” Dawson backs up quickly and we all get to see the leopard walking into the bush and snapped pics of him. Dawson started dancing in the jeep in his own celebration. We were all high-fiving each other. It was great. Later in the afternoon we came upon a bunch of jeeps and cars parked on a bridge and found out there were leopards in the tree so Dawson maneuvered the jeep and basically squeezed us in to the exact middle of the pack so we could see. They were beautiful just relaxing on a limb over the river. We were still happy to have found the one earlier all by ourselves. At the end of the game drive, Dawson dropped us back at our lodge and we decided to grab some time by the pool and just relax before dinner. Stuck one toe in the water and decided I would watch from a pool chair. Shawn jumps in like a lunatic. After dinner, we checked the “spotty” internet and called it a night as we had to leave early again the next morning for Johannesburg.
August 29, 2014 – My alarm goes off on my phone and I try to drag myself out of bed. When I went to turn on the lights, they didn’t come on. I called the front desk and they said they lost electric to the entire lodge. So I pulled back the curtains to my room and was thankful I packed the night before. Stuck my bag outside for them to grab, got dressed and headed for breakfast. Thank goodness for a gas kitchen. Loaded up on the bus and start the very long drive to Johannesburg. We made multiple stops to stretch our legs and break up the trip. The first was God’s Window which was a beautiful view and appropriately named. Then we stopped at Kolkgate Potholes which was a canyon that had these round holes carved out by water. Jake decides he wants to run to the very top of the hill and starts his climb with Shawn encouraging him. I’m thanking God I don’t have children and remind him that we have to be back on the bus in 20 minutes. Continuing on our journey, we stopped at another overlook into Blyde River Canyon and there were loads of school children on a field trip at the same stop. When I was taking my pictures, I happened to notice a little girl standing close to me and an older man (maybe her father) trying to take a picture of me and her. So I asked if he could take our picture together and with my camera too. He smiled big and so did the little girl. So we got our picture and then I asked if the class wanted to take a photo with me. Before I knew it, I had 30- 40 kids in yellow and green school uniforms surrounding me for our group photo. The teacher’s name was Maria and her and I took a picture by ourselves and exchanged emails. She told me how her dream was to come to the United States. (And again, I realize just how easy we have it in the USA.) After many hugs, we have to head back to the bus.
At the bathroom and coffee stop earlier, and after Ron, our guide, was staring at me and then his watch to indicate that we were always last, I said, “You know Ron, we are always in the back of the bus and when you stop and give us 15 minutes to use the bathroom and get a coffee, and then it takes a good five minutes to get off the bus, now we are last in line at the bathrooms and then the coffee line, naturally, we will be the last ones BACK on the bus.” He laughed and said, “I’ve never heard that excuse before!” So when it was time to stop for lunch, Ron says, “Okay, we have 30 minutes here and need to grab a quick lunch since we are not stopping again. I’d like for the entire bus to remain seated and let Helene and Shawn off the bus first.” Everyone laughed and clapped as Shawn and I made our way to the exit of the bus. I told Shawn, “You know this means we CANNOT be the last ones on the bus or we’ll never hear the end of it.” We weren’t. I think we were second to last. Mariela and I ran to the bathroom to find out that it has no lights. There are two candles stuck on the sink to light the room but not very successfully. Mariela pulls out her trusted flashlight and guides her way to the bathroom. I used my iPhone flashlight and that got the job done. We found a knock off KFC and ate some fried chicken and fries and Shawn ordered a giant McRib wannabe to go. Once back on the bus, Jake was staring at the sandwich so Shawn decided to split it down the middle and then have a rib sandwich eating contest. Of which Shawn won.
