Sabi Sabi, South Africa-Although I am crazy soccer fanatic and would have been perfectly fine sitting at the local Johannesburg pub for nine days straight, surviving off of bangers and mash, fish and chips, Carling Black Label, and three games a day, not everyone in the Spruell family is as insane as I am. My mother, a huge animal lover, thought since we were in Africa that it might be a good idea to take in some of the local wildlife. While I was a bit hesitant at first, due to the fact that I was going to miss a couple of matches, I quickly found out that this adventure was a once in a lifetime opportunity.
After a fifty minute flight from Johannesburg to the middle of nowhere Africa, our plane landed on a small airstrip surrounded only by native African plants and red soil, reminiscent of Georgia clay. After unloading and barely escaping decapitation from the propped twenty person plane, we were immediately led to open air welcome station containing snacks such as dried fruit, nuts, tasty native beef jerky, biltong, as well as chilled water and cold cloths. We partook as our bags were loaded on trailers pulled by Land Rovers. Then we were off to Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge.
The Earth Lodge was billed as top shelf and it did not disappoint. There was falling water, gorgeous, well equipped underground rooms opening into your own splash pool and just beyond, wild Africa.
During our tour of the rooms and property, our host made it very clear to call for escort if we wished to travel from our rooms to the main lodge, or visa versa, after the sun went down as animals frequently wandered onto the property, and no matter how tough you felt after 10 drinks at the bar, you would not come out victorious in this wrestling match. We were reminded that we as humans we are the interlopers into this land, not the animals.
We quickly unpacked and then we were ready for our first trip into the wild. Anticipation grew as we awaited spotting native animals in their natural habitat, not in enclosures or behind bars as we are accustomed to seeing them in zoos halfway around the world.
Equipped with our personal ranger, KG, (which I thought at the time was an omen for an 18th Celtics championship, turned out I was mistaken) and our tracker, Zeb, we didn’t have to wait long. Our first evening safari we encountered rhinos, wildebeasts, water buffalo, and a pride of napping lions scattered in the middle of the dirt road leading to our lodge getting in their typical 20 hours of sleep per day.
After sitting close enough to lions that you could hear them breathe, we headed back to the lodge to be greeted with warm hand towels and a five course candlelit dinner served under the stars. We were fortunate enough to dine with some River Plate supporting honeymooners from Argentina. After a quick chat, Marti and I decided that it would be a good idea if I were the one to periodically check for updates during the 8:30 pm match, so that his marriage would last more than the length of their stay in South Africa.
After a 5:30 am wake up knock (who in their right mind gets up at 5:30am on vacation?) and a quick “pre-breakfast”, we followed our ranger to our Land Rover equipped with a hot water bottle and blanket for each person, and our winter safari began. The sun rising over the South African horizon is truly a beautiful sight to see, almost as beautiful as Landon’s goal against Algeria, but we will get into that in another blog.
Trumpeting elephants welcomed us immediately as we made our way down the dusty road. In this morning’s adventure we were able to see impalas, kudus, mongoose, a variety of African birds, and the big spotting of the day, a cheetah!
The cheetah is a miraculous animal that is sadly predicted to be extinct by 2015. We were very lucky to see him, as this cheetah has only been spotted three times in the last 12 months. We followed him as he roamed the grounds and then found a wonderful shady spot to take a nap. As we sat and watched the cheetah, I asked several times if there was any way I could race this animal, as I am pretty sure I could beat him. I was once clocked running 22 miles an hour!
After lunch, we headed to a watering hole just down a hill from our pool. To our rangers’ surprise, we saw a hippopotamus uncharacteristically basking in sun and a crocodile sunbathing on the bank. Being a marine/aquatic ecologist turned amateur soccer writer; I was especially excited about these sightings. At one point during the sighting, what had to be one of the least intelligent birds of all time, walked no more than two feet in front of the crocodile’s mouth, but much to my dismay, flew away with no harm done.
As we faced the watering hole watching the drama unfold, we spotted an elephant in the background wandering over the underground rooms at Earth Lodge. We heard the commotion of the lodge employees trying to get him to move away as he came too close to actually walking into the lobby bar. When we returned from our safari, we were unable to return to our rooms as he was virtually grazing right in front of the door to our room.
After another evening safari we returned to an outstanding meal of rare ostrich and kudu followed by matinee showing of Brazil’s first match and few drinks, and it was off to bed.
