Winter of Writing

Source: via Susan on Pinterest

Last Monday I was completely prepared to register for my third watercolor class. I had my eye on a class offered through the local school district’s Community Education program. I decided to take one more look at the program’s online catalog. I clicked on “Miscellaneous Classes” link and saw a class title that has refused to leave me alone since I first laid eyes on it in December: “Beginning Fiction Writing.” The class description looked pretty straightforward, “Exploring various works of popular fiction to determine what makes them successful. Students will have the option to submit their own works for class analysis. Students will learn to evaluate the different elements that make up good fiction and learn how to apply these elements to their own works. The course will require some work outside of class.” The last sentence was the hook for me.

I’ve had an idea for a [potentially very long] story ever since 2009. When I started this blog in 2010 I thought I would play around with the story, draft it and release “chapters” to see if the story was actually interesting to anyone. The problem is, as of last Monday, I had never once drafted a single word of the story. (I only had a few possible titles, a four-page premise and a list of principal characters). I was always too scared to start writing the story because I had never taken a creative writing class in college and I was sure my method would be bogus. This little $35 Community Education course with the promise of homework assignments was just what I needed to make me start writing something.

I set my watercolor aspirations aside and registered for the writing class. The first class took place the following evening (Tuesday 1/15). The instructor gave us a brief course overview and then we got right to the good stuff. An hour and a half later she asked us if we would be comfortable bringing a 3-page writing sample to class the following week. We agreed to do the assignment and as I drove home I realized it really was “go” time. Since Tuesday I have spent the majority of my free time outlining my characters and doing some research and development. If I stick with this project beyond the life of the writing course it will potentially turn into a multiyear project. I don’t have a great track record of sticking with big life plans but I can tell you that this last week has been a wonderful and liberating jaunt into a world that is mine to create. Life is a little more fun this way. My mind is working double-time trying to hold onto each idea that floats through it. I have never found myself scrambling for a pen and paper so many times in one day.

As of tonight I have written the first four pages of a very raw first draft of my story. I’m a little nervous about sharing it with my class tomorrow but luckily there are only four other students. (I should probably be more nervous about squeezing into one of the middle school student-sized desks!) Regardless of the feedback I receive tomorrow I am happy knowing that I have 1,997 words written instead of zero. I just need to put a little more trust in myself and keep going. For now I am going to let my mind keep wandering - with my notebook close by, of course - and see what my imagination can cook up.


South Africa TravelBlogue (Part 10 – Panorama Route, Flight home & Conclusion)


On Saturday morning, after spending a lovely evening in our log chalet at Zur Alten Mine Guest Farm, my mom and I loaded our suitcases and backpacks into our rental car. We had breakfast with the other B&B guests. To tell the truth “breakfast” doesn’t quite describe it. It was more like a feast. I had three pieces of chocolate cake. If that’s considered wrong then I don’t want to be right. We settled our bill with the owner and he helped us decide which Panorama Route sights to stop off at. We only had two hours to spare before we had to begin the five-hour drive to Johannesburg Airport. As we discussed our options the owner asked us if we had heard about the famous person who had died in the United States the previous day. We hadn’t. He regrettably informed us that Gene Hackman had passed away. I was really surprised. I didn’t even know he was sick. It wasn’t until we got home that we realized that it was Larry Hagman, not Gene Hackman. (I just looked both of them up on IMDB and Gene is almost two years older than Larry. Stay strong, Gene!)

After we created our game plan for the day we said farewell to our gracious hosts and drove to Bourke’s Luck Potholes. These “potholes” were formed naturally and they are quite a sight to behold. They were named after Tom Bourke who predicted he would make a fortune prospecting for gold in the potholes. Sadly he didn’t have much luck.

We used our remaining time to visit Lisbon Falls. I had promised one of my friends that I would take a picture of a waterfall for her. Here it is:

Just before noon my mom and I officially set our sights on Johannesburg. On our way out of Graskop we stopped off at a woodcarver’s roadside craft stand. The man was very nice. My mom bought one of his carved birds. I was tempted to buy something but I decided to hold onto my cash for upcoming toll roads and one final souvenir run at the Johannesburg airport.

