We quickly had breakfast and headed to the open top Landcruiser for our last game ride. Dylan, our ranger and field guide, handed out ponchos and thick blankets in an effort to keep us warm and dry on our inevitably damp and chilly ride. Our expectations were low. The weather was cold and rainy, and the animals tend to hide in the thicket when it’s unpleasant. We also were lucky to have seen almost everything we wanted to see on our prior sunnier game drives — aside from the elusive leopard — so anything else would just have been an added bonus. Little did we know, we were in for one of the best game rides of the week.
Dylan told us that the night before, he heard crunching outside the window of his lodge, which was just a few minutes away from our camp. He shined his flashlight out the window and found a large herd of buffalos munching the grass. It was only minutes into our last game ride and the buffalo were still there, munching away as if it was any other day and the rain wasn’t pouring over them. The large male with a huge rake of horns stared at us, along with a couple of his female counterparts. We watched them graze for a few moments before letting them finish their meal in peace.
Buffalos are considered one of the “Big Five”, along with lions, leopards, elephants, and rhinos. The term Big Five comes from game hunting and refers to the five animals that are the most dangerous to hunt. It’s said that if you don’t get them fast enough, your definitely a goner. I definitely do not condone game hunting and have no interest in showcasing the topic, but the animals included are impressive. The buffalos look like dark brown cows with horns — deceivingly docile — but they apparently use their massive racks to flip and toss anyone who provokes them. They’re definitely not a bovine to be messed with.
As the car rolled over the now muddy dirt roads, crashing through pools of water, we made our way into the southern part of the reserve. It only took us another few minutes to spot a white rhino mother and her baby on the road ahead of us. The Landcruiser came to a halt. Dylan put the car in park, so we could admire the white rhinos from a distance and not bother them by getting too close. We watched in awe, as the large two rhinos walked through the mud, occasionally glancing back to keep their eyes and ears on us. The mother showed off her beautiful, long horns. Their backs glistened with rain and they shook their ears to knock off the raindrops. These white rhinos are two of the less than 12,000 left in the world. And the black rhinos we saw the night before are two of less than 5,000 left in the entire world.
Rhinos, in general, are endangered due to poachers killing them for their horns. They’re believed to have medicinal benefits and are also used as an aphrodisiac. One kilogram of ivory is worth over $65,000 and the mother’s two horns alone can weigh several kilograms. Poachers sneak onto game reserves like this one and camp out in the bush for a couple of days, tracking the rhinos on foot. When the opportunity strikes, they either shoot them with rifles or tranquilize them, cut off their horns and leave them to die. Sadly, just a few days before our arrival, a white rhino mother and her baby were poached on Shamwari's game reserve. The employees were noticeably upset because these beautiful, prehistoric-like animals are slowly crumbling away right before our eyes.
We learned that a lot of the native animals of Africa are at risk of being endangered if they are not already on the endangered list. Cheetahs are endangered from loss of habitat. Lions are vulnerable from being poached for medicinal use and meat. Even giraffes are poached for something as small as their tails, which are a status symbol for some native tribes. Kruger National Park and responsible game reserves, like Shamwari, are working to help preserve and conserve South Africa’s animals. Us humans, as the dominant species and the reason for the endangerment of these animals, have a responsibility to do everything in our power to preserve their habitats, create space for new ones, and protect the animals from human harm. One can only hope that these breathtaking animals are still around for the next generation to enjoy and respect.
As the rhinos ventured back into the bush, we were back on our way. We passed through a small plains-like area that we had seen a female cheetah in the day before and were lucky enough to see her again on this final ride. The day before, she was bathing in the sun’s rays, looking majestic as ever. Today, she seemed less than pleased to be in the cold rain.
Cheetahs are mostly solitary animals. They live and hunt on their own unless they are with cubs or have formed a coalition. The female we saw is the mother of three young adult male cheetahs who formed their own coalition. Once they reached adulthood, they separated from their mother and now they work together to hunt and survive in the bush. They will stay together for life, with the most dominant cat heading the coalition.
