27 years and 8,461 miles away: My South African Birthday Surprise

3:05 AM Jmo 2 Comments

     My past three birthdays were spent in South Korea. The first birthday I was 3 weeks-new to the expat game, yet somehow managed to find myself on stage winning a Gangnam Style dance contest. That night raised the stakes pretty high in terms of world-wide birthday celebrations, I must admit, as it fed some serious fuel to the expat-lifestyle-fire. I feared it was to never be outdone. 
     Fast forward three years to now, 2015. I’ve since left Asia and currently find myself in the diversity and complexity of South Africa. Transitioning here has been bumpy, and sometimes I can’t help but fantasize back to the neon glow, safety net of South Korea. But alas, love makes you do silly things…

     Turning 27, or as I like to call it Three Away From Thirty, in my current surroundings was leaving me feeling a little bit irked. I’ve felt quite out of place in South Africa and seem to constantly be struggling for a foothold. Perhaps the fish-out-of-water feeling has finally lost its honeymoon, trial run appeal. Maybe the suitcase needs to be put in the attic for a wee bit...
     With all that being said, I’d always thought when growing up that I’d be well “settled” and “established” by my mid-20s. Whatever that means… Ha! That mindset has since evolved obviously, and it’s one that I’m completely fine with throwing to the wind nowadays in chase of a plane ticket. I’m really usually not too concerned about getting older, I swear! I don’t mind finding new smile lines. That is, until September 15th creeps up on the calendar and I find myself feeling older and disjointed and disconnected in a foreign country; a sure cocktail for gloom. 

But don’t you worry! This quarter-life crisis, self pity party has a happy ending. :)


     The Sunday of the weekend before that dreaded calendar day, Chris, my partner in crime, travel, and drinking too much, woke me up at 7:30am. He said we needed to leave around 8:30am to “get there in time”. I had no idea where we were heading off to but I could clearly tell by his kind eyes and smirk on his face that he was quite proud of himself. 
     We started driving out of the city and by my round-about sense of direction, I noticed we weren’t heading towards Joburg. So that ruled out the Johannesburg Art Fair, which was finishing up that day, our friends photography studio, and the Johannesburg Lion Park. We kept driving and the red dirt grew higher and narrower making its way onto the road and upwards to form hills and cliffs. We drove until the red dirt grew then receded back to give way to a more lush countryside with a lone ostrich running along its fence line. We drove further and met the base of mountain surrounded by small towns, fever trees, and eventually a large dam giving off the feeling of a small oasis. We were in Hartbeespoort. 

     Still not sure of our end destination we continued through the little touristy town full of bead shops, boutique accommodations, and hat vendors. We curved around a slight bend when I saw a slender, pale yellow sign: Elephant Sanctuary. I gasped and welled up. “Is this where we’re going? …Is this where we’re going!?” And that’s when I ugly-cried.

     This is something that I’ve always wanted to do! And Chris knew that. He’s the best.
I’d seen and been around elephants before. My first jaunt here in South Africa I was lucky enough to be taken to Kruger National Park where I saw African elephants for the first time in the wild. It was a stunning experience and one that I wont soon forget. Prior to that, I’d only seen elephants in zoos or being wrangled for tourists in South East Asia; neither of them being treated very well I’m afraid. And this is why I’d wanted to visit a sanctuary so badly. 

     The sanctuary facilities and surrounding areas were beautifully kept and ornamented. Wood carvings, playing to every tourists wants and needs no doubt, packed every space inside the welcome center. The backside of the center, prior to elephants, was a large forest area that dropped off and bled seamlessly into the center itself. This was the monkey sanctuary. 
     We followed our charismatic and knowledgable guide, Simba, down the pathway leading through the trees. Branches flicked above announcing the presence of macaques and lemurs. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a lemur before in a zoo, let alone one in the wild. Simba pointed out a long black and white tail fluttering amongst the branches. “Look, there’s King Jullian himself!”, he recited. 
Simba also explained some interesting flora in the sanctuary. There were these trees that if you looked at them starting at their trunk, they looked to be a normal tree. But if you followed your eye upward, instead of typical branches they changed course to find what looked to be cactus. Interesting, and deadly. These trees are highly poisonous so don't mistake them for a water source. Or a fire source. Apparently some hikers used the dried branches of this tree to make a nighttime fire years back. Unfortunately, the group never woke up because of the poisonous fumes given off. Yikes.
     We walked a bit further and just before we reached the gate to the elephant enclosures we stopped. Littering the path and jumping between small trees were teeny-tiny squirrel monkeys. These little suckers were fast! I half expected one to jump out and onto my shoulder. So sweet, so lively and something I’ve never seen before.

     We entered the elephant sanctuary and were led to an opening with a few logs as benches and a thin wire rope to separate us from what was to come. Simba gave a brief ‘how to’ when it comes to engaging with an elephant and gave a brief history of how the elephants came to be at the sanctuary. Some were rescued from habitat destruction, others from under-funded zoos, and others from the threat of poaching. These elephants were not “trained” by any means and were still very much wild. Their caretakers though have built up a relationship with their respective animal through food. “No food, no relationship”, said Simba.
     We waited for a few moments (the elephants were on “Africa Time”) and then, silently, these gentle giants appeared. There were two of them and they were huge. As much as you can read in a book “African elephants are larger than Asian elephants”, seeing them both up close and witnessing the comparison is an entirely different event. They were also a red-sienna color because they’d be enjoying a dust bath.
     It was also clear that the elephants had very different and distinct personalities. The larger of the two seemed to be enjoying her time in the spotlight, while the other one seemed as if he couldn’t be bothered and just wanted his treats. We were set to touch the “movie star” of the two. But before the encounter began, the elephant handlers asked each elephant to “trumpet”. Both elephants flapped their ears and let out a powerful call, so powerful you see red dust rushing towards us. Then the handlers asked them another command which made the eles let out sound that was comparable to a low purr. I had no idea they made that sound! 

