This summer, many friends committed to praying for Christian community to find me here in South Africa. If they hadn’t, I might never have realized how bountifully the Lord has answered those prayers.
My first week of school, when I was interviewing the teachers according to my Peace Corps integration assignment, the Foundation phase Head of Department suggested I contact the principal at a nearby private school. When I finally chided myself into making the call, she graciously invited me to visit.
That was where I met Petra. A native South African and world traveler, she has taught for years in schools as far flung as Europe, the Middle East, the United States, and rural KZN. This exceptional Christian lady has opened her heart and home to me, introducing me to my most exceptional experiences in South Africa to date.
1. The Beach
Within hours of first setting eyes on me, Petra invited me to her home for the weekend. Over WhatsApp messages, this invitation evolved into a beach trip with the four orphaned boys who live with Petra. I called up Sydney, my resident mermaid friend from California, and we loaded into Petra’s double cab for a spontaneous adventure.
We whet our appetites for the beach by strolling down to a lake not 10 minutes from our cabin. Our host assured us the hippos wouldn’t be a problem if we evacuated before dusk
Lady not only adopted our party, she became our self-appointed guard dog! Here she is repelling interlopers from our chosen picnic spot
In South Africa, it’s called a “braai,” not barbecue – another special night around a campfire, with spicy sausage, baked potatoes, toasted marshmallows, and song-swapping: The boys sang Zulu melodies in harmony; I led a rousing chorus of “Wagon Wheel”
We hiked for an hour to reach the beach, exercising our ankles and calves on the shifting sand
Wading along the shore shielded me from the full force of the tide – unless I happened to glance back! Petra and the boys tried snorkeling, but the fish were coy that day
2. The Birthday
The next weekend, I visited Petra’s home for the first time. It’s a fabulous structure, like a woodland palace out of a daydream, with curving walks zigzagging under trailing vines, an open floor spanning multiple levels, and hidden bedrooms and cottages around every corner.
Petra’s brother Daniel and his wife Maryna constructed it during their 30 years of local development work. He is a doctor now operating a private practice, while she founded a non-profit that employs local women in creating and selling exquisite handicrafts – to name just a few of the ministries they have piloted over the years.
Their home is a vision of Christian hospitality, with frequent house guests and even an infant hospice taking up roost there.
On Sunday morning, Petra granted my long-coveted trip to visit a bilingual church! It did my heart good to attend an integrated service and sing hymns with lyrics in both Zulu and English
Dr. Seuss-style trees seemed oddly fitting for a whimsical, out-of-the-ordinary place
The sweet-tempered family pets accompanied us on our afternoon hike through the thick forest the family has cultivated in their backyard
A sample of Maryna’s exquisite taste in interior design, this deck overlooks a plunging view of the valley
We feasted on oxtail stew for a special birthday celebration!
Self-identified “German chocolate” cake, that rare delicacy known as ice cream, and a guest musical performance by two neighborhood friends completed the party
3. The Game Reserve
It turned out that my first three months in the area were to be Petra’s last term as a teacher at the private school – and she was determined to make the most of it. For our next adventure, we called up Peace Corps Volunteer-extraordinaire, Judy, for a self-guided spin around a game reserve.
Right out of the gate – literally – we encountered a tower of giraffes! I couldn’t believe my eyes: The number one animal on my must-see list, realized in minutes. All I could do was thank God for His special gifts and click away from the car seat
Petra and Judy were ideal game-spotting companions, not least because they both delighted in every species of flora and fauna we encountered. They taught me the trick of constant vigilance
Creeping through a grove of “fever trees” (named by Boers who found unfortunate cause for associating them with swampy illnesses), we spotted a hippo gliding through the water with only its ears exposed, white flamingos with glaring orange under-wings, plus cranes and maybe even crocodiles!
While scouting the perimeter of the game park, we braved a viewing tower with unforgiving metal slats for steps
Judy cheered us on from the ground…
…and I swallowed my fear of falling to make the climb! I’m always thankful for friends who stretch me out of my comfort zone
We took advantage of dropping Judy off to tour her school, a jaw-dropping campus newly constructed on the hilltops
The resources provided are stunning, to say the least – and Judy is the perfect person to support the school in making the best use of them
A second visit to the river lodge confirmed their excellent cooking
4. The Hike
A candlelight dinner with traditional Afrikaner food, skirting mountain pools decorated with lily pads, beating the summer sun with Keiko and local friends…does it get better?
Petra introduced us to “bobotie” (something like meatloaf with pecans and raisins) and spoiled us with homemade pumpkin pie
The boys dove in the dam to cool off, but I contented myself with taking pictures under the shade
Climbing down the cliffs was a breeze, but clambering back up… At least our frequent rest breaks made for good photo ops!
5. The Safari
For my first Thanksgiving away from home, I celebrated unusual circumstances with an unusual treat: a weekend at a luxurious elephant park. The big splurge turned out to be 100% worth it, even though there was no turkey on the menu.
The park has perfected outdoor chic: We reposed in elegant bedrooms enclosed in canvas tents, decorated everywhere with mahogany’s curling leaves and vibrant seeds
If I were pressed to recommend a single excursion for visitors, this park would win the contest. From the moment we passed through the gate, staff delighted us with every detail, from outdoor showers to exhilarating, twice-daily game drives featuring complimentary tea and rusks (the Afrikaner biscotti)
Our dinner tables sported mini-flags identifying each party by nationality. Fellow guests hailed from Germany, the UK, and Italy
Nyala wander within a couple yards of the park’s guests, fearlessly grazing the pathways
Petra gifted me this sun hat, a necessary accessory in the summer heat
Unlike nyalas, the impalas rarely graced us with a glimpse. This mother will shelter her newborn for a week before it’s ready to rejoin the herd
Surprise: The park’s main attraction ambushed us on our very first game drive! We were praying the elephants would pay us a closer visit…
…and they weren’t shy!
It demonstrated up close its breakfast routine: divesting a wiry thorn tree of its prickly, corded branches as easily as we would peel a banana
6. The Get-Away
The last weekend before classes ended, the spontaneous bug bit again: Petra messaged me the night before about a drive to meet her friend for lunch at a tranquil mountainside inn!
The landscaping soothed my artist’s soul with serene outdoor settings
Bypassing “Beware of Crocodile!” signs, we chanced on an off-duty guide, who regaled us with ghost stories from the mountains and the inn’s family history
We traded sandwich corners then dashed to the pool for a 10 minute swim before the thunder rolled in
If I had filled out an online order form, I couldn’t have imagined more perfect excursions for exploring the treasures of South Africa and acquainting myself with its rich and varied culture. God is good…all the time.