Africa – Safari (plus bonus Doha layover)

This was a life changing trip for me. I would say it is by far the best trip I have ever taken in my life (if my BFF’s wedding in Mexico where I met my love didn’t already permanently have that spot). I’m going to have to go re-arrange my bucket list because the direction of my future travel is different. I want to spend more time in Africa, I want to spend more time outside. I want to spend more time outside of my comfort zone. Going on a party booze cruise used to be my #1 jam in life, but right now the thought of being on one of those trips instead of observing wild animals and unreal scenery doesn’t sound appealing.

The Background

This was the brainchild of my friend Irish, who was the groom at the wedding we went to in Ireland and also went on the Komodo dive trip. He was really interested in scuba diving the sardine run in Africa. We started a Facebook Group to get the planning going, but it soon seemed pretty evident that you can’t predict the sardine run by location or time, so we decided that maybe we’d just go to Africa and see if we got lucky. Thanks to The Points Guy I found an amazing deal to fly into Johannesburg – flights on Qatar Air (one of the top airlines in the world) were ~$600 instead of the typical ~$2000. Kevin was all “cool” and just booked the farthest out dates available without consulting everyone, so we were all “I guess we’re going to Africa on these dates!” Fun tip: You should probably check with your fellow travelers on dates you pick, it ended up being tricky for teachers.

The players

Sixteen people for two and a half weeks. INCLUDING THREE KIDS UNDER THREE. Flying LAX-DOH-JNB. With jet lag. And the little three year old cutie had broken her leg two weeks before and was in a FULL leg cast the whole time. She had all this energy and wanted to run around and have fun and burn it off and she couldn’t. Most of the things we did had to be split into two – rental vans, safari trucks, etc. and that ended up being families and non-families for the most part. We had two married couples no kids, one married couple with a <1 year old, one married couple with a <1 year old and a ~3 year old, my former roomie and I were the single girls, and then three single dudes.

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Our truck group on a sundowner

How we organized it

A question I’ve gotten a lot was how we actually accomplished this two and a half week trip with this many people, including a three year old and two kids that were at the one year mark. It worked out pretty well because everyone was given *a thing* – someone found the safari lodge, someone planned the wine tasting, someone planned the shark diving. My job was Table Mountain and the Lion’s Head hike, which I’ll write about in my next post. We didn’t have to get thirteen people to have a consensus on everything, we split up when we needed to, but we always had a “responsible adult” for each day that knew what was going on.

If you read my other blog post, you’ll see that I made a miscalculation on my Qatar Air flight and paid for an upgrade that didn’t earn me any additional miles, or more importantly, Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQDs) with American Airlines. Have I mentioned enough lately that I’m thinking about dropping American Airlines? Despite that, I really enjoyed flying up front with Qatar Air. Amazingly comfortable and great service. A weird thing though about flying with a Middle Eastern carrier is that the movies were edited for content – I was talking about a movie I had seen with someone else who had seen it previously and said “I thought it was weird that the characters didn’t have sex” and they looked at me like I had a bird growing out of my head. Killed a major development of the characters and the movie.

Traveling with kids: I’m childfree by choice, so I’m not the best person to really give you the specific details about how to take a big trip like this with kids. But to me it appeared to be easier than a smaller nuclear family trip. Maybe it’s because of the style of parenting of my friends, which is pretty chill. Maybe it’s because I was in the other van during some of the meltdowns. But with a big group like this and a 1:4.3 ratio of kids to adults, there was always a set of hands to entertain kids or help carry car seats when the parents needed help. We’ve traveled together in various combinations of this group before and we know we can work well as a team and have the same travel speeds and objectives. We’re really lucky and I don’t think this secret of finding a pack like this is honestly feasible for everyone.

