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by Elizabeth M. Jarrell for Goddard Space Flight Center
Greenbelt MD (SPX) Apr 30, 2014
Not everyone's idea of relaxation is walking around the wilds of South Africa admiring elephants, giraffes and otters, but supervisory contract specialist Eric Newman did just that several times to get to know his father's South African side of the family. His first trip was at 18 months, but the first trip he remembers was when he was 26 years old in 2005.
"I went to South Africa for their summer, arriving on Christmas Day for a barbeque and a swim at the beach," Newman said. "It was not a bad way to spend Christmas."
He then went on a three day wilderness walk with his uncle, who had been on many safaris. They drove into the 7,580 square mile Kruger National Park and met the group consisting of a guide, a tracker and six other vacationers at a designated location. He packed hiking clothes and good hiking boots.
"You are in the malaria zone, so it is a good idea to cover up. The key is to wear natural colors like greens, tans and brown as camouflage so you don't spook the animals," Newman said.
They were not on a true safari because the customized khaki SUV drove the group into a restricted part of the park. The group took two, three-hour walks each day. Both the guide and the tracker carried guns because they never know what they could come across.
The area looks like it did 500 years ago. There are no power lines. The airspace is restricted. All they could see was wilderness, which had a calming, peaceful effect. Newman experienced greater clarity of thought when completely unplugged from the modern electronic world.
"I found it to be humbling. It made me realize that this land was here long before me and will be here long after me," Newman said.
One of the highlights was the evening sundowner, a typical South African pastime in which everyone takes a break before dinner, has a drink and watches the sun go down. The group was driven to big, open vistas, giving them a sense of the vastness of the wilderness.
Although they were in the middle of nowhere, the tour included three hearty, home-cooked meals a day complete with ice for cold drinks. They slept in beds in A-frame cabins with nearby modern bathrooms and showers. The cabins were designed to allow a breeze no matter which way the air was blowing.
After dinner, everyone sat around a campfire talking about what they'd seen that day. The group sighted all kinds of deer including the curly-horned kudu, lots of elephants and giraffes and a few rhino, but the most exciting of all were the extremely rare cheetahs and African wild dogs.
"It was such a unique experience, which opened me up to how different the world is in different places," Newman said. "This is the way the world is there and you're just peeking into it."
At the end of 2009, Newman returned to South Africa for five weeks, one week of which he, together with his cousin and his fiancee, went on a "hut to hut" hike along some 40 miles of The Otter Trail along the east coast. Only 12 people are allowed on the trail each day. There are no guides; the coast serves as a constant point of reference. They carried all their food and clothing, about 40 pounds total, in backpacks, but slept in huts equipped with mattresses and bathrooms scattered along the trail.
"You shower on the beach," said Newman, "with waves crashing 20 feet away."
The group navigated a few river crossings, the last of which they had to swim across at low tide to avoid being washed out to the ocean and then climb 40 feet almost straight up. Each put their backpack in a waterproof bag with air on top to float and then used the entire package as a kickboard. They were mindful of the emergency escape routes to return quickly to civilization in the event that the tide became too high.
Walking seven to eight hours a day proved to be physically demanding. The South African coast is not a straight line; it is full of twists and turns, some up and others down.
"Our motto became 'there can always be another hill,'" Newman said.
Although the area is not known for big game, they had to watch out for snakes. They were very excited to see otters on their last night, especially enjoying the otters lying on their backs, knocking clamshells together to open them and then dining on the innards using their stomachs as tables.
"Without the comfort of a guide, I felt much more self-sufficient in the wilderness. Next time I'll pack less because you really can get by with very little for four or five days. I also realized that my fiancee and I get along well," Newman said.
Newman next plans to go on a combination walking safari and canoe trip in Botswana's Okavango delta, one of the richest wildlife habitats in the world, especially for birds and fish. Before that, he and his fiancee are getting married in July 2014.
"For the honeymoon, I promised running water," Newman said. "There will be some wilderness involved, but I'm not sure about a safari."
Goddard Space Flight Center
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