Animals and Adventures in South Africa

Jessica Zaksek is a senior Psychology student at Colorado State University. She is currently partaking in a Semester at Sea and will visit ports in various countries such as Russia, Germany, Belgium, Portugal, Morocco and many more. Stay tuned to hear about all her adventures!

[Originally posted November 10, 2013]

Hi Readers!

How are you all? I am doing pretty well! I have been very busy during this long, oceanic stretch, but have also had plenty of time for fun and relaxation. We have been at sea for 11 days now. We are two days from arriving in Argentina, and I cannot wait to be there. During the crossing on the Atlantic, I haven’t seen much land. It will be a pleasant sight when I do spot it, and the image comes to mind of a pirate in the lookout region on the ship, yelling out “Land Ho!’ and the excited buzz of crew members. That is what it is like for us. Even so, being out in the middle of the ocean has been amazing. The sunsets have been breathtaking and I have enjoyed the views. The ocean itself has been both calm and rocky, depending on the day. Right now we are sailing through a rainstorm, so the waves are a bit choppy, but nothing major. Weather is not a good indicator of ocean swells, though. Earlier this week it was clear outside, the sun was shining, but the swells were giant and it was hard to get around.

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I can’t believe that my time in Africa is over. I have to say that my favorite port thus far has been South Africa. I had an amazing experience there. It was not the most intense experience I have had, but I found value in it through the fun and connections I made. It was not as challenging as Ghana was for me. Cape Town could easily be mistaken for a city in my home state. The weather when we arrived was temperate and amazing. It was sunny, in the mid 60s, with a light breeze. I got to watch the sunrise the day we arrived, which was spectacular. What makes Cape Town special, in my opinion is the presence of giant mountains behind a city. It was kind of like Denver, but much more pronounced. I loved it immediately and was fascinated by the clouds that seemed to creep down from Table Mountain and disappear, as it got lower to the ground. Cape Town is also unique in that it has the largest noticeable and pronounced gap between the rich and poor. As we drove to our field lab, one side of the road had beautiful affluent looking homes with high walls and barbed wire, overlooking the white sand and turquoise water. On the other side of the road was a township. The homes were very different there and appeared to be more ramshackle. If I have one regret from South Africa, it is that I did not get the chance to visit a township. I guess it just gives me reason to return, and soon!

I cannot talk about South Africa without mentioning the food. I have to say that it is some of the best I have had this whole trip. I loved it! I didn’t know what to expect but I was happily surprised the whole time. The first food I had was bobotie pie, which is like Shepherd’s pie but with an egg layer instead of mashed potatoes. It was really delicious and I loved it. It was sweet from the thin custard and from the meat itself. The pie was served alongside yellow rice and was accompanied by a thin crisp. It was a very balanced and composed dish. The second food experience I had that is worth mentioning was when I tasted a passion fruit Popsicle. For those who do not know me, I have this obsession with passion fruit. I love it! When I saw this Popsicle in the ice cream case I could not resist. It was so delicious and refreshing and I had five throughout my trip on the safari! I really wish we had these in the US. The next experience I had was tasting ostrich! I decided to be adventurous at a lodge and try some of the wild game. My favorite was the ostrich. It tasted like steak, but much richer. Ostrich is a healthy alternative to beef because it has low amounts of saturated fat. I loved the sear on it! I think we can learn a lot from South Africans about a healthy diet. Most of the other meals I had were full of variety and everything I tried was delicious. The only problem I had with the food was the eating times. Lunch is usually very light. Dinner was a lot later than I was used to and several times we ate around 7:30 or 8 PM. On the ship I have been eating dinner at 5:30, so you can see why that would be a problem for me. Luckily, I had plenty of snacks with me 🙂 Also, while I was in South Africa, I had two pizzas! One of them was from a mall, but it was far from typical mall fare I am used to in the US. It was fresh, hot and delicious! My tummy was very happy!

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We also had the opportunity to spend time with elephants at a special sanctuary. This experience might be my favorite of all the others I had.This sanctuary housed elephants that had been orphaned because of poaching or because they were caught in snares as infants and their mothers left them. The leader of the elephant herd was Marula, and I interacted with her the most. First, we walked hand in trunk with the elephants. When my turn came, I was assigned to the boss lady. You had to put your hand in a C shape and hold it behind you. The elephant would then place its trunk in your hand and you would walk along with them. Marula decided she would be the leader by sort of shoving my hand and indicating she wanted me to go faster. She had the best personality, and I had to laugh. After that, my hand was a bit snotty and dusty, but it was a unique experience I wouldn’t trade for the world.

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The handlers then let us touch the elephants and feel the different parts like the skin, ears, tail, tusk and feet. I think the coolest thing besides the rough skin was the tail. The bristles on it felt like the bristles on a plastic broom. It was not what I was expecting! The skin was also interesting. It was rough but much thinner than I expected. I liked the feet because they were squishy to the touch. It was super fun to get up close and personal with the elephants. We also got to see inside their mouths!

The next part of our interaction included a 10-minute ride on their backs. I was super excited for this portion! I didn’t know what to expect. When it was my turn, I had difficulty getting on Marula, especially since I have short legs. It was an amusing struggle. The ride itself was like riding a horse, but you had a wider stance and you could feel the backbone underneath you. It was such a cool moment to think that I was riding an elephant, in Africa. Marula stopped several times and even started to jog at one point. That was disconcerting, but overall it was a great time. Another experience I will always remember. Throughout the day, I found myself loving elephants even more!

We also got to feed the elephants as a thank you for letting us interact with them. Our guide told us that if you give Marula only a few apple pieces, she would hold out her trunk until you give her as much as she thinks she deserves. Like I said, quite the personality! I thought it was hilarious! J The last thing we did was have an anatomy lesson in an outdoor-classroom. It was pretty fun and I learned a lot. One thing I appreciated about the experience was that the handler’s loved the elephants, and it was evident that the elephants were happy and well taken care of. If the elephants did not want to do something, they did not have to. It was clear that free choice was present, and I think it is extremely admirable. The elephant needs come first, and their happiness does as well. It is a sanctuary after all. I loved my time there, and it was truly special!

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The last cool thing that I did that is worth its own section is our trip to see the cheetahs and the reptiles at Garden Route. The lodge has a cheetah sanctuary area within the vicinity of the resort. There were five cheetahs total and each had their own cage, save for two. I was lucky enough to film and witness the two cheetahs playing with each other. They really are powerful and beautiful creatures and they run fast!! Another cheetah was sleepy, and I got some cute pictures of him sleeping. It was really fun and I was excited to see the cheetahs. I did not know that we would get to see them. They are in the sanctuary to prevent inbreeding. We spent about 15 minutes there and then walked up to the Reptile Center. There, I got to see several crocodiles, a giant turtle, a baby turtle and some lizards. I also saw a python, boa constrictor, a green mamba and the deadly black mamba. It was definitely cool, and I enjoyed it.