We woke up this morning at 6:30am and were out the door by 7:30. We expected traffic but got to JFK in twenty minutes. After being yelled at by a South African Airlines personell for taking their photo (for the record, I was not taking it of them, I was taking it of the sign they were standing near), we were on board and ready for our 14 hour flight to South Africa.
When we arrived at the ticket counter, Jackie and I sweet talked the lady into giving us an exit row -- and by sweet talked, I mean she offered it up b/c we said we were on our honeymoon and started asking her questions about her marriage. Regardless, it was the best thing we did b/c we had unbelievable leg room!
We watched a few movies, read some of our books, and took a sleeping pill that knocked out 5 of those 14 hours. The flight also came with complimentary alcoholic beverages and we made sure to take advantage. All in all, it was actually a pretty great flight.
After an extremely loooong wait in the passport line, we got our first stamps in our passports, or ass Jackie calls it, 'we popped our passport cherries!"
It is now 10:05am South African time -- which means it's 3:05am New York time. We just landed in Johannesburg and are now waiting for our shuttle plane to Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve for our safari! We were met by some lady who transported us to the airstrip where we were handed some cool luggage bag that Jackie has already claimed. I wasn't sure if we should tip her for her troubles, but after a 15 second pause where we both stared at each other, I figured she was expecting something...so I handed her a $5 dollar bill. I have no idea if that was a good tip or not, but chances are I will not see her again in my lifetime...so I think we're OK.
Where to begin? So much has happened in the last 24 hours that Jackie and I both agree, if we left today we could still say our honeymoon was better than we ever imagined.
What we experienced on Safari, was nothing short of spectacular. In fact, my words do not do it justice.
We arrived at the Exeter River Lodge where we were greeted, by name may I add, by Patricia, the Lodge's concierge and were handed homemade lemonade while we went over the details of our stay. We were introduced to our butler, Chris, who would be taking care of us the next couple of days. Whatever and whenever we wanted something, he would be at our every beck and call. It has been strange to have a butler but as we've learned, it's actually a privilege to be one in their culture, so that made us feel a bit better about the whole thing. Chris then brought us to a table that sat along the river's edge (hence the name of the place) where we were served a three course lunch. Everything that's made here is fresh with local ingredients -- it's absolutely to die for. Apparently we are not the only ones who agree…midway through our meal, a hungry monkey swooped down and stole a loaf of bread right out of the bread basket of another table! We found out that the staff don't like the monkeys b/c they do this often (later that meal they made their way into the homemade sorbet. We were left to settle for homemade ice cream instead). By the end of our meal we were stuffed to the gills but ready to see some game!
Having never been on a safari before, we weren't sure what to expect. Every game drive (we have two a day) has our ranger and a tracker. The ranger is there to drive us from place to place, answer any questions, and tell us all about the wildlife. The tracker sits on the front of the vehicle and looks out for signs of animals. What these guys are able to do is crazy. They see the smallest hint of wildlife and are able to tell when and where the animal was and went. Our tracker was Jack and our ranger, Mark. Just gonna put it out there…these two guys have balls. Big balls. Bigger than anyone I know. They're also extremely knowledgeable about tracking game and the bush so talking to them while we drove around was really cool.
The first thing we did was stop at this HUGE tree a few miles away from camp and had refreshments. We were paired with two other couples, Annie and Brett, newlyweds from San Francisco (ironically enough, Annie went to BC too!), and this couple from Poland or Switzerland -- they were nice but didn't speak English much. The guy was a GI doctor and he and his wife had been on hundreds of safaris before. All they seemed to do was take the best seats in the vehicle and constantly tell us to be quiet. As you can tell, they were not our favorites.
Within a few minutes of driving we came across a pride of lions (minus the male lion). Probably the coolest thing we've ever seen up to that moment in our lives (more on that later). Yes, we've both seen lions at the zoo but this is nothing like that. I really can't describe the feeling of being only feet away from these cats. Our hearts were in our throats, beating a million miles a second. We got some great photos and video and headed on to other parts of the bush.
Within a few more minutes we came across an old, humongous, elephant who was eating some plant. Not too far away from mr. elephant was a leopard. Mark was extremely excited about seeing the leopard b/c they are notorious for being hard to find. But we got really lucky as this male leopard had just caught a lizard of some kind and was going to town on it. We watched it devour the thing only a few feet away. Incredible! We also saw a rhino bathing in it's own feces (yum) and hundreds of impalas (similar to our deer).
