Welcome back! This is my second article about my family’s sabbatical. Last month, I wrote about Ireland, which was beautiful – lush hills and crashing waves. Our next stop was quite the scenery change: South Africa.
We went to a small town called Graskop first. Even though it is small, it has awesome attractions nearby. We went to a place called God’s Window and, wow, there were sheer cliffs going straight down. When you drive up to it, you cannot even see to the bottom of the cliff; just the sky! The next day, after waking up in our freezing cold hut, we went to a canyon that rivaled the Grand Canyon in Arizona. At the end of the canyon was a sparkling, blue lake.
Next, we went to a place called The Potholes, which is not a very good name for a sightseeing attraction. This place was amazing despite its very boring name. Super smooth rocks went down 20 feet into a ravine with turquoise water. There were big holes shaped into the smooth rocks, hence the name “Potholes.”
Our next stop was a private wildlife reserve called Umlani Bushcamp.
I loved Umlani Bushcamp; it was my favorite stop in South Africa. We saw so many animals, had so much fun and made lots of friends. If you are going to go on a safari, you must go to Umlani.
On the first day, we saw something we never expected to see. We drove up to a herd of elephants. It was incredible to see such a big group of these intelligent animals in the wild. One of the first things I saw was a baby swinging her trunk around, curiously smelling and touching everything. Later, we saw there was a female across the road, acting weird. We did not suspect much of anything. My dad and I first thought she was having some stomach problems. Then, a huge amount of water splashed from the elephant onto the dusty dirt. My mom said this was not normal and she saw blood in the water. Then, my mom said she thought the elephant was going to have a baby!
Whispers spread throughout our Land Rover. Five minutes later, there were tiny, white feet sticking out of the elephant. I shielded my eyes with my arm and then stuck my head into my dad’s jacket. Then, right before it happened, my dad shoved me and said, “Look! You can’t miss this!” Right as I opened my eyes, the whole baby elephant dropped to the ground.
The ranger started up the car. I was confused. I wanted to watch the baby elephant. Then, suddenly, the other 15 members of the herd came trumpeting across to her at full speed. Second in the lead was another baby elephant; it looked so happy. They all surrounded the baby elephant, trumpeting with delight. Then, it was clear, the mom called for help. A newborn baby elephant that cannot even walk is a prime target for leopards, lions, wild dogs and hyenas. The herd made a circle around the baby and faced outwards. You could tell they would do anything for the baby.
While this was absolutely the highlight of our Umlani safari, the rest of the trip was just as good. We saw lions, leopards, zebras, giraffes, an assortment of deer-like creatures and much more. Even though Umlani was the best experience ever, the next safari was also good, just in a different way. It was in Kruger National Park. I felt so low to the ground in our little car after sitting high-up in the Land Rover. Another difference between our safaris was that in Umlani, you went to the animals; in Kruger, the animals had to come to you. And if you saw one grazing animal, there were likely hundreds nearby.
Our next stop was Cape Town. We struggled through a long travel day that included a six-hour drive from Kruger, waiting in the airport, and then being on the plane for two hours. We finally arrived at Cape Town, which is at the very southern tip of Africa. Cape Town, to my surprise, looks a lot like Hawaii. It is also bigger than I thought. The population in and around the city is about four million people.
I thought one of the best things about Cape Town was the beaches. The waves are huge and turquoise, and the sand on the beaches is so warm and nice. This was a big change in landscape compared to the safaris. There is also a scenic area by Cape Town called Table Mountain. On the second day, we went up to Table Mountain by gondola. My mom and I started getting nervous when we saw how steep the cliffs were, but when we got in the gondola, it was fine. The gondola was nice and ventilated, and the floor of the gondola spins gently so you can see in all directions. The view from Table Mountain is spectacular. You can see the ocean, the downtown, Lion’s Head (not actually a lion’s head, just another mountain) and, if you are there at the right time, the sunset is magical. Cape Town was beautiful and comfortable, and I could have stayed there for a long time, but it was time for us to move on.
We were only at the next place, a town called Hermanus, for one day. It’s called the “ultimate whale destination.” I saw why because we had five whale sightings. We saw southern right whales and humpback whales. It was so amazing, looking out to the ocean and seeing a whale rise above the surface and flip onto its back, right in front of you. One of our waiters in Hermanus said when a whale does this, “life literally stops in time.”
We stopped in a little town called Franschhoek. Wine, mountains and beautiful scenery is what Franschhoek is all about. We went on a wine tour. Not my personal choice, but I am glad we did because it was a great experience. At the first winery, there was a cheetah rescue center. We went over to see it and we ended up getting to pet one of the cheetahs. It was purring as loud as a lawnmower. It was so cool! Unfortunately, we had to leave the enclosure after a couple minutes because some person was running around outside the enclosure. The cheetah goes on alert when “prey” is running, and the handlers wanted to make sure we were safe. Every once in a while, my dad or mom will say out of the blue, “I wish we were petting that cheetah.” It was such a great moment. I did not expect this, but I was sad to leave Franschhoek, too.
For the last part of our trip to South Africa, we went to Johannesburg and Soweto. Johannesburg was good, but not fantastic. However, Soweto was one of the best times in my life! We went on a guided tour of Soweto with a few other people. First on the tour, we went to a very poor township. A township is a neighborhood/town that has lots of people with low income. Their houses are the size of one of our bathrooms in Issaquah Highlands. They’re made out of any scrap material they can find. Also, they have communal toilets.
Despite all this, kids greeted us, asked us to pick them up, hugged us, and were as happy as could be. We went into their preschool and kindergarten. The kindergarteners chanted our guide’s name as we entered. They all stood up and told us their names and what they wanted to be, in English. Then, we went into a building that was used for after-school programs for elementary and middle school students, and they said they had a surprise for us. They performed a dance they had choreographed, learned and practiced. It was so amazing!
I could not believe these kids. Life was obviously hard, but they were fighting through all their challenges with big grins on their faces and dancing their hearts out in front of these strangers. That experience left a happy feeling deep down for the rest of the trip. I needed that feeling because the next part of our visit to Soweto was so sad, I felt like crying. Soweto is where the famous uprising of apartheid happened, and many students were killed. Despite that sad ending, we were sad to leave Africa.
Come back next month to learn more about our travels and the world. Next stop: South America!
Photo (top): Maia on a beach in Cape Town.