We pull into Sandton around sunset which is the city we are actually spending the night in because we found out Johannesburg is so dangerous, Ron doesn’t plan on letting us even off the bus when we do our tour the next day. Our hotel is right across the street from the Nelson Mandela Square and we made dinner reservations at an Italian place – I was over the buffet already. We checked in, I got dolled up with some decent shoes, jeans (which barely fit me), a sweater, scarf and jacket because the elevation and location makes it a cooler climate. Happy to be in heels, we head to dinner, grab some sangria for the table, escargot as an appetizer and I decided I would just get a personal pizza. The group wanted to order a bunch of stuff and just share but that was too buffet like for me. I ended up getting the Sorrento which was mozzarella, Parma ham, basil and pesto and it was SUPERB! Tony also got that and said it was the best pizza he’d ever had. I shared some of mine with Shawn because I still didn’t want to overeat. After dinner, we briefly walked in the square (too cold out) and then headed back to the hotel. Shawn and I decided to grab a drink in the hotel bar. Ron had warned us that he didn’t like the bar so much because there is an entrance from the street but we didn’t listen. Shawn and I sat at the bar entrance off the lobby in these two oversized chairs and had our drinks and chatted about his love life – because since I don’t have one, I’m the best consultant because I have so much clarity! While we are talking, they mention that it’s last call. So we get our check. As we are finishing our drinks, two young ladies dressed in thigh high boots and high blinged out heels come in and sit at a table behind us. After waiting a few minutes, one of them goes to the bar. I’m assuming she will get drinks for her and her friend. Nope! She orders one drink, sits down and starts chatting up the guy next to her. Meanwhile, her friend is sitting, waiting, without a drink and watching Shawn and I. Now that we’ve realized that they are Last Call Girls, we finish our drinks and head to our rooms shaking our heads.
August 30, 2014 – Up and at ‘em and on the bus early for our tour of Johannesburg, Soweto and Pretoria. It was so sad to ride through Johannesburg and realize that the crime was so bad, it literally took over the city. When a store would go out of business, they would completely brick up the entrance to keep the squatters out. The Carlton Centre Hotel used to be the top hotel and is the tallest building in Johannesburg at 50 stories. But in 1997 it closed its doors due to lack of business because it was too dangerous to stay in the city. People started moving out to Sandton as the business district. The barbed wire and bars on the balconies said it all. There is a statue to Gandhi in the middle of a square but we were only able to zoom in from the street corner as we went by because it wasn’t safe to let us off the bus. Ron told us of a business man who flew into town and asked for a taxi to Johannesburg but the driver tried to take him to Sandton. When the business man demanded to be brought to Johannesburg, the driver did as told. Ron says that later when the business man woke up in a hospital with a stab wound and all of his belongings gone did he realize why the taxi driver did not want to bring him there. Sad state of this city.
We then headed out to Soweto (South Western Township). Basically this is where all of the colored and black people had to move as they weren’t allowed to live inside the city. On our way to Mandela’s house, there are two coal smoke stacks that were out of commission and they had them painted with murals and put a bungee jumping platform between the two of them. I asked Tony can we do that with our stacks? We arrive at Mandela’s house and it’s become a museum of pictures and items given to Mandela and you can still see bullet holes and charred brick where fires were set. Seeing the movies and then seeing the house itself was very chilling. After we went to the Apartheid Museum. The museum was interesting but as Ron said, very one sided which was somewhat understandable but not what a true museum is about. Walking through the museum, I came upon a video montage they showed of Mandela after he was freed with various famous people. He was shown hugging Princess Diana, standing with Michael Jackson, wiping tears off of Whitney Houston’s face from her overwhelming emotion of meeting him. It was emotional for me to remember them in the good days. As you exit the museum, there is an art installation that looks like a bunch of black sticks just sticking out of a podium. But then when you go and stand in a specific spot, you realize it’s Nelson Mandela’s face. It was very well done. We decided to grab lunch at the Truth Café at the museum. I ordered the Ostrich burger and the Bobatie for Shawn and I to split. The burger was okay but the Bobatie was the bomb!
