What I Learned About Africa the First Time Around (and Why We’re Going Back)

I uttered what I think might go down in history as the most bougie phrase ever known to mankind last week.

“Weeeeell, last time we were in Africa, we stayed at…..”

I said it not once, but TWICE while catching up with friends, both of whom probably immediately regretted asking me what big exciting trip we had coming up.

My manpanion/life-partner XFE and I have become known as “those people” in our own individual circles—the couple who are always planning their next big trip. Finagling airline partnerships and air miles to upgrade to first class and work in the longest possible layovers on a multi-stop ticket, cashing in hotel points and free resort nights to stay in ridiculously luxurious rooms, relentlessly researching destinations and options and meticulously planning where we’re going to spend our time and money.

Our next big trip is a bit different. It’s XFE’s 40th birthday and there was only really one place he wanted to spend it, regardless of airline miles (we were able to use plenty of those), hotel points (nope, none of those being used this trip) or cost (yikes)—on safari in Africa.

This is not our first time in Africa. We actually went to South Africa for my birthday in March 2014, which is why I was able to say something as bougie as, “Well, the last time we were in Africa, we stayed at….”

elephant bud

Of course, with our next trip to Africa only three weeks away, I’ve been thinking a lot about that last trip.

South Africa was never really on my travel bucket list. As I’ve said before, I’m pretty risk adverse, and well, Africa seemed a bit risky, a bit unstable.

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Speaking of risk, I do not recommend ingesting the priced-to-move ostrich bitong, unless you want other parts of your body to also move. (Not mine: I learned my lesson about cured meats from the Great Northern Italian Food Poisoning of 2011. XFE, however…..)

Sure, I’m a huge animal lover and intellectually, at least, I’d like to see animals in the wild, but again, being risk adverse, I always worry something bad might happen. I have a huge amount of respect for animals in the wild and would not want to do anything that might set them off. And who the hell knows what might set them off? I have a lunatic house cat who meows at walls, corners and sometimes electrical sockets. No idea why.

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He is asleep, right? Like, really asleep, yes?

Plus, a lot of those animals in the wild look pretty dang skinny. I’ve been poor. I know what hunger feels like and when you’re hungry, you might just be willing to eat anything, including some stupid tourist distracted by their camera.

But it turns out, there was a whole lot I didn’t know about South Africa (shocker, I know).

Like, how much I would love beautiful, bustling, exciting Cape Town.

Cape Town collage

I also had no idea Cape Town had such a crazy good food scene. Like, really, really good.

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The Old Biscuit Mill where we had a couple of great meals.

Including probably my favorite meal ever at Test Kitchen. No big deal, just the best restaurant in Africa. No, seriously. Other, fancier people have said so, too. They even made broccoli super cool and delicious. BROCCOLI, people.

Test Kitchen collage

I didn’t know about South Africa’s amazing wine country (we only made it to Stellenbosch, but there’s also Franschhoek, Constantia Valley and Helderberg, among others).

Stellenbosch Collage

So much amazing wine.

SA Wine Collage

And so many really gorgeous hotels, especially our villa at the Clouds Estate.

Stellenbosch Hotel Collage.jpg

I didn’t know I’d be allowed to pet a cheetah (check that one off the life list).

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That’s my pudgy little pale hand on an actual young cheetah. Right there. I died.

I didn’t know about Sabi Sands, a 65,000 hectare private reserve bordering Kruger National Park. It’s very unique in that it’s privately owned by individual land owners/families.

Sabi Sands Collage

I didn’t know South Africa had places like the 5-star Savanna Lodge, where we stayed back in 2014.

Savanna Lodge Collage

I suspected–but didn’t know–that Africa had so many wonderful people like the staff at Savanna Lodge. We were treated like treasured family members (including a little post-game drive champagne party on the morning of my birthday).

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Or like our ranger Patrick and his nice gun-toting tracker friends who pointed out all the cool, dangerous animals and would protect you from said animals if necessary.

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The biggest revelation was the animals themselves, who aren’t really interested in eating stupid tourists at all when there are plenty of other, more tasty, less noisy food options available.

bored animal Collage

And actually would just really appreciate it if humans would leave them to their whole Circle of Life business.

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In fact, they’d probably also appreciate it if humans would stop killing them into extinction.

Rhinos Collage
The African rhino (on the right) was our most elusive animal to find, mostly because they’ve been poached into near extinction. And we all know about elephant poaching.

So, we’re going back to South Africa. Sadly, we’re skipping Cape Town and Stellenbosch. And we weren’t able to book Savanna Lodge, despite planning this trip a year out (there is, understandably, quite the demand for their nine luxurious tent-suites).

We’re really excited to be staying five nights at Leopard Hills, another 5-star lodge in Sabi Sands.

