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Explorers Land in South Africa: A Reflection

by Martin Seals and Sven Stumbauer

This past Spring Break the Columbus Brotherhood officially landed in the country of South Africa. Thanks to EF Tours, the travel company that helped us navigate the country, we got to experience all that South Africa had to offer. 

Day 1-2: Travel Days (Martin): 

Before we could get to any of the fun waiting for us in South Africa, the explorers had to fly a day’s worth of hours to their destination. We packed onto one of the biggest planes I had ever seen with practically 14 chairs per row and flew from Miami to Paris. The flight and layover in Paris were about the time. 8 hours! Needless to say, we got creative when trying to pass the time. After the grueling layover, we flew from Paris and finally arrived in Johannesburg, the biggest city in South Africa, the next day. 

The travel days we experienced weren’t all sleeping and mid-flight movies. It was also a foreshadowing moment for how international this trip would be. The Paris Airport allowed us to interact with people from Belgium, Ukraine, Tunisia, Russia, Germany, and more, allowing us to gain insight into the culture of not only a new country but a continent.

Day 3-4 Johannesburg (Martin): 

We met with our beloved EF Tour guide, Patricia, a local of Johannesburg, and joined the other group we were traveling with, a K-12 school from Maryland, and we officially started our tour of South Africa. For our first stop, Patricia took us to get food in the town of Soweto or the Southwestern Township. The open-air restaurant we ate at was packed with locals, live music filled the air, and the roads were laden with street performers and vendors. Johannesburg was already making its impression just as we were getting off the bus for the first time. 

A minute’s walk away was our first real tour landmark: the residence of former South African President Nelson Mandela. His childhood home, now converted into a museum, allowed for a glimpse into his life. Items in glass cases showed old toys, mugs, and art. There were many family portraits and a funny photo of Mandela with the family dog. This was also the start of learning the tumultuous history South Africa has with Apartheid: a system of institutionalized racial segregation installed by the Dutch a hundred years or so after they arrived. This was made clear when our kind museum tour guide pointed out two old bullet holes in the bottom right corner of his front door. 

The next location was the Apartheid Museum which helped us tourists get the full picture of the segregationist system that ended absurdly recently in the 90s. The Apartheid system labeled people of color as being below their fair-skinned counterparts. This allowed for intense discrimination that affected your entire life as a person of color. This poor treatment sparked a movement to end Apartheid which was documented extensively in the museum we visited. 

A significant aspect of the anti-apartheid movement that often goes unnoticed is the youth impact. Students in schools were forced to learn specific subjects in Dutch rather than their native language which pushed students to rebel against Apartheid even in the classroom. The Apartheid government chose to either throw these students into prison or even have them killed. High school students like Morris Isaacson were forced to cut their formal education short as they would inadvertently become both fugitives to the government and revolutionary leaders to their peers when they went against Apartheid in the classroom. As a high school senior myself, I could not imagine a reality like the one those students faced. In the blink of an eye, your freedom could be taken away simply for trying to educate yourself in your native language. 

Day 5-6 Kruger National Park (Sven)

Days five and six were all centered around the journey to and the experience at the Kruger National Park, heavily acclaimed as the most well-managed national park in Africa. To start, though, we had to drive over there, which took us the entirety of day 5 to accomplish. However, although the drive there took all day, we could still have fun and enjoy some sights South Africa had to offer. After a few hours filled with rest stops, looking at the scenery, and Minecraft music playing in my headphones, the group made the first main stop of the day at a mountain lodge known for its toboggan rides. After a quick introductory session on how to use the toboggans, tomfoolery included, we were off sending nine kids at a time to enjoy the ride. This was probably one of the most scenic things I have ever done, and the views of the mountain going down were breathtaking.

After this, though, it wasn’t long until our next stop, which was, for some people, the highlight of the entire trip. We stopped at Graskop Gorge, a natural wonder with stunning views of a waterfall and the opportunity to descend to the forest floor to view the foliage and waterfall up close. Despite the overall size of the forest floor segment being less than a mile long, it was super immersive, and some of the kids on the trip ended up spending the entirety of their time down on the forest floor. To make matters even better, there were scenic views of the gorge and the markets within the attraction, where we bought souvenirs. I also participated in my favorite activity: haggling with all the vendors. Despite the cool things we ended up coming home with, what was more important, in my opinion, were the surreal experiences we had with nature throughout this leg of the trip. When I was looking at Graskop Gorge, I felt an otherworldly feeling of admiration for what nature has to offer and that it's up to us as the next generation to help protect wonders like Graskop and Kruger from falling to various factors that degrade our environment and what inhabits it.

After this visit and an hour and a half drive, we finally arrived at the Timbavati Safari Lodge, where we would spend the next two nights. To say that this stay was amazing would be an understatement. The accommodations were incredible, the staff was super nice, and the room decorations were amazing. We spent the night eating dinner, kicking back to roasted marshmallows and milkshakes at the bar, playing pool, and looking at the wildebeest and zebras inside the lodge premises. Furthermore, we got word from the staff that we would be beyond lucky to find a cheetah, the animal Coach Campbell wanted to see the most (definitely not foreshadowing anything). After the late-night festivities, we all kicked back and slept with anticipation and excitement over what would transpire tomorrow.

The day that arguably all of us were waiting for was finally here: the safari in the famed Kruger National Park. We woke up bright and early at 5:00 AM and hopped into the jeeps to head to the park. The drive took about 15-20 minutes but after a brief break in the action near the main entrance, we finally began our safari. 

