Personal Journey: In South Africa, confronting the elephant in the room and outside the room

I hate taking pills, loathe bugs, am terrified of teeny planes, and am generally finicky about what I eat.

So, when I proposed a South African safari to celebrate his forthcoming significant birthday, my husband — who would cheerfully and without hesitation hop on a spaceship to Mars, as long as I made the reservation — was understandably skeptical.

But, hey, as the kids say, YOLO. (In case you’re old: You only live once!)

Determined to step out of my own way, I resolved to take  only my 44 allotted pounds of soft-sided luggage and leave the rest of my silly baggage at home.

We started our journey in Capetown, an incredible city where Old World grace meets hip and happening. There is much to enjoy, but as in all of South Africa, beneath the superb hospitality and geographical splendor there is the omnipresent racial divide, the elephant in the room that is difficult to ignore.

The memory of suffering under apartheid is kept alive at Robben Island, where former inmates of the now-defunct prison lead tours that include the cell in which Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 incarcerated years. We booked a tour, but the island ferry was cancelled due to high winds. Though we did not get to revisit the past, we did get an optimistic glimpse into the future at a burger joint on Kloof Street, one of Capetown’s major shopping areas. Sitting next to us was an interracial group of young girls. They giggled and did their middle school girl thing, easily and naturally, minus the heavy burden carried by previous generations. It was a beautiful, hopeful sight in this country of people struggling to shed the negativity of their past and move forward together.

And then it was time to leave the city for the bush. Juiced up on anti-malaria pills, which were — fortunately and surprisingly — well tolerated, I came face to face with my worst nightmare, a plane the size of a golf cart and a young female pilot who looked barely old enough to drink. As I strapped in, I couldn’t help feeling that my commitment to embrace the moment may have been a bit rash. Of course, Joanie was a skilled professional, and, as the first female bush pilot working for her company, a truly empowered woman.  Small step for Susie. Giant leap for womankind.

The safari portion of our vacation can best be described as an experience of extremes. Extreme five-star luxury in the middle of nowhere with Michelin-chef-quality food. (No, even I could not order sauce on the side when food was this creatively prepared and delicious.) Extreme amazement at the wonders of the wild and the magical moments, like coming face to face with two very large elephants literally blocking the door to our room, that are forever imprinted on the soul. Extreme also defines the amount of time spent sitting in the jeep. Two three-hour game drives per day during which we would run into 30 elephants playing at the watering hole, a lioness feeding her cubs, a herd of buffalo blocking the road, or just miles of dirt road. No matter what we encountered — or didn’t — the seductive and tranquilizing effect of the bush made the hours fly by.

For me, this was a trip of small victories. I mean, seriously, the rhinos marching single file past my room at night were shockingly huge and cool, but when I picture myself climbing into that teeny excuse for a plane, I feel like I’ve taken my own walk on the wild side.

Maybe next time an opportunity to escape my comfort zone presents itself, I will easily summon the fortitude to be, well … game for anything —  anti-malaria pills, huge, bizarre looking bugs, teeny planes, and all.

Maybe.

Susan Pevaroff Berschler is a freelance writer and newly aspiring small-plane pilot in Bryn Mawr planning her next trip.