Next we were off to a craft market that Ron kept telling us to wait and buy all of our souvenirs there because it’s the best prices. They were but I was happy to buy my individual little items along the way, remembering what I bought and where and knowing I was supporting the local economy directly. I found a tiger eye bracelet that I fell in love with and made the guy behind the counter hide it until I looked around so no one else would buy it. I also found this picture of an African woman with a baby strapped to her back carrying a basket on her head all made from butterfly wings. At first, I was mortified and then flipping it over saw that at a butterfly farm, they allow the butterflies to have a natural death (which is generally after 48 hours which is the normal life span of a butterfly) and then they use their wings to create these beautiful pieces. (One of my friends mentioned that this is what they tell all the tourists.) I had to have one. After our shopping, we got on the bus to head off to Pretoria on a tour with Albert – accountant by day, tour guide by weekend! He took us to a hilltop viewpoint called Schanskop Museum to give a great vantage point of Pretoria down below. There was a wedding about to kick off so Albert gave us the short version so we could get out of the way before being trapped during the ceremony. Next was the Voortrekker Monument which has a unique marble Frieze on the inside of 27 marble panels wrapped on the four walls that depict the story of the Great Trek from 1835 to 1852 to get away from the British (no offense to my Brit friends – they didn’t know you cool folks!). When we arrived at the monument, there were 100 plus stairs and so Shawn and Jake raced to the top continuing the Tall Man Competition. When Shawn won, he did a little Rocky impersonation which made everyone present laugh. Except Jake. Albert took us inside and went panel by panel describing the trek of the people. There was also a marble tomb that didn’t have anyone buried there but represented all of those willing to die for South Africa.
When Albert first joined us, he told us what we could expect on our tour as included but then says, “If the gods allow, I will see about getting us into the courtroom and jail that Mandela was tried and held in with the other 11.” After a couple times repeating that, we realized, due to his strong accent, that he was saying “guards” – not “gods”. He happens to know some of the guards and with it being a weekend, could get us in possibly. Well, he was successful and that was an amazing moment. Albert stood in the defense box and played a video with the actual audio of Nelson’s defense. Then afterwards, we took the stairs down to the jail cell and faintly on the wall, you can see The Freedom Charter that they penned while being held during the trial. It’s amazing to see history in its exact place. Then as we left the courthouse, Albert pointed out the new courthouse where Oscar Pistorius, the famous Blade Runner, will have had his verdict read on September 11, 2014 on whether or not he is guilty of murdering his girlfriend. Our last stop was Union Park which again has a great view of the city and a beautiful Mandela statue with his arms spread wide. I’m hoping it was a prom because we kept finding girls in over the top dresses the past day or two but one young lady stole the show at this park with the pink tutu she was rocking. It was great to see another city in South Africa and Albert was a great guide.
Back at our hotel, it was the farewell dinner since not everyone was going to the Victoria Falls extension. We all got dressed up and headed to the dining room. The hotel donated bottles of wine which somehow I managed to end up with the leftovers on our table. We all took pictures and exchanged emails and Ron was signing the copies of his book that different ones bought. I knew luggage weight would be a problem so I’ll see about having him sign a copy and mail it to me. He was one of the best guides I ever had. Took care of everything without missing a beat. He has an American account set up in Orlando, Florida strictly to mail items people have left behind or replacement gifts that might have broken so you don’t have to worry about wiring him money. He also knew the money situation in Zimbabwe is less than pleasing so he pre-arranged all of our tours so that we could pre-pay them and not worry about individual charges or overcharges, etc. His stores were great and informative and you knew he loved his job but he’d also still tell you so.
August 31, 2014 – Up early, heading to the airport, tearfully hugging Ron goodbye. About 30 of us take the flight to Zimbabwe for the extension tour. We land and go through the border entry. There are two lines. One for Single Entry Visas and one for Double Entry Visas. We spoke with Ron and he said to just ask for a multiple entry visa because we are going to Zambia and will need to enter Zimbabwe three times total. The line barely moved. When Shawn and I get to the front, I tell the officer that we need multiple. He said we can only get double. As I explain why we need multiple, he shoves my passport to the side and motions for the next person to come to the counter. So I shove my passport back and hand him the money and say, “Two double entry visas!” Smiling through my teeth the whole time. He was so irritated that he screwed up and they had to hand write our receipts which made him more irritated. All along the customs and border patrol have been friendly but this guy was obviously having a bad day. After we get the stamps and visa required (which take up an entire page), we have to put our bags through an x-ray machine. As I’m loading my bag, I look over and the customs officer is sleeping. I look at Shawn and then another lady working at the airport and she just laughs. Finally, the group gets through and load on our bus with Mike, the guide and bus driver. He takes us to the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge and it’s gorgeous. I get to my room and it has the mosquito netting around the bed and sliding glass doors leading out to the balcony. Built up on a watering hole and there are animals passing through right off your balcony down below.
