It’s hard to forget South Africa. I was a nascent traveler with just a couple stamps on a crisp passport when I touched down at O.R. Tambo Airport half a decade ago. I’ve since been to twenty-odd other nations, but few days have passed that I don’t think about my two-week tear through this the incomparable African country. Triggers bring back memories, quick snippets of a place that’s as beautiful and complex as any I’ve visited. It could be something as simple as…
Watching the New York Yankees on TV. I see a grinning bartender from Upington who could recite the team’s roster without pause.
An errant fast food wrapper floats by in a breeze. I’m back on the shoulder of an unpaved Kimberley road, listening to our tour guide issue a powerful lesson about respecting the planet to wide-eyed school kids from shanty slums after they’d casually littered.
Street murals in New York City. I see flashes of the vibrantly painted smokestacks in Soweto. Our brief time in Johannesburg, specifically in the Soweto district, instilled a deep appreciation for a community and culture that was able to flourish in the face of oppression. It was humbling to tour Nelson Mandela’s modest brick home, now a national museum, nestled in the heart of the dense neighborhood. The pride Soweto residents exude, by virtue of their address and the connection to a man who changed history, is palpable, contagious, and heartwarming.
An episode of Planet Earth. Any wildlife documentary transports me to the Mattanu Private Game Reserve in the open plains of the Northern Cape Province, near Kimberley. We joined the family who owned the reserve on a helicopter darting mission—steaming at full tilt after a zagging sable antelope, a gentleman hanging out the open front door aiming a rifle loaded with enough tranquilizing serum to kill a human. By darting and collecting sable, the reserve can move them to different locations to preserve and grow the population. And we were witness to an incredible effort—add it to the lifetime highlight reel.
Any mention of outdoor adventure. We’re back in the Augrabies Falls region, shooting down the class IV and V rapids of the twisty Orange River; cranking the throttle wide on a quad-bike across the dunes of the Kalahari desert; or scaling and scrambling across the rocky outcrop to the mesmerizing Falls itself. The heart beats quickest in this part of the country.
A sip of afternoon tea. For me, the tradition is forever linked to The Blue Train, one of the world’s finest hotels to be powered by a locomotive. Butlers attend guests in this opulent rolling resort, where absurdly delicious finger sandwiches accompany high tea and a jacket and tie are de rigueur in the fine dining car. But mostly, time is passed in armchairs in the bar car, where teenaged single malts and Cuban cigars are liberally dispensed, gratis.
A sloppy kiss. Elephants are gentle, smart giants. They’re also sloppy kissers, which is something you’ll never forget, should you be on the receiving end of such a smooch at the Hartbeespoort Dam Elephant Sanctuary. Founded as a halfway house and safe haven, the Sanctuary cares for, studies, and rehabilitates any behemoth in need. To offset expenses, it opens its doors for personal interactions with the gray giants, including the opportunity to walk hand-in-trunk with a baby or get a slobbery, wet one from an amorous adult. They’re also mischievous; turn your back after an elephant’s taken a fresh drink of water and you could be doused. You’ll swear the offender winks at you, though the chortling handlers will claim otherwise.
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