Girls Gone Wild

All-women safari pursues the beasts—and culture—of South Africa without the guys.

Marty LeGrand -

Girls Gone Wild

All-women safari pursues the beasts—and culture—of South Africa without the guys.

Marty LeGrand -


Wielding one of the more out-of-place objects you'll find in South Africa's Kruger National Park—a cell phone—Karen Ashley was describing to a colleague back home days six and seven of a two-week "she-fari." If it's possible to sound utterly relaxed and terribly excited in the same breath, the fearless leader of an adventurous group of women did.

"I'm sitting under a tree with a glass of wine in my hand, and we're watching an elephant grazing in the shallows upriver," she said. "We've only been here [in Kruger] a day and a half, and we've already seen things wildlife photographers wait a lifetime to see."

During their first 36 hours in one of Africa's most famous game reserves, the travelers had driven upon the aftermath of a lion kill attended by numerous vultures lurking in a tree nearby, seen a group of hyenas menacing a lone lioness too aged or ill to flee her tormentors, and watched a noshing pachyderm, a large bull, from one of the most spectacular vistas on the trip.

The elephant was clearly visible from where the women sat in a hilltop camp perched several hundred feet above a bend in the Olifants River, which winds through the northern portion of this 217-mile-long park. The view from the safari skybox was breathtaking, they said.

Karen, who grew up in South Africa and whose accent still bears traces of her homeland, had enticed her friends for years with tales of home and her return visits to this vast and culturally diverse country. When they suggested that her South African background made her a natural tour leader, she organized the All-Girls Safari (more familiarly, AGS) and brought five seasoned travelers, among them her daughter Tamzin Smith, the group's official photographer, to South Africa for their first visit. The mission: a convivial group exploration of the country's rich culture, art, history, fauna, and flora from Kruger in the northeast bushveld to the Cape of Good Hope on the southwest coast. The caveat: no husbands allowed.

By trip's end, the "girls" (ranging in age from 41 to 65) had covered probably 2,000 miles by mini-bus, rental car, SUV, airplane, cable car, and a variety of practical footwear. An ambitious, logistically complicated itinerary any male would be proud to complete, theirs also allowed ample time for shopping and getting to know one another.

Lodgings ran the gamut from a luxury resort and spa in the Magaliesberg Mountains northwest of Johannesburg to the simple thatch-roofed huts, called rondawels, in Kruger, where the women grilled boerewors (the Afrikaans' spicy "farmer sausage"), drank fine South African wines (the official beverage of the AGS), talked, laughed, and gazed nightly at the velvety, star-stippled blackness of the African sky.

For 15 days, "we didn't have to worry about whether our husbands were having a good time. It was all about us," said Elizabeth "Betty" Royer (aka "Miss Kitty"), an Annapolis resident whose accounting skills earned her the role of managing the communal purse strings and calculating exchange rates.

The women went where they wanted, lingered as long as they wanted, even enjoyed a bit of solitude if they wanted. "We just rolled with it," said Connie Schroth, a semi-retired educator and one of four Eastern Shore residents on the trip. "It was gratifying to see how well we got along and managed."

On safari, they became even more adventurous, more self-reliant. Not well-known—many of them—to one another, they went to Africa and became a supportive, carousing circle of new-found friends.

I was supposed to be the seventh member of the All-Girls Safari. But four days before the flight to Johannesburg, my immune system packed its bags and headed elsewhere, leaving me with a bad case of the flu that progressed into viral meningitis.

It's an odd feeling to reach the eve of one's Trip of a Lifetime and then abruptly pack it in. My initial disbelief (I rarely even catch a cold!) ran headlong into deep disappointment.

Optimistically, I rebooked my South African Airways flight, intending to join the group in Cape Town 10 days late. But Plan B was scrubbed after the only place I landed was the hospital.

So I'm telling the story of the sisterly safari through my sixth senses: Karen, Tamzin, Betty, Connie, Chris Hauss, and Nancy Bennington. Generously, they've shared their impressions, stories, journal entries, and photos—hundreds and hundreds of photos—so that I can recount their adventures.

Pre-Trip

Sunday brunch is a civilized way to plan any trip, and we had two such gatherings at Karen's home in Chestertown, where we dragged out maps, flipped through guidebooks, agonized over our itinerary, and debated the pros and cons of various antimalarial drugs.

About the size of Texas, California, and Pennsylvania combined, South Africa has 11 official languages, three different capitals (one for each branch of government), and widely varying climates more common in a continent than a country: arid in the northwest, subtropical in the northern mountains, Mediterranean in the coastal south.

Personal interests established our three-part itinerary.

Karen, a graphic designer and owner of a graphic/advertising service, and several others were keen to explore South Africa's vibrant arts scene. Through local connections—Karen's sister Ingrid, an art professor at Tshwane University of Arts and Technology in Pretoria, and Ingrid's friend Sue, a member of the National Craft Council of South Africa, both of whom would join us for part of the trip—special visits were arranged to galleries, an embroidery factory, and remote village cooperatives west and south of Mpumalanga and Limpopo.