We get to relax for a bit before our sunset cruise on the Zambezi River. We saw lots of hippos and Tony got a great shot of a hippo with his mouth wide open. I was too late trying to turn my camera on and switch off playback mode. I’ll steal his photo when he’s not looking. The sun set over the river and it was a bright pink color. At one point, you couldn’t see the actual sun unless you were looking through a camera lens which caught the pink hue perfectly. We ate and drank and drank. Then it was back to the lodge. Mariela was struggling with a sinus infection for the past couple days and being out on the water did her in so she went to bed and Tony, Shawn and I went to dinner at the lodge. We noticed immediately that the prices were higher and much more like resort prices. It didn’t help that Zimbabwe’s dollar was worth nothing and they used American dollars. They actually had money printed that was 100 Trillion Dollars which by the time they were printed, barely could buy a loaf of bread. We already missed the very inexpensive South African restaurants and bars but the resort feel was relaxing. We sat on an open patio restaurant overlooking the watering hole and watched the animals pass through. Some we heard and didn’t see. We each tried the cauliflower and blue cheese soup which was heavenly. I also ordered a bottle of the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge Cabernet/Shiraz and found out that $10 of every bottle goes to the preservation of the game reserve. Shawn decided to have the warthog with black cherry sauce but that seemed too daring for me. Again, tired of too much food, I opted for the Thai pasta which was delicious but then I tried some of the warthog and that was fabulous! I never had game meat taste so good. Tony had a filet. He ended up bringing Mariela some bread and the soup to the room which she loved.
Finally I had to get to bed. I was excited and yet nervous about the next day. When we arrived, I told Mike, our guide, that we had arranged for September 1st in the afternoon for the High Tea Devil’s Pool tour. He said, “I don’t think it’s opened yet. The water level has to come down farther. They may take you to Livingston Island but most likely not to Devil’s Pool.” I felt myself fill with disappointment but kept saying that being that close to the edge of a waterfall still must be the coolest so I tried to not build up my hopes any more than they already were.
September 1, 2014 – We got up and had breakfast at the patio overlooking the reserve. We had been eating omelets for 14 days and it was a nice surprise to find pancakes today! We load up on the bus and head to the Victoria Falls tour from the Zimbabwe side. We entered the park with our ponchos on and hike to our first vantage point. Seeing it in pictures is one thing but to see, hear and feel it in person takes it to another entire level. There were rainbows in every direction. The waterfall was at a perfect level as it wasn’t falling too heavy as it would during the rainy season and Mike says that you would have only seen the mist and then again it wasn’t the dry season either where the waterfall isn’t as impressive. We walked along looking at the Devil’s Cataract and then came to the Main Falls. This is where the falls were the heaviest and there was a lot of mist. So much that you could barely get a photo. Then I saw something across the way and grabbed a guide who was pushing Selma’s wheelchair and said, “What is that?!” He says, “That’s Devil’s Pool. It just opened yesterday.” I grabbed him and hugged him which scared him at first but then he went with it. I explained that we were going there that afternoon and apologized for hugging him to which he replied, “It’s no problem. You will have a great time!” Like a four year old, I skipped over to Tony, Mariela and Shawn and pointed out the pool. Now, I’m excited! We finished the tour taking pictures of Horseshoe Falls, Rainbow Falls and the Eastern Cataract and all but ran back to the bus. What’s interesting is along the walkway, there would be signs telling people to watch their step because there was no railing in some areas and people would go out as far as the edge to take pictures. Remember this for later.
Next we had a helicopter tour scheduled for 11:30 am. They have to weigh you and then strategically place you in the helicopter to balance the load out (us being the load). Of course, with Shawn at 6’7” and by now 300 pounds thanks to the buffets, the guy had his work cut out for him. Shawn and I ended up facing each other, Tony and Linda faced each other on the other side and Mariela got to sit up front with the pilot. Unfortunately, at the last minute, a very tall guy comes running up and ends up sitting in the middle between Tony and I and there is no leg room anywhere. Shawn had never been in a helicopter before and I’m claustrophobic but we made it work. Once in the air and over the falls, you forgot about the uncomfortableness and stared at the mouth-dropping view below us. Again, more rainbows and watching the curtain of water dropping off the edge was so impressive. The pilot made a few circle 8’s so we could all get a good view and pictures and then we flew over the game reserve and found a herd of elephants (Shawn counted over 40) walking in line through the trees. We also saw hippos and giraffes. By the time we landed, my legs and Shawn’s legs were soaked from sweat. We are still not sure which one of us was responsible or it could have been both but it was worth it!