As we made our way deeper into the southern part of the reserve, Dylan received a call from a colleague who let us know there was a lion being quite vocal in our proximity. These calls are so much fun because if we are in the area, it means we get to go on a chase to find them. We all held on tight, our hearts racing as we plowed through the mud to find the lion. As we got closer to where the sounds were coming from, we started to hear the strangest call. Dylan said the sound was the lion being territorial. As we inched around a bend in the game trail, we spotted a beautiful adult male lion. His blonde coat was darkened by the rain and his mane was all shades of red and brown. The bark coming from his throat was loud, but not intimidating. It sounded as if he wanted everyone around him to know he was there and he is not afraid. A herd of dozens of giraffes only a few meters away kept their eyes on the male, as he continued to bark. As the lion laid down to rest, a few of the adult giraffes inched forward to keep an eye on him. Within minutes, his brother and the elusive “Blue Eye” came up behind us and joined the lion in the bush.
Blue Eye is the infamous lioness who somehow lost an eye to a cataract — probably from a fight or accident in the bush — and is known as the best hunter of all the lions on the reserve. Female lions do all the hunting, and she’s definitely the largest and most intimidating of the ones we saw.
There are three lion prides on Shamwari’s reserve. The first in the South consists of an old male, his females, and his cubs. He used to be king of the entire reserve until new lions came into the picture. The second consists of one of his male cubs that reached sexual maturity and formed his own small pride in the center of the reserve. The last, but most definitely not the least, are the two new male brothers who are in their adult prime and stole females from the south to form their own pride in the north. In the last couple of weeks, they have begun interacting with the southern king to let him know they’re ready to take him on and win over the southern region.
These are the two male lions we encountered on our last day. They were barking in the south to let the old king know they’re not afraid and want his land as their territory. Apparently, Blue Eye used to be the matriarch of the southern pride. The rangers hadn’t spotted her in a few weeks, thinking she was maybe giving birth in the bush. Alas, she betrayed the old King’s pride and joined forces with the new, stronger brothers in the north. In the upcoming weeks, the brothers will either fight to the death the old king of the south or the old king will submit, and go off on his own to die. His females will be left to join the brothers or form their own female pride. The males will be forced to start their own pride or perish. The lion way of life seems cruel, but it’s only natural. After all, the southern king defeated his predecessor to obtain his reign today, so he knows what is to come of him in his old age.
We watched the lions from a distance, while simultaneously watching the herd of giraffes. There were ginormous adults and “tiny” babies, all towering over us and the surrounding trees. Giraffes are born six-feet tall and the babies only reach about the thigh's height of the adult giraffes. All the animals we saw were beautiful and majestic in their own way, but the giraffes felt especially prehistoric. They glided across the plains with their strong, long legs. Even from miles away, we could see their heads pop up from treetops. They munched away at leaves as they closely watched predators and potential danger in the distance. Dipping their heads out of sight to grab more leaves and then returning above the treetops to chew and digest. It is really quite a charming sight to be seen.
After watching the giraffes and lions, we made our way back to the lodges to catch our flight to Cape Town. We had one more cup of delicious honey tea, wiped our faces with the warm towels, and said our goodbyes. Saying goodbye to the reserve, Dylan, and the other staff was literally heart wrenching. There have been only a handful of times I've felt that way about a place I've traveled to. As you leave, it feels like you left a physical part of you there and you just know it will always hold a special place in your heart. I have no doubt in my mind that I will return to South Africa.
Watch my video blog from our South African Safari:
It's been over a year since I volunteered in Ghana, Africa and I feel so blessed to have returned to the amazing continent of Africa! This weekend four of my friends and I spent four days in Morocco exploring the city of Fes. Fes is the capital of Morocco and is known for being the "Athens of Africa" or the "Mecca of the West". Most people in the city speak both Arabic and — thankfully -- French. Even though I took four years of French I could barely remember basic terms. After brushing up online, I managed to relearn some common phrases that helped us get through the weekend. The city is mainly made up of white cement buildings and is situated among large desolate fields and endless hilltops. While we were there, there was not a cloud in the sky and it was a pleasant 70 degrees. Most of the citizens are Islamic or Muslim. This being said, Morocco felt more like a middle eastern country. As a young woman, I definitely felt less comfortable there than in Ghana, but it didn't stop me from finding the country any less interesting or beautiful.
The first day we arrived in Morocco, we explored Old Medina where our hostel, Funky Fes, is located. Old Medina is home to a large market where locals sell everything from Moroccan pastries to sets of lingerie. We were having some major culture shock, so after about ten minutes we left to get some lunch. We passed endless markets in the tiny passageways that displayed delicious looking pastries, but I was too nervous to try one. I wasn't exactly sure what anything was and it didn't help that my friend told me she accidentally ate camel when she visited Morocco just a year prior.
