New Friends in New Places: South Africa’s Garden Route

Dana Calabrese
I landed in Cape Town, South Africa, on a Tuesday afternoon after 19 hours of traveling the day before, and—needless to say—I was exhausted! However, that exhaustion was overcome by the excitement I was feeling since I was finally in the city that I had been dreaming of for the past 3 months. After getting a ride to our accommodations in the suburb of Rosebank, all 30 students on my program attended an orientation session to go over program details, service-learning placements, and our course load. At the end of the session, we were given details of a three-day trip along South Africa’s Garden Route that we were all leaving for on the following day—much to my surprise! I was so excited that we were diving head first into all that South Africa had to offer, though also a little nervous because I still didn’t know my peers yet. Nevertheless, I had a good feeling that this trip would be a great opportunity for all 30 of us to bond.
Our wakeup call was at 3:30 am, and we boarded our bus at 4, the sun still yet to rise.  My roommates and I all groggily grabbed window seats because we were told the night before that the Garden Route passed through incredible mountains and had beautiful views of the Indian Ocean. I ended up sitting next to another person on my program who I hadn’t met yet, and we got to know each other until we both fell asleep, still jetlagged from our flights in. I remember waking up an hour later and peering out the window to see the strangest looking trees, so unique that they looked like they came straight from the pages of a Dr. Seuss book. The bus trudged along and I saw the sun rise as everyone else began to wake up. Our tour guide for the trip introduced herself and gave us a brief rundown of the next three days. We played a couple of ice breaker games, like two truths and a lie, and soon we were all hysterically laughing together.
After a break for breakfast, we made our way to our first stop, the Cango Ostrich Farm. South Africa, specifically the Eastern Cape, is known for their Ostrich leather and feather goods, and we got to see some of the hand-crafted items. After, we went out to the farm and all took turns hugging an ostrich (or even kissing it, if you were really brave!). We also were able to grab a bucket of ostrich feed and hold it up to the birds as they poked their heads over our shoulders to eat. Lastly, we learned that ostrich egg shells are so thick that they are able to sustain the weight of humans, and we all took turns posing while standing on the eggs! Afterwards, the farm provided a delicious BBQ for us, and we all stuffed our faces before boarding the bus again. 
The next stop was a quick drive down the road to the Cango Caves, where we spent the afternoon admiring the awesome limestone formations shaped from years of weathering. When we entered the caves, we had the option of going on the “heritage tour,” which was an easy walk through the more open area of the caves, or the “adventure tour,” which was a more difficult route for thrill-seekers. Without a second thought, I opted for the adventure tour, strapped on a helmet, and began army crawling through the narrow spaces of the cave. At one point, we ascended a steep ladder, and then filed into a constricted cave one-by one. Someone in front of our group was definitely holding up the process, so all of us were stuck in this small space, slightly uncomfortable but laughing uncontrollably. Afterwards, we drove to our hotel for the night, and we all ate dinner together and just got to know each other. In the dining room, there was a large fireplace, and we sat around until we couldn’t keep our eyes open anymore. 
The next morning, we set out for the Knysna Elephant Sanctuary, and this was the part of the trip that I was looking forward to the most! However, on the way to the sanctuary, our bus got stopped in the street by a huge protest blocking the road. The bus driver told us we had to turn around and might not be able to the see the elephants. We ended up stopping at a rocky beach on the Indian Ocean instead, and it turned out to be an awesome pit stop. We hiked along the trails that stretched up into the mountains, hopped across rocks in the bay, and sat on the sand eating ice cream. A couple of hours later, our tour guide told us that the road was clear, and we once again drove towards the sanctuary. When we arrived, we had to wait until our allotted time to feed and ride the elephants, and I looked at the amazing animals from behind the fence. Before going to South Africa, I told myself that at the top of my bucket list was to ride an elephant, and I couldn’t believe that it was happening just three days into my journey. We paired up into groups of two, and the person that I went with ended up becoming one of my closest friends on the trip. We held onto our guide as the elephant walked around the savannah during sunset, linked trunk to tail with the other two elephants.
We settled into our second hotel that night completely exhausted from two straight days of non-stop activities and mingling; nevertheless, the next morning, we all planned to wake up at 5am to watch the sun rise. The hotel was located on a cliff overlooking the ocean, and we climbed down treacherous stairs in the dark and found a place on the sand to sit. As the sun rose we all were in awe of how vibrant the colors were, and after snapping a million pictures, we spent some more time on the beach until it was time to head to our last activity: river kayaking. I remember floating down that river and just thinking about how I was so thankful to have had this opportunity to be in such a dynamic, beautiful country with such an incredible group of people. We parked our kayaks on the bank of the river and had one last group hike to a picturesque waterfall before heading back to Cape Town that afternoon, the perfect end to an unbelievable three days. This trip provided such an awesome opportunity for the group to connect, and by the end I was forming the friendships that I still have to this day.
Dana Calabrese is a senior at Pitt majoring in Communication Science with minors in Italian and Education. She’s hoping to get her masters in Speech Language Pathology after she graduates, and is currently interning at the Study Abroad Office for the 2017-18 academic year. She studied abroad in Cape Town, South Africa, during Summer 2016, and then again in Florence, Italy, in Summer 2017.