We had enough time to return to the hotel and grab lunch. We split a burger and then changed into our swimsuits. We were picked up at 2:10 pm and taken to the Zambia border. All along the trip, there were signs at airports and border crossings concerning Ebola not being a threat to South Africa which was very reassuring and funny. Until we entered the Zambia Border and a man in a white coat asked us to put out our hands which he scanned with a thermometer. We found out that if we had a fever, he would have known it and taken us for more tests. Thankfully none of us had a fever. He said it was not a threat at all in Zambia but they would like to keep it that way. Makes sense. We cross the border to Zambia and get on another bus to the Zambezi Sun Resort where we will catch our boat to Livingston Island. Of course, the guide asks us where our vouchers are and I was so excited, I completely forgot to stop at the tour desk and pick them up. He made a few phone calls and they faxed over copies and we were on our way.
We were the last ones which was good because it ended up just being the four of us. We walked to a viewpoint of Rainbow Falls right in front of us and I just kept giggling from excitement. After some pictures, we went to the edge of Livingston Island and got down to our bathing suits, linked hands with our guide in front and walked across some not so smooth rocks to the river. There was another guide who we gave all of our cameras to and he walked along the waterfall’s edge so he could take photos for us. He looked like he was on just an average every day walk. Then Alex tells us that we are going to swim across to the next set of rocks. Right! Your brain is telling you that the current is flowing and going to take you over the edge. So when Shawn and I started to swim, we immediately swim diagonally sort of against the current just in case. The reality is the current wasn’t strong enough to push you and swimming across the current was easier than against it. Mariela and Tony are not strong swimmers so the guide went with them. Other than a few bumps and bruises from the rocks, we all made it safely.
Now, we climb over the last set of rocks and there is the Devil’s Pool! Alex informs us that he will go into the pool first and guide us in one at a time. He then says, “But don’t do this.” and then does a backflip off the rock into the pool. He then shows us that the water is not rushing hard and he actually slowly drifts back and stops at a four foot wide natural made pool ledge that he then climbs on to be on the waterfall edge. He says, “Okay Helene! You can do this!” and coaches me down the rocks and I scoot into the water and then slowly drift towards him. He has me sit up on the edge and then calls to Shawn to join us. Shawn does the same thing. Now we are both sitting there. I have a smile so wide I fear it will break my face. At one point I had to put my face in my hands and just cry. I don’t know if it was the near disappointment or the actual event being realized that made me so emotional but I can honestly say, I’ve never been happier in my life than I was at that moment. I keep reminding myself of who I am and where I come from and it still feels so surreal sometimes. Alex has Shawn move away from the edge and has me crawl onto the 4’ ledge while he’s holding my ankles. I never felt like I was going to fall over but it was precautionary. (Remember our walk on the Zimbabwe side with no railings. This is why I said to remember that part! The level of safety was better at the top of the waterfall than it was on the other side!) I posed for my pics and just laughed. He had me with the waterfall behind me doing a superman pose and then I shot out the peace symbol which ended up being my favorite. The photographer then moved to the other side of me so he could get a great shot with a rainbow as bright as could be framing me. When I was done, they threw a blue thick rope to me that I grabbed onto and was pulled back to the rock to climb up. Later I also found out that there were two other blue ropes stretched across the river where we swam in case someone stopped swimming. A lot of safety to make for a fabulous event!
