Monday, May 13, 2013

My first week in South Africa!!!

First of all, hello!!!  I am alive and well after my first strenuous week in AFRICA!  I figured I might as well just start and go with it, so hang in there because I have a lot to say! 

The week previous to my departure was an absolute whirlwind.  I had errands, trips downstate, packing, visiting family, packing, seeing friends last minute, packing, spending time with my favorite dog ever, did I mention packing?  It went by so fast, and I send out a huge thanks to those that took the time to call me or see me before I left.  I am constantly blessed by all the love and support I am surrounded by, and I just wanted to say thanks! 

The day of my departure started out great with coffee and donuts and a wonderful visit from the lovely Bridget Bernhard (thanks, Bridgie!).  After she left, it was stressful and I was on the verge of a panic attack as time moved closer to my leaving.  If not for my brother, Eric, I would have had an attack because my mind was swirling about being gone for six months and especially the flying.  Many of you know I hate flying.  Saying good-bye to my cat, Lucky, and my dog, Eli, was I think the hardest part.  Eli has been my buddy ever since I finished school.  He goes everywhere with me.  And my kitty, well he’s been my kitty for over 16 years now; I’m always sentimental leaving him behind.  I know he’s going to be so pissed at me when I get home.  He ignored me for three days straight when I got back from Italy, then finally caved.  Such a cat. 

Mom, Eric, Dad, Loie, and Grandma came to see me off at the TC airport.  It was hard saying good-bye, but I kept it together until Eric started praying over me (thanks a lot, bro…just kidding – I needed it).  It’s beyond me how Mom kept it together the whole time, even after I went through security.  She must have been a faucet in the car.  Gave everybody multiple hugs before going through security without a mishap (I packed my knives in my checked bag, don’t worry).   Once I was on the plane and taking off from Traverse City I calmed down completely and set my eyes toward my goal that was finally, after all this time, coming to fruition (thanks, Russ Larimer, for implanting that word in my vocabulary).  The flight to Paris was awful.  I barely slept, I had only a tiny bit of leg-room, the people stank badly around me and to top it all off, the man behind me would punch my seat forward every time I tried to lean it back.  Lovely guy, truly. 

Paris, though, was wonderful.  I had a 15 hour layover, so took the train into the city center for about ten hours of the day.  I was that annoying tourist lugging around a carry-on bag on the cobblestones.  I was embarrassing, I know, but I didn’t really care at that point.  I started out walking around Notre Dame then along the Seine for quite a ways until I met the Jardin des Tuileries (which is where the Louvre is) where I sat down for a while and just watched people.  It was quite warm and sunny that day; springtime in Paris is gorgeous.  Last time I was there it was December.  I was on a mission to get to the Musée Rodin, for when Mom, Grandma and I were in Paris, it was closed.  I walked probably 2 miles to get there, and thank the good Lord it was open, because I was getting tired and ornery.  The guard at the front flirted with me and told me I was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen in the world (which I didn’t believe because I had been on a plane for 8 hours and desperately needed a shower).  The Rodin museum was wonderful and everything I had hoped it would be.  I kept nodding off on one of the benches in the garden so I decided it was time to go.  I sat down again in the Jardin des Tuileries then went back to the airport to await my flight for Cape Town.  I didn’t have anyone in the seat next to me or behind me, so I managed to sleep for almost the entirety of the 11 hour flight.  And finally, FINALLY I arrived in South Africa.

I had a wonderful private driver take me out to Drakenstein Lion Park (I was leery of taking a cab all alone) and he pointed things out to me and we talked a lot about Michigan and things that I should do while in Cape Town area.  I have him convinced to visit Michigan if he ever gets to the US (he’s never seen snow, people).  Finally, I made it to my destination.  I was immediately greeted by the loud and boisterous Elzette who is the park manager here.  She helped me get settled in my own little cabin, introduced me to Nina Lange, another volunteer from Germany, and then I was left to get unpacked.  I wanted to see the lions more than anything, so unpacked as quickly as I could before Nina walked with me through the park to see the 35 lions and 2 tigers.  This place is amazing, everyone.  It’s the only true lion sanctuary in the Western Cape and houses the largest lion population as well.  Each enclosure is an acre or more, and houses 1 to 3 lions, a forever home for captive born cats.  I’m falling more and more in love with this place every minute I’m here.