What did you pack

A little more later on what you need to pack for safari, but I’m proud to say that I only carried on for two and a half weeks of travel that needed to range from safrai to diving with sharks to getting drenched at Victoria Falls to dresses for nice dinner and wine tasting. You can read my packing tips here!  (and see a pic of what I brought with)

Packing with kids: Y’all – outside of my experience, I don’t think anyone else had it easy. We didn’t have enough time in Doha to do any baby needs shopping, then we were in Jburg pretty quickly before we went straight to safari. And it was hard to know even what we would find in the big cities. So that means that a HUGE part of the families bags were dedicated to diapers and baby food. Waiting in line at baggage claim and making sure we had our huge mountain of luggage was a constant thing. Plus we had to bring three car/booster seats along for the vans and any rideshares we took. This meant that the parents definitely kept the toys and entertainment they brought to a minimum. But who needs toys when you have such a variety of aunts and uncles to play with, ammiright? I think everyone on the trip washed and rewore items.

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Doha layover – loved touring Souq Waqif

Doha

Doha was not the thing that I planned, but I’m really pleased with how it worked out. We had a nine hour layover before our flight to South Africa and we all really wanted to leave the airport so we could check another country off our list, and I was quite keen on learning more about the Middle East. We were there during Ramadan, but the entirety of our layover was at night. We had a guide pick us up in a mini bus that fit us all, and drove us to the Souq Waqif – which is a centuries old outdoor market place. It was really interesting to see the variety of people there. The traditional Qatari women were covered from head to toe in black, and then there were Westerners that didn’t have anything covered beyond what you’d see at home. Our guide had made us reservations at Damasca One, which was delicious and there was so much food, all served family style. Then we were able to walk through the market and we saw so many things – spice stalls, and then the pet market which was both my favorite and least favorite. I love animals and I loved seeing the cute kittens, but so many animals in cages hurts my heart. Kittens, bunnies, birds, gerbils, chicks… you name it, they had it!

We went to a Falcon Hospital and a shop where they were selling Falcons, and I found all that really interesting as I’ve done falconry with my mom twice. A movie that I’ve seen recently about captivity advises to take each species into account on a case-by-case basis. Goldfish and lizards do not suffer in captivity the ways that whales and dolphins do. Not sure what to take on the Falcons because they are taken care of so well with thousands of dollars spent on their care, but at the same time it feels a little exploity. We also walked through the stables to see the beautiful Arabian horses.

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Falcon shopping

Our last stop before going back to the airport was the Katara cultural village. It seemed like it would be a bustling tourist spot, except we were there at night during Ramadan. We went to a mosque, which was beautiful, saw a really neat amphitheater, and strolled through a few museums at a touring pace.

After that it was time for me to deal with eight and a half hours back in coach after my lovely first class experience. It was still really great – Qatar Air is an amazing airline, and Doha is a beautiful hub.

Johannesburg

Our great flight deal had us going into Johannesburg, but we heard tales that it isn’t the safest of places to visit, and we didn’t see a lot of things we wanted to do. We booked the Hyatt Regency Johannesburg in Rosebank, and it seemed to be a safe area. The lounge was fantastic there and it was a great spot for all 16 of us to hang out. Kidnapping is a concern in JBurg, so make sure you use a rideshare service that background checks their drivers and can track you, or arrange safe transportation in advance. Do not hop in any old cab. Our hotel was attached to a mall, so it was easy to go walk to get a quick bite and use the ATM.

We took public transportation (which I wouldn’t have done had it not been for the big group: it’s my travel Achilles heel, I’ll admit it) to Nelson Mandela Square for dinner. They had a cute farmer’s market going on when we arrived and then we hopped around to a few restaurants and bars. They have the posh mall there – with all of the high end designers. We had dinner at Trump’s (not associated with that guy) and we got a private room arranged since there were so many of us. While I was there we had springbok and it was delicious – one of my favorite red meats that I’ve ever had.

Safari

We had a last minute nightmare a few days before we left; South African Airways had a safety issue and grounded all of their regional jets. Getting new seats for 16 people at the last minute was a struggle, but we were able to work it out. Instead of flying into Hoedspruit (HDS) we flew into Kruger Mpumalanga (MQP), and were arrange to have our safari lodge send our pickup there.

