A Little Background
So, I'm sure a number of people to whom I've talked about this trip have silently wondered, "Okay, but why Africa?" Well, this section is for you! After our trip to Europe in 2016, Heather and I realized that our favorite parts of the trip involved being around and interacting with animals and nature, particularly our day with the birds of prey at the Hawk Conservancy in Andover, Hampshire where we participated in shows and learned basic falconry. We thought it would be fun to plan a trip where we step away from the bustling cities and take in the natural surroundings.
After a bit of debate as to whether we go to Australia for a more underwater excursion or Africa for a land-based one, we opted for keeping our land legs. Despite all my desire to take in the culture of the cities and villages of Africa, we decided to stick to the plan and keep to a fair amount of roughing it to take in the areas where humans don't necessarily belong. I'm sure we'd go back to take in more of the culture for a future trip!
After a bit of research, we found a few choice hiking locations, a wonderful-looking elephant sanctuary, and Africa's oldest (and largest) natural reserve that allowed self-guided safaris. We planned out where we'd be heading and, before we knew it, we had over a week's worth of amazing things to do.
Also, since I've had a number of people asking about costs (and I personally think all of us should be more open about finances), the entire trip, from planning to landing back home, cost us $6,276.45. This includes purchases like medication (for malaria prevention) and utilities (like power converters) as well as everything on the trip itself, such as flight, food, lodging, souvenirs for family, etc. The largest chunk of that was the flight, which came in at $2,687.01. Some of this could have been scaled back, but we splurged on extra leg room seats since the flight from Chicago to Amsterdam is ~8 hours and the flight from Amsterdam to Johannesburg is 10+ hours. A small note is that traveling internationally makes exchange rates pretty important. For us, the South African Rand (ZAR) favored the dollar at 14 ZAR to 1 USD.
I'd highly recommend budgeting like this. I can't really take all the credit for it, though. While I help with ensuring all costs are accounted for, Heather manages all the actual data input. Doing this is great for seeing just what you can afford, and helps others understand just how feasible (or unfeasible) a trip of this scale can be, provided you're comfortable sharing financial information.
Flight to Amsterdam
Skipping right to leaving now! I did have a really good run on the morning that we left, but I'm pretty sure I was just full of excited energy that resulted in my best pace since I started running, but that's all I did besides packing. Not terribly exciting stuff. Not that flights are much more exciting either...
Security and waiting for the flight was pretty typical. We left out of O'Hare. This is the flight we were anticipating to sleep on, but I just can't sleep on planes. It's a realization I'm slowly coming to grips with that I probably need to take something that will force me to sleep. Even with extra leg room, what I really need is extra butt cushions! Maybe one of these days, I'll think that business class is worth the expense, but for now that still seems too extravagant. So the first leg was essentially me pretending to sleep. Fun stuff. At least they give out meals every once in a while!
Leaving Chicago at 4:00PM, the flight lasted a bit over 7 hours, and we landed in Amsterdam at about 6:15AM. Yes, I'm using local time for both locations for dramatic effect! This is why we wanted to sleep on that flight, since we'd be arriving in the morning, Amsterdam time. Now we were on a ~4 hour layover. Thankfully, the airline (KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, for those interested) took care of moving our luggage to our connecting flight.
I think other international airports could learn from Schiphol. Beyond the collection of shops and restaurants that are typical in airport terminals, there were also a ton of comfortable places to rest. They had a library so people could read while waiting for flights. Play areas for families traveling with their kids. Really nice massage chairs sprinkled about. A small museum for local culture. They even had an spot for renting time in a quieted area with a bed and shower. In retrospect, I could've really used the shower!
Heather and I tried to get some sleep, sprawling out on one of the many colorful couches in their lounge areas, but I just couldn't get comfortable. Something about being in an airport still made it feel like a flight to me, and I just couldn't sleep. I decided to get up and walk around a bit, and I found something interesting. A piano. With a sign saying that it's there for anyone to use!
Now I may be a zombie from lack of sleep, but apparently I can still improvise in that half-dead state. Even though my hands were shaking from exhaustion (and the low Ab wasn't responding), I pulled a small crowd together. I think I played for somewhere around half an hour. Folks would come by and listen, take short videos, or just say "thanks!" in passing. It was a nice little experience being able to help others relax while they were waiting for their flights.
With our flight time approaching, I decided to accept that I was not sleeping and get some coffee. I might have gotten a pastry of some kind, too. I can't remember. And I was too tired to taste anything anyways. Despite all this, my brain is still super excited to set out again for Africa!
Flight to Johannesburg
Johannesburg is our next stop. I'll learn later that the locals call it Joburg, for short. Which is a nice thing, since Jo-han-nes-burg feels like a lot to say when you're in the middle of saying it.