Next it was Shawn’s turn. Because he’s so tall, Alex knew he couldn’t hold him so they only let him lean over the 4’ ledge but his pictures still came out fabulous! When he was done, he crawled out and Mariela and Tony went in. Tony had gotten a Go-Pro for his birthday from Mariela and was making a video. He held the camera over the edge of the waterfall. (The video was super clear and you could see all the way to the bottom of the 350 foot drop!) They took turns with their individual pictures and then it was back to Livingston Island for High Tea. The swim back was still nerve wracking (again, your brain is messing with your reality) and the rocks were painful but I was shaking like a leaf, not from the swim or the rocks or the cool water – it was from the exhilaration of participating in the coolest event of my life ever. We get toweled off and they seat us in this dining tent that looks over the waterfall. They brought us drinks and food and all of us just looked at each other like, “Did that just happen?!” We weren’t even hungry but the drinks were good! Finally we have to leave and as we go, there is a building with a sign on it that says, “LOO with a View”. It’s the bathroom. There is one toilet and when you go in, close the door and sit down, there is nothing in front of you except the waterfall. I made Shawn go pose for a picture because it was hilarious! We loaded onto the boat, said goodbye to Livingston Island and back to the Zambezi Sun Hotel. Then it was back through the border to Zimbabwe. The whole way we are looking at the pictures they took with our cameras in complete disbelief. Once back to the lodge, I grab Shawn’s laptop, download all my pictures, pull up Facebook and immediately change my cover photo and my profile pic. I think by morning I had over 100 likes and people were freaking out in the comments. We change and head to dinner. No one is really hungry but we couldn’t sleep if we tried. Plus, it was Mariela’s turn to have warthog. Sitting at the table, Shawn says, “I know it’s been like four hours but I still have that funny feeling in my stomach.” I know exactly what you mean! Absolute BEST DAY OF MY LIFE!
September 2, 2014 – Today we hop on the bus and head to Botswana and the Chobe National Park. We started with a boat ride down the Chobe River which is a natural boundary for Botswana and Namibia. I kept asking the captain of the boat if he could pull up and let me hop off on Namibia soil so I can count that country. He said, “Sure, how about now?” and I look over to the shore where there is a crocodile looking right at me. I’ll pass this time. He did tell me that Namibia’s boundary is in the middle of the river but I felt like I would be cheating to count it. As of today, I have 57 countries including the five we visited and actually got stamped in our passports. We saw lots of animals and birds. There was an elephant on the river’s edge and we asked the captain if it was male or female. The captain said it was female. Someone said it was so big that they should call it Shawn (which can be a male or female name). We were waiting for it to get into the water and swim across to the little island and out of nowhere someone says, “Hey captain! Your elephant just grew a fifth leg!” I wish my Jessica was with me because she’s my perverted animal lover and usually finds this stuff hilarious. This MALE elephant seriously looked as though he had another leg coming down. When it hit the water, Shawn says, “Well, you did call it Shawn!” and the whole boat cracked up. Later we found a giraffe trying to get a drink of water. It was funny because it had to bend its long legs inward and then lower its neck to grab a quick drink. The whole thing looked so uncomfortable. We also go to see a young giraffe with his momma and she gave him a kiss on the top of his head. Very sweet!
After the boat ride, we returned to the Chobe Resort and had a lovely buffet lunch. I was able to get some Botswana money and then we hopped on jeeps for our last game drive. We had Karate and Sofia and a Chinese couple in our jeep with us. Karate says to the driver as we are entering the park, “What’s the temperature in the park?” He looked at us as if to say, “Is she serious?” and we nodded. We drove along the Chobe River and at a point we came back the same way but on a road higher up the side of the hill. Sofia says, “What elevation are we at?” and the driver says, “Well, we were down there (and points at the river) and now we are up here (and points right in front of him). We were hysterical. She was a good sport about it. Finally the jeeps finish the game drive by taking us back to the border for Zimbabwe where we cross and get on our bus. Once back at the hotel, it was time for our last dinner together in Africa. We decided we would hit our hotel restaurant and I wanted the warthog this time. We had to have the soup as well and the bottle of wine of course. We sat there remembering the trip and the one liners from those on the bus. Shawn would say “Karate said, ‘Do all the elephants know how to swim or just these?’” and we would laugh. Then Tony says, “This may be a stupid question, but are there tsetse flies here?” and we would laugh. Tony also said that Ron commented that normally there is always drama on a tour but this one was exceptional. Someone remembered one of the girls saying, “I don’t see any snakes. When do the snakes come out?” and the driver answered, “When they are hungry.” Shawn said that Karate was boarding the plane for Zimbabwe and was told they wouldn’t let her board until the plane landed. Shawn said, “Yeah, usually the plane has to be on the ground to get on it.” Sofia said, “They must think we are all black because they put us in the back of the plane.” Finally, Shawn quotes Karate as saying, “The big animals are easy to spot.” And that’s when Tony laughed and had water coming out of his mouth and nose. We lost it. When they brought dessert, Tony mentioned that he couldn’t cut the chocolate flower so Shawn just picked it up and started chewing on it. Half way through he starts spitting it out because he realized it was plastic. That was it. We were crying. We laughed so hard that the servers were laughing. They had no idea what was so funny but just watching us, it was contagious. We asked if we could get some of the chocolate flowers to go and they laughed even harder when they saw the chewed up one on Shawn’s plate. We walked back to our rooms holding our sides. This group has been so entertaining!
