This is how I came to hold a ticket on China Eastern Airlines for Shanghai, from where I could catch a continuing flight to Melbourne. Mercifully, I was able to upgrade to business class on both legs.
My journey began with the usual drive to JFK airport — always an adventure in itself — this time to Terminal 1. I arrived early, and sped through check-in, security, and customs. Then I spent a bit of time in the Air France lounge, which, while not as nice as Delta’s flagship lounge in Terminal 4, got the job done.
Boarding was delayed, for reasons no one made clear, but not by much.
So we took off roughly on time, and I settled in to my reasonbly comfortable lie-flat seat to sleep as much as possible, even though it was only 5:00pm in New York, too early for sleep, and it was already 7:00am the next morning in Australia, time to wake up.
The language barrier on the flight made things a bit uncomfortable for me. I’m used to being able to communicate, at least a little, in whatever environment I find myself. But I don’t speak Chinese, and while most of the flight attendants knew a few words of English, actual conversation was all but impossible. This might explain why, toward the end of the flight, I ended up with garlic bread for breakfast. Or it might not. I don’t know.
The only major problem with the flight was the plane itself, a modern Boeing 777 which, astonishingly, did not offer personal air vents. So I spent fifteen hours wishing it were cooler.
Even when we landed in Shanghai after fifteen hours, though, I was still ten hours from my destination of Melbourne, or roughly the distance from New York to Tel Aviv. Apparently the earth is not just round, but huge.
Fortunately, I had a few hours in the Shanghai airport. Unfortunately, the place is underwhelming. Now, if people judged New York City on the basis of Kennedy Airport (which I and others after me have called an island of the third world conveniently located in the heart of the first), tourism in the Big Apple would die overnight. So I’m not judging. But air conditioning would have been nice. At least in the frequent-flyer lounges. (On paper, one of the perks of the lounges, along with beverages and food, is air conditioning. In practice, the “air conditioning” is one small unit in one corner of one room of a club that isn’t walled off from the main airport.)
I actually had my choice of a few clubs, thanks to various frequent-flyer and credit-card perks, but they were all about the same: a bit of food, some drinks, a few seats, and not much more. They did offer WiFi, which was nice. Some of the clubs blocked Western sites likes Facebook and Google more completely than others. Some offered departure signs in both English and Chinese. One of the clubs sported a shower, which I took advantage of.
None of the food was good. Again, to be fair, there was also a major language barrier: Most people spoke no English or only a few words, and while both Chinese and English writing labeled the food, the English words ranged from odd to incoherent. Additionally, I’m both a vegetarian and a picky eater, so I don’t just sample whatever happens to be before me. For all I know, for instance, the snack marked “for the edible” would have been tasty. But I had no idea what it was.
I did wonder if the other food was perhaps not for the edible.
When I left the club at one point to explore, I spotted someone carrying a Starbucks coffee cup. Encouraged, I kept walking until I found food and drink that I could positively identify. And as befits a company like Starbucks, the salespeople spoke at least broken English.
Boarding my next flight — a mere ten-hour hop to Melbourne — was chaotic, and the heat and humidity at the departure gate were oppressive. But once on board I lucked out. Sitting next to me was a delightful traveling companion who, though Chinese, spoke wonderful English. So when we weren’t sleeping, we chatted about China, her life there, my life in America, and our common destination of Australia. She also served as my translator during the flight.
We landed in Melbourne shortly after noon on Thursday. (I had left on Tuesday afternoon. I didn’t get a Wednesday that week.) My new companion and I navigated the arrival process together and agreed to stay in touch as we explored this new country.
I don’t remember feeling unduly tired when we landed, and I had actually slept for the better part of both flights, but, equally, I don’t remember much from the airport in Melbourne. I know I was met by someone, and I remember something about wind. But that’s it.
I also know that over 700 words into this essay I still haven’t written anything about Melbourne. That’s what Australia is like for New Yorkers. It takes a long time just to get started.
I was on my way back to the Durban airport to start my three-flight journey home to New York, via Johannesburg and London. The gift was for a fellow traveler, and when I had bought it I had supposed I would put it in the mail once I returned to New York. But now a better idea presented itself, because the recipient was staying in Durban for an extra day.
I asked my driver if there was any possibility he could drive by a hotel in downtown Durban after he dropped me off at the airport. He graciously assured me that it wouldn’t be a problem. I was already late for my flight — having cut the timing very close in order to enjoy the most out of a boat ride on the Lake St. Lucia Estuary — but once at the airport I scribbled a quick note and handed it to my driver.
Then I ran into the airport, waited in line, paid a small fee for my overweight luggage (which involved waiting in another line), and boarded my flight.
In the Johannesburg airport, I made my way to the (relatively) luxurious Virgin Airways business lounge, where I ordered dinner. As my food arrived, my phone rang. My gift had been successfully delivered.
“Did you leave me something at the hotel,” I was asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“But aren’t you in Johannesburg?”
“I had my driver do it,” I explained.
Amazing, I then thought, how easily such a sentence came to my lips.
So off we went. After a delicious breakfast, we drove through the African bush to the waterfront, and from there set out.
There’s a relaxing magic to the water. Even without any animals, the ride would have been spectacular. But we did see animals: hippos, of course, all over the place (I’d already seen a few the previous night); abundant bird life, including the Goliath Heron and African Lake Eagle; and even a lizard of some variety, cunningly disguising itself as a branch.
Once again, the photos tell the story, so here they are. Click on any thumbnail for a larger view:
I was excited for Tuesday morning and its promise of a return to nature. My destination was a unique mix of ecosystems that hosts exotic animals both on land and in the water, thanks to Lake St. Lucia. Called iSimangaliso (and you have to love a name whose second letter is capitalized), my destination was about three hours north of where I was staying in Durban.
When making my plans, I had been given two choices. I could rent a car and drive myself, or, for not all that much more (thanks to my strong dollar), someone could drive me. Apprehensive about driving on the wrong side of the road for so long in a foreign country where I might be unaware of local customs, I had opted for the driver. And I’m glad I did.
He picked me up around 9:00. We stopped at the Kwazulu Natal Society of Arts for some (amazing) gift shopping, and then headed north to the animals.
It was a gray, rainy, day. But my driver was able to offer running commentary on the changing landscape, and intriguing conversation about South Africa. I thoroughly enjoyed the ride.
For reasons that are not clear to me, it took four people to staff the secluded and remote entrance to iSimangaliso. Eager to see more wildlife, I signed in, and made my way to Makakatana Bay Lodge — the only privately owned safari lodge on the banks of Lake St. Lucia — where I’d be staying. The next thing I saw was a sign warning of elephants, crocodiles, and hippos.
I checked into the lodge.
Then after a truly delicious lunch I set out for an afternoon game ride. The weather limited our visibility, and, I knew, would detract from the quality of any photos I took. Still, I lucked out. I was the only one who had arrived in time for the ride. I had a guide and a car to myself for a few hours.
The immediate highlights were some close encounters with zebras, giraffe, and rhinos. Because it was just me, I was even allowed out of the vehicle. Unexpectedly, I was particularly taken by the zebras.
But I had primarily headed to iSimangaliso to see Lake St. Lucia, as a contrast to what I had seen in Pilanesberg; I was hoping for more than just a scaled-down reprise. So we made a decision. Instead of hanging out with the animals we could see, we would try our luck and head to a large watering hole around dusk, in the hope that something would come by. We knew there was a good chance that we would see nothing. But there was also an outside chance that we would see something.
And did we ever. We arrived just in time to see a whole herd of elephants! Once again we carefully dismounted the vehicle, then stared in awe and wonder at the magnificent sight of the pachyderms standing ankle-deep (?) in the water and drinking. Within minutes the huge creatures were in retreat, then, impossibly, gone.
What a way to bid farewell to the last rays of sunlight.
Along the way, I was learning more about South Africa, though still not what I was hoping to. My goal had been to see what lay beyond my bubble, but instead I was discovering how hard it was to leave that bubble. I had already been stymied in one attempt. Now, a couple of us were toying with the idea of leaving the hotel for breakfast at a restaurant at a near-by mall. Unfortunately, the staff at the front desk of the hotel didn’t know exactly how to make that happen. The consensus was to take a taxi, but there was disagreement about how to arrange one. Just call that morning, some thought. Better to order it the night before, others advised. Even that might not work, said a few. What if we had to cancel? They didn’t know.
In the end, the trip didn’t work out, though a car did show up. Disappointed, I was grateful that my currency was so strong. I paid the driver a few dollars for what would have been a one-way fare, added a tip, and stayed in my bubble.
