Halfway through their study abroad trip, student-athletes went on safari at Kruger National Park.

Irish Extra: Blog #2 from Notre Dame Study Abroad Program in South Africa

June 4, 2015

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Sometimes all you need is a name, but with Crazy Dave (our safari Sherpa) we got oh so much more.

Crazy Dave came to pick us up early in the morning at the end of our stay in Johannesburg and, perhaps seeking to achieve balance, his partner–the man at the helm of the other van–was predominantly silent. Heading into this portion of the trip, living at the mercy of Crazy Dave and Silent Ted, I began to wonder whether or not (psychology) Professor Anré Venter had set this up as some sort of social experiment.

Crazy Dave voluntarily wears many hats: safari guide, van driver, hostel host, barbeque master, husband, father, marathon runner, nutritionist and an overall good sport, to name a few. A jack-of-all-trades is often a master of none, and it wouldn’t be impolite to say that C. Dave has yet to master the fine art of driving. Based on his name and his entertainingly erratic and enthusiastic delivery, I didn’t expect him to be a good driver, but hopefully a reasonable one, considering all of the precious cargo that was in tow. Cargo is the correct term here, and as senior Irish football offensive linemen Mark Harrell put it, “You have five of the largest human beings on the continent in your van.”

A combination of the wide load and the spirited driving of Dave was no match for the several potholes we encountered within the first two hours on the road. I’m not a car guy, but sure enough, by pothole number seven or so, the van was no longer capable of functioning, damage done to the undercarriage beyond quick repair. Thankfully for us, we were only a couple hundred yards away from a small town shopping center, and so we begged a couple of the Hog Mollies to get out and push.

With a downhill grade ahead and nearly 1,000 pounds of human behind the van, it didn’t take long to get it moving in the right direction. As Crazy Dave coasted away from us toward the gas station, there seemed to be a collective elevation of spirit for the group. It was the type of moment that can happen during travel, a feeling of “going with the flow,” of handling any and all obstacles that arise because you have no other choice but to do so. Nothing like pushing a broken-down van 300 yards down the road in the middle of South Africa to make you feel a sense of adventure.

Up until that moment, the trip had been going at breakneck speed, and the rest of the afternoon ended up being one of the highlights of our time thus far. Corey Robinson and Professor Venter found some off-the-beaten-path type books in a little bookstore. Scott Daly and Jerry Tillery were able to acquire some safari hats in preparation for the next day. And Mark Harrell was nearly tempted into buying a crossbow at a hunting store that was “a quarter of the cost it would be back home.”

Discussion at lunch continued with hunting, the Hunger Game series–and whether or not the turkey is a smart animal. Being seated near Harrell and Randolph, I began to wonder if I was the only one in the group who lacked basic survival skills. Doug quickly reassured me that, “Nah, we’re just country as heck.” And so I finished my fries in peace.

Post lunch, a new van and driver came to pick us up, and after a couple of hours and scenic stop-offs (including the gorgeous, vast Blyde River Canyon), we made it safely to Old Vic’s Backpacker Lodge, situated an hour or so away from Kruger National Park.

The next morning was an early one, for the early bird gets the lion. The group was split among three safari vehicles, and it soon became apparent that FOMA (fear of missing animals) is a real thing. One group saw two cheetahs strolling right next to the road, while the rest of us spotted giraffes, elephants, about a million impalas and some zebras. About halfway through the day, everyone was getting lion-hungry, but all of our leads were dead ends.

We ended Day One with a traditional South African braai, the Afrikaans term for barbeque, at a campsite of sorts within Kruger Park. The night was spent eating and playing games, and I was pleased to see the conversation turn toward spirit animals.

Before we had set out, I made a point of asking all the student-athletes what their spirit animals were, and at the time most of them didn’t have an answer. But one day on safari was all it took to inspire them, as most were quick with suggestions and analyses that evening.

The group decided Jaylon Smith was a leopard, a smooth and laidback kind of cat, but also the most efficient hunter, capable of dragging his prey up into a tree–you never see him coming. Soccer’s Katie Naughton runs like a kudu, but she has the piercing and exacting stare of a lion. Golfer Matt Rushton was a hyena, larger than expected, maligned by the movie “Lion King,” but largely capable of killing and securing its own food. Volleyballer Simone Collins was a cheetah, long and springy, with the hair to match. Corey Robinson was an impala, bouncy and energetic, surrounded by females. Jerry Tillery chose the hippo, preferring to lounge around in water all day, but when provoked, will bite you in half.

We entered the park even earlier the next day and, it’s easy to say in retrospect, there was an optimistic feeling permeating the group. We were now seasoned hunters! The lion would be ours! Sure enough, we were driving for no longer than 20 minutes before we found the king of the jungle.

There’s something about seeing a lion at the start of the day that lends a great sense of accomplishment. It takes away the pressure, and the second day blossomed after that fortuitous start–and what was perhaps just as impressive was the sunrise that immediately followed. The bright orange sun, combined with the early morning dew, created colors and views rarely seen during the course of normal life, beautiful enough to make you want to start every day in the exact same way (lion or not).

The rest of the day in the park was icing on the cake, and we made it back to Old Vic’s Lodge in the early evening and experienced our first waking encounter with load shedding. Also known as a rolling blackout, load shedding is very much a part of daily South African life, as demand for electricity safely exceeds supply.

While this wasn’t the best news for our Wi-Fi deprived student-athletes, it did create an impromptu dinner by candlelight, and much like our detour with the broken-down van, it was another one of those moments where what you receive is better than what you asked for, and you realize that Gmail, Instagram and WhatsApp can all wait.

Crazy Dave totally redeemed himself at this dinner as well, as he guided us through a sort of open forum reflection where everyone had the chance to share his or her favorite moment from the two-day experience. Many chose the lion, some the sunrise–and Jaylon said his favorite moment was when the van broke down, which prompted Dave to give him an enthusiastic hug.

The next morning we said our goodbyes, left for Johannesburg and caught a flight to Cape Town, where the remaining two weeks of the program will take place. In just a week’s time, our student-athletes have seen Soweto, been on safari and hit every museum Johannesburg has to offer. And while the program is only set to last for three weeks total, it has been anything but abbreviated.

by Zach Hillesland