Whilst en route to the airport we stayed on the Panorama Route for as long as possible. Eventually we had to get on the “real” freeway. The skies were a little cloudy and at a few points we experienced some moderate rain. I realized we were incredibly lucky – we had never once been rained on during the trip. This was the dreariest scene we saw the entire time:

We arrived at the airport with plenty of time to return our rental car and go through multiple security checkpoints. It’s a good thing we did because my poor mom had a terrible time over at the Air France check-in counter. I would be flying Delta to Salt Lake City via Atlanta. My mom would be flying Air France to San Francisco via Paris. We both had to print our boarding passes and check in our bags at our respective airline counters. My Delta check-in process took me about 10 minutes. My mom’s check-in took her at least 45 minutes. The Air France desk was in complete disarray and when I walked over there it looked like some of the passengers were ready to throw punches. At that point my flight’s departure time was quickly approaching so my mom and I parted ways. The next line I had to go through (where Customs stamps your passport) took me about 45 minutes. It was awful, mostly because I was baking hot and I didn’t have water in my water bottle. (I hate that rule!) I sincerely dislike the Johannesburg Airport. Regardless, I’m sure I will return one day. I will just be sure to avoid Air France!

When I arrived at my gate I had to show my passport to enter the waiting area. The boarding process began a little while later and when I boarded I had to show my passport for the fourth and final time. They sure had a lot of security protocols! I found my seat and settled in for a long, long flight. Seventeen hours long to be exact. The best part of the flight was the fact that the middle seat on my row was empty. This made for a much more comfortable ride. In order to readjust to the US time zones I knew I had to stay awake for the first 6-8 hours of the flight. After that I could sleep the rest of the flight and be on a mostly normal schedule. With the help of some prescribed sleeping pills I was able to get a good night’s rest.

SUNDAY 11/25

On Sunday morning I woke up with a few more hours to go before my flight landed. I ate breakfast and watched another movie. Near the end of the flight I took a look at the flight route map and almost laughed out loud. The flight was crazy long!

When I landed in Atlanta it was a great relief to walk around for a little bit! I found my next gate and wrote in my journal to whittle down the 3.5 hour layover. After I burned out on writing I used my iPhone to catch up on a few emails and Facebook posts. Eventually I boarded my flight to Salt Lake City. The end was in sight – only four more hours of flying to go! To my surprise this last flight is the one that nearly undid me. There was someone in the seat next to me so all of the stretching out space I had on the other plane was gone. Plus I had already been in a car, in an airport, at a gate, or on a plane for the last 28 hours. I was ready to be done!

When I landed in Salt Lake City I did a little victory dance (mentally, not physically), claimed my baggage and met Stella outside for a lovely ride back to her place. She had to leave for church right away but I had time to grab the stuff I had left in her condo and give her a thank-you hug. I loaded up my car and nervously sat in the driver’s seat before I set out. I was a little scared to drive back to my apartment since I had sat in the passenger seat and observed reverse-direction traffic for the last week and a half. (What if I forgot which side of the road I was supposed to be on?) I made it home problem free. I finished writing in my journal before I allowed myself to unpack, take a shower or turn on the TV. I used my remaining hours of freedom to stretch out on my couch (PRICELESS) and catch up on my DVR and talk to a few friends.


In the weeks since the trip I have had several dreams about being on safari. I really hope I can make it back to South Africa one day. If you like animals I would completely recommend saving up your money and going to South Africa for a safari. My entire trip cost about $4,000 but it was paid for a little at a time – first the Delta flights, then an in-country South Africa flight, then a deposit on the safari lodge, then my cash withdrawals in-country, then my credit card purchases, and finally all of the money I still owed my mom.

Many people have asked me what my favorite part of the trip was. I really can’t pinpoint an exact moment. There are too many to choose from! All I can really offer is a Top 10 Moments in chronological order. (You’ll notice they all involve animals.)

Great White Shark Dive (Part 3)
Penguins at Betty’s Bay (Part 3)
Baboons on the car (Part 5)

Herd of elephants (Part 6)

Bathing hyena (Part 7)
Finding the lionesses (Part 8)

Searching for the Africa wild dogs (Part 8)

Watching a newborn wildebeest learn to walk (Part 8)

Spotting the rhinoceros (Part 9)
All four leopard sightings (Part 6, 7, 9)

Safaris may be seen as a once-in-a-lifetime vacation but I recommend setting aside time for two or three trips to Africa. Once you get back from your first trip you just might find yourself perusing flight options for the following year. South Africa can steal your heart. Be prepared to love it!



South Africa TravelBlogue (Part 9 – Safari Day Four & Panorama Route)

FRIDAY 11/23

The Big Five
Friday morning came much too quickly. It was my mom’s and my last day at Elephant Plains Game Lodge, a little piece of heaven on earth. In the days prior we had gone on five wonderful 3-hour game drives and our sixth and final game drive would begin at 5:30 am. So far we had been able to see four of The Big Five (water buffalo, leopard, elephant, lion) and we were just missing the rhinoceros. We had already spent hours looking for a very elusive white rhinoceros who constantly wandered in and out of the territory we were permitted to explore. My mom and I had high hopes that today would be the day we’d come face to face with the creature who seemed more like an airy ghost than a palpable megafauna.