Later that day most of us headed to the airport. The timing was tight enough that I was a little concerned we might miss our flight to Durban. And though we were set to land long after dinnertime, our schedule didn’t seem to include time for dinner. Fortunately, the flight was delayed, giving us an opportunity for a surprisingly edible bite to eat at the airport. And it’s a good thing, because the delayed flight leaving Cape Town was matched by a pre-arranged taxi that got lost in Durban, so I didn’t get to my host family there until very late.The next day, as I headed out to the conference, I was delighted to find monkeys running along the roof of my host family’s house — though no one else seemed particularly impressed.
The conference, the smallest and briefest of the three at which I presented in South Africa, was cordial, friendly, and low-key. It was set in an adorable building with old-world charm (I bizarrely forgot to take pictures) and located walking distance from a luxurious beach.
Durban was my last stop before returning to the glory of nature, and under other circumstances I might have been eager to leave. But in this case my considerable enthusiasm was tempered by the knowledge that moving on also meant saying good-bye to new friends.
Thursday brought the sad realizition that I had to leave the glory of safari. So after one last early game ride, I reluctantly boarded a taxi back to the real world. I had a conference in Cape Town to attend.As if the bush itself was crying out “don’t leave me!” our progress out of the park was impeded almost immediately by a giraffe crossing right in front of us on its way to a watering hole. Though time was short — and though my good cameras were no longer within reach — I insisted that we stop. The giraffe approached the water, looked around to check its safety, then bent down low to drink.
By odd coincidence, I had been told just that morning how rare it is to witness giraffes drinking. But no one had told me how strikingly beautiful it is. I was already sorry to be leaving, and with this new sight I almost told the driver to go back to the lodge. After all, how could Cape Town possibly offer anything but a bitter reminder that I was no longer on safari?
I resisted the urge to return, though, bade a mental farewell to the giraffe and her friends, and told the taxi driver to continue onward to O.R. Tambo international airport.
To say that I am a spoiled traveler is an understatement. I fly a lot, almost always on Delta, and Delta tends to treat me well. My flight from Joburg to Cape Town was on the African discount airline Kulula Air, and that had me worried. But it turned out okay.I landed too late to see much of Cape Town that evening. Then the power went out around sunset, because South Africa doesn’t have enough electricity. Rolling blackouts are common. (In Orwellian fashion, these are described as “load shedding.” It’s not that they’ve run out of power, you see. They just have too much load, so they shed some of it from time to time.) Unlike in Joburg, where four-hour outages are common, this one was set to last less than three.
So there I was in a dark, unlit, foreign city, far away from the bush. I did have a spectacular view from my hosts’ apartment, but there were no giraffes.
I lucked out that night, with delightful hosts who took me to one of the best meals of my life, at La Colombe. (If you’re in Africa, anywhere in Africa, stop by — no matter how long the flight. It’s worth it.) The conversation matched the food, and made for a superb evening.
The next day I got to see a bit of the city, and I have to say, Cape Town is truly beautiful, with majestic mountains and sweeping vistas, striking architecture and verdant vegetation, rolling hills and waves exploding against a magnificent shoreline. The only thing missing, really, were the giraffes. And the elephants. And the zebras and the lions. And the rest of the glory of raw nature.
That afternoon I headed out of town to the conference venue, my second in South Africa. It was at another hotel, the Protea, in a lovely region called Stellenbosch. While offering lots of outdoor space and a picturesque countryside view, it was less resort-like than the Indaba. And there were still no giraffes.
But the people more than made up for it. I may have been in a pedestrian, suburban conference center, but the right company can make that an extraordinary experience, too.
Though the novelty of the game rides had started to wear off by my third day, the exhilaration and joy hadn’t. The bush is magical, and Black Rhino Lodge is a magnificent gateway to it. So once again I woke up before sunrise, took full advantage of my lodging, and then boarded an open-air vehicle to head back into Pilansberg National Park.
I had already seen a lion up close, rhinos even closer, an owl, and a wide variety of animals in the distance. As I explained, the rhinos blocked our way to see the leopard, so I had yet to see that big cat. Would I today?
At this point the photos really tell the story, so here are a few of my favorites:
Click on any of the thumbnails for a larger view:
Even though I saw it with my own eyes, I’m still amazed at how well a huge animal can camouflage itself in the bush.
IN ADDITION to writing and traveling the world lecturing about his books, Hoffman has also directed a dance troupe, taught darkroom technique, and explored Patagonia on horseback. He lives just north of New York City.
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