|On my last day in Africa, after spending the whole trip being snuggled by cheetahs, robbed by monkeys, and bit by a lion, I danced with a whale. I went to Africa to work at two wildlife conservation foundations: the Vervet Monkey Foundation (VMF) in South Africa, and Harnas in Namibia. Neither of these have any aquatic life - unless of course you count some fish in a pond at Harnas, that was so carpeted with algae that none of the volunteers ever saw a fin. But we fed them their allotted dog food every day anyway.
Each foundation, the first featuring only vervet monkeys and the other general African wildlife, pushed me to find renewed self-ambition and a greater self-love. As Frikke, the volunteer coordinator at Harnas, put it, “The animals will show you what kind of person you are. Either they will love you, or hate you. But they never lie to you. If you have a hard day, or you’re cursing Frikke, saying ‘that old bastard,’ your animal will always listen.”
I spent a month first with the monkeys. While there I was chewed on, peed on, pooed on, stolen from, licked, picked over for fleas, kissed, peed on again, nuzzled and slept on. And this was not just by the monkeys. Even though amazingly dedicated people staff the foundation, sometimes the politics among the staff significantly resembled the Vervet mentality, making life…interesting.
I spent three out of four weeks at Harnas, working mainly with lions and cheetahs and baboons. And while Dorothy was not there, Harnas did have a certain Oz-ian feel, although with a lot more dirt. A bigger foundation than the VMF, with frequent donations from people like Ms. Jolie, and Mr. Pitt, along with the income earned by the resident cheetah movie star, Goeters, Harnas has been able to save a variety of animals, mostly from the surrounding farmlands. While Harnas was definitely my favorite of the two foundations, I still did leave a week early. I wanted to take some time to explore before I left Africa.
After a teary goodbye filled with photographs and promises to keep in touch, I left Harnas and flew from Windhoek, Namibia, to Cape Town, South Africa. I had three days to spend wandering around the city, but as soon as I landed my nose started to run and my head fogged. I had arrived with a slight head cold and thus spent the first day in bed, watching movies on the tiny screen of my iPod.
The next day, stuffy but determined, I asked the man behind the front desk, also the hostel bar, for directions to some shops, and then I ventured down the street. I found a couple odd stores, a record store that actually sold records, and a curio shop that sold clothing with pop-culture icons and misspelled catch phrases. I bought a pair of Spongebob Squarepants boxers where he is dressed as a ghost. They read “Boo! I’m Scar!” I strolled down the street and around the corner and back to the hostel. My cold was getting the better of me.
The bartender saw me wandering in and hailed me over. He asked me where I was from and if I was having a good time, the usual getcha-started conversation points. Two other women gathered around us and joined our conversation. We talked for a few minutes but my cold was returning with a vengeance, punishing me for my earlier activities. All I wanted to do was go to my room and be sick by myself. Seeing I wasn’t feeling so well, one of the women, who worked at the hostel, ran behind the bar. She grabbed a bottle of cheap whiskey and poured it in a glass, the dark amber liquid settling to be a decent amount of alcohol. She introduced me to an African Hot Toddy, a cold remedy I will always treasure: hot water, fresh lemon, honey, whiskey. I was out for the rest of the night, and woke up completely rejuvenated.
Feeling remarkably clear-headed the next morning, I decided to find some breakfast along the beach, a twenty-minute taxi ride from the hostel. The coastline was surprisingly empty but the stores and outdoor cafes were just beginning their first rush of the day. The morning was still clearing away the haze off the water, sky matching the water, both a light gray with growing spots of blue. The sun was just beginning to warm up the air; people and animals just waking up. I walked down the street, past rows and rows of multicolored umbrellas marking different restaurants. Rows and rows of tables, grouped by table settings and four foot dividing walls, ran the length of each block. The nicer eateries were set farther back from the curb, segregated based on the bill at the end of your meal. Wait staff stood eagerly at the outside podiums as I strolled by, hoping to catch my eye, and some business. I settled on one of the less fancy open café fronts and sat down at a small round table with a plastic, red plaid tablecloth, and a glass top.
I people-watched as I ate. The sidewalk grew louder as more and more people began to fill it. Tourists were easily discernable from locals, even without maps in hand, they, like me, were always looking around, head traveling that 180 degree arc from shoulder to shoulder, making sure not to miss a thing. The locals, black and white alike, walked past, heads facing forward, although some proceeded with the slightly depressed but hurried walk of going to work.
I sat there for at least an hour, enjoying my entertainment, when the indigo ocean across the street caught my attention. The sun had come out fully, broken through the morning haze, and the rays of sun were causing the waves to flicker. I quickly paid my bill and scurried across the road to the beach. I wanted to take my shoes off and walk in the ebb and flow of the ocean. The beach was enclosed on both sides with huge volcanic rocks that had been worn smooth and round by age and weather. My first step into the sand was met with a funny sounding crunch and the rustle of trash. Looking down, I saw prevalence of broken green and clear glass amongst the other waste in the sand. I decided to keep my shoes on and head towards the black rocks instead.
Before I made it to the boulders, I ran across a faded nature conservancy information sign, about whales. Three types of whales often frequent the southern tip of South Africa: Humpbacks, Southern Right, and Bryde’s. But according to the sign, I was out of luck. It was the wrong season for glimpsing any tails or sprays of water. I continued down the beach.
The rocks were easy to climb, with natural steps carved out by water and probably frequent foot traffic. I could see another beach beginning on the other side of the grouping of rocks. An old black man who had apparently slept on the rocks was just waking up as I walked by. He lay bundled in a gray, torn, wool blanket and dirty sleeping bag. We glanced at each other, but he slowly shut his eyes and sighed, placing his head back on the rock, taking in the sunlight. I spotted a flat area, two rocks over and one rock up, and let him sleep.
I found a perch on the tallest rock, and I had only been sitting for a few minutes, enjoying the sun’s heat on my back and bare neck, when a black flash caught my attention out of the corner of my right eye. The water where I saw the movement seemed disturbed, but then it was windy and the ocean was choppy. I searched the horizon for a minute but saw nothing. I assumed I was seeing things and relaxed, leaning back on my hands extended behind my back. And then there it was, that tell-tale sign that whales are about; out a little less than a mile from the beach, was one solitary spray. I sat up and waited, holding my breath for the next breach. A round shape rolled out of the blue water, accompanied by white mist, and slid gracefully back in, followed by a flick of her v-shaped tail.
I was amazed. It was way to big for a dolphin. Had I not just overheard, okay, eavesdropped, on a café conversation where a whale-watching trip had been low on whales? And what about that sign? Hadn’t it said it was the wrong season? Yet there she was, rolling up and over again in the water. I looked around, only to find myself totally alone. No one else that I could see was watching this whale dance. And boy did she dance. With the extreme grace it’s hard not to think the whale was female.
She proceeded to put on a masterful performance while I sat wide-eyed, amazed at my luck. Her rolling form quickly and fully broke the surface, her head bobbing in and out of the water. Then she disappeared. I desperately searched the horizon for any sign of her but she seemed to have vanished. Another movement farther to my right and I found her again. She burst from the ocean, throwing herself high into the air. She was completely free of the water. She flew.
She arched herself back down towards the water and landed with a massive splash. Soon she was up again, twisting her body around as she belly-flopped into the water. She danced for nearly twenty minutes before I watched her swim away, her spray getting smaller in the distance. I sat, stunned. My trip was complete. And I left Africa dancing.