Silent auction leads to breathtaking African safari

Rye mother, daughter find relatives and riveting memories in South Africa

Story by Elaine Webb; Photos by Nina Webb

Water buffalo welcomes the Webbs.

I was reading the newspaper (March 2007) and noted a "Mardi Gras" fundraiser for Habitat for Humanity was to be held at the Wentworth By The Sea. It included dinner, a silent auction, and music. My daughter Nina was coming home that weekend from New York City, and she said "GREAT! Let's Go!"

It was obvious from the moment we drove up to the hotel, that this was going to be a fun time for a good cause. Nina had never been to a silent auction, and it took a little while to discover that we were both bidding on the same items. It was fun.

When dinner was announced, we took our place in the ballroom. We were unaware that following dinner there would be a full auction. Although there were many interesting items, the "African Safari for Two" caught my attention. I leaned over to Nina and said that I would be interested in bidding on this trip. My mother's sister and her family had emigrated from Scotland to South Africa in the 20's, and I had never met them. I knew I had cousins and there were several generations. So we started bidding. Wouldn't you know that one other person in the room was just as eager to bid on this item? We made the last bid, which was only $50 less than the value placed on the trip! But after all, the money went to charity. Nina was busy on the phone explaining to her friends in NYC that she just bid and bought a trip to South Africa!  "A trip where?" "Why?" "Are you serious?"

On April 17, 2008, we were on our way. First to JFK Airport to meet up with Nina, then off to Heathrow, England and onto Johannesburg, South Africa, where we would take a connecting flight to Richards Bay, on the east coast. We arrived in Johannesburg an hour late and missed our connection to Richards Bay. BUT, the delay allowed us to spend extra time with our South African relatives who had traveled to the airport to meet us. It was a great reunion. We talked and laughed and promised to keep in touch as we boarded a small plane, destination Durban, on the east coast. Maybe they will visit New Hampshire some day.

We were met in Durban by a driver who would take us to the Safari Lodge. It was a four-hour trip on a major highway, then off into the unknown. We approached Safari country in the darkness of night. We spotted up to 50 Nyalas (they look a lot like deer) and wild rabbits, caught in the headlights. After about an hour we turned up the driveway to our final destination. We were escorted to our room which was rustic, warm and inviting, with flagstone floor and paneled walls, and a fireplace. Comfortable, with all the amenities, no roughing it here. If there were any roaming animals, we didn't hear them, we were fast asleep in minutes.


We awoke to see a magnificent sunrise outlining unbelievably lush hills and valleys; it was truly breathtaking. It was not hot, as one would assume, but rather like a fall day in New England, with temperatures in the low 60's, and clouds threatening rain.

Guide picks up beat listening to Nina's iPod.
We met many travelers in the dining lodge where we enjoyed a continental breakfast. In our group, there was a woman from Maine and another from Massachusetts, who drove past the N.H. coastline daily on their way to work. It is a small world after all.

Our group of eight was assigned to Philipmon, our guide for the week. His job was to gather us together each morning, plan the day's adventure, and to keep us safe. Philipmon is South African, born and raised. He was wonderful, extremely kind, very knowledgeable about the wildlife. Arrangements would be made for a lunch at some location, or sometimes lunch would be packed for us and we would picnic at some wonderful spot.

If the weather was good the terrain vehicle's canvas top would be rolled back. Sometimes at the end of the day when the sun went in, it was so cold that along with the vehicle heater, we had to have blankets, hats and coats on.. Many times we wore several layers of clothing. What were we thinking? In my recollection of the old Tarzan movies, there was never any indication that Africa had cold weather.

Hippo sticks nose out of water (middle photo), then emerges from water.

Armed with our binoculars, we searched for the animals. We came across giraffe families in their natural environment, graceful and quite beautiful. They are by far the easiest animals to spot, with their long necks towering over the bushes. Philipmon, would stop the vehicle, show us a broken branch, or animal dung, or a water hole, and identify the animals responsible and approximately the time they passed that way; i.e., water buffalo, elephants, hippos, zebras and other animals native only to Africa. We went to different reserves in the ongoing quest to see as much as possible. It should be noted that NO ONE ventured out for a walk after dark.

Dinner was always buffet-style, with local vegetables and native meats. The meat, in particular, was suspect and often tough. Every evening during the dinner hour we were entertained by the local native men and women, performing traditional native dances and singing in their native tongue. Afterwards we all retired to the drawing room for a glass of wine in front of the huge roaring fireplace. Again, who would expect that a fireplace would be roaring for comfort in Africa?


Warthogs out for a leisurely morning stroll.

On the second day we were traveling along a dirt road with deep ruts (we arrived at the end of the rain season although it continued to rain) just wide enough for one vehicle, when directly in front of our vehicle, a huge male and female elephant and baby elephant broke out of the brush. We were awe struck! They were huge! Each day we saw beautiful zebras, giraffes and nyala, and on other days we saw water buffalo and hippopotamus lounging in water holes, alongside baboons, monkeys and very big snakes!