Shortly before 5:30 am my mom and I met up with our group in front of Willie’s Land Cruiser. Willie told us he and Connie had already been out tracking the rhino and we would head to his last known whereabouts first. Everyone kept their eyes peeled for any sign of the rhino. Willie and Connie pored over tracks from their respective vantage points and they even got out of the car to look for the rhino. Willie told us that rhinos are extremely endangered because they are poached for their horns. (The horns are typically shipped to Asia, ground to powder and used for medicinal purposes.) The estimated number of rhinos in South Africa is kept secret by researchers. Willie told us that poachers are willing to look for rhinos anywhere – even in private game reserves like Elephant Plains. No wonder this particular rhinoceros was so shy!

As we drove a long we spotted several termite mounds that looked a lot like a rhino. At one point I found myself staring at a warthog and for a moment I was convinced it was the rhino! The warthog held still for a moment and then ran off. Minutes later we slowed down and peered into a lot with relatively sparse vegetation where Connie had tracked the rhino. There, amongst the bushes and brush, stood the solitary rhinoceros. It was rather fitting to find him out in the open after searching for him for so long. Willie circled the vehicle around to get us closer. When the rhino came into view the second time Willie told us he would probably run away a short distance and then stop. Just as Willie predicted the rhino started to trot up the hillside before looking back at us and deciding to stop.  

My mom remarked that she never thought something so big could look so scared. After a short time the rhino relaxed a little and continued to walk along the road.

I can’t tell you how happy I was to be looking at a wild rhinoceros. Willie gave us an idea of how big his territory is and it was astonishing. Even though these animals live in daily peril I have a feeling they are much happier than animals in zoos. After seeing so many animals do their own thing in their own sprawling territory I felt like I never wanted to go to a zoo again. Then again what would the world be without zoos? When I was a kid I fell in love with giraffes at a zoo while I was visiting my great-grandparents in Colorado. After we left our rhino friend behind we came across a group of giraffes snacking on some thorny trees and I fell in love all over again.

Next up we were lucky enough to run into our four favorite female lions. We parked even closer to them than we had the day before. Willie told us that a lot of people go to lion sanctuaries where they are allowed to play with baby lions. He said that he would never want to touch a lion because they are quite stinky. We weren’t close enough to smell the lions but he said you never forget the smell. Lions are opportunistic hunters and if they have the chance they will kill more prey than they can eat in a single day. They will save the other carcass(es) and gradually feed on the meat even if it is four days old and rotten. Gross, right?

"Hey Willie, come smell my breath!"

Even though I loved looking at the lions we eventually had to move on. Willie listened to the rangers talking on his radio and heard that they had spotted his very favorite leopard, Moya. We drove over to her and watched her as she caught sight of some nearby impalas. Her body language told the whole story – she wanted to eat, she was excited to find a potential meal, she tried her best to stay hidden, and she had a hard time finding the perfect opportunity to strike.

The wind was not blowing in her favor and it carried her scent right over to the impalas. In response they set off their security system and started snorting warnings at each other. (It would have been disastrous for them if they had split up and run away in different directions the second they realized she was nearby. Someone definitely would have gotten iced.) They held their ground and showed me that maintaining a healthy level paranoia is better than succumbing to all-out panic.

Moya made a half-hearted run in their direction but she wasn’t able to bring any impalas down. She went back to scent-marking every plant in sight. I noticed she had the most striking blue-green eyes of any of the leopards we had seen. Maybe that is why she’s Willie’s favorite leopard.

The morning game drive was going great but time was also running out. I tried not to pay any attention to the clock on the dashboard. I knew time was winding down when Willie pulled off near a lagoon for our morning coffee break. He knew there were hippos in the water and he told us we could get out as long as we wouldn’t go past a certain log that lay parallel to the shoreline. That log happened to be the perfect perch for a lovely bird Willie called “a flying banana” – the yellow billed hornbill.

After our coffee break we got back into the Land Cruiser and slowly but surely made our way back to the lodge. The inevitable moment came when I had to leave the vehicle for good. Willie knew that this was the end of the road for me, my mom and a few others. He gave my mom a hug and he gave me one too. My first thought was, “Okay, I need to run to the bathroom and cry for a minute or two.” I walked over to the bathroom but there was already a line. There’s no crying in safari parks!

