“Luxury” provides a one-word summary of the incredible experience a local couple enjoyed during a recent all-expense paid trip to South Africa.
“I had an idea of what to expect, but pictures don’t do the experience justice,” said April Edens, the Elizabethton resident who won the trip through a Facebook contest earlier this year.
April was selected the Grand Prize Winner of South Africa Tourism’s “Endless Skies” Facebook Sweepstakes, earning her and a guest two round-trip tickets to South Africa complete with luxury accommodations, guided city tours, safari outings and much more.
April and her boyfriend, Shawn Younce, traveled to South Africa for the adventure of a lifetime back in April.
After returning home, it took some time for the reality of daily life to creep back into play. “I woke up my first night back,” she said. “The cats were stirring, and I thought it was our butler.”
That’s right. For part of the trip, April and Shawn enjoyed the services of a professional butler.
“Now, reality has sat back in,” she said, although the memories of her incredible trip will last a lifetime.
Her preparations for the trip had been methodical and meticulous.
“I had prepared lists upon lists of information: packing lists, emergency contacts, credit card numbers,” April said.
She also informed the Department of State of their upcoming travel, made extra copies of passports and noted the local embassies.
“I went through every logical motion except for the mental preparation of actually boarding the plane and physically travelling 8,000 miles away,” April said. She and her boyfriend had never traveled outside the United States. They hadn’t even flown commercially until their recent trip.
“The worry and anxiety on my parents’ minds was palpable, as my father drove us ever so cautiously to the airport,” April said. “Until we passed through security and were seated outside the boarding gate, I had just gone through the motions. It was outside the gate that I shed a few tears in mixed emotions, symbolizing my excitement and realization of the distance we would soon travel.”
Instinctively, her boyfriend had Kleenex within arm’s reach.
They flew from Tri-Cities Regional Airport to Charlotte Douglas International Airport, and from there to JFK International Airport in New York for the flight to South Africa.
Upon departing from JFK, the couple flew with South African Airways.
Edens said the airline’s employees were very jovial and provided superb service.
“The amenities and in-flight entertainment made the 15-hour flight manageable,” she said.
A friendly and knowledgeable guide was awaiting their arrival into Johannesburg.
“We were soon on our way to Hoedspruit,” April said. “We landed on a remote landing strip, surrounded by a gorgeous landscape and unique flora unlike the normal concrete jungles of airports.”
A transport service awaited their arrival, and they began the one-hour drive to their lodge in Ngala Tented Camp in Kruger National Park.
They rode with a well-informed driver who answered every question they posed to her and even stopped along the way to allow the couple to snap some photographs that became some of the first of the 1,800 photographs they took during their trip.
April noted that Shawn took the majority of the photographs.
“He was in his zone,” she said.
They saw baboons and five giraffes all before entering the gate to their lodge.
Their stay at Ngala Tented Camp continued the “luxury” theme of their trip.
“Upon entering the lodge, we were greeted with hot hand towels by two staff members, whom we soon learned were the manager and our butler,” April said. “We were speechless after having been shown our accommodations, which far surpassed our expectations.”
They enjoyed experiencing some traditional culinary offerings such as boerewors, a type of sausage, and biltong, which is a dried meat usually made from antelope and similar to jerky.
They also dined on kudu, which is a large species of antelope.
“On one of the game drives, we saw a female kudu,” April said. “After having eaten one the night before, I felt a bit of sadness, as it was a beautiful creature.”
The sight of the kudu, however, brought on hunger pangs for Shawn.
“The kudu was delicious,” she explained.
They settled into the luxurious schedule of the game lodge, which consisted of eating extravagant meals every few hours (with snacks and high tea served between meals) and twice-daily game drives.
They had a full staff, including security, available at their call.
“We were walked to our tent at night by security, which seemed unnecessary,” April said.
The escort, however, provided a crucial reminder that they were in a National Park and the animals were free to roam, even up to their front porch.
“We didn’t have to drive to see many animals, as they surrounded and frequented the camp,” April said.
Vervet monkeys were frequent visitors, especially at meal times, when April said the small primates sneakily swooped in to plunder the banquets.
They were told to make sure to lock the door to their room. Otherwise, the vervet monkeys would help themselves and pillage through their things. To have their clothes laundered, they had to sign a waiver that removed their liability in case the monkeys found their way to the clothesline.
“Apparently, the monkeys occasionally get the desire to wear underclothes, but ours were safely returned,” April said.
Three warthogs also resided near the entrance to their room.
Their tent also included an outdoor shower, which was enclosed by a brick wall for privacy but still frequented by wildlife.
“While taking a shower, I saw kudu and bushbuck, both antelopes,” April said.
Their days began at 5:30 a.m. when they were greeted by their butler with fresh coffee and scones.
“We had never been so eager to wake at such a time,” April said. “We quickly dressed in our safari gear and headed toward the 4×4 for our morning game drive.”
April said they saw every animal they hoped to see — and more.
They saw the “Big Five” — African lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and Cape buffalo — along with zebra, kudu, baboons, giraffes, cheetah, hippos, vultures, impalas, hyenas, a chameleon and many species of birds.