     We were motioned over to cross the thin wire rope and began our encounter. At first I just stood their stunned. I forgot I could reach out and touch them! Then the guide promoted me, “Touch! Touch!”, and then I felt along the side of her cheek. Then up her trunk. Her skin was much softer texturally then I’d imagined. The dust created a velvety layer over her dense and prickly skin and the grooves and wrinkles created faux barriers between different features. I couldn’t believe how deep the wrinkles seemed to go! 
     The handler then told us to look at her long eyelashes and to feel the under-flap of her ear and then to rub her belly. She didn’t seem to mind as she was preoccupied with vacuuming up all the goodies being tossed out in front of her. She continuously swept her long trunk across the dirt floor in an “S” motion looking for more snacks. A woman after my own heart.
     We then moved to her backside and she lifted up the bottom of her foot for us to feel. Underneath her foot was dense, hard, and slick much like a human fingernail. But what’s incredible is that an elephants foot has an extremely sophisticated network of muscle tissue that allows it to walk along in the forest without breaking twigs and making sound. The muscles feel along the ground and compensate and shift to accommodate what they may be stepping on. 
     Then we moved on to her tail, which looked like an old Chinese painting brush. Large, barb like bristles protruded out from its end. After the tail, we moved back up to the front and the elephant opened up her mouth for us to check out her teeth and tongue. She seemed pretty happy to do this because after we snuck a peek she munched down an entire mouthful of pellets and fluttered her ears back. (Side note: In the wild it’s said that when an elephant flutters its ears it’s a warning sign and you should back away. These guys however used it as a show of gratitude and enjoyment.)


     After our ele petting, we were offered a “kiss” from the small elephant of the two. Definitely couldn’t pass this up. Chris went first and got a slobbery trunk, suctioned cupped to his cheek. I soon followed and was greeted by a vacuum sealed trunk to my cheek and throat followed by what can only be called a “raspberry”. haha! I walked away with a face full of red mud and a dorky smile that can only come from being kissed by an elephant. 
     Chris and I waited as the other people from our group took turns petting and engaging. We were part of quite a diverse group and I couldn’t help but think of how incredible of an experience this was for people of all backgrounds to engage in. Books and film can only do so much. Actually seeing these beautiful, powerful, and gentle animals within arms could very well change someone’s mindset on animal conservation forever. As Jacques Cousteau once said, “ We protect only what we love.”

     After the “encounter” we followed Simba up a slight hill to a clearing that belonged to a large, 45 year old giant that was rescued from a Bloemfontein zoo. He was big. Perhaps the biggest I’ve ever seen. And you could tell this one had another personality all his own. He fluttered his ears and looked at us longingly. We were about to hand feed him and obviously he knew that.
     One by one we scooped food pellets into our hands and walked up to a line drawn in the sand. The big guy then would reach his trunk forward so we could dump his long awaited treats into nose and he would flutter his ears once again in appreciation and shoot the pellets back into his mouth. 

     After a brief anatomy lesson, the culmination of our tour at the sanctuary was walking “trunk in hand” with an elephant. We were led out to a large, circular area adjacent to the pens the elephants sleep in at night. One by one we were called out to join with a guide and take a stroll around the enclosure. The guide told us to stand in front of our elephant and drop our hands backwards, palms and fingers curled up, so the ele could grab hold of our hand as we led. The entire process went a bit fast and I think I was in a bit of a surreal shock to have really enjoyed every moment of it, but I do remember the texture of the inside of the nostril. Imagine the most corse nose hair… but fifteen times the length, paired with hot breath puffing down onto you. Elephants’ trunks are the strangest things if you think about it. Mouth? Hand? Nose? All of the above? Whatever you classify it as, I had my fingers up in it!

     The tour itself lasted about 2 hours. It was sad to leave of course. I could’ve stayed there all day (all week?) perhaps. But next on our agenda was catching a pint at the local Chameleon Brewhouse and heading up the Hardebeesport cableway to take in the view.


     It was an incredibly beautiful day. And one that breathed a bit of life into my time here in South Africa. Much needed breath. I was feeling a bit of an expat lull; displaced, depressed, discouraged. None of the above being a wanted companion thousands of miles away from home. But standing next to something so graceful, so beautiful, incredible and monumental can put your small things into perspective. Compared to the size of an elephant, my issues are Sure, not every day can be spent at an elephant sanctuary (Well, maybe it can. I mean…seriously, let me know eh?), but why not turn and try to face each day not as a means to an end, but on the backs of enjoying the big, the small, the different, and the familiar.

     Telling the customs agent at the airport you’re another year older really isn’t that terrifying. What’s terrifying is falling into regret, monotony, and the pessimism that comes with focusing on a number to compare yourself too. A standard. Sure I feel in limbo here in South Africa. But this is due to certain outlying factors that I can’t really control at this very moment. But what I can control is relishing in the moment: Relishing in where I am, what I’m seeing, what I’m doing, and whom I’m with. And the beauty of that is: Where I am is incredible. What I’m doing is unlike anything I’ve ever done before. And whom I’m with, I love. Taking all that into account, being 27 with a very blank page ahead of you doesn’t sound so bad after all. 

So here’s to you Three Away From Thirty!  May I greet you tomorrow with open arms and a dirty face from where I kissed by an elephant. Bring on the year I say~

For more information on the Hartbeespoort Elephant Sanctuary visit: http://www.elephantsanctuary.co.za
And for more information on conservation efforts of the African elephant, please visit: http://www.africanconservation.org
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