This is my view every day.  Mountains on every side.

I will talk a little about what my days are like, before I start talking about some profound experiences with the cats.  Each day starts out with me getting up at 7:30 am (I know you’re all thinking, Kelsey?  Up at 7:30?!?), eating a quick breakfast, usually toast and fruit, then being sent off to feed and water the ponies and goats.  We have 5 Shetland ponies here, one of which is the sweetest little filly ever, and somewhere around 12 goats, several llamas, and some really nasty black swans.  Following that is a short meeting of the staff and volunteers, then we head out immediately to clean 2 lion “camps” as the staff calls them.  The lions are bribed with chicken meat into a holding camp, so we can go into the larger enclosure to gather scat (“poopies” as Elzette likes to call it) and feathers.  The fence is checked and plants growing near the electric fence are sprayed and removed.    Following the lion camps, we are sent out to cut shrubs down of an alien species of plant for the hooved animals to munch on throughout the day.  Then we do all sorts of necessary jobs like making burn piles to prepare for the upcoming winter, burning the rubbish heap, cleaning swan and pony enclosures, cleaning out holding camps etc.  We have an hour-long lunch break and then do more work throughout the afternoon.  Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays are feeding days, so we get to go out and talk to guests, answer questions, and watch the feeding.  The feeding is pretty cool because all the cats are up at once.  It’s the only time that you will see all of them out and about.  But the best times are in the evening.  After the day is over, I take a shower and eat dinner, then usually read before heading to bed pretty early (around 9 pm).  The lions are super active at night, sometimes they are so loud that it wakes me up out of a dead sleep.  That sound is better than any noise in the world.  It is so powerful!

But the cool thing about all of this work is that we are surrounded by lions all the time.  You glance up in your work and meet the gaze of a lion that has been trying to sneak up on you and scare you.  Or you ride by on the four-wheeler or the truck and they hide in the grass, then chase you as far as they can.  When Nina and I went out to burn the rubbish heap, Tigger the tiger came to the fence to see what we were doing, so I went over to say hello as well.  I crouched down at his level and he came right up to the fence, our faces were mere inches away, and he just stood there chuffing at me (chuffing is how tigers talk to one another).  So I did my best to chuff back.  I have never experienced something so profound in my life as sitting at an 800 pound animal’s level, staring into his bottomless eyes, and having a conversation with him.  I can’t even begin to describe what I felt in that moment.  The other night, Nina and I had a small braai (a barbecue) with new friends that work here at the park: Johan (Elzette’s husband), Karel and Jason, the two younger employees here.  We were sitting there watching the flames, when out of nowhere Chippy (the lion in the enclosure out my front door) appears at the fence to check out what was going on and say hello.  Nothing can compare to something like that.  The rest of the night we sat around talking shit about one another.  

This is Brutus, who was badly beaten and had his jaw broken before being rescued.

But Jason said something last night that really stuck with me, and it’s where I’m going to leave you.  He said that his brother is in school to become a doctor and make lots of money, but Jason himself has had experiences with these cats that money just can’t buy.  A lion looks into your eyes so deeply that you lose yourself and you are overcome by the sheer power of the animal.  And there is no place in the world he would rather be.  That, my friends, I can relate with.  I know without a shadow of a doubt that I am where I am meant to be right now, and that this is exactly what I want to do with the rest of my life. 

I miss you all, very much!  Mom, Dad, Grandma and Eric especially.  I did finally get to talk to them over the phone the other day (not Grandma yet), which was a true blessing.  I have access to internet here, but since I’m paying for it myself I will be using it minimally.  I’m sorry, but I won’t be posting too many photos to Facebook as that uses up data too quickly (I will post some, just not a lot).  I will reply to messages and emails when I can and write on here once a week.  I have a tumblr account (linked below) that I will post photos to when I can.  If you want to see all of my photos, you are welcome to come over to my house when I get back for a photo viewing party!  So thank you for listening to me ramble, I will try to keep it shorter next time!

TTFN (Tigger’s truly ARE wonderful things!)


  1. Loved this post Kelsey!! So awesome!

  2. Fantastic! This was NOT too long. Keep them coming! I love you, Dolly!

  3. Love you dude. Keep up the good work out there!