“We were within 20 feet of a pride of 19 lions, including one adult male with a full mane and many juvenile males,” April said. “I was completely awestruck. My only reaction was to cry silent tears of joy, knowing how blessed I was to be in their presence. It was an experience that I cannot completely describe in words, but I know that I will never forget.”
They saw some other incredible scenes, including a jackal calling to warn its mate of danger from approaching cheetahs.
They also found a male and female cheetah sharing a recently killed impala, a species of antelope.
The experience at Ngala was so amazing that April said she finds it almost impossible to completely put into words.
“I honestly felt a sense of sadness the morning that we left,” she said.
They left behind the wilds of Ngala for the civilization of Johannesburg. The South African capital was a far different experience for the couple.
“Johannesburg was rich with culture and history,” April said.
They stayed at the hotel, 54 on Bath, which was within walking distance of Nelson Mandela’s home.
The majority of their time in Johannesburg was spent in Soweto, which is an acronym for South Western Townships.
“Soweto was basically the center of the campaigns to overthrow the apartheid state,” April said.
They learned about the Soweto Uprising at the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum. They also visited Nelson Mandela’s first house, where he and his first wife, Winnie, stayed before he was imprisoned.
They also walked past Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s house, which coincidently is on the same street — Vilakazi Street — and is famous for being the only street in the world that can claim two Nobel Peace Prize winners as residents.
April said the people of Soweto have suffered greatly and still have more economic and racial obstacles to overcome.
“Soweto is a city with a great divide between the poor and upper-class,” she said. “Mansions can be found on one side of the road, with match-box houses and shanty towns on the other.”
While passing by one elegant home, April and Shawn were invited in, given a tour and offered free room and board if they ever get the chance to return in the future.
“They even offered to cook for us,” April said. “We were almost shocked by the level of hospitality that we were met with everywhere we went, and it far surpassed our own Southern hospitality.”
April said she would be surprised to find more welcoming and hospitable people than those she met in Soweto.
The weather cooperated during their stay, and April and Shawn were able to travel by hot air balloon.
“It was an astounding experience, filled with beautiful scenery,” she said.
The next stage of their journey, however, proved an almost surreal experience.
They embarked on the Blue Train for a 27-hour luxury trip by rail.
“When I first learned that we would be spending 27 hours on a train, to be honest, I wasn’t sure if it would be completely enjoyable,” April said. “I was fortunately incorrect.”
She described being passengers on the Blue Train as an amazing luxury experience that they may never be able to surpass.
“We sampled exquisite meals and wine, while being attended to by a full staff, surrounded by frequent travelers, all while enjoying the beautiful landscape and scenery that South Africa has to offer,” April said. “What more could you ask for?”
Dining on the Blue Train was also a culinary adventure. They had never sampled some of the dishes they enjoyed, including escargot, salmon tartare, duck breast and beef Wellington.
“I think it is safe to say that we gained several pounds along the way, but it was well worth it,” April said.
They had the opportunity to meet several other fellow passengers who were very interested in April and Shawn’s story.
“We told one couple, and the news seemed to spread fast,” April said.
The luxurious Blue Train transported them to Cape Town, where they spent the remainder of their trip.
“Cape Town is an absolutely stunning city with many sights and activities to offer,” April said.
Cape Town is famous for having one of the world’s highest levels of biodiversity.
“There are 2,200 plant species, many endemic to the area, confined to Table Mountain alone,” April said.
April and Shawn also enjoyed paragliding.
“We were unsure of whether the wind would cooperate or not, and waited awhile for it to pick up,” she said. “It all happened so fast. All of a sudden, I had signed a liability waiver, was strapped into a harness and preparing to run as fast as my legs could carry me, straight down a mountain slope!”
April admitted that she was terrified until the air lifted the glider.
“I adjusted, and it was exhilarating,” she said. “Shawn was much braver than me.”
The paragliding experience lasted only five minutes, but April said it was unlike anything she could have imagined.
Cape Town offers some incredible geographical features, including Table Mountain, the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point.
The couple also enjoyed observing penguins at Boulders Beach.
“We had wonderful accommodations in Cape Town at the Queen Victoria, which was in a wonderful hub of the V&A Waterfront,” April said.
She explained that the V&A Waterfront is tourist area offering many restaurants, malls, craft markets and the Two Oceans Aquarium, which they got to visit.
The couple got back to Elizabethton on April 20, 12 days after their adventure began.
“We are absolutely blessed to have been given this amazing opportunity to begin our travels,” April said.
Now that she has been bitten by the “travel bug,” April said she is sure her South Africa trip is only the beginning as she continues to explore.
She also thanked the South African Tourism Board for providing the memories and stories that she and Shawn will now be able to share with future grandchildren.
“South Africa offers many unique experiences and sights that make the perfect vacation,” she said.
April has even self-appointed herself a goodwill ambassador for South Africa.
“I would be more than happy to answer questions to anyone considering taking a vacation to the Rainbow Nation,” she said.