Rob and Ellen Wagner of Lanesboro vacationed in South Africa for two weeks at the end of March into April.
Rob and Ellen Wagner of Lanesboro vacationed in South Africa for two weeks at the end of March into April.
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In America, one does not usually see a sign saying, "Do not feed baboons" except, perhaps, in zoos. One would definitely not see those same baboons running alongside a car like a dog might do. However, experiences like that make visiting a place like South Africa all the more intriguing.

Rob and Ellen Wagner from Lanesboro recently returned from a vacation to the fascinating country, where they saw an abundance of baboons and other animals while they traveled from March 26 to April 8.

Taking a break from their jobs at Mayo Clinic, the couple flew to South Africa to visit a niece and her family who have lived in a suburb of Johannesburg for about nine years.

While spending two weeks in South Africa, the Wagners traveled around the area of Johannesburg, the Sun City Resort and Cape Town. Rather than relying on tour guides, the couple was escorted by their niece's family to luscious and historic parts of the country.

"One day, we had a girl's night out to a spa where we had a four-hour-long full-body massage and dinner," Ellen said.

Though the location was around an hour from her niece's home, they hoped to begin the spa treatment at 6:30 p.m. Unfortunately, the infrastructure of the roads in that country are poor and once one leaves the main road, only inadequately-maintained dirt roads connect the areas. Because of this, the women arrived late for their spa appointment.

Once they left, in contrast to the pampering they experienced, the vehicle's GPS routed them past shantytown areas, consisting of structures comprised of tin roofs and tin walls for a family to sleep in.

The people living in these towns often populated the corners where people stopped to attempt selling their wares or any other possible thing, like a lizard, or offer car washes to provide for themselves.

This notable difference in culture made Rob appreciate living in the United States even more.

"Over there, there is no middle class. You are either very poor or have lots of money," he stated.

As they continued their journey, the Wagners and their hosts traveled to the Sun City Resort a few hours north of Johannesburg. An exciting place to visit, Sun City boasts a wave pool, luxurious hotels, a casino, two golf courses and game drives for tourists to witness exotic animals in their own natural habitat. The wide-open space of the park for the safaris may be fenced in, but with 14,000 acres for animals to roam free, one can easily think the animals are all wild.

The golf courses offered a unique style to the fairways and pits. As they golfed, the couple witnessed springboks dashing in front of them on the fairway, monkeys hoarding golf balls in a pile and warthogs grazing and simply walking away as they approached. The most interesting part of the course was the crocodile pit. If balls were lost, they were lost - no one dared to encounter the crocodiles to retrieve them.

The Wagners participated in a morning safari/game drive, waking around 4 a.m. to ensure their ride. Traveling in an open-air bus for the safari, they soon saw many types of animals. Rhinos, elephants, zebras, giraffes, hippos, hyenas, jackals, wildebeests and more emerged from the park scenery. The rhinos also forced the bus to halt in the middle of the road.

"The animals were so gorgeous," Ellen said.

Rob expressed the most enjoyable part of the trip in his mind was to see the animals in their natural habitat on the game drive rather than in the zoo.

"One elephant we saw was 58 years old, the oldest elephant in 'captivity.' He at one time flipped cars over when he was younger, but seems to have settled down," Rob recalled. "While we were there, though, we saw him wrap his trunk around a smaller tree and rip it out like it was nothing."

Not only did they enjoy a game drive, but the Wagners also got to feed several different animals while in South Africa.

"The most enjoyable part of the trip for me was being up close and personal with a giraffe. We bought food and had to walk up to a platform," Ellen said. "We got to feed the giraffe and even stick the food out from our mouths and let the giraffe take it. The giraffe was so delicate I could hardly feel it."

The giraffe was not the only one to be fed by the Wagners. Ostriches also benefited from their attention, but unlike the giraffe, "the ostrich would just chomp your hand off," she said.

Petting lion cubs was not out of the question either. On the contrary, the cubs basked in the attention as long as the Wagners' hands firmly stroked from the head down the back but did not go in front of their face and on their tails.

Seeing the animals did not occupy their whole trip, though they often saw baboons running around next to cars and goats stopping traffic while walking across the road.

Additionally, the Wagners stopped at grocery stores and restaurants, eating delicious foods and delicacies.

"I felt more at home in the grocery stores because we looked just like everyone else until we opened our mouths. I was surprised at how inexpensive things were. The people were very polite and friendly. It was fun to listen to their accents," Ellen stated.

Meanwhile, the Wagners experienced a few new food items, including squid heads and sushi to deliciously different tasting South African hamburgers to Greek food. Surprisingly enough, even nice Italian-style restaurants, not unlike McDonalds, provided playgrounds for children.

"They are very kid friendly there. Their playgrounds are big and the restaurants have staff watching over the kids there," Rob noted.

"Everything tastes different there. They had great Greek food, squid head, chicken liver and sushi. Their hamburgers over there are different than hamburgers here. We ate out a lot," they commented.

The Wagners enjoyed tasting wines at a winery, which had a bed and breakfast feel to it and even housed a bird sanctuary. One owl in the sanctuary had one wing removed, but beautiful eyes.

As they spent time in Cape Town, several surprises were in store for the couple. Rob was surprised that the ocean temperature was just about the same as that of the Root River.

"The ocean water was extremely cold even though they are in the fall season there. But Antarctica is only 700 miles away. It is as cold as the Root River," he expressed.

Ellen, on the other hand, was surprised by penguins residing in the area.

"I was surprised there were penguins there because I normally think they usually are in Antarctica, but here they were in warm water," she added.

Cape Town has a lot of history. Many of the buildings depict different eras of settlement from years ago. Cape Town is also one of the busiest ports in South Africa. Conversely, it also has thousands of shipwrecks because of the two opposing currents from the Atlantic and Indian Oceans converging, causing tremendous winds and destruction. Shipwrecks regularly happen due to rogue waves in the springtime.

Overlooking the city is one of the Seven Wonders of Nature, Table Mountain. During their vacation, the Wagners rode a cable car to the top of the mountain, looking out to see the beauty of the area.

"The cable car was a round car with the floor spinning so everyone can get a turn to see the sights of the area. The ride took around 15 minutes," Ellen stated.

"The views from Table Mountain were spectacular," Rob said.

On a more serious note, news of the trial of Oscar Pistorius, the famous Olympian who runs on two blades rather than legs, has reached even to this part of the world often. "Rugby, soccer and golf are huge on South African television. And when we were there, Oscar Pistorius' trial was on pretty much every channel," they related.

Once the couple returned from their trip, they were largely unaffected by jetlag with the seven hours difference between the two countries.

"We got back and tried to stay awake as long as we could. Once we fell asleep, we slept hard and were back to our regular routines the next day. The hardest thing was actually going to work," Ellen said.

Now that the Wagners have seen South Africa, they would rather travel to areas within this country that they have never been to before. They talked of traveling to the East Coast, Maine, Hawaii and other places before returning to South Africa. Still, the time in South Africa proved to be a fun and exiting experience for the Lanesboro residents.