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Celebrating Life in Southern Africa

Five years of remission marks a milestone to most breast cancer survivors. I, like my sisters of this sacred sorority, gladly weaned myself off Tamoxifen, noticed my oncologist appointments were reassuring chats more than vocabulary quizzes of medical jargon, and scheduled mammograms every year instead of every six months. Definitely, my time to celebrate had arrived.

I wanted to capture life's essence. I wanted to experience wild rawness. The countries of Southern Africa proved the ideal place to grab hold of life's adventurous journey.

Mike Nesbitt, of African Safari Company, tailor-made my itinerary with Thompsons Tour. Additionally, I ventured off solo to visit Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana. Magical encounters unfolded to teach me about life.

A short drive inland from George, South Africa, and in-between Cape Town and Knysna, sits Oudtshoorn. Here at Safari Ostrich Show Farm, I dined with others in my tour group on ostrich steak, savoring its tender red meat. Then we began our visit to learn about these largest of birds in this feather capital of the world. I stepped on ostrich eggs. They did not break. Alma, our guide, asked me if I wanted to mount an ostrich. I had pledged to do the unbelievable and so I plucked myself on Speedy Gonzales. Then Alma instructed me, "Rub his neck. Coo lovingly to him. Let him know you like him." I followed her directions and evidently passed the test. The next thing I knew Alma asked me, "Would you like to ride him?" Simple instructions came my way: lean backwards and hold on to his outstretched wings for dear life. And, with that, a paper bag was momentarily placed over his head. Then off came the bag and off flew Speedy and I. We darted around a race-track lap, Speedy in control and non-fazed by my laughter. At Oudtshoorn, I learned that we are meant to soar.

Nearby the ostrich farm sits Cango Wildlife Ranch. Mohammad Ali, our Thompsons guide, arranged photo shoots for us there. These were far from ordinary photo shoots. For my first one, I entered the domain of Sitara and Sahir, two nine-month old White Bengal tigers bred and born at Cango. These cats can leap 30 feet, jump nine feet, and kill animals twice their size. I waltzed into their home turf, appreciative of their welcome as the species is on the verge of extinction with only 250 White Bengal tigers in the world. The trainer placed his curled hand into their mouths. It reminded me of my grandson's pacifier. I knelt down and cradled my body over theirs. Their fur was softer than any Angora sweater I had owned. Their crystal-blue eyes held fast to mine as if casting a spell of comradeship. In their home, I came to know magic.

I then entered the neighboring home of three cheetah cubs: Kimi, Kofu, and Keegan. At present, between 9,000 and 12,000 cheetahs roam, world-wide. Cango has bred over 100 cheetahs since 1982 and has saved others caught in traps in Africa. The cubs cuddled at my feet and purred in response to my petting. The trainer told me that they are the only big cat capable of purring. And with that, I entered their world. I began singing them a lullaby, "Hush, little baby, don't say a world. Mama's gonna buy you a mockingbird bird." Then, reality hit me. These cubs will receive much more than a mockingbird. They will grow up to become the fastest animals on earth, achieving speeds of 70 miles per hour. In their home, I came to glimpse the future.

On safari at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park outside of Durban, South Africa, we saw a kill. Wild dogs chased an impala that slipped in the river bank. The dogs sprang and ripped open their victim, only to have hyenas show up and take over the feast. Minutes later only scraps remained, dessert for the dozens of vultures that finalized the scene. My eyes became glued to this three-act play of life and death. At Hluhluwe-Imfolozi, I learned the uncertainty of life.

At Kruger National Park we heard monkeys alert fellow inhabitants that lions were on parade. Three cubs rested on a large rock. Mom Lion promenaded to her young. In precise procession, the family marched behind her with Father Lion's presence announcing the finale. Mom then scooted the cubs off the rock to nurse them. The family encircled them, looking on protectively. At Kruger, I witnessed the beauty of family.

I left my Thompsons Tour group and flew from Johannesburg, South Africa, to Livingstone, Zambia. From the airport, Wild Horizons shuttled me to Lokuthula Lodges, which shares the National Park of the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge. Monkeys and baboons watched my every move, ready to scoop up a water bottle, sunglasses, or granola bar if left unattended on my patio. Warthogs paid no attention to "Keep off the Grass" signs. No need to hire a gardener to mow the lawn here. Vultures swept down by the hundreds every afternoon precisely at 1:00, knowing that the lodge would throw them a water buffalo carcass for their feast. Afterwards, some of the storks were bloated and could not immediately fly away. I laughed at all of these antics and came to know my laughter as an integral part of enjoying life.

Titus, Wild Horizon's sales manager at Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, took charge of my itinerary. At Wild Horizon's Elephant Wallow, I met Jespes, a nine-month-old orphaned elephant. This noble giant sauntered gently through the savannah, slowing down ever so often to nod toward a kudu, bushbuck, or zebra. At the end of the ride, Jespes knew the routine. He had been good to me. Now I was to return the favor. I scooped up his food that resembled dry dog food nuggets. I said, "Trunk Up" to feed him in his mouth. I said, "Trunk Down" to feed him in his trunk. At Elephant Wallow I saw the result of loving hands rescuing life.

The next day I met Bhubesi and Batoka, sister and brother 14-month old lion cubs. Lion Encounter breeds lions and then initiates a four-step process to eventually introduce these animals into the wild. In their natural environment, with no leashes or collars, I walked alongside Bhubesi and Batoka. I knelt down by their sides to pet their golden coats. I inspected their wide-opened jaws, realizing that their teeth could crunch—but they were happy merely to grin and show off a cavity or two. When they tired of my petting, they scampered away and played with one another. From Bhubesi and Batoka, I learned to respect instead of to fear.

