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Out to Africa: My Bucket List Trip

My bucket list includes owning a pair of standard poodles named Calypso and Calliope, going indoor skydiving, and staging a photo shoot with all my girlfriends wearing nothing but body glitter and flower crowns.

Until recently, an African safari sat at the very top of that list. But no more. As a 46th birthday present to myself, I spent 15 days in Africa, doing twice-a-day game drives in two countries (shooting with cameras, not guns) with a group of people from Texas and New York, including my friend Nancy, who organized the trip and to whom I will forever be grateful.

It was, hands down, the best money I have ever spent. Not one day has passed since I returned home that I haven’t thought about my time in “the bush.”

Here’s how my bucket list trip went down.

africa bucket list trip - us passport

The Itinerary

First, there is no easy way to get to Africa from the United States. It’s a long way away, any way you slice it. We flew from Dallas to Dubai and from Dubai to Cape Town, South Africa. From Cape Town — which deserved more time than we gave it — we traveled to Sabi Sand Game Reserve on a charter plane. This was our first safari. From Sabi Sand, we flew to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, where we visited the world’s longest waterfall. We crossed the Zimbabwe/Botswana border by foot to get a bus to a charter plane that would take us to Hunda Island in the Okavango Delta. If that sounds like an adventure, it was. The Jao Flats was home base for our second safari. Johannesburg, South Africa, was merely an overnight layover on the way back home to the United States.

giraffe tube tree camp - africa bucket list trip

The Travel Company

Will and Brandy Taylor own and operate Dallas-based Khashana Bespoke Adventure Travel. Will was born and raised in southern Africa, spent years leading game drives on the continent, and is a photographer and award-winning natural history filmmaker. This guy knows Africa, animals, and hospitality, and it was an honor and a delight to have him along on the trip (not typically the case with a Khashana-organized tour).

zebra pair sari sand - africa bucket list trip

The Impossibility of Conveyance

Words, photos, videos, whole websites — none of it can do justice to the experience of visiting Africa. Africa isn’t a place: It’s a feeling. It’s visceral. It’s primal. It’s the cradle of humankind. It’s the seat of our souls. That said, I’ll tell you where we went and what we saw in a couple thousand words.

cape town sunset - bucket list trip

First Stop: Cape Town

Cape Town is as lovely as a dream. Our first three nights in Africa were spent at Cape Grace hotel. Perfectly positioned right on the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, between a working harbor and a yacht marina, it was a cozy yet elegant place to shake off jet lag. It was from the waterfront that I witnessed my first African sunset, a watercolor stunner of pink and blue reflected up at itself by the harbor water. Making it even more spectacular: February’s full moon rising (later in the night there was a lunar eclipse) as the sun sunk below the horizon. Yeah. I knew right then that I was in for something even more special than I’d imagined.

The next 48 hours were spent seeing as much as possible while still giving ourselves time to marinate in joy.

african penguins - africa bucket list trip

Day two included a whirlwind tour of the Cape of Good Hope; a trip to Cape Point Nature Reserve for penguin spotting; and an hours-long wine-soaked lunch at The Foodbarn Studio in Noordhoek, hosted by chefs Franck Dangereux and Nicky Gibbs. I am passionate about both penguins and decadent meals, so I can’t tell you what was more fun. Before dark fall, a couple of us went with Will and Brandy to stick our toes in the ice-cold Atlantic Ocean at Milnerton Beach, which has an iconic view of Table Mountain.

tabletop mountain sunset - bucket list trip

Day three began with a quick stop by Drakenstein Correctional Centre, where Nelson Mandela spent the last years until his 1990 release from prison, before we hit the Cape Winelands — the South African equivalent of Napa. A few tastings and another long boozy lunch later and it was already 4 p.m. Which gave us just enough time to get to the top of Table Mountain for cocktail hour and an incredibly different yet equally mind-blowing sunset, which we witnessed from above the cloud line.

Day four and it’s too soon to leave Cape Town, but we’re off to the bush anyway.

savanna room - bucket list trip

The Bush, Part 1

Sabi Sand Game Reserve is part of the Kruger National Park conservancy in South Africa. Within Sabi Sand lies Savanna Private Game Reserve. Once our little plane landed on a literal patch of sand, we wasted no time heading out on our first game drive, loading into three open Land Rovers and finding ourselves nose to nose with a big male leopard within the hour. That will get your heart racing!