I walked back to the room and finished packing my things. My mom and I ate breakfast and then she went to the front desk to review our final bill. When I got to the office my mom said, “Look what they gave us.” She handed me a laminated certificate with my name on it. It was even signed by Willie. My immediate thought was, “I’m totally going to frame this.” I have yet to do so but here it is in all its glory:

"This is to certify that Amber spotted the BIG 5 while on safari at Elephant Plains Game Lodge, South Africa" : )

After leaving an entry in the guest book we very sadly rolled our suitcases to our rental car. My mom was a little nervous about getting lost on the way out or hitting rough patches in the road. When we got back to Gowrie Gate we found a shuttle driver who agreed to let us follow him. My mom followed his path around each pothole and over each shady-looking dip. It saved us a lot of time because we could see what his vehicle could handle and we knew how fast we could go as a result. Once we got to the main road we parted ways. My mom and I had to drive to the Avis office in Hazyview in order to get our flat tire repaired. (The spare one was already on the vehicle so we really needed to get the original tire put back on in case anything happened.)

It took us two or three hours to get to Hazyview. We talked to an Avis employee and he sent the tire out to be fixed. (It had been punctured by a screw.) It took about an hour but we used the time to eat lunch at one of the tourist-friendly restaurants. (There were only tourist-friendly restaurants, for the record. The town is located near a Kruger National Park entrance and it’s definitely a tourist hot spot.) After our tire was securely reinstalled we set out for the tiny town of Graskop

On our way to Graskop my mom was pulled over for speeding. Actually, she was waved off the road by a female traffic cop who was standing on the side of the road with a radar gun. The whole situation was kind of fishy. First the cop said that she clocked us at one speed, then she said she clocked us at another. When my mom insisted she wasn't speeding at all the cop just kind of shrugged her shoulder and said, "Let me see your license." I was starting to think that the cop's "radar gun" was phony or maybe it had dead batteries. The great thing was the cop must have had no way to process my mom's license because as soon as she realized we were foreigners she let us leave. Lucky us!

This final chapter of our trip involved seeing part of the Panorama Route, spending Friday night in Graskop, seeing more of the Panorama Route, and then driving to the Johannesburg Airport on Saturday.

The Panorama Route is a long scenic route with several viewpoints and interesting natural landmarks. Each viewpoint has a small entrance fee. The gates to each viewpoint close at 5 pm. Unfortunately we only had time for one viewpoint before closing time. Even though time was limited we were very happy to have “The Three Rondavels” practically to ourselves. Better still, the skies were clear enough for us to see a wonderful expanse of the Blyde River Canyon. If it had been cloudy we would have been a little sad.

At 5 pm we set out to find the B&B where we’d be staying the night. We had a little trouble reading the map and we ended up calling the owner in order to find it. (We were glad my mom’s iPhone was unlocked which allowed her to buy a micro SIM card and get a local South Africa phone number.) When we saw the brown and white landmark sign for “Zur Alten Mine Guest Farm” we were relieved and delighted.


Zur Alten Mine Guest Farm was ridiculously idyllic. I mean, seriously pastoral. It was an entirely different scale of beauty compared to Elephant Plains Game Reserve. The craziest thing about it is that we had our very own Log Chalet for about $40 dollars per night. Can you believe that? I can’t tell you how badly I want to go back there.

Before I jump too far ahead, though, I should tell you that we drove to reception and met the owners. They were an extremely pleasant German couple with a small troop of dogs and cats.

After we checked in we drove up to the log cabin where one of the owners showed us around. He also gave us a list of restaurants where we could eat dinner. We chose The Glass House in Graskop. The restaurant owner sold me on ordering their catch of the day which was a river trout I wouldn’t be able to find in any other part of the world. The only unfortunate thing it is was served with its head, tail and fins intact. I always have a hard time ignoring shriveled eyeballs when I’m eating. Oh well, it was still great!

In truth, the most difficult thing to keep off my mind was the fact that there were 20-odd lucky you-know-whats who were still at Elephant Plains enjoying an evening game drive. For several days after leaving Elephant Plains I would look at the clock and become wistful if I knew guests were on a game drive at that time. I can’t tell you how many times I dreamed that I was back on one of those vehicles looking at those awesome animals. I miss them so badly.

When my mom and I went to sleep on Friday night my suitcase was all packed for the long journey home. I hoped that my mom and I would still have plenty of fun before we had to check in at the Johannesburg Airport at 6 pm.