Driving along an open road in an open top Peugeot, the sunset blurring the horizon, Michelle and I laughed and sang along to the car stereo. The sky almost hummed with the heat of the departing day; it’s orange and blue layers bled into each other, creating a hazy snapshot of euphoria. I loved everything about that sexy blue convertible. I even loved the way the wind whipped our blonde hair, enticing the strands to dance chaotically above our heads like spiraling sunshine. I silently contemplated what I had experienced in the past two weeks. With every memory, my heart exploded into fireworks of butterflies. The fresh memories seemed to form a montage in my mind, and I felt utterly overwhelmed.
Two weeks ago I arrived in South Africa with my friend Matt, not knowing what to expect. On our first day in Johannesburg we went to the Lion Park and played with the furry bundles. Prior to cuddling the cubs, I made friends with a giraffe (the way to a giraffe’s heart is through his stomach), and just before my encounter with Geoffrey, I’d zoomed around the landscape in a safari-mobile. The guided game drive offered a wonderful opportunity to see and learn more about the wildlife indigenous to Africa. I saw zebra, antelope, hyenas, cheetahs and lions… (feels appropriate to stick an “oh my” in here)! Not bad for day one, eh?
On the second day we headed towards Monte Casino and to the neighbouring bird park and got up close and personal with breeds of birds I had never even heard of before, let alone glimpsed a sight of. There was a bird show in the afternoon which gave the birds their chance to shine… and to show off, the divas. Eagles, owls and parrots swooped over the crowds while flamingos strutted their stuff on stage and the ostriches tried to steal the limelight. I met Vinnie the Vulture (and I’m happy to report he was much friendlier than the vultures you see on television ripping carcasses apart). In the evening, we went to the eternally-twilight Monte Casino – one step inside and you’re at a total loss for the time of day. Quite convenient to entice the gamblers into that ‘one last bet’! These dudes know what they’re doing…
The drive from Johannesburg to a privately owned game farm just outside of Pretoria took a couple of hours. I had never imagined such a beautiful and breathtaking view from the farmhouse porch. Valleys twisted and scattered across the land, like panels on a patchwork quilt, and the river meandered like a snake slithering and seeking out every inch of earth. Sipping a glass of wine, I marvelled at the acres and acres of pure nature ahead of me. And, in the grand scheme of things, I felt very small. Every time I looked into the microscope I witnessed a different animal grazing among it’s natural habitat. The nature programmes on telly don’t compare to seeing these creatures in the flesh. As the sun died, the sky came to life with a breathtaking array of stars – a black blanket strewn with diamonds.
On day four, I hopped on a quad bike (as you do!) and drove around the entire game farm. I was in the middle of nowhere. No people, no cars, no buildings, no roads, no sign of human life…The air was fresh and every breath was therapeutic, as if I had completed a full-blown detox with each exhalation (if only). In the afternoon, I went for a walk with Matt, his little cousin, Jessica, and his uncle, Mark, and the two dogs. On the way to the river we had a not-so-brief encounter with a family of ostriches. Hiding in the shadows of a tree, wrapping ourselves around the trunk, we watched as Mark and the dogs did their utmost to warn the enormous birds off. All I could see through the bark were the legs of these magnificent creatures, and the odd flicker of ruffled feathers. Being me, I thought it appropriate to do an impression of David Attenborough (a good example of my inappropriate sense of humour at times of crisis!), and with my camera I filmed the ordeal.
– “Ok, currently we are hiding in the bushes, because there are ostriches over there. This is Jessica. This is Matt. And this is me. Hiding in the bushes because of the ostriches over there…”
– Nervous giggles.
– “This is Mark defending us from the – oh my god, there’s a giraffe!”
– More nervous giggles.
– “This is South Africa. Apparently this happens here. Look. Giraffe. Look. Ostrich. And look, crazy dogs attacking the ostrich. Ok and on that note, we’re going to hide a bit more.”
The video went down quite well at the BBQ (or Braii, I should say) we had that evening!
Day five consisted of more quad bike action. No narrow escapes this day – although I did fall off the quad bike into a thorn bush. It wasn’t particularly pleasant considering the thorns were approximately two inches long, and each one had stabbed me with as much vigour as the last. After de-thorning, we all examined the puncture wounds on my arms, legs and back, and one attempt after another, tried to pull a rather stubborn thorn out of my arm – which, I may add, stayed put for a further week. I suppose that’s wildlife for you! (Melman got it right in Madagascar: “Nature! It’s all over me! Get it off!”)
There was an early start the following day, as our flight from Joburg to Cape Town was booked at the crack of dawn. After landing in this new stretch of SA, we jumped into another car and headed towards Hermanus. The drive was a good couple of hours, so we made the most of the pit stops. On the first driving break, we had a wonder around a cheetah farm. On the second, we took a guided tour of a crocodile den. And at the final pit stop, we ran into a wine testing house (somewhat needed after the crocs!) and whetted our pallets with the finest African wines. Finally we arrived at Hermanus. The next day we made the most out of the stunning weather and I made it my mission to burn to a fine crisp. Walking around the tiny village was an odd experience. Everything was so quaint and everyone knew everyone plus everyone’s cousin once removed. Looking to the right; mountains. Looking to the left; mountains. Looking behind you; mountains. Looking ahead; more mountains. The village pub was the only thing that turned the sparse land into a civilised community. And what a community! I’ve never met such friendly people and felt so welcome.