Our ranger, KG was quite upset that he had still not shown us a leopard, the last of the “big five” we had yet to find. We set off early on our last day determined to find the last piece of the puzzle. We were rewarded with a spotting of one of the most handsome, smooth moving cats on the planet. He was in perfect camo and he ignored us while he padded by our vehicle obviously on a search of his own.
After yet another delicious breakfast, we packed our gear and were taken back to the private Sabi Sabi airstrip. After the plane landed, those lucky folk just starting their safari experience excitedly deplaned, and we regretfully boarded. But no time to be sad, we had to get back to Johannesburg. The second US game waited!
After visiting the African bush and seeing these tremendous animals, I thought it might be fun to put together an African Animal Starting XI, and this is what I came up with….Enjoy!
Cheetah-Fastest animal on four legs. Although the cheetah can usually be found in the shade of an African tree or bush conserving its energy, when it is called for, he uses his unbelievable speed and athleticism (up to 75mph and acceleration from 0-64mph in three seconds) to finish the job, just like that of a deadly striker. Player likeness-Fernando Torres
Giraffe- Tallest land animal in the world. Able to stretch and outreach all other competitors. Due to its forelegs being 10% longer than its hind legs the giraffe moves with an unusual gait with the left legs moving together followed by right. This tends to make the giraffe look very wobbly and unstable on the move. Player likeness-Peter Crouch
Leopard- The flashiest animal in South Africa. Silky smooth and high profile. His style and flair are unmatched by any other in the bush. He is smart, crafty, and creative in the way he goes about his business. The leopard is a very stealthy and athletic animal with leaping abilities of over 20 feet horizontally and 9 feet vertically. Player likeness-Messi
Hyena-The South African animal that does all the dirty work in the bush. Has an unbelievably strong digestive system making it possible for the Hyena to eat absolutely anything, including leather shoes, plastic bottles, and even hotel welcome mats. Part of the bear family, the hyena is a scavenger that will do anything to ensure success, including playing dirty. Player likeness-Gennaro Gattuso
Impala-Fleet of foot. One of the most athletic animals in South Africa. Always on the move and always working hard. Can jump distances up to 33 feet long and 9 feet high. A huge hit the ladies, as the Impala male mates with each female in his herd. Player likeness-Cristiano Ronaldo
Kudu- A member of the antelope family, the male Kudu is one of the fittest animals in South Africa. The adult Kudu can sprint up to ten minutes at a time without stopping to rest. Equipped with giant horns, male kudu will go head to head with each other in a fight for a female. Player likeness-Dirk Kuyt
Rhino-An animal not afraid to get stuck in. A real thick skinned bruiser. Weighing up to 3500 pounds, two types of rhinos can be found in South Africa, the White Rhino and the Black Rhino. Due to its extreme size and surprising running ability (up to 25mph), the rhino shows no fear as he has no real natural predators in South Africa. Player likeness-Gooch Onyewu
Lion- The king of the jungle. Calls all the shots and gets what he wants, or else. A savvy experienced veteran who may not be as quick as he once was but his intelligence and leadership more than makes up for it. Player likeness-Fabio Cannavaro
Hippo-Dating back nearly 16 million years, this three ton giant is considered to be one of the most aggressive creatures in the world and is often regarded as the most ferocious animal in Africa. Don’t let its size fool you. The hippo has been clocked at upwards of 20mph over short distances. Their skin secretes a natural sunscreen substance which is red-colored, sometimes referred to as “blood sweat”. Player likeness- Gabriel Heinze
Water Buck-A member of the antelope family, their coats are reddish brown in color and become progressively darker with age; they have a white ‘bib’ under their throats and a white ring on their rumps surrounding their tails. A male covers nearly 300 acres of land in its prime, the most of any South African animal. Player likeness-Ashley Cole
Elephant-The largest of all land animals. An absolute giant, standing twelve feet tall and weighing up to 26,000 pounds. This prehistoric creature spends up to 20 hours a day eating, consuming upwards of 300 pounds of vegetation daily. What shots this giant’s body and ears want stop, its 8 foot long trunk will take care of the rest. Player likeness-Mark Schwarzer
Crocodile-The elder statesman of the African bush, dating back nearly 200 million years, the crocodile has seen it all. While the croc can be a vicious predator, with a bite that measures 5,000 pounds per square inch, it can usually be seen sitting calmly, and evaluating the situation with its piercing eyes. Coach likeness-Marcello Lippi
Wildebeast-Considered by most as the most unintelligent animal in South Africa, the wildebeast has eyes set on the side of its head, which gives it a blind spot directly in front of its body. Official likeness- Koman Coulibaly