An Unexpected Safari

A day in South Africa was not part of the plan.

My flight from Campo Grande to São Paulo went smoothly, and the nine-hour redeye from São Paulo to Johannesburg was only delayed by an hour and a half. Turns out, ninety minutes can change a lot.

When I arrived in South Africa, I knew timing would be tight, so I managed to skip the hours-long line for “biometrics,” a system in which your face is photographed and fingerprints scanned, and go straight to the visa stamping. Luckily, the website I’d read had been right: South Africa doesn’t require a visa for airport layovers.

I speed-walked to the baggage claim, where I spent 30 minutes pacing between the carousel and the distant Oversized Baggage area for Marmalade, my turquoise pack, to appear. That’s one downside of using a backpacking pack instead of a suitcase – you never know when it will be considered carry-on size (Seattle), oversized (São Paulo), or regular luggage (South Africa).

A pair of hadada ibis, "the loudest birds in Africa." I didn't hear their famed vocalizations.

Finally, Marmalade appeared. I slung her over my shoulders, cinched the waist strap and galloped through the airport. A porter flashed his official airport ID card and started galloping in front of me.

"What airline?" he called back over his shoulder.

"Airlink!" I called back.

"Follow me!" he said. On our run, we acquired a luggage cart, which he maneuvered up and down escalators to arrive at the check-in desk. Out of breath and sweaty, I thanked him for the help, and he held out his hand for money.

"I'm so sorry," I told him, the blood draining from my face. "I have no South African money."

"Any currency," he said, holding his hand out farther.

"I have no cash in any currency," I said, miserable that I couldn't pay for his service. I'd meticulously spent every last Brazilian real at the São Paulo airport on chocolate and bottled water, not wanting to carry that currency to a country where it would be useless.

The porter turned in disgust, without a word, and hustled back to find some other hapless tourist, hopefully quite not as hapless as me.

This napkin did an excellent job capturing the South African accent, in which "pasta" rhymes with "faster."

Without a second to waste, I rolled my cart up to the Airlink check-in desk and handed the woman my printed itinerary.

"Please, I need a boarding pass, I have to hurry," I told her. She was not amused.

"Your plane is already closed. You'll have to take another flight," she told me.

"I know boarding already started, but the plane doesn't leave for an hour," I told her. I pleaded, I cried, I reasoned. I explained my story, I invoked images of Madagascar and my lack of South African money. Nothing helped.

"There's a bus to the plane from the gate, and it already left," she said. "The next plane to Madagascar is tomorrow. Don't be late. Next!"

Because I'd booked on a budget website,, the various legs of my journey were on separate tickets, so I couldn't hold the Brazilian airline responsible for buying me a new ticket. Kiwi has a policy called the "Kiwi Guarantee," saying they'll refund any new flight you have to book because of a delay, but as I sat alone atop my backpack amid the foot traffic of the Johannesburg Airport, I began to doubt whether this guarantee would really come through.

At least I had time to ponder intriguing airport advertisements about infectious disease.

I won't bore you with the details, but a few hours later I had purchased a new $500 ticket to Madagascar (for the next day) and recieved verbal confirmation from Kiwi over the phone they they would reimburse the cost. Kiwi also booked me a hotel near the airport.

Amid demoralizing travel logistics, I was absorbing the newness of a novel continent. Pretty much everything I knew about South Africa, I realized in horror, was from that Disney movie, The Color of Friendship. I scanned South Africa's Wikipedia page for the basics. The currency is the South African rand, worth seven US cents. The country recognizes eleven official languages including Xhosa, Southern Sotho, Zulu, Afrikaans and English. That partially explained why I'd watched the white airport employees speaking English with a vaguely Dutch accent and black airport employees speaking a language other than English, but which language, I still had no clue.

A spiny tree in the hotel's landscaping. Maybe the wide trunk holds water like the famous baobabs of my next destination, Madagascar?

I caught the hotel's shuttle and checked in to a dazzling four-star hotel, definitely the nicest accommodation I'll see this year. The receptionist handed me a taxi company's fold-out advertisement for the city's parks and museums. My room was spacious. The sheets were white. The shower was a glass box of steam. The WiFi was high-speed. Out my window, tree ferns threw shadows over an infinity pool.

A poolside tree fern.