Day eight. Six o’clock am. Shark diving day.
I have to admit I was slightly petrified on the way to the shark diving base. And on the way to the boat. And on the way to somewhere in the middle of the ocean. Once we reached the point of no return, the anchor was released and we all scrambled to get into our diving suits. And then the wait began. The sunlight caught every particle of every facet of the waves. The sea looked like one of those disco balls, emitting light in every angle. All I could see, in every direction, was blue. I’ve never felt so small and insignificant before. The ocean always manages to overwhelm me. The captain was going through the rules; “don’t stroke the shark, annoy the shark, put your head inside the shark’s mouth, etc”, as one member of the crew worked on the bait, the “chum”. Fish oil leaked into the sea, and in no time at all the surface seemed to be covered in a thin film of oily residue. The smell of dead fish was quite potent, which did nothing to settle my nerves considering sharks have a much better sense of smell than we do. And sure enough, one popped up to say hello. And then swam back down below. I saw its fin slowly rise, breaking through the water. The shark glided gracefully and effortlessly as it swam towards the bait. As its mouth opened the grace turned into something more sinister, and yet I felt impelled to get closer to get a better look. It was magnificent.
“DIVING GROUP ONE! SUITS ON! DIVE, DIVE, DIVE!!!”
I’m not sure what came over me but the fear stood aside and suddenly my body remembered how to function. Lowering myself into the cage, I tried to turn all thoughts of Jaws out of my mind. The water was freezing, and as it rose up to my neck, I felt each limb tighten. A vacuum seemed to take place in my lungs and breathing became an effort. Gasping and spluttering, I managed to find the handle bars and pull myself under. My blood was pumping at the speed of light, my veins were twitching and my eyes were wide and hungry for the site of the beast. As soon as I broke through the surface to refill my lungs I heard;
“SHARK!! DIVE, DIVE, DIVE!””
Taking my last breath, down I went to the bottom of the cage. And then I saw it. Two metres away, swimming directly at me, its tail fanning through the water with ease, its jet black eyes staring ahead… and just when I thought it would bump into the cage, it turned and swooped to the left, before disappearing into the depths.
I will never forget that moment – the moment when I shared the same piece of ocean with a Great White.
That evening we made our way to Cape Town and explored the nightlife. I’m sorry to confess that I don’t remember much about the night. All I remember is taking thorough advantage of the marvellously cheap cocktails. After significant Cosmopolitan-consumption, everything went a little hazy… but before the South African world started to spin, I remembered enjoying several bars along the marina. The bars and clubs were swarming with people from all corners of the globe, and everyone was having fun!
Day nine. Table Mountain, Cape Town. This day started with a bright and early wake up call, followed by a quick bite to eat to suppress the hangover. We shared a rickety cable car with a massive group of hyperactive school kids, and as our vessel climbed upwards, the air got crisper and the chitter-chatter calmed down, (probably owing to the fact that we’d all left our courage and ability to deal with heights firmly on the ground). Suspended in mid air, I took in the beautiful sights of Cape Town. The floor of the cable car rotated giving everyone a 360 degree view on the way up. And after a modest ten minutes, we had reached the top… we were one thousand and eighty-five metres closer to heaven. Standing on the mountain top, I felt like an angel amongst the clouds. The clouds were actually below my feet, and if I’d have made a dash off of the side of the mountain, part of me believed I could land safely in the fluffy clouds only metres away. However, I didn’t try it! Instead I got my friend to take a picture of me posing as a cloud fairy in my little cloud-like white dress. (Yes, I’m a child at heart!) And after satisfying my inner child, the appeal of the restaurant and cocktail bar won me over, before returning to earth. The breath-taking and spectacular views from Table Mountain will definitely stay with me, and I challenge anyone to resist its charm and power.
On the tenth day, we were back in Johannesburg preparing for a hen/stag weekend. Matt and I parted ways, and I was left with the girls to experience South African nightlife! Having only briefly met the women I was going to be spending a weekend with, I was a little nervous, and wondered if I (or more specifically, my British/young blonde ways) could handle these South African women, because, boy, these ladies know how to party!! But they took me under their wing, and looked after me, showed me all the top notch bars, and introduced me to a ‘Hand Grenade’ (a lethal cocktail of red bull, Jägermeister, Tequila and Sambuca)… and let’s just say, it does what it says on the tin… it blew me away!
The last few days involved recovering from the hen weekend, and catching as many rays as possible, so I could return to the UK less transparent than I was before…
To conclude, South Africa is amazing! Go!