One of the lasting images of my trip to South Africa is of animals scattering everywhere as our bush plane descended onto the dirt runway near Phinda Game Reserve. This was the Africa of my dreams — wild animals roaming a rugged landscape of grasslands, hills and sand forest. Think Simba and Mufasa. A scene from Animal Planet.
Much of my visit was filled with extraordinary sights like this one. But the “real” Africa is of course much more nuanced and complex. That’s what I was most excited to explore — to get a more holistic view of a place that I’d learned about mostly through fiction and fantasy.
For the past few summers, I have traveled with my good friend Joel Andersen to interesting places around the world. Last summer, we went to Indonesia and visited a sacred monkey forest, climbed Mount Batur and met amazing people like Bella. This year, we decided to go to South Africa and bring our families along for the trip.
Joel’s Portland-based company, Andersen Construction, has a long history of serving the community and getting involved in meaningful projects across the globe. His Foundation staff put our South Africa itinerary together, which included plenty of opportunities for wildlife viewing and centered around visits to schools, community organizations and clinics.
After landing in Johannesburg and transferring to a rural region in the northeastern part of the country near Kruger National Park, our first stop was the Hlokomela Clinic, an HIV and AIDS education and treatment program that targets workers and their families in the agriculture, nature conservation and tourism industries. For the past 11 years, Hlokomela has been taking care of and treating farm workers who have HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis-related illnesses — providing health and medical care as well as shelter to children of the workers while their parents are being treated.
We met members of the Hlokomela team, took a tour of the grounds — which includes an herb garden and craft store that help fund programs — and learned that more than 25,000 workers and their families directly benefit from Hlokomela at the main clinic and a number of other satellite locations throughout the region. It’s a big operation that includes HIV testing, distribution of life-saving drugs and an all-important public awareness campaign that provides information to the entire community.
I knew that Sub-Saharan Africa had been hit hard by AIDS, but had no idea how much of an issue HIV/AIDS is in South Africa. The country has the highest rate of HIV/AIDS in the world, with 5.6 million people living with HIV — nearly 18.5% of the adult population. In the region around Hlokomela, the percentage is closer to 40%. Part of the challenge is that people either don’t know they’re infected or if they do, they try to hide it from their family members out of embarrassment. That’s why information is so important — by making people aware that services exist and reducing the stigma around the disease, a single organization like Hlokomela can make a huge impact on a region.
One reminder from our trip to Hlokomela (and throughout our stay in South Africa) is the power of one person — and often one woman — to make a difference. Hlokomela was started in large part due to the vision and dedication of Christine du Preez. A former nurse, she started using her own money back in 2003 to buy medication for farm workers when she saw how many people were dying in her community. Others took note of what she was doing, supported her efforts and helped her launch Hlokomela. It’s amazing to see what Christine and her passionate team have built since that time.
For the next three days, we divided our time between Thornybush Game Reserve and visits to local schools.
The game drives were epic. The guides loaded us up into Land Cruisers and took us out on dirt paths leading into the heart of the reserves (with Africa by Toto and the Lion King serving as our soundtrack…we were jamming). One guide would sit on the hood of the truck, checking for tracks and signs of animals nearby. Within minutes of setting out on our first drive, we entered a small clearing, and were soon surrounded by ten elephants. We slowed to a stop and watched in awe as the elephants moved in and out of the trees, chomping on leaves and at times drawing within a few feet of our vehicles. As huge as these animals are, it was amazing how quickly they disappeared as soon as they entered the forest. We could hear the loud cracks of tree branches breaking, their grunts and breaths, but often didn’t see them until they completely emerged from the woods and were almost right on top of us.
On another drive, we saw first-hand that surviving and feeding in the wild can be a challenge — even for the king of the jungle. Like most predators, lions will go after the easiest prey. But even landing one meal can be an all-day outing. We watched from afar as a lion tracked a wildebeest, taking a wide, slow approach so he could launch a surprise attack. When he was within a few feet, he took off at full speed alongside the wildebeest and lunged at its side, but just missed and slowed his chase as the wildebeest took off into the brush.
We then watched two lions chase a leopard into a tree. Instead of following the leopard up into the branches, the lions posted up on the ground near the tree and began a waiting game. Our guide explained that the lions would take as much time as they needed, and likely would spend the night there, waiting for the leopard to get out of the tree before going in for the kill — and even then there was no guarantee they’d land him.
Seeing this all play out in the wild was fascinating. I didn’t realize how many times these animals might have to go on hunts just to get a single meal.
Among some other things I learned: warthogs run with their tails up so other warthogs can more easily see and follow them, and giraffes are not only incredibly tall, but also amazingly graceful runners. Very impressive. I’d like to think I can relate.