And that really would have been enough to satisfy any one of us on our first trip out to see animals, but Africa isn’t a place that metes out its gifts. What happened next was a collision of good timing and many, many elephants.

baby elephant sari sand - bucket list trip

After we left that leopard, we came upon some elephants doing elephant things: first wallowing in the mud and then tossing around sand, creating a protective layer for their skin against the sun. They were mostly female and young elephants. They frolicked and trumpeted and had a grand ole time. At first there were a few. As they moved, we moved with them. And then there were more. And more. And still more. Elephants from every direction! We followed them for a bit, dipping in and out of what was now a large herd, before making our way to a small pond for “sundowners” — snacks and drinks outdoors before heading back to camp.

As the sun began to drop and tops began to pop, over the hill those elephants thundered. Ten, 20, 30, probably 60 elephants in all, joined us at the edge of the water for the golden hour. Even our guides were breathless.

And that was just our first game drive!

rhino with bird sari sand - bucket list trip

Before leaving Sabi Sand, I would see the entire big five — leopard, lion, elephant, rhinoceros, and Cape buffalo — not to mention hundreds of zebras (my favorite!), impalas, wildebeests, and baboons. I would see a few kudu, some hungry hippos, the occasional warthog family, a couple of giraffes, and a pack of really terrifying-looking hyenas.

I would get a lovely massage, take a couple of bubble baths, and sleep deep sleeps in a charming Colonial-style bungalow in a bed draped with a white mosquito net. I would reluctantly take a photography lesson and actually learn something about my fancy Nikon camera that I could put to practical use. I would eat a chocolate cupcake with a pink frosting heart on Valentine’s Day and know that I would find no greater love than that I feel for animals.

Our group would track a leopard after dark, spot owls in the moonlight, and be charged by a teenage elephant who was certain it was past our bedtime.

victoria falls - bucket list trip

Next Stop: Zimbabwe

When you’ve traveled to the other side of the world and you’re in the vicinity of the largest waterfall in the world, you go see it. Victoria Falls is on the Zambia/Zimbabwe border, on the Zambezi River. It’s one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the world. I did not go bungee jumping off a bridge into the river or take a helicopter over the falls, but I did walk for roughly a mile along the edge of the water and take a really cool video.

Afterward, our group shopped for handicrafts, loading up on beaded necklaces and wall masks. We ended the day with a sunset cruise on the Zambezi River, complete with oh so many baby hippos and one really fast and really scary crocodile.

gorges lodge zimbabwe - bucket list trip

For the nights before and after our watery excursions, we stayed at Gorges Lodge, on the literal edge of Batoka gorge, just outside the town of Vic Falls. It’s a rustic little resting spot with a resident falcon pair and a manager who will tell you about a cute critter called the rock hyrax (but won’t show you one). On the first night the hotel brought in a group of tribal dancers who looked cut from obsidian marble and who handed us all drums — and, yes, I was one of those tourists who let myself be pulled into the troupe and proudly wore a feather headpiece while I danced one glorious dance.

When I took my seat, I picked up my bongo and wished I could have that opportunity every night of my life.

lion at tube tree camp - bucket list trip

The Bush, Part 2

When I walked into my tent at Tubu Tree Camp, I nearly cried. Africa’s answer to the iconic overwater Tahitian bungalow will take your breath away. Rooms are elevated so that animals can move underneath them. Three sides are heavy nets braced by wooden walls and doors, so that there is a constant cross breeze. There is an outdoor shower nestled in a treetop. When you lie in bed at night, you hear lions roar.

Correct: The lion does not sleep at night. He roars. And he moves. And he roars some more.

As at Sabi Sand, our first few hours on the Okavango Delta in Botswana brought the stuff of safari dreams. As soon as our plane hit the sandy airstrip, our guides told us that they’d spotted a pack of wild dogs earlier in the day, so we dropped our bags at camp and loaded up to find them.

wild african dogs - bucket list trip

Recognizable by their long legs, painted coats, and huge round ears, African wild dogs are among the world’s most endangered mammals. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that there are fewer than 6,600 left in the world. They hunt constantly, move quickly, and kill frequently — and before long they will be gone from this earth. Writing that give me chills and reminds me what a serendipitous gift this trip was.