Then we’re going on to another six nights of safari, this time in Tanzania, including stays in a glass-fronted tent suite at Lemala Kuria Hills and a bushtop tent at Serengeti Bushtops. We’ll finish up with four nights at the Manta Resort on Pemba Island, including a night in their underwater room. Yes, I said underwater room. The room is underwater.

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It’s really an once-in-a-lifetime trip. But, for the second time.

Friday Links: Sea Turtles and Legos Edition

Keep your head above water, little dude.
Keep your head above water, little dude.

I did not include enough turtle pictures in my post the other day. Here’s some additional ones, supplied by the ever patient XFE:

Turtle release in Bali
You can just see two little dark spots in this photo. Those are our boys.

Turtles at the St. Regis BaliTurtle release in BaliTurtle release in BaliTurtle release in BaliTurtle release Bali

Unflattering photo aside, I am essentially a giver of freedom, basically. A hero of nature, some might even say.
Unflattering photo aside, I am essentially a giver of freedom, basically. A hero of nature, some might even say.

Date Night Redux

The components of a good date night (from this last Saturday).

Peru perusing

 

Perusing a book on Peru with a cosmo.

XFE drink

 

Chef XFE’s cocktail of choice.

Steak

 

Steak waiting to be grilled with it’s little friend, asparagus.

domino potatoes

 

Domino potatoes waiting to go into the oven.

Wine

 

Wine decanting.

Howard

 

Howard on demand.

Judge Toons

Petunia, acting like she doesn’t really want to be around us, but also, doesn’t want to miss any of the action.

Steak finished

 

Potatoes finished

Dinner

 

Everyone all together now.

(Not pictured: excellent conversation with XFE)

How Not to Do Date Night

My super significant other and I had one of those so-called “date nights” the other night. Well, I guess you could call it a “date night.” We put on real clothes and left the house for a pre-planned activity.

This is one of those things you have to do when you’ve been together for seven years to remind yourselves that you have a life together outside of the confines of your own house and things to talk about besides what TV show to watch that night.

However, this date night was missing a particular ingredient that I am quite sure is necessary for a true “date night” – wine.

A few months ago, when XFE’s family was coming into town for Christmas, I was looking around for activities to keep people happy and occupied. That’s when I stumbled across Sur La Table’s cooking classes. While I didn’t find anything for that particular timeframe, I did see that they had an upcoming January class called “Date Night: Exquisite Spain.” Since we had just been to Spain, I thought it might be fun for us to learn how to make some Spanish foods.

slt kitchen

(Not that we—supreme smugglers of chorizo and paprika—don’t know how to make any Spanish foods, by the way. But work with me here. I was trying to do something cute.)

We went a bit early to swing by DSW and buy some terrible ugly but knubby shoes for hiking in Peru. Of course, being fully dedicated to “date night,” we bought matching shoes. That should help solidify our “taken” status on Machu Picchu. Pretty sure these shoes guarantee no one’s going to try to steal either of us away from the other.

shoes
Please note the Petunia photobomb

With time still to kill before our cooking class (ugly-practical shoe shopping took less time than we had allotted), we stopped at an Irish-themed bar for a drink and a small snack. While tucking into some mediocre calamari, we talked about the last time we’d taken a private cooking class at an Italian restaurant – which had included wine – and wondered whether tonight’s Spanish cooking class would include any of the wines we had had in the Rioja region.

“They might not serve any wine at all since they (a) aren’t a restaurant and (b) don’t sell wine,” XFE pondered.

“Pshaw. Of course there’d be wine at a cooking class. How absurd!” I scoffed.

“But what if they don’t,” XFE queried.

“Well then, we should just leave immediately,” I countered hotly.

Then we made our way over to Sur La Table.

This particular Sur La Table cooking school is apparently the most busy in the franchise. Our kitchen contained two steel prep tables, with space for approximately 8 people at each table. In front of us were name tags, an apron, some utensils, including a chopping knife and board, and our recipes for the evening.

slt recipes

Our instructor, Chef Anna, invited us to grab some water or make ourselves a coffee from their very fancy coffee machine. And those, dear reader, were of course the only two beverage options to part Chef Anna’s lips.

“Excuse me. Where’s the wine?,” I asked.

“Oh, we unfortunately don’t serve wine. We don’t have a liquor license,” Chef Anna said.

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Probably the only time I was not excited to see coffee.

At which point, I wish I could say we made good on our earlier pledge to abort the whole fiasco. However, as XFE pointed out, we’d already paid our $79 per person, might as well suck it up and stick it out.

Things pretty much went downhill from there. Not because of the lack of wine, mind you. Well, not entirely. But primarily because of the complete skills gap between us (fairly proficient kitchen masters) and the other students, who apparently, did not know how to chop garlic, heat oil in a pan, and were puzzled by the term “brown the chicken.”

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10 pieces of chicken prepared by 8 ‘chefs’

Each step of the very simple recipe confounded our cohorts. And, let me remind you, we had very simple recipes printed out for consultation right in front of us AND a kitchen staff who were on hand to answer any questions and clear away used utensils and even finished off cooking our desserts for us.

