Sunday, April 14, 2013

25th Birthday in Africa

I had the GREATEST birthday ever in my entire life in Africa. That's saying something because I've had some pretty great birthdays in the past. This year, my birthday was made incredibly special by all of the amazing people here at Thanda. I woke up to a very sweet birthday card and a small gift from my roommate. It seems like fate that we are roommates because she's deaf in one ear and we've gotten to be really great friends.

Even before the morning game drive at 6 AM, everybody came up to me and wished me happy birthday, so I had a feeling it was going to be a great day. Surte enought, as soon as we got into the reserve, we found the two cheetah brothers. They often take a morning walk along the fence, only this time, several lions from the North Pride were standing in their way. When the cheetahs saw the lions, they immediately froze with their ears tensed up. The lions froze too. We were also tense because a couple weeks ago, the lions had killed one of the female cheetahs. It was very sad, but death is part of life here at Thanda.

After a few heart-pounding moments, the cheetahs looked back to see if they had an escape route. As soon as the lions started moving, the cheetahs turned around and walked as fast as they could right past the Land Rover while staying very low. They disappeared behind the Land Rover, and two of the lions jogged down the road chasing them away. The lions were obviously protecting their territory. i had never seen a confrontation between two big cats so we were off to a very exciting start!

We continued our morning drive, hoping to see other animals such as rhinos, elephants, or the other pride of lions. No such luck. We saw a few impalas and some birds. Then suddenly, I could hear excitement from the back of the Land Rover. Our guide stopped the vehicle immediately. He was looking intently at the thick dense bush on his right. I was in the passenger seat beside him, so I couldn't see much but it looked as though there was no opening along the dirt road. The guide turned to me and said quietly, "Leopard."

He pointed, and I immediately saw an orange coat with rosette shaped spots. I couldn't get a photo because the bush was so dense. If you didn't keep your eyes focused on the leopard, you would lose him in the shadows. This was only my second leopard sighting on this trip! It was a great birthday present! Then the leopard started moving and disappeared from sight. Our guide drove back and forth along the dirt road, hoping to find him again. No luck. We were pretty sure he was nearby, but he was very quiet and still and well-hidden.

Just when we were about to give up and move on, a leopard appeared on the side of the road. "It's not the same one," said our guide in surprise. "It's a different leopard." The second leopard was running, but our guide wouldn't let him get away that easily. He drove off the dirt road and into the dense bush. We caught a glimpse of the leopard running toward cover near one of the trees. Such a beautiful sight! His bright white and orange coat was covered with rosette spots.

We pulled back onto the dirt road and found a small opening where we could get off the road more easily. Our guide parked right under a tree and pointed to the second leopard. His face was blocked by some tree branches, so I couldn't get a photograph of him. I had to squeeze myself between two seats so I get a better view. Then I saw his entire face and body just laying low under a tree. I couldn't believe it! He was magnificent, and I managed to get a few wonderful photographs of him. Oh how happy I was! I had seen all three big cats on one drive! I showed our guide some of the photographs I had just taken and he whispered, "Best birthday, right?" I had to agree. This ws the best birthdy present I have ever gotten!

Everyone else was excited too. On the driveway back to the lodge, our guide beeped his horn the whole way to announce our return from a very successful morning. It was a great way to end an incredible drive! When I walked into the lodge, two more friends wished me happy birthday and gave me a hug. I noticed some balloons hanging around and then I saw a chair with a sign saying "Happy Birthday, Jessie!" Just when I thought the morning was as good as it could be, it got even better.

After lunch, there was another unexpected surprise. The kitchen staff has made a cake! Often when it's somebody's birthday, they baked cake for dessert after dinner, so I wasn't expecting one after lunch! Everybody sang Happy Birthday and cheered as I made the first cut of the cake. After lunch and a big slice of cake, I was as happily stuffed as a lion after a good meal.

Speaking of lions, we found the North Pride on our evening drive. They had been pigging out all day on a kill they got earlier in the day. By the time, we found them, they were stuffed and exhausted. It is always amazing to find a pride of lions after a big meal. It's like a family after a good Thanksgiving dinner. The animals are relaxed and there's always some interesting behavior. This time we saw a lioness licking and cleaning one of the cubs. The rest of the drive was uneventful except for the part where we almost ran over a snake! We got to see a brilliant red sunset which was a treat because we hadn't seen the sun at all for the last few days.

After the drive, I decided to treat myself a birthday beer or a few =) with dinner. Maybe it was the beer, but I started thinking about all the things that have happened in the past year. I couldn't believe how far I had come--all the way to Africa. Twice. I was feeling pretty humble about all the remarkable things that have fallen into my life because of being in Africa.

I had kind of assumed the celebration was over, but no! My roommate and few other volunteers surprised me with another special cake. This one was a plate of marshmallows smothered in chocolate. It was a British version of smores and it was delicious! They also gave me some more gifts and a card signed by everybody, all of the volunteers and the staff.

The greatest gift, of course, is spending my birthday in Africa with all these amazing people. I'm so lucky to have spent 2 months and 2 weeks here. I've gotten to know and appreciate the staff even more than I did on my first visit. I've gotten to meet and become friends with volunteers from all over the world. We've shared SO many laughs, a few good cries, amazing sightings of the animals, and memories that will last for the rest of my life. So, this is official. My 25th birthday was the greates and bestest birthday in my entire life!

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