Not thinking I would fall asleep at all on this flight, I went straight to checking out in-flight movies this time. They had a surprising number of movies in their collection. I ended up watching The Greatest Showman which I was reluctant to see in theaters. Not because I didn't think the movie would be really well-produced, but because I'm not a big supporter of circuses. I even considered not watching it on the flight, but then my brain was like, "Dude, it's Hugh Jackman. Just watch the movie!" So I obeyed my brain's apparent infatuation Australia's gift to the human race, and was not disappointed. The musical numbers were all catchy and wonderfully choreographed. Even for a very sleep-deprived me.
I think I did end up nodding off for maybe an hour or so after that. I know I watched a portion of a David Attenborough documentary at some point. There was still about another 5 hours left to the flight though...
Looking through the movie collection, again, I saw Goodbye, Christopher Robin in there. I figured I might as well watch something new if I was going to watch something, and this was more situated as a biography of A.A. Milne's adult life and the beginnings of the stories and residents of the Hundred Acre Wood, which interested me. It was a very touching movie that gives a nice insight into what drove Milne to create Winnie the Pooh. Long story short, he was tired of war, and having to suffer through his own battles with PTSD, wanted to write something that deromanticizes the concept of war in human society. After a number of failed attempts, he writes stories revolving around his son's imagination that give society a look into the friendly, comfortable surroundings of the world away from the bloodshed of war. I'd definitely recommend it to anyone who is interested in that universe's beginnings. Just don't expect it to be about Winnie the Pooh!
Landing in Joburg!
I'm pretty sure I just sat in the plane, blankly staring at the back of the seat in front of me for the rest of the flight. I take that back, actually. I did that AND listened to a collection of popular African music that they had on the flight to pseudo-prepare me for landing.
As we started our final descent, I was really surprised by how dark it was near the ground. I'm so used to the overbearing light pollution that comes out of American cities, and was internally expecting a similar shine to come out of Johannesburg. But the city was very dim. The landing strip was really dim too. It was definitely a city down there though. Still a decent amount of moving traffic and numerous buildings. This is the largest city in South Africa, so that much is to be expected.
We land, leave the plane, and step into the OR Tambo International Airport. At night. This place is dead! A few security guards walking around, but just about everything here but the bathrooms is closed for the day. We make our way to the carousel to pick up our luggage and find our way to the place we're picking up our rental vehicle for the trip. I thought this went pretty well considering I'm going on about 48 hours with maybe 1 hour of sleep! We find the rental company, sign a bunch of papers, and get our key.
Driving...On the Left Side...
Okay. So we get to the car. A Ford EcoSport, for those interested. White. Which is basically brown with dirt by the time we bring it back, but that's for later! I'm pretty sure Heather went to what she thought would be the passenger seat, despite knowing that it's the opposite here. We're reminded that driving should be a fun puzzle, at least for a little while!
South Africa, historically, was a British colony, so I suppose some of that culture bled into their roadways when they were being developed. The driver is on the right, while the passenger is on the left. Forward traffic is situated on the left, opposite traffic on the right. Your wide turn is a right turn, and the close turn is left. I'm honestly surprised we didn't have more close calls with traffic accidents! Also, the turn signal is on the right side of the steering wheel. I can't begin to tell you how many times I went to signal a turn and the windshield wipers started smearing bug guts all over!
We head out to our hotel (the only hotel we actually stay at on the trip). Night driving is interesting around Joburg. There's definitely light, but it's so much dimmer than in the States. I should've thought that'd be the case when we saw the city from the plane, but I'll chalk that up to the sleep deprivation. I didn't have much energy to expend on looking around, so I really just remember tightly grasping the wheel and overthinking about how far I need to turn when turning right!
Finally a Bed!
We make it the the hotel, a gated community in a suburb of Joburg called Boksburg. At least, I think they call them suburbs. Comparatively speaking, this felt like a suburb. More distance between buildings, occasional gas stations, and shopping plazas. The stoplights are very similar to the stoplights we see in Chicago. The turning lights are right turning lights, and they usually appear to the right of the 3 primary lights. Aside from that, the major difference I noticed was that the lights blink when changing as opposed to remaining constantly lit. Fun fact, the locals call stoplights "robots" as they are effectively automated traffic controllers.
We talk to the attendant at the gate, they let us in, hand us a card, and we're on our merry way. For like a second. The room we're staying at was literally right in front of the gate. And then we were confused. This hotel (I'm not sure if this is typical in the area) had an attached garage for each unit. So you'd open the garage door, drive your car in, close the garage, and walk up some stairs to your hotel room. It's pretty widely known that Joburg is a high crime area. It's why so many of the communities are gated. One of their biggest issues is stealing things from cars, attended and unattended. I imagine the garages help to disguise just how many vehicles are actually in the community to deter theft. In any case, it was pretty neat, whatever the reason.
We head up the stairs after grabbing our luggage. Having a shower for the first time in like 2 days felt like the most revitalizing thing in the world! Being mindful of current events, I make sure not to spend too much time in there (South Africa has been experiencing frequent droughts, and not just the typical winter ones). I flop on the bed, smile, and think, "we made it." I couldn't wait for what the rest of the trip would bring, now that we're officially in Africa. But no amount of excitement could keep me awake, and I was out in a matter of minutes.