Titus exclaimed, "No one should come to Victoria Falls without rafting the Zambezi." He failed to tell me that it's a 400 foot climb down the ledge to the river's starting point. Oh, yes, he also neglected to mention that it's another 400 foot ascent at the end of the day. I simply nodded my head and said, "Sure, I'll do it." Little did I then know that "doing it" would entail:

1. Falling 20 feet down the cliff to be rescued by a gloriously scrawny tree that sprouted from the rock

2. Applying Neosporin three times daily for the next three weeks to wounds and bruises

3. Maneuvering through 23 rapids (five were Class Five and one was a non-navigated one-ranked Class Six)

4. Flipping our raft on Rapid Number Five: Stairway to Heaven

5. Shouting Hail Marys to escape the ravages of Rapid Number Six: Devil's Toilet Bowl

6. Pledging to phone and thank all mothers I ever knew and ever will know on Rapid Number 13: The Mother

7. Escaping the whirlpool of Rapid Number 15: The Washing Machine

8. Forgetting the worst of it on Rapid Number 18: Oblivion (Half of all rafts flip on this rapid)

9. Coming to know the value of a Coke when one's sugar level has hit bottom

10. Gaining a new appreciation for young lady accountants—my fellow rafters

11. Having the crew bestow upon me the nickname, Zambezi Mama

12. Coming to know the best river guide imaginable: Colgate

13. Realizing that terra firma feels awfully good at the end of the day.

From the Mighty Zambezi, I learned that one's attitude in facing challenges charts one's journey in life.

My month's trip encompassed South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. I met new friends named Canaan, Mohammad Ali, Creto Ngwenya (The Crocodile,) Qondani (To Be Straight,) Mkhohusi (Forget Us Not,) Precious, Innocent, Gift, Freedom, Divine, and Shalom. I saw a bustling country preparing for the 2010 World Cup. I saw another surviving in spite of dictator Robert Mugabe, 93% unemployment, and an inflation rate at 231 million percent. In this far-away continent, I came to soar, encountered magic, gazed into the future, learned of life's uncertainties, witnessed family love, laughed at life, marveled at the miracle of a rescue and furtherance of life, and renewed a pledge to face life positively. I thought back and realized that I had somewhat done all of these in my fight against cancer. But it is Africa that taught me to celebrate all that life gives.

Southern Africa Side Bar:

I. South Africa

A. Mike Nesbitt, African Safari Co., affiliates with Thompsons Tours: "World in One Country" 800-414-3090.

B. I recommend attaching a few days stay extra in both Johannesburg and Cape Town to see more sights of these cities than the tour entails. Day trips can easily be scheduled at the hotels to meet your interests.

II. Zimbabwe

A. Lokuthula Lodges, P.O. Box 29, Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. (daily or weekly rental of lodges, plus RCI affiliate)

B. Victoria Falls Safari Lodge. Less than three miles from Victoria Falls. Every hour a courtesy shuttle drives to/from the town and falls. Lokuthula Lodges is adjacent to Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, sharing the grounds of the National Park

C. Recommended restaurants: The Boma (at Lokuthula Lodge—presents a three hour buffet/show nightly) and Mama Africa Restaurant (kitty corner from entrance to the falls—excellent salads.

III. Botswana

A. Chobe Marina Lodge. Beautiful accommodations at river side. Excellent restaurant. Can go on a day trip through Wild Horizons in Zimbabwe or stay for a spell.

IV. Excursions:

1. In most of the hotels, Thompsons Tours had a desk to assist with added tours

2. At Victoria Falls Safari Lodge and in the town of Victoria Falls, offices of Wild Horizons offers a multitude of excursions, from animal encounters, canoe safaris, the longest zip line in the world, helicopter rides, The Gorge Swing (a 70 meter free fall before going into a 95 meter long pendulum type swing,) to rafting the most challenging one-day trip in the world: The Zambezi!

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, Side Bar:

I. Accommodations

A. Lokuthula Lodges, P. O. Box 29, Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. (daily or weekly rental of lodges, an RCI affiliate)

B. Victoria Falls Safari Lodge. Shares the grounds of the National Park with Lokuthula Lodges.

Less than three miles from Victoria Falls. Every hour a courtesy shuttle bus drives to/from the town and falls.

Feeding of vultures every day at 1 p.m., walking down from pool deck

II. Restaurants

A. The Boma. Located at Lokuthula Lodge. Presents a three hour buffet/ show nightly. Extensive buffet, plus dancing, singing, face painting, story-telling, crafts selling

B. Victoria Falls Safari Lodge

Snacks and light meals plus full course dinners served in restaurant overlooking the National Park

C. Mama Africa Restaurant

Kitty-corner and up a short block from entrance to Victoria Falls.

Excellent food, fine service, reasonable prices

III. Excursions

A. At Victoria Falls Safari Lodge and in the town of Victoria Falls, offices of Wild Horizons offers a multitude of excursions, from animal encounters with lion cubs and elephants to canoe safaris to the longest zip line in the world to helicopter rides over the Falls. They also offer The Gorge Swing (a 70 meter free fall before going into a 95 meter long pendulum type swing)

B. Wild Horizons can book excursions into Zambia and Botswana. I highly recommend going to Chobe in Botswana for a safari, either for a day trip or staying at Chobe Marine Lodge.

C. And, of course, don't forget rafting the most challenging one-day trip in the world: The Mighty Zambezi!

A retired school teacher, Bonnie Lynn now enjoys travelling when kids are in school. She lives in southern California and enjoys, besides travelling, grandkids, Labradors, reading, and swimming. And, of course, can't forget the pasta and gelato.

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