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The main pool at Elephant Plains Game Lodge

I wasn’t the one that picked our safari location, but I could not be more pleased with how it worked out. We had less options available to us because we needed somewhere that allowed children on safari. We ended up with Elephant Plains Game Lodge in Sabi Sands. Sabi Sands is a private game reserve that’s adjacent to Kruger National Park (pretty much where everyone goes on safari in South Africa). I was super pleased to find out that they have the highest concentration of leopards in South Africa too – so I don’t feel in any way that we got less of an experience because we were limited on our choices – we really lucked out! The lodge is right on the air strip, which was pretty cool because it was so small there was hardly any flights and animals would hang out on the wide open space and were pretty easy to spot. If you have the means, flying in directly would have been great!

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The Main Lodge – Elephant Plains in Sabi Sands

The lodge is just beautiful. Each family/group/couple actually had their own stand alone “house.” Ours (I was staying with my friend and former roommate, Sarah) had a gorgeous canopy bed, a sitting area with a couch, a really big bathroom with a shower and a claw-foot bathtub, and most importantly of all – a huge outside deck with an outdoor shower. It was gorgeous. We had bug spray in the rooms, and the whole complex was surrounded by an electrified fence to keep (most of) the animals out. There were armed guards that patrolled for the safety of the guests. There were multiple pools, but it was a little too cold to do much swimming. Three meals a day were provided and the food was great! The dinners were served outside and there was one long table that curved around a fire and everyone sat on one side. For breakfast we had an early wake-up call, first we’d go to the dining room for a cup of coffee and a snack bar, then go out in the trucks on safari, and then come back for a yummy breakfast buffet, plus they would make eggs to order.

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Gorgeous dinner at Elephant Plains

Everything was included, except for alcohol. Definitely bring cash with you – you could tip your ranger and spotter individually, and they had separate funds for the house keepers and the kitchen. They accepted credit card. The lodge also printed out and lamintated certificates for all of us that said that we had seen the Big Five. It’s not official if it’s not laminated people.

The Game Drives

We got two drives a day and a bush walk. The animals are most active around sunrise and sunset, so the times of the drives vary throughout the year. We were there at the very end of May, and it was great. The other truck saw the Big Five on the first day… it took ours a few days to get them all. Seeing the Big Five is the goal when you’re on safari – lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros, and Cape buffalo. I don’t know if it was the time of year or what, but we really got quite lucky with everything we saw. The trucks we were on were so cool, and super maneuverable. We did some serious off roading!

Everyone is always curious about how we got so close to the wild animals and if we were safe being in an open truck. After the first day I wasn’t worried at all about our safety – the animals simply did not care at all. They see the “giant metal dragons” as neither food nor a predator, they’re just part of the scenery to them. And seriously, the kids would be screaming and there would be a pride of lions ten yards away, and the lions did not give a single fuck. We had a ranger with us who drove the truck and told us all about the animals and worked the radio, and a spotter (ours was named Life) that sat on a seat on the hood of the truck. Our ranger, Gert, was amazing. He was young but knew enough about the animals to talk like he had a PhD in zoology.

Sundowners were maybe my favorite part. We would stop at sunset for a pee break and to watch the sunset. (Yep! Peed right in the bush – I brought TP and a ziploc baggie with me every day). Sometimes we met up with the other truck from our group, sometimes we didn’t. There’s a line in the Marvel movie Black Panther about the sunsets in Wakanda being the most beautiful in the world, and I thought about that a lot. MAN the sunsets in Africa are next level. Watching them with a snack and a beer with my good friends were amazing.

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African Sunsets

I kept a log of what we saw each day, so here it is, with a few stories added in:

Day 1, Drive 1 (May 28)

We got there at lunchtime on the first day, and only had one drive

  • Fire necked night jar (it’s a bird)
  • Two leopards!  Both were females, their names are Tiyani & Sibuye. Tiyani was up in a tree with an impala carcass – they drag them up there and eat them safely away from other predators. It was AMAZING and our first big see. There were several hyenas around the bottom just chilling out and hoping for a snack to drop. We saw Sibuye later, and she has two ADORABLE cubs with her! She was down on the ground, which is apparently pretty rare to see. Someone commented on Facebook: “I can’t believe you saw leopards on the ground” and I was all “What, like it’s hard?” We were so lucky to have picked this spot with so many leopards.
  • The Nkuhuma lion pride – so awesome! We found them late, after dark. They were chilling out on a termite mound!
  • Hippo
  • Zazu (yellow hornbill – everyone got Lion King names)
  • Impala (lots)
  • Hyena
  • Hare
  • Owls

