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South Africa

Sabi Sands, South Africa: Come On and Safari With Me (Pt. 1)

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.

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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.

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From Mpumalanga, we boarded a tiny bush plane bound for the Arathusa Airstrip.

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That's airstrip, not airport.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Thoughtful touches, like a soaking tub for two and an outdoor shower, completed the suite.

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And what Marula lacked in privacy when showering indoors, it made up for with the private dipping pool and secluded patio.

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We weren't completely alone, though.

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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.

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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.

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That afternoon was our first game drive.

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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.

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Though it was only our first drive, we were thrilled to spot three of the Big Five . . . and their babies.

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We also saw the first of many, many impala, a medium-sized antelope native to Africa.

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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.

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Scheduled roughly halfway through each evening game drive, sundowners are the South African version of happy hour.

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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.

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The second half of our inaugural drive was just as awe-inspiring as the first.

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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.

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It was the experience of a lifetime.

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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.
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CLICK HERE TO READ PART 2!

Posted by TraceyG 05:28 Archived in South Africa Tagged safari kruger kruger_national_park sabi_sand sabi_sands arathusa safari_lodge Comments (11)

Sabi Sands, South Africa: Come On and Safari With Me (Pt. 2)

The next morning -- early, early morning -- was our first pre-dawn game drive. We roused ourselves at 4:30am, which was just enough time to shower, brush our teeth, and get over to the lodge for Pre-Breakfast 1.

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We set off on a completely different path from the day before (as we would do for every game drive), spotting kudu, waterbuck, and the ubiquitous impala along the way.

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Pre-Breakfast 2 was served mid-safari at roughly 7am.

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Afterwards, our talented tracker, DeBeers, led us to a Cape buffalo and a stunning, elusive leopard, rounding out in just two safari drives the Big Five we'd hoped to see.

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As well as the baby elephants I couldn't see often enough.

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After the game drive, it was time for our third meal of the day, Official Breakfast.

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When we arrived back at our suite after stuffing ourselves silly, we discovered that some visitors had been monkeying around the place.

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That afternoon was spent lazing around the pool in hopes of seeing a passing elephant (me) and passing out cold from lack of sleep (Angel).

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On the evening game drive, another surprise: Animals we never expected to see in Africa, like turtles, owls, saddle-billed storks, and technicolor lizards.

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And a few we did expect, like hares, mongoose (mongeese?) and vultures.

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Plus zebras which, amid all the green, looked suprisingly more exotic than any other animal we saw on safari.

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As well as the "usual" kudu, hippos, and lions.

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Dinner that night was held outdoors in Arathusa's boma, a wooden enclosure traditionally used to house livestock.

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After dinner, we hung around the bar for a bit . . . because the armed guard who escorted us back to Marula each night had spotted some leopards near our front door.

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Which has to be the best excuse I'll ever have for ordering another round.
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CLICK HERE TO READ PART 3!

Posted by TraceyG 05:04 Archived in South Africa Tagged safari game_drive kruger_national_park big_five sabi_sands arathusa Comments (3)

Sabi Sands, South Africa: Come On and Safari With Me (Pt. 3)

Another morning brought another pre-dawn wake-up call, and another surprise: Rare African wild dogs, an endangered species with only four remaining populations in Africa, one of which is in Kruger.

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The painted dogs were beautiful, but can anything beat the cuteness of a baby giraffe who thinks you can't see him?

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Later, more lions and some wildebeest, though -- lucky for the wildebeest -- not at the same time.

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That afternoon, we joined one of the rangers on a nature walk around the Arathusa property.

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I won't lie: I think I'd rather have seen a rabid wild dog than this giant termite mound . . .

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And whatever the heck this is.

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Our last evening safari didn't disappoint: We saw leopards and zebras; Angel got to ride back to the lodge in the tracker seat; and one of us went, well, full bush.

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Our last dinner under the boma was a celebration of food, wine, and the friends we'd made along the way.

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We were scheduled for one last morning game drive before checking out. It started out a bit drizzly, so we donned a couple of oversized rain ponchos and headed off into the bush.

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Eventually the drizzle changed over to a much-needed heavy rain, and we returned to the lodge, chilly and soaked, for a fireside breakfast.

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I told you we were roughing it out there.

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Next up, a week in Cape Town, one of the most over-the-top cities we've ever visited. Because looking like a dizzyingly beautiful combination of Santa Barbara, Tuscany, and Aspen isn't enough; Cape Town also has a food scene like New York City; a vibe like Southern California; a design sensibility like Paris; world-class wines like Napa Valley. . . and PENGUINS.

Posted by TraceyG 05:40 Archived in South Africa Tagged safari game_drive kruger_national_park sabi_sands arathusa Comments (7)

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