Study Abroad: Lions, Elephants, And Snakes — Oh My!

The Frisky’s former intern extraordinaire, Daley, is studying abroad during her spring semester. Over the next several months, she’ll be writing us dispatches from her studies in  Africa. 

My butt was starting to ache as his backbone constantly shifted from underneath me. With every step he took, my thumping heart was anticipating a fall as I held on for dear life to the experienced rider in front of me. My legs stretched out farther than they ever have and the blanket placed between us was doing little to subside my distress. It was my third week in South Africa, I had yet to start school, and I was free riding the world’s largest land animal.

Exploring the Knysna Elephant Park on top of an impressively robust three-year-old elephant has been one of the few adventures I’ve gained over the past month. From dancing to Bob Marley’s jams in a Rastafarian community to petting a tiger cub, I’ve done more exploration in the last two months than I have in the previous two years.

While touring South Africa’s Garden Route during our week-long break before school began, I found myself tipsy before 10 a.m. on the tour’s first day — the result of a wine tasting excursion where no grape went to waste. As we passed through the countryside to our next location, the Cango Ostrich show farm, I think I was the only passenger who did a double take when I saw cows and ostriches casually grazing side by side. I thought that was strange, until we visited the farm, where multiple fellow travelers rode the ostriches. Every rider gripped the giant bird’s feathers as each ostrich darted around its pen, an unnatural vision I never wish to see again. After I opted out of falling 700 feet at South Africa’s highest bungee, my safety sensibility was rewarded during the car ride home, as I was alive to witness the most sensational canvas of stars I have ever seen.

The physical beauty of South Africa quickly dissipated after I went on township tours and began volunteering every Wednesday at an after school program in the Khayelitsha township. Located half an hour from Cape Town, the Khayelitsha township’s population boasts 300,000, all beautiful, energetic and inspirational people living in impoverished conditions. Sitting quietly in the window seat of the bus, I passed by barefooted children, climbing on metal poles and rolling wheels around with two sticks, a form of play I’d never seen. Packs of stray, skinny dogs follow the little boys and girls as they sprint toward the bus to greet us, with some of the widest smiles I have ever seen spread across their tiny faces. Those Wednesday hugs from my 5th grade tutees instill in me a sense of accomplishment and purpose that I have never felt before. I am amused to find that my math skills constantly advance during every session, with my students teaching me the quickest and most accurate subtraction methods.

My 5th grade math skills are not the only thing with which I struggle. Despite my years as an active Girl Scout, I regrettably learned that my camping skills are embarrassingly limited. After nine nights in Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Zambia during the recent Easter spring break trip, convenient accessibility to a shower is now a gift I will never take for granted. Spending a night on a deserted island off the Okavango River was the most difficult period of our trip, where clean, running water was only available miles away, and our “toilet” was a deep hole dug into the ground by a shovel.

Although I was not the most comfortable camper during my overnight stay with wild hyenas, the spectacular and inspiring vistas I experienced made up for my vexation. The perpetual rainbow bending over Victoria Falls, was, of course, magnificent, but my favorite part of our trip was our two-hour venture down the Okavango Delta in makoro boats, a canoe constructed by digging out the trunk of a straight tree. While a skilled Botswanian propelled our small, handcrafted vessel forward with a tall, sturdy stick, I could have sworn I had entered the gates of heaven while soaking up the African sun and floating gracefully past never ending beds of water lilies.

My spring break trip wasn’t all lilies and sunshine, though. Diva Daley quickly transformed into Dare Devil Daley, while tears were shed and a heart beat grew vehement as I walked with lions, free fell over Victoria Falls, and encountered two Black Mamba snakes during our excursion to the three different countries.

While snakes were the scariest creatures that slithered past us, they were also one of the smallest we saw. During our 12-hour safari day trip drive, watchful eyes for Africa’s “Big Five” grew disappointed, and scarce sights of elephants, giraffes, zebras and hippos caused fellow travel mates to pass out asleep quietly in our jolting safari vehicle. Ironically, it wasn’t until we exited the game reserve that a plethora of giraffes were found walking along the highway, and a herd of about 20 elephants, adorable babies included, were casually crossing the road by our campsite.

But back at home, on the campus of the University of Cape Town, elephants and giraffes are no longer in sight, and the only animals I gawk over are the birds that are far too comfortable around students on campus, pecking at food currently being eaten by humans and flying dangerously close to everyone’s face.

Unfortunately, my 10-day African adventure came to an end, and three papers and too many pages of reading were awaiting me in Cape Town. For the first time since I arrived in South Africa, I was forced to recognize the word “study” in “study abroad.”

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