Day 2, Drive 1 (May 29)

  • Gnus (a big ugly impala type thing)
  • Impala fighting and head butting
  • Zebra. So majestic and a little skittish around the trucks. I will also mention that I use the term “adult” loosely when I saw we had thirteen of them on this trip. Several were basically pre-pubescent. One of the zebra had it’s wang out. We giggled and took pictures. Then #bigfivegenitals became a thing and we were trying to get pictures of all the private parts.
  • Pregnant hyena
  • Elephants – I don’t know how our spotter is so good at this, but we pulled over and just stopped. Then a parade of elephants appeared and were eating the trees all around us. They were so close and so nonchalant about us. I had an amazing moment observing the way that they move in the wild. I compared it to the elephants I’ve seen in captivity before and it broke my heart right open. They were so graceful and different out in the bush. I don’t think I can ever bring myself to go to a zoo again.
  • Giraffe – so cool to watch them run. They didn’t like the trucks much and were harder to get a close up view.
  • Anderson is a pretty famous leopard around these parts – I mentioned before that leopards like to eat their kills up in the top of trees. He once got a baby giraffe up a tree and it was apparently quite the site to see! We followed him around on the ground for awhile and saw him eat a big pile of scat. Anderson, you nasty!
  • Hippo – after the mosquito, it’s the most dangerous animal in Africa. They’re super territorial, and way fast for their size.
  • Male kudu with giant horns
  • Water buck
  • Rhino! Very intimidating, but in hindsight, he was a little boring.
  • Dwarf mongooses

 

Bush Walk – Every day in the middle of the day we’d go on a walk with the Rangers, who were armed to the teeth. We’d walk in a single file line and we had to follow their instructions exactly. They taught us about more that we didn’t see so much when we were in the trucks – we learned about the plants and had a chance to look for “The Little Five.” The only one we saw was a baby leopard tortoise, and it was the size of a silver dollar!

During our mid-day down time, we were all chilling by one of the pools, and a giant parade of elephants came to the watering hole right in front of us! It was absolutely thrilling!

Drive 2

  • Giraffes
  • Cheetah! We saw a mom and her two juvenile cubs! They were just casually strolling down the road! We parked up ahead and they walked by without a care in the world. I got a great cheetah selfie, and mama walked literally within a yard of the truck! We followed them for quite some time, and they ended up chilling out on top of a big termite mound.
  • Nkuhuma lion pride – they were being big lazy cats, taking an afternoon nap! We saw them again after sunset.
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Cheetah – photo by safari buddy Zach

Day 3 drive 1 (May 30)

  • Hyenas at watering hole
  • Elephants
  • We saw the cheetahs again! They were on top of a termite mound and relocated to another one. We got to see them run, which was amazing. Not at a full out tilt chasing something, but so beautiful and graceful.
  • Red bill hornbill
  • Warthog – surprisingly skiddish!
  • Crested barbit (cool bird)
  • Dwarf mongoose
  • Tree squirrel
  • Lilac breasted roller – probably the most beautiful bird we saw!
  • Loner hippo with terrapin on back
  • We saw Tiyani the leopard back up her tree, and this time she had gotten a hare and was eating it! Posted a picture of it for Easter, lol.
  • Male Nyala – an antelope type critter with BIG ASS HORNS
  • Giraffe

On our bush walk we saw:

  • Elephants
  • Gray headed bushshrike
  • A hippo – named Mad Henry
  • Impala
  • Kudu
  • A hyena’s hairball
  • Baboon scat

Back at the lodge we saw zebra & gnu at watering hole, and there was a lot of vervet monkeys all over the property – they were cuties but they warned you that you have to keep your room locked at all times because they can get in and wreak havoc! 

