When I first got invited to go to South Africa with a group of CrossFitters and then go on a four day safari, I thought, this absolutely never going to happen. I told my manager about it, figured it was a few months down the road, and that it was something that was just ‘too perfect, and too absolutely crazy’ to be real. Next thing I find out, is that it’s only in a few weeks and is very real! Before I knew it I was giving out information for my passport so that Reebok South Africa to help bring 6 CrossFit Games athletes to explore and make a connection with the growing CrossFit community.
Apparently, a ‘Safari’ is not each individual jeep ride. The entire trip is called a Safari, so saying, “we saw zebras on last night’s safari,” doesn’t make any sense. Also I learned that locals gave us entertained smiles when they’d ask us where we were going when our faces lit up! They’d ask us what ‘Games Reserve’ we were going, and for how long, despite the fact that the ‘safari’ term is so touristy. From Johannesburg, we drove four hours to the North West country border between South Africa and Botswana called Makinwe. Our playground would soon be 289 square miles of savannah, and after seven 3-hour tours we would eventually see and drive through less than half of it.
At first we had a bucket list of animals that we wanted to see, and thought it was going to be hard to hunt for each one. However, on our first ride-along we were less than a mile away from our lodge when we saw a giraffe right next to the path, eating branches! We drilled our tour-guide, Cornelius, for about 10 minutes while we sat back and made videos of our first experience. He is a young, but experienced guide that lives on the reservation and showed us immediately that there was barely anything we could ask him that he didn’t know the answer to, whether it was climate and weather questions to mating to teaching us how to track and identify the creatures by their footprints.
Later, we would find out that we saw so many of each animal in their natural habitat that it would be boring when we saw the ‘easy to find’ ones! I was surprised the wild animals weren’t afraid of our massive jeep full of humans and staring eyes… but they are so used to them that most just carried on what they were doing. Within the very first trip we crossed off ‘dazzles of zebra’ (that’s what they’re called because when all together, very difficult to pick them apart from each other), bachelor groups of giraffes, and plenty of elephants. We learned there are 900 elephants at the park, 2,000 zebras, and only 60 lions.
Each day, we were always lucky enough to find the lions! The longest we sat and watched them was about an hour, just staring in shock at the huge pride, led by the two males that lead all the females in the territory. We learned lions only live to be about 11 years old, and the males were 10, with scars all over their faces and eyes having to fight off other lions for dominance over the years. The two lionesses were sisters and had four little cubs with her that would pounce and act curious, and practice their growl and roaaaaarrrrrr with deep commanding calls! As we found the same pride in different spots over and over, they never minded us getting close enough for us to question our safety and not to mention sanity. We turned the open-top jeep off and let the headlights beam into their haven!
Each adventure involved all of us bundled in our ‘lucky’ assigned seats for where we sat when we saw our favorite animals easiest. Annie, Fredrik and Marcus in the back, Daniel Spencer and I in the middle, and the gym owners that set this whole trip up, Jillian and Lisa were in front. We cheered on Marcus at night when he would sit up front with Cornelius and shine the light beam around looking for nocturnal moving animals as we sped through the dark. We drove slowly through some of the thicker areas, and faster through what we called, ‘the kill zones’, which were flat plains that were easier to spot animals from a long distance away. Annie and I would always remind them we wanted to see a birth, and ask questions about which mated for life and were looking for African animal love stories. Of course the boys joked around about being in the bush, and really wanted to see a kill.
There are few times I’ve met a person passionate enough about their job that I think their love for it over-takes the need for financial support. I like to seek-out greatness from any aspect, whether it’s a sushi chef, pediatrician, or in this case, our ranger, that has a genuine magnetic interest that draws you in closer to see it through their eyes. He told us excitedly one night that he had a surprise for us, and that we had to hurry to get to the site before sun-down in hopes that we could catch his favorite animal in the entire park. As we raced past big groups of wildebeasts, giraffes and elephants, we knew that we weren’t messing around! Finally when we got to a mountainous corner of the site, he stopped to tell us about one of the most endangered species in Africa, the wild dogs. We crept closer, to found 7 adults and 6 two-month old puppies, all ripping away at a Kudu carcass they had killed that morning. They looked like they were splash painted different colors with big huge round ears and moved around constantly frolicking and playing with each other. From as close as 20 feet away, amazed at the energy, and listened to stories of their trials the pregnancy that brought the pups to this new territory.
Cornelius would tell us about the normal behavior for the herds, and the jobs of the alpha male and alpha female in each species, which was surprisingly all different and depended on dominance, spreading genes, and leading the group to find food. All based on research, books he showed us, and close observation of getting to know the specific packs and family history of relationships the animals had with each other. By the end, most of us were agreeing that if we weren’t CrossFit coaches, and into the fitness industry, this would be the second coolest job!
During the day we swam in the pool, watched the elephants drink from the water-hole right outside our patio of the lodge. We maintained a “Real-World” like feel as we were all strangers and barely acquaintances before we started this week long adventure and ended up being able to constantly laugh and joke around! We trained during the afternoon with body-weight exercises like partner wheel barrow workouts with pushups, sit-ups and air squats. One night we did 100 hand stand pushups for time in the dark, after making bets and dares and puffing out our chests, as we’re so good at doing. I’m sure the lodge staff thought we were crazy as we would do gymnastics poses they’d never seen for pictures and climb to the top of giant trees.
Big take-away from this trip for me was how much being outdoors is good for your soul! Growing up in Colorado I had plenty of opportunity for that, and we took advantage of the Rocky Mountains. Personally as a Cross-Fitter who’s always trying to get an edge, an upper hand, I often lock myself in a gym for days, weeks on end with little appreciation outside our concrete jungle of Los Angeles. I’m fully convinced that trying new sports and connecting with nature is crucial for our reflection and recovery, and pursuit of being the most physically and mentally prepared for the unknown.
“Every morning an impala wakes up knowing that it must outrun the fastest lion if it wants to stay alive. Every morning a lion wakes up knowing that it must outrun the slowest impala or it will starve. It makes no difference if you are a lion or an impala, when the sun comes up in Africa you must wake up running.”
“Africa is leslderness than a repository of primary and fundamental values, and less a barbaric land than an unfamiliar voice” ~Beryl Markham, “West with the Night”