My Bucket List

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At an animal refuge in South Africa in 2012 with Eddie the cheetah

Everyone should have a bucket list. You’re never too young or old to dream about the things you want to do before you…well, kick the bucket. And you should make sure you begin doing the things you dream about before it is too late. This is not about being morbid and dwelling on the inevitability that is death, but rather about seizing the day…and living each day like it might be your last.

My bucket list has changed several times over the years. Of course, I’ve crossed many items off of the list (Pyramids, skydiving, riding a camel, visit 6 of 7 continents, safari in Africa…), but I’ve also removed some things and added new ones as my interests and dreams have changed. Currently, my bucket list still includes: Taj Mahal in India, Great Wall in China, hang-gliding, scuba diving, surfing, write a novel, Greece, Brazil, New Zealand, Tanzania, Namibia, Zambia, Botswana, visiting every country in the Caribbean, Hawaii and Alaska. So, I’ve got plenty to dream about and keep me busy (mostly, that novel I’m writing). I hope you do, too.

In 2012, I had the opportunity to go on safari in Africa (bucket list item #7). I was traveling to South Africa on business for the Department of Energy and tacked on a few days at the end of my trip for a safari in Kruger National Park. I decided to stay at Hamiltons Tented Camp nestled on a private reserve within the park. This camp transports you back to Out of Africa in the 1800s and offers you everything you imagine when you think of old school safari in Africa. The camp consists of six tents with luxury accommodations (king size bed, claw foot tub) and is located on the Nwatswitsonto River. There were only 10 guests staying there, so it really felt abandoned.

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My tent
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Not at all shabby, eh?

Each day, the camp offered private game drives in open air jeeps at dawn and sunset for prime wildlife viewing. What makes Hamiltons particularly special is the ability to go off-roading into the bush, something that is only possible in a private reserve. Even better, it’s not necessary to leave your tent to view unlimited wildlife. There are no fences surrounding the camp so any wildlife can freely roam through. Don’t worry though, the walkways are raised to provide “some” protection against any unexpected meet-ups with predators on the way back from dinner. From my tent, I saw baboons, small buck, impala, an African eagle…and at night, I could hear the lions roar nearby.

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Walkways

The game drives through Kruger National Park were some of the most profound experiences of my life. There’s just something about being far away from any “civilization” and viewing amazing scenery and wildlife. It makes me feel more alive. For a few blissful moments, I considered giving up my national security career and studying to become a wildlife ranger in South Africa. Hahaha, then to my chagrin, I remembered my unpaid student loans from my other educational degrees and snapped myself out of it. Reality bites sometimes, and that is why we must allow ourselves to dream. Maybe someday when I’m a writer…

I have too many tales to recount them all here. The most memorable story from my safari is entitled “that time I chased a cheetah through the bush.” It was my second game drive at dawn. It was just me and the ranger in the jeep this time. Not long into our journey, we happened across a cheetah sitting in the shade of a tree. As an owner of cats, I recognized immediately that the cheetah was not relaxing but rather in a crouching position. It looked as if the big cat was just taking a quick break before continuing its morning hunt. And coincidentally, there were two large waterbuck grazing in the field, which would make a fine breakfast. The ranger told me that he didn’t think the cheetah would go for them unless she were desperate for food. They were triple her size. We watched with eager anticipation…would she go for them or not? She got up slowly and walked a few paces towards the two bucks who were still grazing and did not perceive the imminent treat lurking behind them. The tension in the air was palpable. We held our breaths…

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Cheetah on the move

And then, suddenly, the cheetah broke in a rapid sprint and lunged with her full force at one of the buck. Unfortunately for her, the waterbuck defended itself successfully with its hooves and dashed off into the thicket. The cheetah gave up rather quickly, likely deciding that it would be too much work to take one of these larger buck down. In a flash, she darted across the dirt road right in front of us.

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Cheetah darting across the dirt road in front of us

A few seconds later, my ranger turned on the jeep engine and reared right into the bush after the cheetah. We raced through the bush at a pretty decent speed, the trees whipping against the frame of the jeep. The ground was rocky and uneven, and I was bouncing high in my seat and ducking occasionally to avoid getting hit by tree branches. I’ve never felt such a rush (yes, not even from jumping out of an airplane). We eventually caught up with the cheetah on the hunt for another prey, this time a much smaller steenbok.

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Cheetah hunting a steenbok in the bush

This time, she successfully captured her prey and dragged it to a spot where she could eat it in private…while keeping a watchful eye on us. We observed her for some time before continuing on our journey to see other wildlife. Words fall short in describing this experience…it was once in a life time. Or maybe not…

In just a few weeks, I will be returning to South Africa for three weeks. For the first few days, I will make my second visit to Kruger National Park. I will be spending three nights at Hamiltons and hope to see the Big Five and much more during my game drives. I am certain that Hamiltons and the wildlife will not disappoint. And I can’t wait to sit on my balcony overlooking the dry riverbed (winter season) with my novel manuscript in my lap, finishing the last few chapters.

More importantly, however, I will be participating in my first ever Earthwatch expedition, something that has been on my bucket list for 16 years. In 2000, I learned about the Earthwatch Institute, a nonprofit organization that supports scientific research on wildlife and ecosystems, ocean health, climate change, and archaeology and culture. As part of their support, they offer expeditions to normal citizens like you and me to participate as a member of a research team and do field work for scientists. For two weeks, I will be taking part in “Conserving Leopards and Monkeys in South Africa.” Each day, our team will be involved in any number of activities such as:

  • Following baboons and monkeys. We will wake up before dawn to arrive at the trees where these primates spent the night. Once the primates wake up, we will follow them all day until they retire in the evening, hiking about 3 to 6 miles over rugged terrain and through dense vegetation.
  • Monitoring camera traps. We will go out to the camera traps either by vehicle or on foot. We will download photos and analyze them later: we might see images of leopards and and other seldom-seen nocturnal animals, including aardvarks, bushbabies, hyenas, and civets.
  • Tracking leopards and hyenas. We will spend some mornings hiking to look for animal tracks and collect their scat (feces) of leopards and hyenas. Back at camp, We will analyze the samples you find to determine what these carnivores are eating.

Oh what fun! According to my guide, we will be walking quite a bit in the bush. I can’t imagine what all I will get to experience during these two weeks. We will be staying in the Wilderness Camp at the Lajuma Research Station, which has comfortable thatched-roof huts with shared rooms and bathroom facilities. Okay, not as comfortable as Hamiltons, but I’m sure i’ll survive.

Sadly, I will not be able to blog about the experience real-time since there will be no Internet or cell phone service for three weeks. When I return (should I survive), I will blog about my journey first thing. Stay tuned…

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

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