This experience was amazing and we were able to get jaw-dropping photos of iconic African wildlife. In particular, we spent what seemed like half an hour just taking photos of the monarchs of the jungle, and when we saw that this particular pride of lions had two cubs, we couldn't help but stay longer. We saw other amazing sights like impalas mingling on the roads, cape buffalo that would stare directly at the camera, a herd of giraffes grazing alongside a group of zebras, and a herd of elephants with two to three babies drinking from a lake. We also saw stunning views of the local flora and landscape of the park, and it surely did not disappoint us when I, along with the others, set our gaze on the African savannah for the first time. 

After a brief intermission for lunch and a close encounter with an elephant near the rest stop, we were inching towards the end of our day-long safari when we got word that a cheetah was sighted nearby. We were practically jumping out of our seats on the drive over. The only problem is that we couldn't find it at first. The cheetah was very far from the road, so we had to observe it from afar and take photos of it using binoculars as a secondary camera lens on our phones. However, we snapped an amazing picture of it, and Coach Campbell couldn't be happier. 

Similarly to the previous sites we visited on the way to Kruger, this experience spoke to me regarding the importance of nature and the need to conserve it. While conservation efforts in Africa have taken immense strides, with countries banning big game hunting in excess and promoting efforts like dehorning rhinos to deter poachers, African species are still endangered. Most are also threatened, and that showed when we couldn't find any rhinos during our safari or at least get four of the Big Five photographed. Alongside that, despite their tendencies to hunt at night and be mostly sedentary during the day, African leopards have also been endangered under the Endangered Species Act. As a result, we may have had an opportunity to photograph one throughout this experience, even with their more nocturnal tendencies. Overall, these African wonders are still threatened and vulnerable, and it's up to us to, at the very least, be aware of these issues and actively strive to make a change in the existing paradigm when it comes to conservation, whether it’s in the Florida Everglades or the confines of the Kruger National Park.


Day 7-10 Cape Town (Sven)

The final days of our tour were spent in the most famous city in South Africa, Cape Town. After a short flight, we arrived late in the night and had to wait in anticipation for the next day. After a good night’s rest, we took a ferry to the famed Robben Island where Nelson Mandela famously spent 18 years in captivity. Believe it or not, our ferry was the last to go to the island due to the choppy waters barring any others from going over without a bumpy ride in store. Onto the tour of the prison, we were very privileged to have a former prisoner of Robben Island, inmate 26/80 serve as our tour guide. This man was one of the funniest and most charismatic people I have ever met, and even though he endured the harsh conditions of the prison, like menial rations which were decreased even further for people of color like him, he was happy to tell his story and those that also befell the prisoners who were crammed in rooms, dealt with isolation geographically and emotionally, and the general discomfort with a lack of bedding or pillows to sleep. 

Seeing Mandela’s cell up close and personal painted the picture that this country has a deeply scarred past and that most of these inmates, despite being dubbed political prisoners, were fighting for a better cause than the Apartheid government. Mandela’s statement that the quality of a country is judged by how they treat their inmates definitely stands true in this regard, and in South Africa’s case when Robben Island was a functioning prison, the quality of themselves was definitely in a cellar of filth and muck. 

On a more positive note, after spending some money on South African curios (sorry bank account) and seeing a colonial era Dutch castle, we were back at it the next day with a tour of the famed Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, which had some of the coolest and prettiest flora I had ever seen. Simply strolling through the garden, although brief, was definitely worth it, and by taking a look at all the plant life that surrounded me, and also the list of endangered species harbored by Kirstenbosch, I found an appreciation for the nature around me, as it’s not just those flora we need to protect as a society, but also those that are in our backyards, parks, and schools, and that was definitely a message I took back with me from South Africa. 

However, Kirstenbosch wasn't even the highlight of this day, because we were able to go to the famous Boulders Beach and see a bunch of African penguins. They were all congregating on the sand, rocks, and in bushes and they were so cute. The photos were immaculate, especially since we were able to get very close to them, and getting a pencil with a metal penguin on top of it was also another highlight. After that, we visited Cape Point which is one of the southernmost points in the country, took a cable car to the top of a mountain near the ocean and the point,  and called it a night.

Unfortunately, all journeys need to come to an end, but at the very least, the end of this journey was incredible. Our day started with a trolley up to the famous Table Mountain, which for the past two days in Cape Town, was covered with clouds and prohibited for tourists to visit, but had finally cleared up on the final day. The view from the mountain was amazing and being able to walk on the flat top of it was even more surreal, as it felt like we were on solid land when in reality, we were thousands of feet in the air. Our stay at Table Mountain, while brief, was a high point of this tour, and I would love to go back again to the top.

After Table Mountain, we split up into two groups, one who would stay at a mall near the port, and one who would tour the Langa Township of Cape Town. While looking like a regular neighborhood, seeing the change in social and financial class as we went on throughout the tour was stunning to see. While the upper class had homes of their own and cars, the poorest of the poor were literally living in shipping containers with barely any room for basic appliances. This was especially eye-opening, as seeing these containers, the large piles of sheep and goat bones where local women would cook their meals, and the local community center where children were being taught on a pre-k to kindergarten level showed the immense gap between the opulence of Cape Town we saw until then and those who were on the brink of homelessness and bankruptcy. This contrasting image was a profound one on top of that, and it is something that I have been able to ponder over for the past few months after this trip ended. 

After a long flight period going to Amsterdam, Minneapolis, and finally Miami, we all made it back home safe and sound with a lot to digest through the course of the trip. 

To say that this trip was profound, breathtaking, and altering is a massive understatement. The variety of things we encountered on this trip are going to be in my mind for the rest of my life. The stark contrast between the rich and poor, privileged and oppressed, modern and traditional, and manmade and natural were all major themes I picked up on this tour, and it is safe to say that you can have the most incredible experience at any location or altitude, and mine just so happened to unfold near the very bottom of our planet.

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