September 3, 2014 – We packed the night before and put our clothes out that won’t fit for the 50 pound limit ride home. Our guide Mike was going to collect the clothing and shoes for local families who need it the most. The alarm went off early and we were off to have Breakfast with Lions. We were picked up at 6:15 am and taken to a game reserve called Walking With the Lions. We watched an educational video about the endangered lions and how their numbers have gone from 300,000 20 years ago to only 30,000. So this company was created and they are breeding lions and then releasing them as teenagers into the wild. From their birth, they have the lions go for a walk with the handlers every day and let them stretch and exercise and play. The handlers have sticks that they walk with and that is an extension of their hands so that if the lion turns towards them aggressive, they put the stick out and the lion grabs that and they redirect their attention. Lions also don’t feed themselves until after 3 years of age. This is a good time to be able to walk safely with these younger animals and interact. So there were about 8 of us and we meet the two female 17 month old lions and they start walking into the bush with us following behind them. We would take turns walking next to them and they took pictures with our cameras and were taking a video of the entire excursion. Besides two or three handlers, there was also a guy walking with a rifle with a 3 inch bullet that he would use if needed should the lions become aggressive but he said he’s never had to use it. All for safety. Finally we get to some rocks out in the morning sun and the two lions pick a rock, climb up and sprawl out. You could tell they were as sleepy as we were because they kept yawning but the pictures look like they are growling and ready to eat someone. One guy had my iPhone and the other had my camera and so when it was my turn to sit behind the lion and pet him only from the middle of her back to her hind legs (they made sure you stayed away from their face again for safety), I jumped right in and was able to spend a good five minutes petting the lion. We all went twice and they are just beautiful animals. After they turn 3, the lions are released into a semi-wild game reserve to mate with the other lions and their babies are born completely wild. We finished taking our pics and then started walking back to the camp. They had two baby lion cubs that were about four months old and were hanging under a tree. We weren’t allowed to touch them but they were so cute. When back to the camp, they showed us our video which we purchased and then fed us a great breakfast before bringing us back to the hotel. On the way to the hotel, the driver stopped at one of the oldest Baobab trees in Zimbabwe. It’s over 1500 years old and people have been carving their name and date in it for years. We found an Austin who carved his name in 1935. We took some pictures and then I was ready to go home.
We had about 45 minutes to shower and get changed for our flight to Johannesburg. I bagged up my clothes and the ones that Shawn was leaving behind. When the porter came to pick up our bags, he saw Shawn’s size 15 dress shoes that he was going to leave behind and his eyes went wide! He says, “Are you throwing those away?” We explained that we were donating them and asked if he knew someone who could wear them. He said yes excitedly and told us that the dress shoes they get are from China and fall apart quickly. So Shawn gave him the shoes and we had to write a note saying that we were giving John these shoes as a gift from Shawn Old in Room 19 so no one would stop him and/or accuse him of stealing them. Shawn left half of his clothes in Zimbabwe to make room for his gifts. He had a hand held scale that we all put to work in the airport of Zimbabwe because they are very serious about the weight and make no exceptions.