Last night's trans-Atlantic redeye was catching up with me, but here I was in South Africa for a day, and I wanted to see more than starched linens. After a quick, scalding shower and an update e-mail to my parents, I was back out in the hotel lobby arranging a driver to the Lion Park, the most ecosystem-themed attraction on the advertisement. I didn't have time to be picky.

The afternoon ended up pricey, over $100 for the outing including the hour-long drive both directions, the safari tour, the dark-chocolate ice cream bar and the colorful bird postcards I couldn't resist, but it was well worth it.

Ostriches, the enormous ratite relative of Brazil's rheas.

Unreal to see a zebra. Hard to imagine those stripes out on a wild savannah.

The giraffe wanted treats, but we hadn't brought any.

This giraffe stuck out her big black tongue just to make sure I didn't have any leaves up my sleeve. I would have rather been in a wild setting, or a more ethical zoo, where the animals weren't fed by tourists, but it was cool to see a giraffe tongue up close.

A Nile crocodile under the boardwalk.

My driver gave me an unsolicited, marvelous, hour-long lesson on South African language and history. The "white languages" are English and Dutch-derived Afrikaans, spoken widely across the country but the first language in only a small percentage of households. Several of the "black languages" are mutually intelligible, and the two I'd been hearing were Zulu and Xhosa. The X in Xhosa is pronounced as a click.

My driver told the story of his country from the pre-colonial tribes to the Dutch invasion to the Apartheid era to the modern reign of  the African National Congress. I was angered to hear about Nelson Mandela's political imprisonment, and flat-out floored to learn that Apartheid ended as recently as 1994, the year I was born.

"We black South Africans now have political power," he summed it up, "but the whites still have economic power. We are 80% of the people and they own 80% of the land."

He was happy I was going to see the Lion Park, he told me, it's very nice, "but next time, go to the Apartheid Museum." I promised him I would.

Our tour guide, Tlhogi, identified the various hooved mammals for us. These are blue wildebeest, or brindled gnu.



I was not happy that my entrance ticket included "animal interaction" which turned out to be lion-cub petting. It's not good for the cubs, and I would rather watch a lion in its ecosystem than pet a cub as if it were a domesticated kitten.

Those teeth would be better known as "felines" than "canines."

Hand-washing appeared to be as big an attraction as the lion cubs themselves. The keepers couldn't tell me if there were any particular diseases transmitted by petting lions, but I imagine there is zoonotic potential.

An endangered African wild dog, familiar to me because they are a main attraction at the Woodland Park Zoo a mile from my childhood home.

We saw three antelope species: blesbok, springbok, and impala. This is a blesbok, identifiable by its white face and long horns.

Here, a male springbok grazes next to a cattle egret. I was thrilled to see a cattle egret in Africa, where it's unequivocally native. (These ungulate-loving birds has self-introduced all over the world, including America, Brazil and Galapagos, following our ubiquitous companions, cows.)

Although the fauna was disappointingly zoo-like, the flora was wild. Then again, this plant looks suspiciously like an introduced agave, native to the Americas.

Cacti or euphorbia?

A pair of laughing doves with blue shoulders.

Gray loerie, known to the zoo-keeper as a "gray go-away bird."

I was more enthralled by the wild birds than the captive mammals, and I pestered a few of the keepers for their avian knowledge, but mostly they didn't know. I got lucky on the following morning's flight. By chance, I found myself sitting next to Malcolm Powell, former CEO of the Wildlife Society. Having retired from professional conservation ten years ago, he was on his way to Madagascar to volunteer for environmental education. He's also an amateur ornithologist who was happy to identify the birds in my photos.
Red rooibos tea was the obvious choice, as the world's supply is grown in the South African fynbos shrub belt.

South African airport breakfast of ham, sausage, eggs, tomato, toast and a leaf of arugula -- also the only green leaf commonly available in Brazil, and luckily one of my favorite foods.

The "kingfisher" logo on my Airlink flight to Madagascar.

The next morning, I enjoyed a South African breakfast in the airport before my straight-forward hop to Madagascar. The bus from the gate to the airplane, I discovered, leaves approximately five minutes before the flight is scheduled to depart, casting serious doubt on yesterday's story that I couldn't possibly board the plane. But I wasn't salty about it. I was grateful for my unexpected detour to the southern tip of continental Africa, and I know exactly where I'll be going if I ever get lucky enough to come back.