(As appeared in Air Namibia's in-flight magazine January 2019)
I was to depart for my annual African journey on the 19th of November 2018. I was going back to Kruger National Park in South Africa for three glorious weeks, staying in six different camps from south to north and back south again. Kruger – as I tell my friends and colleagues – is a place that resets my compass to true north. I can handle anything in the forty-nine weeks prior if I can spend three weeks a year in Africa.
On the 8th of October, from seemingly nowhere, a tropical depression in the Yucatan Peninsula turned into a category one hurricane. The next day, the weatherman predicted the now named Hurricane Michael was headed straight for me in Panama City, Florida.
On the 9th of October, according to the national news, the biggest threat was storm surge. Since my home is on the bay, I wasn’t worried about storm surge and decided to ride it out.
When the system hit the warmer than usual waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Hurricane Michael formed fast and furious and became a category four hurricane.
The storm developed so sudden that by the time I realized this was going to be a serious situation it was too late to leave. I began preparations. I retrieved my hurricane supply kit and brought the container downstairs to my safe room; the laundry room. I had two other water proof containers which, crazily enough, I put things in that I knew if I were going on my Africa trip I would need. I gathered my camera, my binoculars, converters, my tried and true African garments and so forth. Even in the threat of a hurricane, the trip to Africa was in the forefront of my brain.
As the storm neared, I put my cats in their carriers and I put on a bike helmet - a trick a friend suggested to protect your head in such event. My cats and I rode that crazy storm out in a tiny laundry room. For what felt like days the wind blew. I heard debris hitting the walls. At times it felt like the house was lifting off its foundation. The cats growled as the barometric pressure from the storm dropped. For two hours 250-kilometer per hour winds pounded my home. As the winds died down a bit, I dared go upstairs to see what the situation was. What I saw was a shock to my system. My roof had blown off and my ceilings had collapsed. Wet insulation was all over everything and it was raining into my home.
At that moment I knew I needed to get myself and my cats out of there.
My brother has a beach condo three quarters of a kilometer from my home. I Facebook messaged my brothers’ neighbor to ask if their place was okay. She responded that it was. I ran there in 111-kilometer per hour winds, dodging flying debris with two cats in carriers. Trees where down everywhere. Debris was still flying around.
I saw not one other person. It was as if a nuclear bomb had gone off and my cats and I were the only survivors, but our future survival – at least until we reached safety – was uncertain.
Somehow, we made it to my brothers’ condominium. The three of us were soaking wet and in complete shock. The days that followed were harrowing. Through it all I kept asking myself if I could still possibly go on my Africa trip? The answer was uncertain at best.
For days after the tragedy with no power, no water and devastation that can only be imagined if you’ve gone through a disaster yourself, I found myself in survival mode. I had to shore up some damage at my brothers’ condo. I, along with some friends and a FEMA worker, kept going back and rumbling through the debris in my house salvaging what we could; mostly sentimental items.
As the days passed, I had movers take what little I had cleaned, salvaged and stashed in the one room where the ceiling had not collapsed to storage. The contractors then gutted my home to the rafters. I was dealing with contractors and living in a tiny beach condo with my cats; albeit I was much more fortunate than many who had no place to go.
On October 19th, thirty days from my departure date to Africa I made the decision that I could not go on the trip. I went on-line to the Sanparks website to cancel, but I couldn’t pull the trigger. At that very moment I realized I needed this trip more than ever.
On November 19th, as scheduled, I left all the destruction behind with instructions to my contractor, my cat sitter, my friends and family that I didn’t want to hear about anything that was or wasn’t going on there while I was away.
As I write this, I am on day nine of one of the best trips to Africa I have ever had; perhaps because the trip was so well needed.
I just returned to my chalet in Shingwedzi Camp in the far north of Kruger National Park. Today I was reminded of a lesson I will take back with me as I deal with the rebuild of my home.
This morning, not far from the camp gates, there was a dead impala stashed expertly in a tree. This was the mastermind of a leopard but there was no leopard to be found. I knew she would come back; it was only a matter of when. I had not seen a leopard yet on this trip and I did not see one on my previous trip. I had full intent of seeing this one today. I wanted to see the genius that so expertly hung that impala in that tree.
On and off for six hours today I sat roadside. I read. I wrote. I photographed birds and watched the ground for insects. Every few minutes I looked at the tree where the impala was stashed and scoped the surrounding area for the leopard.
At a quarter past five, a bushbuck snorted an alarm and ran past. An eagle that was in the tree with the dead impala flew off. I stopped everything and watched the tree with great anticipation. I saw the beauty approach the tree and leap onto a branch after one single pounce off the trunk. For twenty minutes it was just this stunning leopard and I and the dead impala. A few other tourists came eventually but for the most part it was just me and this beautiful creature of nature.
The only reason I had that great sighting was because of patience. Africa always teaches me a lesson I need to learn and receive in my life. She settles my brain back into its proper place so that when I go back to my daily life, I can function better than ever. Africa gives me a tune-up, if you will.
This year the lesson was patience. I will go home and be patient with the process of not only dealing with contractors and such in order to put my house back together, but also to be patient in the mental healing process of what I have gone through.
It is now said that Hurricane Michael was one of the strongest to hit the United Sates since records were kept. It was an event I never want to relive; destruction I never care to see again.
I am so glad I found it within me to make the decision to come on this trip. I owe a debt of gratitude to that leopard, to Kruger National Park and to Africa.
I will go home with a fresh outlook and determination due to spending time in this place of beauty; a place where I breath in new lessons on life with each trip.