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Vervet Monkey back at the lodge

Drive 2

  • Impala fighting and helmeted guinnea fowls at the watering hole
  • Giraffe
  • Zebra with baby!
  • We finally saw the Cape Buffalo, so we got The Big 5! They are called “The Black Death of Africa” because they are mean and charge and kill a lot of people.
  • Kudu
  • More buffalo! Our ranger said the local slang for them are “Duggar boys,” which means dirty boys.
  • On our sundowner we saw so much! Hippos were chilling in the water and, elephants and rhino just strolled by. The light was too low to really get a photo of the rhino, but it was incredible.
  • Our Chameleon spotting was a total trip. We’re flying down the road in the dark at forty kilometers per hour and our spotter is sweeping the bush and trees with a spotlight. He yelled for a stop and then jumped out (in the dark, with wild predators all around) and started climbing a tree! He came back with a branch with a freaking chameleon on it! How on earth he spotted the best known camouflage artist on the planet from a moving car at night, I’ll never know. Gert the ranger told us that he was getting pissed that we grabbed him because he started turning gray.

Day 4, Drive 1 (May 31) 

If I had to pick one day of my life to live again, it would be this one.

  • Gray duiker – “the African kangaroo” little deer like critter that always hops when we drive by. Pronounced “day-kerr”
  • “Pimpala”
  • And then the best thing ever happened. But it still ended up being the second best part of the trip. The rangers were all very excitedly chatting on the radio and then we came up on two leopards on the ground in the bush. And we got to see them doin’ it. The first leopard we saw (Tiyani) lost her v-card to a dude named Hukumuri. When leopards mate, apparently they do it multiple times a day over the course of several days. When the male climaxes, it’s very little volume, so they have to do it a lot. Other fun thing that I learned is that leopard penises are BARBED so they can hang on. The sex is very fast, then the chick gets pissed because it hurts and there is A LOT of snarling and swatting. We were so incredibly amazed that we got to see it, muliple times, really close, and they didn’t care. Kinky little kitties! I found out later that she didn’t get pregnant from that time, but she did have her first cub later that year!
  • Marshall eagle
  • Kudu
  • Zazu
  • Tree squirrel
  • We were asking for a “better rhino” because the first one we saw was in the bush, We came across a male white rhino and he was napping in a clearing. After a few pictures he woke up and stood up – it was a little scary because he could definitely take out our truck if he decided to!
  • We saw a dozen+ elephants walk just five feet away from us. Utterly unreal
  • Nyala baby crossing the road
  • I can attest. Honey badgers don’t give a fuck. We saw one in a field, but by the time we turned to get a picture, she was gone.
  • Steenbock- baby antelope looking thing with tiny antlers, super cute
  • Bird – green wood Hoepoe
  • 4 pumbas
  • Gnu – blue wildebeast
  • Red billed hornbill – Gert called them a flying pepper
  • Baboons

On our bush walk we saw

  • Tick
  • Tambuti, aka “poisonous diarrhea tree”
  • Active termite mound
  • Wild mint
  • Fleeing impala
  • Wart hogs
  • Nyala

While we were hanging between drives we saw warthogs and terrapins by the watering hole.

Drive 2

  • Mom and 3 baby warthogs
  • A lot of Kudu with a big male and impala nursery school
  • We went back to the clearing and saw more leopard lurve. They were still going at it. I can’t believe she was such a horn dog! And of course, #bigfivegenitals we got a really good close up picture
  • Puff adder snake
  • Elephant parade with 2mo old baby
  • Lilac breasted roller again – so pretty!
  • Egyptian geese
  • Gray goaway Birds
  • We did some awesome off-roading down this cool sandy dry river bed of road and spotted the leopard Sibuye with two cubs again
  • For our sundowner we stopped at a watering hole by a house owned by Coca Cola, and there were hippo!

This next part gets its own paragraph, it was maybe the top experience of my life. We were finishing our sundowner and the rangers pushed us to get back into the trucks. The Styx pride of lions was on the move, and once they left the juveniles behind, we knew that shit was going to go down. They hunted and took down an impala. I have the video below, but this was the most intense thrilling thing I’ve ever seen. They stripped it to the bone in under six minutes. There was so much blood, and I’ve seriously never smelled death like that before. It was not like anything I’ve ever experienced. And the strength of these animals was incredible. I saw one of the adults rip a whole rack of ribs off the body – do you know how strong you have to be to do that? I got a lot of adrenaline from the experience, I was vibrating – I was on a different level. I also thought it was great that they were the Styx pride – and the river Styx is the river in Greek mythology that you take to the underworld. Also, this pride all had mange.