Upon arriving at the airport, it was absolute chaos. Mariela smartly and stealth like stepped into the business class line and they took her immediately. So Shawn and I jumped in that line too. Through security, a little last minute shopping and on the plane we go. It was a short flight to Johannesburg but we had a seven hour layover. We hit all the African shops and managed to wipe out all of our left over Rand (heaven forbid we actually exchange it back for USD!). We found a nice spot to sit and eat something little and grab a drink before getting on the plane because we knew we would be fed dinner. The girl had nothing but attitude and she so reminded me of home and the ungrateful servers in South St. Pete with the eyes rolling and the teeth sucking. I had no patience so I handed Tony money and went and found a table. We head to the gate and drop all of our stuff with Tony who just wants to sit and the rest of us hit the shops for one last round. I found a beautiful purple amethyst necklace and some shot glasses. While I was browsing, someone called my name and when I looked, Tony was trying to drag all of our luggage out of the gate. I handed my stuff to Shawn, asked him to take care of it and ran to help Tony. Even though we had all been through security, they have you completely evacuate the gate before boarding and separated us into lines for men only and women only for a final security check. What’s funny is our bags were overflowing literally so when I get to the bag check table, she opens it and realizes it’s too much and just waves me through. Tony and Mariela did some heavy shopping (literally) and when we got to the plane door, the flight attendant would not let them on because they had three carry-ons and two personal items. We all drop to the ground and start rearranging our bags until we get them down to two carry-ons and he lets us on the plane. Mariela was not amused.
While the plane is loading, Marsha, the flight attendant we met earlier in Cape Town comes walking down the aisle! We were all excited to see each other. Every time she walked by, she would toss another miniature liquor bottle or wine bottle at us. The plane was full so there isn’t much room and this time Shawn and I have to sit together for the entire flight. It’s funny how comfortable you can get with people after 19 days. Nothing romantic between us but after dinner, we cuddled up and passed out (as best as we could). His legs were stretched into my leg room area because there was nowhere else to go. I draped my legs over top of his. It was like 16 hours of twister but we made it work. We actually would start a movie at the same time and watch it together laughing hysterically. Almost time to land and Marsha runs by and hands me a bottle of South African wine and says it’s a present to remember her. I love these people on South African Airways! It was a great airline and the staff were fabulous – except for the flight attendant/bag police guy according to Mariela.
September 4, 2014 – We arrive in JFK, and I see the sign for Global Entry! It’s so early in the morning that Mariela and Shawn go through regular border patrol and come out right behind us but I have to say that I love using the kiosk, not filling out that stupid paper and walking to the front of the line to get out, even if we did have to wait on the others. Now, I have to open my checked bag and hide the wine since I can’t carry it on. I wrap it in something and zip it up crossing my fingers that it makes it. I know the weight is a bit over now so when we get to the Jet Blue counter, I start sharing our story of Victoria Falls and sharing pictures with the bag handler and the ticket agent. They are so excited about the pictures that they don’t pay much attention to the bag weight and off it goes. Wink! Wink! We had originally booked a flight for 2:45 pm that afternoon because Smartours told us we wouldn’t arrive until 8:30 am and we knew we wouldn’t make the 10:10 am flight. But we actually arrived at 6:40 am and had plenty of time. We lost Tony and Mariela when we were heading to the domestic terminal because they were on US Airways. I love Jet Blue because when we got to the counter and explained that we had a later flight, they said, “No problem, there is room on the 10:10 am so we’ll just check your bags on that flight and have you go standby but you will get on no problem!” I almost hugged her. No change fees, no list fees, no price change fees. We grabbed our carry-ons and headed to the gate. Again, I had the TSA pre-check and the line was actually longer than the regular TSA line but it was worth it not to take off my shoes! Shawn and I hit the Starbucks first and then went to get some breakfast somewhere. We found this Philly Cheesesteak place but they were only serving breakfast. When the guy saw how big Shawn was he said, “Don’t worry. Order whatever you want and I’ll make it happen!” So Shawn gets a Philly Cheesesteak and I get Cheese and Eggs and we pull up to the bar and have our last Mimosa and Bloody Mary to wrap up the trip.
Once back in Florida, Sidney picks me up in my car which I’m very happy to see is still in one lovely brand new piece. Shawn had offers from friends to pick him up but he was like me – just wanted to get home and sleep. So I drove him home, hugged him goodbye and headed straight for my condo and my bed. I did try to hang a bit on the sofa and catch up with all the news that I had missed but around 7:30, I fell asleep holding my wine glass and knew it was time to go to bed. It’s been so much fun sharing the pictures of the waterfall and the cheetah and the lion and getting the same reaction – “What! Are you crazy? You could have been killed!” I love life and have no intention of leaving it and anything that I sign up for has to be fun but safe. MAN! What an exciting trip this was!!!! I’m so thankful for these experiences. I hope you enjoyed them too.