Emily Finds Sudden Interest In The Animal Kingdom

In her book Bossypants, Tina Fey writes, “I have no affinity for animals. I don’t hate animals and I would never hurt an animal; I just don’t actively care about them.”

Tina, I totally feel you on this. Thank you for being so honest and allowing me to feel I can finally come out of the closet regarding my Animal Indifference.

Animals are fine. I grew up on a farm. My childhood home was always overrun by dogs, cats, chickens, goats, sheep, donkeys, pigs, and the occasional ox, horse, or baby deer.  I obviously think nature is awesome, and I usually consider wild animals to be much better at life than humans. It’s just that I am somewhat “meh” towards animals, as a group. Thus, I never thought I’d be interested in going on a safari. The idea of sitting in a hot 4×4 with a group of strangers, driving slowly through fields trying to spot a rhino or chasing down lions, sounds absolutely heinous/pointless to me.*

But then my colleague Matt, his partner Mandy, and I drove our rental car through Kruger National Park and…Mind: Blown.

If you want to get the thrills of the animal kingdom without pulling a Bear Grylls, drive a tiny rental car through the wilderness where you may just come face-to-fender with animals bigger than your vehicle (scary/awesome). Kruger National Park is the size of Massachusetts and has every crazy exotic African animal you can possibly think of, roaming free. We drove our baby car up and down Kruger’s red dirt roads for a day, and saw one million animals. Really. I counted.

There was definitely something cool about our self-made safari. I think it was because A) I wasn’t surrounded by tourists (I am tolerance-challenged when around other tourists – I know, the hypocrisy, WHATEVER!) and B) we found these crazy wild beasts all on our own, without the help of a guide or a radio or anything but our own eyes and Matt’s stealth-driving tactics. So, I rescind my previous comments about animals being “meh”. At least, rhinos, elephants, giraffes and water buffalo, when seen at close proximity in their natural habitat, just being totally free and huge and beastly, are very much not “meh”.

*Of course, I don’t judge people who go on safari. Just like I don’t judge people for having pets. These things are totally normal and fine activities for humans. They’re just not for me.

Photos!!!

ELEPHANT!

ELEPHANT!

Deer thingies and a wildebeest!

Impala and a wildebeest!

Cute deer-faced thingy!

Cute Impala face!

Wildebeest!

Wildebeest!

Monkeys playing with each other!

Monkeys playing with each other!

One of many phenomenal giraffe sightings! Giraffes are weird looking up close, by the way. They might be dinosaurs.

One of many phenomenal giraffe sightings! Giraffes are weird-looking up close, by the way. They might be dinosaurs.

This pond was teeming with hippos and crocs! Hippos are terrifying! So are crocs!

This pond was teeming with hippos and crocs! Hippos are terrifying! So are crocs!

Zebra! (Common statement by the end of the day: "Oh, nevermind, it's just another zebra.")

Zebra! (Common statement by the end of the day: “Oh, nevermind, it’s just another zebra.”)

Zebra and zebra baby hiding.

Baby zebra hiding behind mama zebra!

We basically drove through the Lion King(dom).

We basically drove through the Lion King(dom).

Blesbok!

Blesbok!

WARTHOG!

WARTHOG!

Blesboks in a line under clouds!

Blesboks in a line under clouds!

The last animal we saw was this elephant. We rounded a bend and there he was, munching on a giant bush, about 3 feet from our car. It was really cool until I realized he could basically just step on our car without even thinking about it. Then it was really cool and a tiny bit panicky.

The last animal we saw was this elephant. We rounded a bend and there he was, munching on a giant bush, about 8 feet from our car. It was really cool until I realized he could kill us in 5 seconds and make it look like an accident. Then it was really cool and also a tiny bit panicky.

Our giant friend.

Our giant friend.

He didn't even pay attention to us. His bush was really tasty.

He didn’t even pay attention to us. His bush was really tasty.

One serious adventure we had in Kruger was a rhino-induced traffic jam. The following slideshow tells this story. It was all very wilderness-meets-the-modern-man.

After a full day of quietly sneaking up on dangerous animals in our teensy vehicle and leaning precariously out the window to take photos, we exited Kruger and headed to a backpacker’s in Nelspruit. The next day, I left the wilderness behind in exchange for a second trip to Johannesburg and then some Cape Town exploration. But I am happy to have experienced this self-made safari. It’s possible that it was, at times, a bit…unsafe. But it’s also possible that it was worth it.

Sunset as we drove out of Kruger. You can see a giraffe silhouette in the distance. Very Southern Africa. Love love love.

Sunset as we drove out of Kruger. You can see a giraffe’s silhouette in the distance. Oh, Southern Africa. Love love love.

Take Me Back To Swaziland!

It’s true that a job, and not my backpacking itinerary, brought me to Swaziland. In fact, I had originally planned on traveling though more of the Asian continent after my time in Nepal. But the opportunity arose to work on a short-term project on the ground in Manzini, so I made a “quick diversion” to the bottom of Africa to put my MPH to work for a few weeks.

Driving into Swaziland.

Driving into Swaziland.

Swaziland has the best sunsets I have ever seen in my life.

Swaziland’s sunsets leave you breathless. Photos really don’t do them justice.

It's pretty here.

It’s pretty here.

It's pretty here, but I will never get the red dirt out of every piece of clothing that I wore here.