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Since there was literally not enough work for all eight of us at the table (two garlic cloves and two onions to chop, two burners/skillets to oversee), XFE wandered over to a bookcase near the door and began perusing the ginormous, six-volume Modernist Cuisine set gleaming away in it’s acrylic cube.

I hesitate to call it a cookbook. It’s more like an amazingly photographed encyclopedia of contemporary cooking. We’d only heard about it (it was a prize on an episode of Top Chef several seasons ago), but we’d never seen a set in person (at least, I hadn’t. XFE probably had.)

He was absorbed the whole class, which was fine by me since I was feeling so apologetic about the whole enterprise at this point. We spoke to Chef Anna during our much-deserved (HA) break, and she told us they actually sold the set at Sur La Table. A quick conversation with the store manager confirmed they had just one set left, and that it was on sale, and we also had a 10% coupon, thanks to our cooking class.

The behemoth set came home with us and is now occupying a large amount of space on our kitchen counters. We celebrated the purchase with a well-earned bottle of wine, and a vow to avoid “date nights” for a while. I guess the evening wasn’t such a bust after all.

modernist

Thanks for the Days Off, Sandy

As you all know, thanks to the amazingly overblown non-stop SuperStormActionTeam coverage, Hurricane Sandy blew through the Eastern seaboard and gave us all a couple of days off. Which is all well and good. I mean, I’m not one to turn down a few days off from work, but it did promote a sort of forced closeness with your loved ones.

(By the way, am I the only one who kept thinking about Pecan Sandies every time this hurricane was mentioned? I love those things. I don’t know how I resisted the urge to buy some. Oh, wait….I didn’t do the hurricane prep.)

A little advance warning would have been nice. Of course, I knew a hurricane was coming, but I’d like to know ahead of time that the government, and by extension my office, would be closed. Then we could maybe plan a vacation, a sort of long weekend somewhere much warmer and less rainy.

As it was, my FEMA-partner-for-life XFE and I were up each other’s behinds for four days. I gave him Friday night off to go see my favorite band of all time, the Old 97s. I’ve basically known those guys since they played weekly gigs at the Barley House in Dallas. Rhett looked like this back then.

He’s aged nicely.

XFE, meanwhile, did the adult-responsible-couple thing and actually went out and stocked up on provisions to get us through the weekend, including the makings for “Sandy” crab pot pies and bacon, avocado and tomato sandwiches on sourdough bread. Yeah, we eat rull, rull good around here.

My contribution to our weather preparations was the stash of ridiculously overpriced candles that I hoard in cabinets throughout the house. It’s……a problem. I really can’t help it. And I light them all the time….summer, winter, it really doesn’t matter. To the point that the house is a haze of smoke, but I don’t care. I love me some candles.

The forced couples time also allowed us to do some Spain planning, which is going along swimmingly. We’ve locked down a route, an itinerary, a couple of wineries, and a few restaurant reservations.

Look how happy this couple is! Enjoying a shared activity and matching head wear! (We will not be shooting in Spain, by the way)

When couples time and trip planning got old, I went upstairs, dragged out all my stored winter wear, and put away my summer gear. This project was a mixed success – I got to spend the entire afternoon buried in my closet, organizing and reorganizing my clothes, which is one of my favorite activities ever. Should I organize by sweater type or color? Let’s try both! However, I also had to try on a bunch of last year’s clothes and that was a bummer. Of my five winter skirts, four had to go; and of my six winter pants, three are barely allowed to stick around. They’re actually on probation.

Weak from sucking in my breath and trying on clothes, I somehow allowed XFE to drag me to my first BodyPump class at the gym this long weekend. Normally, there’s no way I can get home in time to make it to that class in the early evenings. XFE has a bit more flexibility, so he goes a couple of times a week. Since we were home on Tuesday, we went to the 12:15 class. I literally used the lowest weights available, so I thought it was an ok class. It was challenging, but I wasn’t dying afterwards or anything. I guess a whopping 5 pounds of weights isn’t really going to knock anyone out.

Honestly, the whole time I was thinking about how as soon as we were done, I could go back to drinking wine on the couch and watching the marathon of “Million Dollar Decorators” with total immunity, smug in my fitness. Plus, I was so busy looking at all the see-through yoga pants in the class. With every squat, I was treated to a peep show suitable for adult-access cable. And there were a lot of squats. And the class was packed with these wanna-be exhibitionists. Just tortured lycra and ass crack everywhere I looked. Very disturbing.

So that’s how we rode out the storm. Looking at booties, drinking lots of wine and champagne, making fun of the poor weather people trying to be professional while getting their legs swept out from under them by incoming waves. Pretty good times.

Oh, and we had no storm damage. No leaking windows or doors, no wind strewn lawn chairs or trash cans, no power outages.