Our school visits were amazing and perhaps even more eye-opening. At the Acorn to Oaks High School, where we were scheduled to run a basketball clinic, we were greeted by a group of teenagers who apparently had been planning for our visit for nearly two months. When we arrived, they proudly showed us the baskets they had put up in advance of our clinic. The only issue was that they had put the rims on upside down. (Basketball is not a very popular game in rural South Africa.)
We decided that we would install a new hoop. We had a new basket brought in and while I took the kids through ballhandling workouts, Joel and a few others in our group worked on putting up the hoop — which took a little longer than usual since there was no screwdriver on campus or apparently within ten miles of the school. It all worked out well, however, and we had a lot of fun playing with the kids and hearing some of their stories. I also appreciated their description of “Mason Plumlee…renown basket baller of all times….”
We also visited a school-based community garden run by a group of mothers that supplies produce to the lodge where we were staying and made a stop at a primary school that has its own garden that supplies vegetables to the school’s kitchen. Income and food generated from these projects are critical to the health and well-being of the local communities. Wherever we went, we saw examples of this culture of entrepreneurism, sustainability and hustle.
Back on safari — this time at remote Phinda Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal, our education in the wild continued.
Our guide pointed out a zebra with a gash in its butt and explained that a zebra’s stripes can throw off a lions’ depth perception. A lion might lunge and think it’s taking out the whole zebra, but end up just scratching the surface. We also saw a hippo’s unique and hilarious way of relieving itself, spinning its tail like a propeller to fling poop and mark its territory.
We saw cheetahs, rhinos, buffalo and plenty of nyala (antelope). After seeing these animals and comparing their lives to those in the zoo, it gave me some pause as to our role in conservation. Even though the preserves aren’t technically “the wild,” (they are privately-maintained areas, often with fences that keep certain animals in and others out), they’re a lot closer to providing habitat and a natural order of how wildlife is supposed to live.
As it was winter in South Africa when we were there, night came early and that meant we were usually back in the lodge by 6 PM. The skies were filled with thousands of stars and the sounds of the bush were just a little different than what I hear outside my summer sublet in NYC. The group would share stories and recap the day and enjoy each other’s company. For dinner, we had a chance to sample bush meats — I tried kudu, impala, wildebeest and oxtail (which I liked best), then it was early to bed and early to rise for the morning safari.
Our final school visit was to Nkomo Primary School, where we met the amazing Themba Zikhali.
Themba is Nkomo’s principal and she started the school in 1998 as its only teacher, delivering lessons to 60 students underneath a tree. Since that time, the school — which primarily serves vulnerable and orphaned children — has grown to 900 students, has 24 teachers and 17 classrooms. The school has been so successful (100% of its students annually pass national exams) that it has been recognized by the government as a model school and received a major grant to upgrade facilities so it could accommodate disabled children from the region.
We played some basketball with the kids and handed out snacks of bananas and chips. I was taken by how respectful and disciplined the kids were. They lined up quietly as we passed out the food and they were all so appreciative and kind. I noticed that despite their sharp school uniforms, many of the kids had beaten up sandals or no shoes at all. Themba explained that most of the students lived in extreme poverty. The small snack we were providing would probably be the last thing a lot of these kids would eat for the rest of the day.
It was clear that though the school had grown, Themba remained the boss and a mother figure for the children. She knows all of their names, their stories and is there every step of the way in their lives — her role extending well beyond traditional schooling. She is a surrogate parent for an entire community.
Our last stop on the trip was Cape Town, which was a huge change of pace after so much time in rural South Africa. It’s a beautiful city with a dramatic coastal setting at the foot of Table Mountain. We visited the Cape of Good Hope (near where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet) and had a close encounter with some penguins and a not so close encounter with sharks. We also had some interesting conversations with taxi drivers who shared their appreciation for Nelson Mandela and all he did to bring freedom to the country, but complained that politics and corruption has slowed the pace of positive change. South Africa is one of Africa’s most successful democracies, but they are certainly not in the clear. Behind the gleaming skyscrapers, safari lodges and World Cup stadiums is a country that still faces intense poverty and people who struggle to survive.
The trip provided perspective on how fortunate we are in the United States on multiple levels. When we were on safari, my dad posed the question of what we’d do if we were dropped from a plane in the middle of the bush with just the clothes on our backs and had to survive. As humans we wouldn’t be at the top of the food chain, we’d have to rely on intelligence, self-awareness, persistence and faith. In many ways, it’s probably not all that different for the kids of Nkomo or Acorn to Oaks. The things we take for granted — like just feeling safe and cared for — they fight for and appreciate every single day. That’ll be something I will carry with me from this experience. The Africa of my dreams isn’t in a movie or a book, it’s in the people that inspire and the experience of being part of something much bigger than ourselves.