What's a safari without wildlife watching? The Kruger National Park near the Mozambique border is South Africa's oldest game reserve, where we were able to book two-night stays at a pair of the park's self-catering rest camps—Olifants (oo-li-fahnts, Afrikaans for elephants) in the northern region and Skukuza, the park's largest camp, in the southern. From these comfortable bases, we'd set out each day on self-guided safaris.

For the final leg of the trip, we would fly southward to Karen's hometown, Cape Town, where we would rent a vacation house near the beach. With magnificent Table Mountain as a backdrop and the Cape of Good Hope at its front door, this is South Africa's most beautiful city. It's also a fount of national history, the place where Dutch traders established the first colony in 1652 and where majority rule finally came to South Africa with the election of Nelson Mandela's African National Congress party 15 years ago.

A South African Journal

Day two: After getting settled in on the first day, the AGS's first close encounter is with Africa's beloved symbol, the elephant. These massive creatures, keenly intelligent and deeply social, are perhaps too beloved in South Africa. Their protected population has grown beyond sustainability, according to the government, which earlier this year approved a controversial program to cull the herd. At the Elephant Sanctuary in Magaliesberg, the experience of observing, touching, and walking hand in trunk with these gentle, remarkably silent-moving giants (nicknamed the Ghosts of Africa) can move you to tears. And there's nothing like being on the receiving end of an elephant smooch: "like a vacuum cleaner that's wet and dirty," explained Tamzin.

Day three: The AGS arts safari began in the former gold-rush town of Graskop, where guests at the unconventional Graskop Hotel and gallery can literally sleep with the artwork. Owner "Pancake Harrie" Siertsema, crêpe impresario and collector/patron of contemporary South African art, had young artists—abstract and pop, photographers, printmakers, a glassblower, a wood worker—decorate the B&B's distinctive Artist Rooms, whose original decor challenges guests' perceptions of their environment, not to mention their imaginations. Forget pancake notoriety; one AGSer dubbed Harrie "the Medici of South Africa."

Day four: It's a truly memorable day as the ladies call on local craftswomen and dance the night away, African style. Handmade crafts are an important source of income for the residents of many South African communities. At Kaross Embroidery, talented seamstresses use tiny stitches and bold colors to render fanciful elephants, giraffes, crocodiles, birds, trees, and other folk images inspired by nature on strikingly handsome textiles.

Most tourists bypass the long, dusty roads that lead to local artists' cooperatives like the remote potters' village to which Ingrid and Sue guided the group. Too bad. Everyone agreed it was one of the more rewarding encounters of the trip: watching the women at work, getting to know them, tossing a ball with their sweet, shyly smiling children.

The Tsonga Kraal open-air museum, the day's final stop, replicates a native village as it looked a century ago. The "interpreters" are members of today's Tsonga tribe. As their special guests, the group was treated to a feast and ritual dancing by the village sangoma (shaman) and tribal women, whose skirt ruffles were, in traditional fashion, covered with beads. With a slight shake of the hips, the dancers would set the beads in motion. "The next thing you know we're all out there," conga-lining around the fire until 2 a.m.—apparently the first white visitors to participate in the dance, Karen said. "I didn't want the night to end. It was the most amazing experience I've ever had." Likely so for several of the Tsonga as well. While the others were shaking their beads and booties under the brilliant light of the Milky Way, Chris, who lives in Chestertown but hails from Europe, was teaching the locals to waltz.

When the Americans reluctantly departed, they received a soulful send-off, Karen said: "a farewell song chanted by a group of African women as they accompanied us down a bush trail in the dark to where our cars were parked."

Days six to nine: The women go into deepest Africa. Spreading across two northern provinces, the Kruger National Park is now part of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, which, when completed, will allow wildlife and tourists to roam freely between the South African preserve and smaller parks in neighboring Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Visitors can drive their own (closed) vehicles through Kruger, but must obey several rules, paramount among them: stick to the roads, stay in your vehicle, and get back to camp before the gates close. (The rest camps are encircled with electrified fences, which are closed at night to keep out predators.)

The prize of any Kruger safari—guided or self-driven—is to spot the Big Five (elephant, lion, rhino, cape buffalo, and leopard), which the AGS accomplished over a span of four days. There were plenty of other sightings, too: nearly 60 different species of animals, birds, and reptiles (including hippos, waterbucks, kudus, giraffes, wildebeest, warthogs, steenboks, eagles, hornbills, and crocodiles).

Cooking and dining took place on the rondawels' covered patios. Everyone pitched in to make dinner, usually accompanied by a few bottles of South Africa's very reasonably priced wines (50 rand—about $7—buys excellent quality). Nights were pure magic. "We went to sleep listening to the rushing [river] and the sounds of hippos and lions roaring back and forth," Nancy said.