After a few hours of driving, we pulled off to this sand dune where we had some cocktails and snacks. As the sun set and we slowly got our buzz on, we realized how amazing this vacation is going to be. As the last bit of sunlight left us, we hopped back into the vehicle and headed back to the lodge.
Only we didn't make it that far. A few minutes into the drive, we got wind that the family of lions that we first saw that day were on the hunt and were being very active. As Jack held the one and only spotlight, Mark weaved around the bush to find the pride.
At this moment in time, it's important for me to mention that Jackie was a little more than afraid. You're in the middle of nowhere, in pitch blackness, with ONE little light source, and you can hear the growls of the lion pride. And they sound close. Very close. And close they were. Jack turned the spotlight in one direction and standing there was this big male lion. He looked menacing with all his cuts and scars. Seconds after that he started to walk directly at me calmly. It was almost too calmly. As he walked only feet from the vehicle, the only thing I could think about was "this thing is going to attack me." He didn't and he joined the rest of the pride who were waiting for some of the food that they recently killed. What an incredible experience.
We got back to the lodge and were seated for dinner, another 3 course meal where we had the options of Ostrich or some kind of fish. Either way, it was a lose, lose for me. I chose the ostrich and had one bite of it. No thank you. Jackie enjoyed her meal and we went back to the room and passed out.
Day one in the books. Could it get any better?
Apparently it does get better!
The Exeter River Lodge sits on the Sand River of the Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve. Its proximity to the water is great for game viewing b/c the animals often pass by for a quick drink. The view alone was great, but add the possibility of seeing Lions or Elephants while eating and sitting on your deck and you'll see why we chose this lodge over many others in the area.
Every morning we woke with a 5am call, followed by light refreshments and then our morning game drive by 5:45am. Yesterday we saw 4 of the 5 "big 5" -- Leopard, Lion, Rhino, and Elephant. We needed to see some buffalo to complete the 5. Within a few minutes of our drive, we stumbled on a small herd of them. Beautiful creatures, we learned they are actually the most aggressive of the 'big 5' and have been known to charge vehicles if they aren't in the mood to be watched. Luckily we weren't charged. The only action we saw was one of them pissing for two minutes straight.
We moved on and got word that the Lion Pride we saw yesterday had met up with the males of the group so we headed towards them. The pride were situated on one side of where we were while a third male who was abandoned by his mother sat on another. Mark told us that this third male was trying to join the pride, however the other males had other thoughts on the subject. After a few minutes of basically nothing, trouble started brewing. Before we could even understand what was happening, a fight between two of the males erupted. It lasted all but 5 seconds but apparently it was enough to give the message -- you're not welcome. Wildlife is a crazy thing and after being here for just 2 days, we're already viewing it differently.
We saw some baby elephants, baby rhino, baby impala, and some kind of african eagle. Seems like every turn we take, we see some other amazing creature.
After lunch Jackie got a 90 minute massage out back on our deck, overlooking the river. She said it was the best massage she had ever received. Instead of having lunch where everyone else was having it, we opted for a private lunch on our deck. While we ate we had visitors -- the monkeys again -- and then saw a herd of elephants pass by. It was magical.
On our evening game drive, Mark got wind of a female leopard who was feasting on a carcass not too far from where we were. After we watched her devour the warthog, we followed her over to a gigantic impala she killed a day or so before. Never one to give up a meal, she began feasting. After she got through the first layer of skin, the smell was horrific -- two day old carcass that was baking in the African heat -- we've never smelt anything worse. It got so bad we had to leave the area [WARNING: GRAPHIC PHOTO BElOW!]
Not wanting to rush home to dinner, we decided to do an hour long bush walk with Mark and our couple friends from San Francisco. We learned about plants and other creatures that aren't a threat to us. We leisurely made our way back to camp and worked up an appetite.
When we got back to our rooms we had instructions to make hats and masks for the new years eve festivities happening later that night. It was a relaxed dinner with all three &Beyond lodges dining and celebrating together. They had real african dancers and singers who put on a great show. Although we were getting up at 5am for our next morning's drive, we stayed up with a small group of people and celebrated 2012 in the best possible way.