Later that afternoon, my friends and I napped on the rooftop terrace of our hostel in the warm rays of sun. By the time we woke up, my friend Chelsea from Connecticut had arrived! I haven't seen her in almost three years since we moved. She is doing a co-op in London for the semester and we decided to take this weekend trip together. She wanted to see the area around our hostel, so we took her back into Old Medina. I got the courage to buy a pastry that resembled fried dough and was pleasantly surprised. It was absolutely delicious and cost — wait for it -- 1 dirham, or about 9 cents. Morocco's market cuisine and handcrafts are extremely cheap, but we definitely paid for some strategically overpriced food at some of their restaurants. I don't blame them for knowing how to attract tourists, we are such easy targets sometimes.
We spent the rest of the night lounging in our hostel conversing with some of the other travelers about what brought them to Fes. We met university students from Canada, a young businessman from California, and adventurists from Spain. The businessman frequently has conferences abroad and always manages to stay an extra few days in whatever city his company flies him into. He enjoys traveling alone and staying at hostels to meet people he would never meet otherwise. As I've written before, one of my favorite parts of traveling is listening to other people's stories and I couldn't have agreed with him more.
On Friday, we took an excursion to Middle Atlas. We had a private taxi take us around to the Berber village, a fresh water lake, waterfalls in a national park, and the famous cedar forest full of monkeys. The sites were beautiful, but the drive was honestly the best part. We were about two hours outside of the city and saw some of the most beautiful sites of Fes's endless grassy hills. The monkeys in the cedar forest were fun, but they were really aggressive. It is obvious they are spoiled because, once they no longer felt like eating the peanuts you offered, they would lash out at you. I was disappointed that they were so used to human contact. Regardless, it was really neat to be so close to them and observe their actions. The baby monkeys were also adorable!
Saturday, we took a walking tour around Medina. Our guide was interesting to say the least. He is a local Muslim and told us a lot of interesting facts about Fes, but he truly confused us. He kept trying to destigmatize the Islamic and Muslim religions and downplay the gender inequality in Morocco. We could not figure out if he was lying to make the culture sound better than it is, or if he was being honest and wanted us to better understand. For instance, he told us that women are "like princesses" and they stay home to eat, sleep, and take care of the family. Men pay for everything and think of their wives as "angels or flowers". Although men are allowed to have up to four to five wives if they have a reason to need more than one. Say, for instance, if one woman is infertile. Although, if a man is unable to have children, the woman cannot have more than one husband. But she can divorce the man. The information he told us often contradicted itself.
Overall, we really enjoyed the tour though! We learned that Old Fes is made up of over 1000 tiny streets. The buildings are plain white because the Moroccans believe it is rude to flaunt your riches when others may not have as much as you. Therefore, the beauty is on the inside of the buildings, not the outside.
The tour took us to the leather tanneries, the oldest university in the world, an argon oil shop, and an agave cactus silk weaving shop. The leather tanneries smelled absolutely awful, but they gave us mint leaves to mask the smell. The leather skins are purchased from the nearby slaughter house, soaked in limestone to remove the hair, tumbled in these large wooden washing machines, soaked in pigeon poop and vinegar to get rid of the smell (ironically) and make them soft, washed, dyed, and dried. The entire process only uses natural chemicals and takes anywhere from three to four months.
Later we hiked up a nearby hill to the Borj-Sud military monument. The building used to be used to monitor and protect the city. The hilltop had almost 360 degree views of the entire city and was spectacular.
Sunday morning, we returned to Medina to shop in the market stalls. It was nice to have a day to ourselves to explore and take our time looking at all the pottery and crafts. We stopped for lunch at Cafe Clock, which was recommended by our friend. The cafe has several floors and a rooftop terrace where we sat. They offer different workshops daily and on Sundays host a small concert. We wish we could have stayed, but we had to return to the hostel to get some henna done and head out to the airport.
Fes, Morocco was beautiful and I am so glad I got to experience it. I appreciate Morocco's customs and would never dare generalization their culture, but I did not enjoy the inequality of women and aggressive market salesmen. Most people kept trying to convince us they are not pushy and are very accepting, yet this only made them seem more aggressive and made us more uncomfortable. Still, my experience in Morocco was unforgettable and I am so glad I went!
When In Rome
Two of my most cherished hobbies go hand-in-hand. Writing is my favorite way to reflect after traveling to a new country. I have kept this blog ever since I studied in Rome to share my travels with families and friends. I hope you enjoy learning about my experiences and getting a sense for my writing skills. If you have any questions, please reach out!