Again in three open vehicles, our group takes off in search of the dogs, which were a pack of seven adults. It’s not long before we find them. For almost two hours, we follow the dogs as they hunt for their dinner, dipping in and out of thick brush, running through tall grass, disappearing for minutes at a time and then magically reappearing somewhere else. It was exhilarating!

impala tube tree camp - africa bucket list trip

Many people travel to Africa to safari and do not see these animals. We had a couple of hours with them not once but twice on this trip. The second time was three days later, when we tracked the pack as it hunted impala, ultimately catching and sharing one. Not everyone in the group appreciated the crunch of impala leg before lunch, but I have dogs, and a dog enjoys a good bone. Also this is Africa — a continent whose DNA is an exquisite amalgam of beauty and brutality — that’s what you go for.

Now I know you also go for the sunsets. So jazzed about animals all my life, I’d never paid attention to the good press around Africa’s sunsets. Now, of course, I get that “you can see a sunset and believe you have just witnessed a miracle,” as one Africa Geographic writer put it.

steenbok tube tree camp - bucket list trip

The day’s game drives had been low-key. We hung with a couple of giraffes, did some bird watching, and spied on a pair of teensy steenbok. At one point, our guide seemed to feel guilty that the day had been largely uneventful compared to chasing dogs and tracking lions, and he used the vehicle to provoke a hippopotamus to rise up a few feet from his watering hole. At the end of the afternoon, we spent a quiet hour watching a female leopard laze drowsily in the low branches of a large tree. And then we settled in on the open savanna for sundowners.

sunset tube tree camp - bucket list trip

As the sun set and the trees fell into silhouette, the sky tuned pink and white and shades of blue. Filled with fluffy clouds, it seemed to catch the color and throw it out at you, it was above-average pretty for 20 or so minutes, and that would have been plenty. But then, just as the show appeared to be over, it seemed as if someone kicked over buckets of oil paints and then set them alight. First a flood of whites and oranges and blacks and blues. A minute later, a flood of gold, which burnished to hot pink and then fiery red. Clouds and colors swirled together like technicolor taffy. Each moment and each breath revealed a new reality.

That miracle lasted more than an hour.

lady lions tube tree camp - africa bucket list trip

It seems only fair that our best time with lions came last. We spent our final afternoon with a mother-daughter pair of lionesses and their cubs. Playful little kitties from two litters hammed it up for the camera before their moms led them away. Apparently, lady lions with cubs like to keep away from male lions, who are prone to extinguishing babies that may or may not be theirs. And so our encounter was not a long one, but even 10 minutes with baby lions in the wild is more than most people get.

Our time with Poppa Lion, however, lasted a great deal longer.

pappa lion tube tree camp - bucket list trip

On the morning before we left Tubu Tree, we set out for one last game drive and quickly came upon a big male lion lying in the road. Unruffled by our company, he lounged and roared and took a little stroll. At one point he rolled around in the sand on his back like a kitten with a toy. After awhile, he set off on a leisurely walk. Like the king of the savanna that he is, he took his time, plodding along and unhurriedly surveying his kingdom. Herds of zebras, impalas, and wildebeests stood at attention, watching him pass. Not one ran. The only animals moving were the lion and us.

We followed him until he entered thick trees and brush, and then it was time to get our things and fly home.

Under the midday sun, after the airstrip was cleared of animals, I boarded a tiny Cessna. A half dozen ostriches — a bird that cannot fly — watched as our aircraft took off.

cape of good hope - africa bucket list trip

The Memory

This story cannot end without a shout out to all the incredible people who took care of our group along the way: the cooks, the guides, the trackers, the men and women who serenaded us at dinner each night at Tubu Tree. I try to recall every toothy morning smile, every reverent whisper in the wild, every caring goodnight when I was escorted safely to my room.

In his book True at First Light, Ernest Hemingway wrote: “I never knew of a morning in Africa when I woke up and was not happy.”

And that’s all that needs to be said.

Photos: Allison Hatfield

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