Our guide took us to a waterway, a wide and long river, just a few hours from the Lodge, where we boarded a viewing boat. We saw beautiful native bird life as well as crocodiles bathing on the banks (and in the water). The captain pointed out a large hippo pod (family) all clustered within inches of one another. They rest their huge heads on the backs of their family members and nap! They had several baby hippos protected within their pod. The captain told us that a crocodile had killed two hippo babies this past week. But revenge is sweet. She showed us a picture of a huge male hippo with the crocodile caught in his huge mouth: "Goodbye crocodile!"

We spent one day traveling to St. Lucia on the east coast overlooking the Indian Ocean. We climbed over sand dunes, and there it was, the magnificent, deep blue Indian Ocean and the untouched appeal of the beach. No litter.

After a long walk, buddies enter school.

The classroom.

The kitchen.

High barbed-wire fence keeps animals from schoolyard.

We took a one-day trip to a school and an authentic local village. The school children were full of smiles and happy to see us.

Shoes are removed before entering their classroom to keep the floors clean. They were neatly dressed with clothing donations from the US and other countries. One little girl had a skirt appliqued with white figure skates (photo at right). A few boys had padded ski jackets that they wore proudly regardless of the weather. They did a few steps of their native dance, and then  the class sang us a song. Through all this the smiles never left their faces. They have so little, but they are happy.

The children walk great distances to school. Many walk ten miles to school and back each day. No school buses. Lunch is provided, usually rice or native grains. The kitchen is a lean-to at best, with a tin roof that had big holes. When it rains they cannot cook a lunch as the rain puts out the fire, and, of course, there is no refrigeration. For many of the students, there is a shortage of food in their homes, so they start off to school with empty tummies. The school established a large garden with wire fencing high enough to keep out wild animals. The students are taught how to take care of the garden, and the harvest benefits the lunch.

The staff for 120 pupils? A teaching Principal, a full-time teacher and an assistant. The teachers have their hands full, but they are dedicated and the children are eager to learn. (Thanks to charitable donations, bathrooms were installed in the school.)

Store worker has fun, dons beads.

A ready wave and ready smile.

Later, as we entered the village store, there was a little girl about 2-plus years old sitting barefoot on the outside step. No toys, no other children, just smiles. The store had an upright Coca-Cola refrigerated cooler with Coca-Cola handles. It had about ten cans of soda on the shelf, nothing else. There were a few handmade items on the shelf, and we all tried to find something to buy. When we left, the little girl on the steps smiled and waved.

The village hut.

The grandmother.

In a village hut a grandmother (about 80 years old) spoke no English but did smile and acknowledge us. She allowed us to look around, and see what and how she prepares food for the family. She is raising six grandchildren in her home with no heat, electricity or water. The village supplies what food it can to help her in this endeavor. Very primitive.


What a world of difference from our Safari. Cape Town is wonderful. It is nestled at the base of Table Mountain and the mountain range and faces the Atlantic Ocean. We stayed at the Victoria and Alfred Hotel, overlooking the working harbor, with tugboats, freighters, and the seals who put on a daily early-morning show, or so it seemed. The harbor had a wonderful walking area along the water.

We visited many local points of interest. District 6 Museum was established to remember that during Apartheid shameful actions of discrimination and human behavior took place. This community was on a prime piece of property in downtown Cape Town. A community of Indian and South African natives, definitely the working class, were moved from the place of their birth to another location in Cape Town, and the entire community was demolished. Many were moved to a tent city or tin shacks for lack of permanent housing. The new location does not have public transportation so it affects the employment of residents, shopping etc.

Statues of Mandella and three other prime ministers at Victoria and Alfred waterfront.

Unfortunately we did not make the trip to Robbins Island, but we did tour the Nelson Mandela Museum. It speaks for itself. What a wonderful man, along with Bishop Desmond Tutu. It is hard to believe that these events happened within our lifetime.

We did go up Table Mountain in a cable car. The view is of the entire city of Cape Town and the ocean below. When you get to the top, it is not just an observation area, you can walk around the top and explore the hardy foliage, take pictures, and stroll. Amazing sights. Beautiful day!

We went to wine country and to a wine and cheese festival. The countryside was lush with ivory-covered homes, beautiful horses, acres and acres of vineyards. Very friendly people and good wine too.

We hired a driver to take us along the coast line with the ultimate destination being the Cape of Good Hope, Cape Point, South Africa.

Penguins have Boulders Beach in Simon Town to themselves as they parade about.

Cape Point forms the most southern point of the Cape Peninsula. This is where the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian Ocean meet. Our history books tell us about the numbers of ships that never made it around the Cape. It's amazing that any ships made it. We stopped and enjoyed penguins on their own beaches without fences and so many unbelievable views of the mountains and the water.

This is one of many indelible memories, many not even mentioned here, that we took home with us after a storybook trip of two weeks. The memories play over and over in our minds. Thank goodness we made that last auction bid.

February, 2009
See Letters in March, 2009