Over the past few years, as we've watched more and more of our friends hit the Big Five-Oh, Angel came to realize that no matter how big a blowout celebration was held, a birthday still lasts, well, one day -- or maybe a week, if one is lucky -- and then it is forgotten, like so many sets of keys and pairs of glasses and other things that (I hear) one misplaces when one reaches the other side of 50.
And so, the least selfish man on the planet suddenly and uncharacteristically declared that when he turned 50, he planned to keep the party going . . . all year long. "The Year of Angel," as it came to be known, gradually took shape, ranging from a bourbon tour of Kentucky (with detours to the Louisville Slugger factory, the Muhammad Ali museum, and Churchill Downs, all a gift from his generous friend Robert), to Yankees spring training in Tampa with his baseball buddy Brian, to a birthday-night dinner in Anguilla, to a cigar-and-mojito fueled trip to Havana, to the, er, wildest trip of them all: An African safari.
Our adventure began with a short, scenic flight from our home base in Cape Town to Nelspruit Airport in Mpumalanga, and if you think that's easy to say, then you didn't have nearly as many sundowners on your safari as I did on mine.
From Mpumalanga, we boarded a tiny bush plane bound for the Arathusa Airstrip.
That's airstrip, not airport.
After exhaustive research in which I ruled out (1) all of the ultra-luxurious lodges that look like Ralph Lauren ads and cost more per night than my monthly take-home pay, and (2) those that allow very small children -- obviously a natural fit given that safaris feature large and sometimes deadly wild animals, a guide carrying a loaded rifle, and the expectation that everyone will be quiet -- we settled on Arathusa Safari Lodge.
Luxurious enough to offer essentials like hot showers and air conditioning, but rustic enough to require an armed escort to our suite at night, Arathusa has just thirteen suites, nine of which face a waterhole (now dry due to South Africa's ongoing drought) and four of which are remotely located within the bush.
Sought after due to its prime location within the Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve, which itself is adjacent to the vast, unfenced Kruger National Park, Arathusa also featured a comfortable outdoor bar and lounge, a large swimming pool, and -- incredibly, given its far-flung location -- some of the best food we've ever had on any vacation, anywhere.
We booked early and had our choice of suites, ultimately deciding on Marula, one of the four remote bush suites and the furthest one from the main lodge. Given the suite's luxe furnishings and private swimming pool, you might not think we were really roughing it, but that's only because you didn't see how far Marula was from the lodge's cocktail bar.
Thoughtful touches, like a soaking tub for two and an outdoor shower, completed the suite.
And what Marula lacked in privacy when showering indoors, it made up for with the private dipping pool and secluded patio.
We weren't completely alone, though.
Upon our arrival, we had been greeted at the airstrip by one of the guides, who ferried us over to Arathusa just in time for lunch.
Most people who spend time in the bush are fearful of contracting malaria or being mauled by a wild animal; I, of course, was worried that I might starve to death (and had packed a bag full of granola bars just in case). And so I should have known -- when Arathusa staff didn't even let us see our suite before whisking us off to lunch -- that my fears were not only unfounded, but ridiculous: Arathusa fed us so heartily, and so frequently, that I am pretty sure Angel once faked a headache just to avoid stuffing down a three-course lunch mere hours after the mid-morning snack, which itself had been preceded by breakfast and a pre-breakfast snack. Me, I'm down with any place where lunch is the fourth meal of the day.
That afternoon was our first game drive.
Concerned that the late December summer foliage would obscure our viewing, we'd brought along a high-powered zoom lens . . . which turned out to be almost completely unnecessary.
Though it was only our first drive, we were thrilled to spot three of the Big Five . . . and their babies.
We also saw the first of many, many impala, a medium-sized antelope native to Africa.
We came to prefer the evening game drives to the morning ones for several reasons -- no 4:30am wake-up call; the opportunity to bask in the late afternoon heat; and returning to the lodge in the soft blue twilight -- but the main one was . . . sundowners.
Scheduled roughly halfway through each evening game drive, sundowners are the South African version of happy hour.
And that is how I had the best gin-and-tonic of my life, at a makeshift bar in the bush, under the late afternoon warmth of the African sun.
The second half of our inaugural drive was just as awe-inspiring as the first.
That evening, exhaustion from the long day of travel started to catch up with us, but Arathusa had a little surprise in store before we could return to the lodge: Dinner in the bush, under a dark sky blanketed with stars.
It was the experience of a lifetime.
It had been a day filled with incredible firsts, and I was worried that we would barely sleep trying to process all we'd experienced. But the thought of getting to do it all again -- but this time at 5:30am -- was a powerful motivator, and we willed ourselves to sleep . . . counting impalas.