Anyone who knows me well knows that the outdoors and I are not always friends, but the 9 days I spent in Kruger National Park while studying abroad in South Africa were some of the best days of my life.
Kruger is massive. It stretches farther than multiple African countries combined and is home to a vast array of animal life and vegetation. I was lucky enough to spend my time in Kruger with people who know the land and its politics better than almost anyone else on this planet. Our guide for the trip was David Bunn, a man whose life is so interesting that it’s harder to find something he hasn’t done than something he has. To give you a taste, David attained his PhD from Northwestern while banned from South Africa because of his involvement with the anti-apartheid movement. He also spent time in the military, makes documentaries, and now researches and lives in Kruger. David became more of a friend than a professor. I spent 24/7 with David and his colleague Nkolani, learning so much in our daily conversations that traditional lectures seemed unnecessary. To have people of such stature eat, live, and hang out with my fellow students and me was crazy, and we were humbled by their care and respect for us. I don’t want to get too wordy, so suffice it to say I benefitted immensely from the amazing connections Northwestern has in South Africa.
We travelled the entire length of Kruger, driving about 5 hours each day and staying in a combination of tourist and research camps. We learned quickly that screaming in excitement when seeing an animal – while in an open air vehicle, mind you – was not the best course of action. By our second day in the park, we were laughing at the GDVs (“game drive vehicles” – essentially pick-up trucks with rows of seating in the bed) full of tourists that stopped to take pictures of Steenboek, a type of common antelope. Just the day before, we had been the newbies that screamed “stop!” at every antelope and took bad pictures of animals’ butts. We soon became interested only in big animals and our “totem birds” (David had us each choose a bird from the guidebook that represented us in some way. Mine had an epic orange mohawk). Throughout our morning hikes and drives, we saw just about everything: a mother hyena playing with her pup, elephant herds crossing the road, rhinos stampeding across an open field, wildebeests chasing a male away from the herd, zebras and ostriches grazing together in the savannah, and buffalo being, well, buffalo. The most epic saga was when a mother and baby waterbuck got stuck on an island in the middle of a river with a crocodile just meters away. Nothing actually happened, but we collectively yelped in fear for the almost-orphaned baby every time the mother stuck her head in the water to get a drink. Waterbucks are pretty stupid (but super cute!) and made for a solid evening of entertainment.
Perhaps the best part of Kruger was the stars. If only I could communicate how absolutely astounding the universe is when you look at it in a place with no other distractions. In the middle of Kruger, with no light pollution at all whatsoever, we lay for hours looking at the millions of stars that we didn’t even know existed. We could see Mars, the entire Milky Way galaxy, and tens of shooting stars. It was stunning (and this is coming from the girl who didn’t exactly connect with astronomy class). Looking at the mass and power of the universe while discussing life, history, and the future with my travel-mates reminded me powerfully of my own smallness. Kruger truly taught me to live life to the fullest and appreciate the beauty around me because life is too short to miss!