Elephants were the itinerary for the first weekend I was in South Africa, but after that incredible outing, it was time to get down to business. I flew to Johannesburg on business and it was time to clock in. I had a week of community liaison office coordinator training ahead of me- a very full week of conducting training sessions for CLOs posted mostly in Africa, but a few from other regions, who were looking for support and a deeper understanding of their roles in their embassies and consulates. This was an amazing week of teaching (it made me realize how much I miss my classroom!) and networking, but as soon as we wrapped up the last session on Friday afternoon, I was off making plans for a Saturday trip to the lion park!
With my flight out of the country not until Saturday evening, I had two choices for my last day in South Africa: massage and manicure at the hotel spa, followed by a lazy afternoon and then a late checkout, or, an early morning van pickup to the lion park, followed by a fast shower before heading to the airport, thanks to that same late checkout.
There was no question where my money was going.
Lion park or bust!
The lion park was about an hour (in a different direction!) outside the city, but the drive was beautiful and after a week of long days in a classroom, it was nice to see something beyond cement sidewalks and shiny mall corridors. Going to the park early meant missing the major crowds, so I signed up to be there as they were opening. After a quick check-in and getting my paper bracelets showing my admission levels, the first stop was the safari truck. This looked exactly like you might imagine. It was a beige colored vehicle with rows of seating set inside a metal framed cage, the idea being that the animals are free roaming and the humans are the ones with restricted access. The tiny/mini-safari lasted just an hour, but we got to see several lions up close (it was morning, so they were all lolling about in the grass, sunning themselves, not giving much heed to the truck that rumbles by a few times a day. Dinner had obviously been good the night before, as there was no interest in their visitors, either as entertainment or food.)
The safari in miniature, while billed as lion-centric, wasn’t confined to large cats. Our truck rolled through a large savanna populated by a variety of other African species: gnu/springbok, wildebeest, zebras (a baby!!), giraffes, ostriches, and wild dogs, just to name a few. The itty-bitty zebra foal was adorable- he couldn’t have been more than about a week old, still learning to make all four of those long legs go in the same direction at once and really wanting to frolic with the gnu, who ignored him entirely.
Post-safari-ito, it was time to utilize my second paper bracelet- the one that gave me access to the lion cubs! Just four months old, but already enormous and with paws bigger than my hands, these three guys were available for limited hours each day. It was a slow morning at the park (it had been a really rainy week in Johannesburg, so tourism was down a bit), so I go the chance to spend time with just the animals and one other person, a CLO from the training who joined me on my last-day outing. The cubs, two yellow and one white, were amazingly soft and loved to be petted on the back and behind the ears, but were not fans of anything beyond the ears! Being morning, they were also not at their most active, mostly lazing about on the rocks and occasionally glancing in our direction, but at one point I did have a small wrestling match with a little guy who decided a bit of play was in order. The handler seemed a bit worried when he nipped at my arm during our wrestling, but I had no complaints! I was bit by a lion while in South Africa for work! (Comp claim??)
With an evening flight to catch and a looming hotel checkout deadline, it was time to say goodbye to my new feline friends, a goodbye that would extend to the city, country, and continent as a whole. Two weeks is a fast first visit to a new place and I know there is much I missed between my tours, museum visits, and market shopping, but I can’t complain about having the opportunity to see and experience and entirely new piece of the world.
After a very long flight back to the States (17++ hour from Johannesburg to Atlanta, seated next to a man on the aisle who seriously didn’t budge for the first ten of them), it was nice to be back home. Again, chatting over our cubicle walls, (no prairie dogging, rather we just chatter back and forth throughout the day, mostly about work issues, but occasionally about life in general), someone started talking about getting back from their last trip to Africa and how they got pulled aside at customs because they marked “yes” on the customs form, question 12 where it asks if you or your family had been in close contact with livestock (touching/handling) while overseas. I asked why she would check yes to this and she said because they went to an elephant park as a part of their trip.
Laughing, but a bit baffled still, I asked about it again and again, she mentioned the elephants.
Okay, so maybe this is an issue of definition. I’m currently reading Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper, about the wonders of lexicology, so my brain is steeped in all things dictionary-related and figured maybe it was a misunderstanding on my part, as English is a fluid, living language with every shifting meanings within its scope (side note: I want her job [side, side note- look for a Card Catalog Review on this one in April]). In my Idaho-bred world, “livestock” refers to farm animals. We’re talking about pigs and goats and cows—things that young Idahoans don white shirts and black slacks to show in rings during county fairs under a green clover adorned banner of their local 4-H club. These are the critters that earn kids top ranking blue ribbons, which the same kids then turn around and betray in an auction to sell them off to the highest bidder, sending them right to the butcher. The kid keeps the blue ribbon and the buyer gets a winter’s worth of meat for their freezer. That’s livestock.
Elephant are not livestock. Although, the mental image of 4-H with elephants is an amusing one, especially at the end-of-fair round robin competition. (Apologies to those not fully steeped in county fair protocol. You’ll have to Google this one.) Customs does not care if you touched an elephant, cuddled a lion cub, or chased an ostrich. They do care if you kissed a chicken or wallowed with a pig. Barn yard disease- that’s what they’re watching. Bird flu. Swine flu. Not pachyderm flu.
I may be been exhausted and jet-lagged and I have been known to mess up my customs form (hence, the passport debacle in Mexico in January), but I am confident in my reading/interpretation of the regulations. Elephants and lions- you’re in. Chickens and pigs- beware!
Out of flora and fauna, it always seems to come back to the fauna with me. Whether it is a call asking for advice on shipping pets overseas (yes, we get those often in FLO and no, we do not have an answer, the OBC is your best bet on that one!) or recommendations for the best animals adventures overseas, I find myself drawn into critter-related discussions on a regular basis. The question is will I talk about it, but for how long!
Next up on our travel itinerary- Iceland. Do they even have animals?