Days 11 to 13: Kruger has its Big Five, but Cape Town has the "Big Six," a half-dozen must-see attractions in and around the city. The safari sisters visited five of them in three days. (Not that women keep track of such things.)

Table Mountain, the 3,563-foot-high slab of sandstone—reached via revolving cable car—that affords sweeping views of city and sea; it's home to rock-dwelling critters such as black girdled lizards, the spitting image of a crocodile in miniature.

Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden on the eastern slopes of Table Mountain, a world-renowned floral kingdom exhibiting one-third of South Africa's plant species.

Groot Constantina, a truly vintage vineyard/estate (established in 1685), whose Manor House and Cloete Cellar exemplify the finest in Cape Dutch architecture, a legacy of the Cape's early settlers.

Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, Cape Town's working harbor and shopping/entertainment district, where craftspeople sell their wares in open-air markets and you never know who you'll encounter. (Would you believe a man with his pet seal?)

Cape Point, which is not, as some mistakenly believe, the southernmost tip of Africa. Visitors standing atop this jagged, windswept promontory between the Atlantic Ocean and False Bay just feel like they're riding the prow of the continent. (The Cape of Good Hope forms the western end of the peninsula.)

To round out Cape Town tourism's Big Six, travelers can take the ferry boat departing the V&A Waterfront for Robben Island, where the prison in which Nelson Mandela and other political dissidents were held has been converted into a museum telling their story.

Day 14: You can't enjoy South African wine without visiting its source. The university town of Stellenbosch, east of Cape Town, is the acknowledged wine capital of South Africa, the heart of a region known as "the winelands." The AGS visited three wine estates: ultra-chic Dornier, whose industrial, anti-Cape Dutch design reflects the tastes of its surrealist-painter founder Christoph Dornier; stately, historic Vergelegen, which 10 years ago hosted presidents Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela with their first ladies; and Karen's favorite, Muratie, which wears its musty old-worldliness proudly.

When it comes to Africa, I suspect we're all hopeless romantics. Connie placed traveling there on her "to do" list at age 50: "Finally getting there was a dream come true. Going there with a native South African gilded the lily."

South Africa remains on my list now more than ever. But next time I'll heed a line I'd forgotten from one of Karen's trip-planning e-mails: "Hamba kahle." It means "go well" in Zulu—or maybe "don't forget your flu shot."


Safari 101

What you need to take on a trip to the wilds of Africa.

Preparing for a safari is part of the adventure. What to wear? What to bring?

What to pack it all in? Which essential-but-overlooked item will mostly likely have one smacking one's forehead while in the middle of the bush?

When journalist Henry Morton Stanley bushwhacked through Africa in search of Livingstone, he's said to have taken 200 porters. Our local assistance was more modest: hired guides/drivers in both Johannesburg and Cape Town (much better, and less expensive, than rental cars or taxis), plus Karen's relatives and friends, who piloted two cars around Kruger and other destinations. This necessitated a minimal amount of luggage, whose chief attributes were portability and squashableness.

We traveled from late March to mid-April—late summer in South Africa, when days are generally warm (80s and higher), nights cool, and rain often in the form of thundershowers. We clothed ourselves accordingly for an agenda of sightseeing, hiking, safariing, and casual (but occasionally fancy) dining. Following our own chromosomal instincts, we placed high priority on wrinkle-resistance, wash-and-wearability, and color-coordination (khaki, brown, olive, and beige).

I'll never know how well I anticipated my safari needs. In addition to basic clothing and essentials, my gotta-haves included: four pocket-size notebooks, a small bottle of clothing freshener, eight clothespins, belt clips for carrying water bottles, and a travel vest with so many hidden pockets I couldn't even find them all.

I asked the others what items they were glad they packed and what they wished they'd brought:

- Had to have: camera, binoculars, a small reading light, safari pants, good walking shoes, a wide-brim hat, and "a big bag of trail mix."

- Wish they had: a camera lens with greater magnification, more and/or larger notebooks or journals, a video camera, and "something [toys, school supplies, or beauty supplies] for the children."

Finding a Safari

We couldn't have asked for a more capable and enthusiastic safari leader than Karen. But if you don't have connections in Africa, you can arrange a custom or group safari through an agency that specializes in African travel:

- Custom Safaris, Bethesda,
866-530-1982, customsafaris.com

- Explore Inc., Steamboat Springs, Colorado, 888-596-6377,
exploreafrica.net

- Hippo Creek Safaris, Woodcliff
Lake, New Jersey, 866-930-9124,
hippocreeksafaris.com

- Greatways Travel, Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan, 313-886-4710,
greatwaystravel.com

- GAVA Explorations, Somerset
West, South Africa, 27 21 852-5221,
gavaexplorations.com





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