Day 5, Drive 1 (June 1)

  • Gnu on the airstrip
  • Mom and 2 baby hyenas nursing +1. Total clan of hyenas here is 40-60 individuals
  • Warthogs are the ones that have the most fucks to give about he car – super skiddish
  • Baby giraffe +2
  • Gnus at watering hole
  • We spotted male leopard tracks but no leopards
  • Male nyala with big horns – top antelope dude
  • Elephants
  • Black stork
  • White back vulture – very endangered
  • Pearly spotted owelet
  • Another elephant
  • Water buck
  • Tree squirrel
  • Dwarf mongoose
  • Warthog
  • Nkuhuma pride of lions – they got SO CLOSE it was crazy.
  • Brown headed parrot – looks like a pistachio nut
  • Warthogs
  • African green pigeon
  • Crested barbit
  • Male kudu
  • Bush buck

And that was it! After lunch we were picked up for a tour then we went to the airport for Cape Town. I feel like it was a really good length of time. I could have stayed there forever, but I was also getting pretty bored of all the impala.

Packing for Safari

Gosh this is already a really long blog post, but I have three more things to say. I did a lot of research on what to pack for a safari, mostly on Pinterest. From all the blogs it sounded like I needed to buy a whole new wardrobe that was all olive and khaki that was weather rated and had SPF in it. Dude, it wasn’t that big a deal. They said you shouldn’t wear black because it attracted flies, but one of the chicks wore black yoga pants and was fine. (I guess check with your specific area and time of year). They said don’t wear any red or bright colors, but some did in other trucks. I asked the rangers about that and they said it’s fine if you’re in the truck, but you shouldn’t wear it on the bush walks. They said don’t pack any white because it would get too dirty. To which I say “meh, whatever.” Don’t stress too much, wear comfortable clothes you’d wear hiking or camping. You need SPF, you need bug spray, and you need a wide-brimmed hat. Dress in layers for sure. I’m glad I have some cute new tan and olive clothes, but I didn’t NEED to go buy them. The only thing that I didn’t have that I wish I did, was I wished I had a travel coffee cup to take on the sunrise drives. Definitely get your vaccines (specific to where you’re going – I can’t advise but your friendly neighborhood medical professional can) and bring malaria pills.

Photography Packing

Three of the dudes on the trip are serious photographers. They rented big ass telephotos and had major gear. I knew that I could bring my DSLR and get some pretty good photos, but I knew theirs would be better, and I would have to lug gear. So I took my iPhone and that was it. I took a few photos when we saw something, but I often practiced putting my phone down and experiencing the moment. I am really thankful I did.

I’m going to end with a few thoughts on poaching – I hate those pond scum sucking assholes way worse than I did before. It brings tears to my eyes to think about my encounters with those graceful gorgeous elephants and to think that anyone would want to end that life. My real thought that I have now that I didn’t have before is that people that hunt big game have got to be super sucky at it. It would have taken next to no skill for me to hunt or kill any of those animals, they got so close and didn’t care. It would have been so easy. They think they’re so manly and macho for doing such a big hunt, but it really confirms to me that they all have microscopic wieners. When I go back to Africa, I definitely want to work with some anti-poaching charity.

So that’s it for the safari portion – stay tuned and I’ll write a blog about the second half of our time in South Africa, and also about our trip to Victoria Falls at the Zambia/Zimbabwe border, including why you should always have enough pages in your passport.

4 comments

  1. […] To run down who my travel buddies were: Neal  is a dude I went to Spain & Italy with. He’s my bestie Lindsay’s husband, but he was her boyfriend at the time of the trip and he is another engineer like me. Zach is also an engineer, we dated for five minutes, but are still amazing friends with no hard feelings. Kevin has been Neal’s BFF forever. He’s from Oahu, and is software dude. Chris (aka “Irish”) has been a dive buddy of these guys forever. I had only met him a month before the trip though. He’s a software guy, and if you read my blog about Ireland, he’s the one that got married there. All five of us were on the Ireland trip and also later went to Africa together. […]

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