Jet lag had struck again. For four nights after I arrived in South Africa from my home state of Oklahoma, the 8-hour time difference had manifested with the ferocity of the African snakes the tourism books warn you about.
For a week straight, 4 a.m. came with the incessant whistles and sirens of early morning birds that are louder than any alarm clock.
At 4 a.m., when the continent was at its darkest, my eyes popped open with no hope of getting back to sleep.
My group had just arrived at the Balule Game Reserve, which borders Kruger National Park, one of Africa’s largest game reserves. My wee 19-year-old tentmate Rachel was dead asleep, and not wanting to wake her, I decided to walk to the lodge to make myself a cup of instant coffee and watch the sun rise over Africa.
Clutching my flashlight in my hand as I navigated the dark to the lodge, I swung the light back and forth in a wide swath like our lodge host told us to do when walking at night.
If the beam of the flashlight caught the reflective glow of eyes peering from the bush, I was to stop and call for help. Because Balule is a free-range preserve, the animals can wander through at any time, so those eyes could be an impala, an anteater, or a lion.
As I shuffled in a sleep-deprived haze toward coffee, I hoped that no lions were out that night.
And then I stopped dead in my tracks. It suddenly occurred to me that I had to worry about lions on my way to get coffee. I literally had to worry about lions on my way to coffee.
I busted out in a fit of giggles as the thought hit me. It was that moment that I truly understood that I was in Africa, really, truly, uncompromisingly in Africa. I had dreamed of this since I was 10 years old, when I voraciously read every Tarzan novel from Edgar Rice Burroughs.
I had impulsively jumped into that bucket-list dream after heartache, and I wanted to do it alone, away from the sympathetic eyes of friends, the searing clench in my chest when I saw my ex-love, the dreary awfulness of breaking up with someone you had dated for 26 years.
In that moment, flashlight in hand in the dead of night in Africa, I was filled with wonder and glee. I was finally in Africa, after more than 30 years of dreaming about it. But I really did hope there were no lions to face before my first cup of coffee.
A Childhood Dream Comes True Through Heartbreak
I fell in love with the idea of Africa through Tarzan. My mother brought my brother and me to see the movie Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan when I was roughly 10 or 11, and I fell in love with the deep jungles, the knowing soulful eyes of apes, and the idea of elephants lumbering past in massive packs.
I read the entire collection of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan novels, memorizing the Swahili words in the novels. I promised myself that one day I would visit Africa.
Fast forward to 30-plus years later. My guy of 26 years had just married someone else, and while our breakup was friendly, it still felt like a lion had ripped my heart out of my chest.
I decided to take a solo trip to Africa and fulfill that dream 10-year-old me always had.
I may be impulsive, but I’m not dumb. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to navigate Africa on my own on my first solo trip, so I joined a small-group 15-person, 23-day tour of South Africa.
I was eager to meet my tour companions. Turns out, it was me and 14 Germans. I was the lone American.
“Well, how’s this going to go?” I remember thinking. Spoiler alert: My 14 Germans were lovely, but that night, I felt like a sore thumb sticking out.
After being assigned my 19-year-old roommate from Bavaria (“Wow ... you’re how old? My mom’s your age.”), we set off the next day for our first big adventure of the trip, Kruger National Park.
Wild Solace On Safari
No trip to South Africa is complete without a visit to Kruger National Park, the crown jewel of animal sighting destinations.
At an impressive 18,989 square kilometers, Kruger National Park is the largest in South Africa and is home to multiple private reserves and a wider selection of mammal species than anywhere else in Africa.
Situated in the bushveld of the Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces, the Greater Kruger Park is home to the Big Five: lions, elephants, rhinos, water buffalo, and leopards. Kruger National Park has been a popular spot for wildlife viewing, and because it’s the largest safari destination in South Africa, Kruger has a convenient and extensive road network for safari tours and plenty of accommodation options.
A safari game drive is usually done in a four-wheel-drive vehicle or open-air truck with a guide who can point out the sometimes elusive creatures that call Kruger home. The trucks can get hot if they aren’t air controlled, but the vehicles are comfortable for people of all fitness levels. Kruger even offers safaris for the disabled and mobility-challenged.
You can also opt for walking safaris or even nighttime drives to watch the animals in a nocturnal environment.
My group spent the first two nights at the Greenfire Game Lodge at the Balule Nature Reserve, which shares an unfenced border with Kruger National Park. It’s also a free-range preserve, and it wasn’t uncommon to see elephant dung outside of the traditional safari lodges on the property.
Thus, my totally justified worry about running into a lion while fetching coffee in the dark.
We took safaris through the park, enjoyed a traditional braai barbecue, and sometimes took an evening drive to see the red sun set in the most dramatic fashion.
New Bravery In A Brave World
Down below our camp, a single sad watering hole glimmered. A humped figure haunted the edges of the water.
“It’s a hyena,” said Leanne, our bush camp manager. “See, you can tell by his shape.”
Leanne was our guide in Balule, and she led us on safari to show how to squeeze water out of fresh elephant dung if you are dying of thirst, identify different animal tracks, and spot animals lounging lazily in the hot noon sun.
Later that night, we drank South African wine and ate cold sandwiches as the sun became a blood-red ball setting behind the mountains.
For the first time in a long time, I felt peace. I felt thankful for Africa and my 14 German compatriots on the Drifters Adventure Tour, and I was thankful for the 26 years I had with my ex.
I was thankful for the chance to view wildlife in one of the world’s last wild places, and I was thankful for the laws that protect against poaching and destruction.
But, most of all, I was thankful I didn’t run into any lions on my way to get coffee.
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