May 07, 2014 - The feel of an elephant, tasty kudu, climbing a mountain and seeing a jail where Nelso Mandela was imprisoned are just some of the experiences Noah Cox had during a trip to South Africa last fall with his family.
Noah, 13, shared his story as a young traveler during a presentation at the Old Mill last month, and will likely have an encore presentation later this year.
"How often do you get chased by an elephant in life?" asked Noah recently. "There were so many things we didn't get to do— we'd need a month— but I'd say we got a good amount done. South Africa is quite developed and it surprised me."
The Cox family, which includes Noah's parents, Randy and Patty, as well as his siblings, Adam, 11, and Elly, 8, were in South Africa from Nov. 22 to Dec. 5. They were joined by the children's Nana, as well as their au pair. The South Africa trip is part of a plan to take a major family trip about every two years. In 2010, they kicked off their plan with a trip to Costa Rica. This time, South Africa was the choice over Brazil due to precautions that have to be taken in regards to disease. Yellow fever, present in Brazil, would have required shots. Malaria is a concern in South Africa, but could be prevented by taking pills.
The family spent 20 total hours in the air in order to get to South Africa, with one layover in Amsterdam.
"It felt like my whole life was on the plane," said Noah.
Cape Town was their first stop and Noah compared it to a modern metropolitan city. He saw a "breathtaking" view of the city from the top of Table Mountain, which features a 2-mile plateau, and is a renowned tourist attraction.
"Basically, we were at one of the most southern points in the world and a few days before we were in plain old Michigan," he said.
Also while in Cape Town, Noah saw one of the jails in which Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for part of 27 years for his anti-apartheid actions against the South African government. Mandela, who was released in 1990, served as the president of South Africa from 1994-1999 and his death was reported Dec. 5, while the Cox family was still in the country. .
"I realize it was a very important place in the world, because it showed segregation, in South Africa especially, was beginning to wane when he was allowed out of that jail," said Noah.
The family also visited Hippo Hollow Resort in Nelspruit, on the border of Kruger National Park, where they were able to pet and feed elephants. Noah described the skin of the elephants as feeling like something between tire and leather. The elephants at the resort are kept in captivity due to disabilities. They also had a native African dinner at Hippo Hollow. On the menu was fare including ostrich, but they stuck to eating kudu—an African deer which Noah said tasted similar to steak or venison— and an array of unique vegetables. The evening's entertainment featured African ritual dancing and beating of drums, all taking place in large tents with 20-foot high painted concrete sides.
Noah's favorite part of the trip, however, was when they went to Garonga Safari Camp. Each day they went out on safari, they traveled in a Land Rover and saw lions, elephants, springboks, kudu, hippos, rhinos, crocodiles and more.
"Everyone knew when the animals ate last, so we knew it was safe to stand by," said Noah. "There was a driver on the truck and a tracker and he would track animal prints. He would be chasing them and directing the driver by walkie-talkie. It was amazing how close we could be... These animals seemed much happier than cooped up in a zoo."
Noah was fascinated by the elephants and how they communicated through facial and vocal expressions. On one occasion, an elephant became visibly upset and began charging their vehicle. The group drove away at about 20 miles per hour while the elephant chased a short distance before giving up.
Safaris were every day, twice a day, and Noah also recalls seeing two cheetahs eating the carcass of a small animal. He notes the objective of wildlife television shows seen on National Geographic is to show everything as it happens without interference, but the objective of the safari was to get as close to the animals as possible.
In Africa, the conservation of animals is a priority second only to the safety of humans, Noah said. He found the people he met in Africa to be very kind and friendly. While they did see some shanty towns, most of the areas they were in were not poverty-stricken. He did come away with a feeling of how privileged Americans are by comparison, however.
"There aren't many friends my age able to do something like this," said Noah. "It helped me get a feeling of how good we have it compared to those overseas. I talked to our tour guide and he said to tell our president to make immigration more accessible. America to many is perceived as the land of opportunity."
Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville