I have absolutely always wanted to go on a safari. I was the Disney kid growing up, obsessed with The Lion King, singing the songs. Every time my family went to Disney World, I was always dying to go on the safari ride at Animal Kingdom. I know, I sound like the cheese-ball of the century, but when I found out that IES was offering a five day trip to Kruger National Park over the mid-semester break, I practically imploded from excitement. Kruger National Park lies to the north-east of the country and is bigger in square miles than Israel. That's right. It's a national park bigger than a country, and it's full of wild animals. Are you excited yet? You should be. We started our trip by flying to Johannesburg and spending the first day there at the Apartheid Museum and Soweto. In Soweto, we did a bike tour that led us past landmarks that were important to anti-Apartheid movements, such as the Hector Pieterson Museum and Memorial, the site of the student uprising in 1976, and both Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu's homes. Soweto was instrumental to igniting and inspiring the country to challenge Apartheid government, and they still maintain the sites of their unique history today.
After spending the night in Johannesburg, we spent the next day traveling by coach bus to Nelspruit, a town about an hour outside of Kruger. On our journey to Nelspruit, we took pit stops at various canyons, waterfalls, and outlooks, which were all spots for some awesome photo ops. Since we took the scenic route, it took about eight to nine hours to reach Nelspruit, where we stayed for the second night. Without pit stops, with a more direct route, it takes about six hours to reach Nelspruit from Johannesburg. By day three, we were all chomping at the bit to get to Kruger. We woke up bright and early, piled into our open-top safari trucks and traveled the hour to Kruger, getting there just before sunrise and the park's opening time. Imagine, the girl that used to sing "The Circle of Life" at the top of her lungs as a little girl, (okay, I still do) got to watch the sun climb over the horizon from a open-topped truck in the real African landscape. Does life get any better?
The safari was broken down into three sessions that lasted about two to three hours. As we drove, our driver and guide, Dave, told us everything about the landscape we passed, from the flora to the fauna, from bird-life to challenges that the park faces on a day-to-day basis, such as wildfire burning and poaching. Unfortunately, the rhino is being poached in large numbers due to the high price of the ivory that makes up their horns. These poachers are coming in from the Mozambique borders, and it is difficult to catch them in the act of bringing down or attempting to bring down big game. The park continues to fight this poaching issue, and if things continue the way they are going, the rhino will be extinct in my lifetime, and my children will only know about them from pictures. As we were learning everything there was to learn, we were crossing our finger that we would get to see the Big 5, which refers to an old hunting term that identifies the five species that were considered big game. These five animals are the elephant, the lion, the leopard, the buffalo, and the rhino. According to our guide, the leopard is the rarest of the Big 5 as far as sightings. Lucky for us, we got to see the Big 5 within our first four hours of being in the park, along with other animals like antelope, baboons, antelope, warthogs, giraffes, hyenas, hippos, red-billed hornbills, etc. The days were long and hot, but by far, this was the coolest thing I've ever gotten the chance to do. The highlight of my safari experience was when Dave stopped because two lionesses and a lion were taking a stroll down the middle of the road. They passed within a few feet of our open-topped truck. We could have reached out to pet them, they were so close. Of course, it would have been the last thing we ever did.
We were in Kruger for a day an a half, staying overnight on the third night at a camp within the park. On the fourth day, we spent half the day in the park in the trucks, and the other half kayaking on the Sabie River. The fifth day was spent making the trek back to Johannesburg to catch our flight back to Cape Town. The food was amazing, as always. We had two different types of braai, which is African barbecue, and it was DELICIOUS. Every meal had options for those keeping kosher or vegetarians. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were provided for us in some way, shape, or form. Accommodations were mostly staying in backpackers and inns. Like I said before, we stayed in the park overnight on the third night, but we were in a gated camp, so no worries about the animals (except for a stray monkey, here and there). It was my first experience staying in a backpackers, and I have to say, it was really nice. IES did a nice job of picking out the people that coordinated with us to make this trip smooth and enjoyable. Since the trip only lasted five of the nine days we had for break, some on the program decided to extend their trip by traveling from Kruger to the surrounding countries like Namibia, or Zimbabwe for Victoria Falls. I chose to go back to Cape Town so that I could do some full-day volunteering in the townships and explore the city. The Kruger trip is an additional fee on top of the IES program costs, but it's definitely worth every penny, and every extra hour I'm going to work once I get home in November. I wouldn't trade my safari experience for the world. It's something I'll remember as long as I live, and it was absolutely something I did that was 'authentically' Africa, through and through.
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<div>Cortney Cordero is a senior majoring in journalism at Hofstra University with a minor in creative writing. This New <span style="font-size: 13.0080003738403px; line-height: 1.538em;">Yorker has wanted to travel to Africa since she was in Kindergarten. This fall, her dream is finally coming true, and she </span><span style="font-size: 13.0080003738403px; line-height: 1.538em;">wants to share her experience with you.</span></div>