Lovely colors, but I will never get the red dirt out of every piece of clothing that I wore.

Since May 2012, I’ve been working with a small team to help a Swazi organization design a sexual/reproductive health program that engages sex workers. We’ve been supporting the organization remotely, but the program recently received funding (with promises of more), so it made sense to make a field visit and take the first steps towards implementation (woohoo!). You can read about Ungakwenta! here.

Office shot! It's amazing what not working for a few months will do for your motivation. I am so pumped to be back at it. Yay!

Office shot! It’s amazing what not working for a few months will do for your motivation. I am so pumped to be back at it. Yay!

HIV testing campaign messages. Yay Public Health. Feels so good to put on my nerd glasses again.

A man knows – to be the best, he has to test! Woo, Public Health Messaging! Feels so good to put on my nerd glasses again.

I spent 11 days in Swaziland. It was not enough. I LOVE IT THERE. My colleague Matt and I put in long, productive, awesome days with the SRH program, and squeezed in a bit of wilderness adventuring whenever we could. It was phenomenal. Not only did I get to do the work I love, in the field, with amazing, dedicated people, but I learned so much about Swazi life and culture, met so many interesting expats and locals, and saw how my life might look if I worked here full-time. And, of course, I got to hike through crocodile-infested swamps and climb giant granite mountains and see a buncha crazy animals and finally eat fresh fruit all day instead of rice (sorry, Nepal. I don’t want rice for a loooong time because of you.)

This is Nyonyane Mountain, or Executioner Rock, so called because one upon a time, criminals were hurled from the peak. We climbed it in between rain storms.

This is Nyonyane Mountain in Milwane, or Executioner Rock, so called because once upon a time, criminals were thrown from the peak to their deaths. We climbed it in between rain storms.

A sign at the beginning of the trail on one of our hikes.

A sign at the beginning of the trail on the Nyonyane hike in Milwane. The hike took us through dense, jungle-y swamps. I thought I might die.

Baby zebra! Seen in Milwane Reserve, where we hiked up our first mountain.

Baby zebra! Seen in Milwane on our hike up Nyonyane.  More animal photos to come in Swaziland Post #2.

Seriously though, hiking in Swaziland was like hiking in Jurassic Park.

Seriously though, hiking in Swaziland was like hiking in Jurassic Park…

Matt up ahead, hiking Nyonyane Mountain or Executioner Rock.

Matt up ahead, preparing to climb Nyonyane Mountain, which you can see in the distance.

Swaziland is a tiny country, with a soft, gentle, rolling beauty. The area where I lived and worked is lush, with steep green mountains covered in giant boulders that appear to simply pop out of the earth. It was summertime in the Southern Hemisphere, and though it was the rainy season, we were lucky to have mostly clear, hot weather. The mangoes and papayas and pineapples were the best I’ve ever had. There were amazing animals and so much nature for them to enjoy, in several huge wildlife reserves throughout the country. The culture is rich and proudly held by its people. Everyone we met was friendly and helpful. Everything moves slowly.

Matt and I stayed in an expat's house right next to Sibebe, this beautiful mountain made out of a single, giant chunk of granite. It's the second largest monolith in the world.

Matt and I stayed with a colleague right next to Sibebe, this beautiful mountain made out of a single, giant chunk of granite. It’s the second largest monolith in the world.

I hiked up Sibebe with Ben, whom we stayed with while working in Swaziland. This is Ben's arm holding some kinda crazy nature.

I climbed Sibebe with Ben, who is awesome and let us stay in his beautiful house while we worked and played in Swaziland. This is Ben’s arm holding some kinda crazy nature.

Hiking Sibebe.

Hiking Sibebe.

Sibebe again. I hiked 3 days in a row in Swaziland. So glorious.

Sibebe. I hiked 3 days in a row in Swaziland (after work or on weekends only, of course!). So glorious.

Interesting rock formation on Sibebe.

Aliens did this.

The third hike we did

The third hike we did was in Malolotja, a large wilderness reserve with tons of beautiful animals and its fair share of sky porn.

The hills are alive!...with seven different kinds of poisonous snakes.

The hills are alive…with seven different kinds of poisonous snakes.

These anemone-like flowers are called proteas.

These anemone-like flowers are called proteas. They were everywhere in Malolotja.

Of course, for all its beauty and kindness, Swaziland is not without its challenges. It has the highest HIV prevalence in the world. Much of its population lives in extreme poverty. Serious public health and development problems are apparent everywhere. There are issues with dependency on foreign aid. But while all of this is important to know and understand, it’s just as critical to recognize all that Swaziland has to offer, to learn just how intricate and interesting the culture and history are, and to develop a well-rounded awareness of how things in this country really work. And I only just scraped the surface, but I can tell you with confidence that I would absolutely love to live and work there for a while. And I just might try to, when I start job-hunting later this spring.

My fellow hikers in Malalotja.

My fellow hikers in Malolotja, admiring what beauty lay before us. Although, while those hills are pretty, they’re a b*tch to climb when it’s 99 degrees out. Just sayin’.

As a final note, I took a million sunset photos in Swaziland because they were the most intense sunsets I’d ever seen. The Swazi sky alone may be reason enough for me to move there. And though sunset photos seem a bit cliché by now, I feel I have to share at least a few. So here’s a random sampling of my shots.