Walking Africa

By: Lindsey Emery, (Photos by Matt Rusher)

Our most recent FDX headed to Tanzania for walkabout. Wildebeests, giraffes and this big fella happened next.

A caravan of two large Land Rovers slowly rolls its way across the expansive Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania. Zebra, wildebeest, giraffes, antelopes and other wild creatures dot the horizon. Blue skies loom above. Every time the passengers turn their heads, they’re met with another “National Geographic”-worthy scene. And for Olga “Avocado” Podzorov, an avid photographer, another picture to be taken. (All First Descents participants are assigned nicknames by their group members.)

They watch a standoff between a lion and a pack of wildebeests. Click. Giraffes gracefully strut right past. Click. Truck two thinks it spots an elephant, so they pull off to the side of the road. Shortly thereafter, this majestic beast comes busting out of the trees and stands within 15 yards of them. Click, click. Head-to- toe wrinkles indicate that he’s been roaming these parts for years. Those small, soulful eyes have seen so much. And from the side, you can tell that he’s smiling. As are the people watching him from inside the vehicle, who never thought they’d have an opportunity to experience something like this firsthand.

“As you go through your life, you put things on hold. You never kind of jump on your bucket list items until something else happens,” says Podzorov, who survived thyroid cancer in 2008 and finished treatment for breast cancer in December. This was her third trip with First Descents. “All of a sudden you’re faced with mortality, and it forces you to do something that you’ve always wanted to do but never have.” Like go on an African safari.

First Descents (FD) has been organizing outdoor adventures—kayaking, climbing, surfing, you name it—for young cancer patients and survivors since 2001. Each trip is designed to help to empower these individuals to move beyond their diagnoses and live life to the fullest. This fall, First Descents sponsored its first FDX trip (larger and more rigorous expeditions for seasoned FD participants) to France, and in February they took a group of 13 people on this epic FDX Africa adventure, a week-long safari hosted by the award-winning Mark Thornton Safaris (thorntonsafaris.com).

Unlike most other safaris, which are focused purely on driving people through national parks and reserves to spot wildlife and snap pictures, Mark “Skipper” Thornton (yes, he got a nickname on this trip, too) also makes a point to schedule walking tours and take his clients into remote Maasai Steppe Wilderness areas, where they set up mobile camps and work directly with (and help support) the native Maasai tribes.

“We like to challenge people to have different experiences, to give them some sort of connection with what they’re doing and seeing. By going into the Maasai villages, you see different ways of life and struggles, and it leaves a big impact,” says Thornton.He’s been putting trips together for 21 years now and ventures out with about 40 groups per year.Two years ago, there was a woman in one of Thornton’s groups who was involved with First Descents. She put a bug in his ear about possibly contributing a trip to the organization, and then his sister, who owns a clothing label, decided to donate the sales from one of her dress lines to help make it happen. These FDXers were the first he’s ever hosted. And he was not disappointed.

“I had no idea what to expect from this group,” starts Thornton. “And I know it sounds cliché, but it was inspirational. Not necessarily because of what they’ve all been through, which is a lot, but rather because there was this positive vibe I got from everyone on the trip. Like they were just happy to be having this experience, to be out enjoying life together. After a day, they were all best buds, laughing in the car, telling stories, like they’d known each other for a year.”

Going to Africa had been a dream for Meredyth “Maridada” Brook (a Hodgkin’s Lymphoma survivor) since she was a kid. Prior to the trip, she was most excited about possibly seeing an elephant, and then the zebras and giraffes stole her heart. But it was perhaps an encounter with another animal that will now be forever etched in her memory. One night a local Maasai tribe was performing a traditional goat dinner, so she watched them kill, disassemble, prepare and roast a goat at their campsite. “I wanted to have the experience of really understanding what they go through and how they live. I watched that whole process, and then we went to one of the Bomas (a group of mud huts where the Maasai live), and they had baby goats there. It was like seeing the whole cycle of life right in front of you.”

For Jennifer “Bubbie” Grabowski, who won her battle against breast cancer six years ago, it was a simple soccer match that brought her to tears. “We were invited by someone at the lodge we were staying at one night to see the local children play soccer. We had no idea where we were going, so we mimed playing soccer to people on the street, and they cheerfully pointed us in the right direction. We arrived at the worst field I’ve ever seen—grass 2 -feet tall, with rocks, divots and holes everywhere. But those kids! They were beautiful. And they were thrilled to have us there watching and so proud of their new uniforms. We just stood there and watched in awe. Some of us cried. It was definitely a moment.”

There were late nights sharing stories ‘round the campfire, outings to watch the sun rise and set behind giant acacia trees, wildlife treks, nature hikes and so many lovely interactions with the Maasai people, who were all smiles while walking around in their brightly colored shukas. And oh, animals everywhere.

“Africa was just crazy beautiful,” says lead staffer for the trip, Matt Rusher, or “Captain O” as he’s called. Captain O has volunteered with FD since 2008, but the Montana-based kayaker says he had never seen anything like this before. “Mark did a really nice job of getting us to varied terrain. We were in the bush, then we were in the woods, then we were in this landscape with a lake and grasslands. Then we went into the crater, and I just remember thinking as we were driving out that everywhere I pointed my phone was stunning. The beauty of the whole place, and the animals and the friendliness of the people—the whole thing combined was so beautiful. It was overwhelming at times.”

So many photo ops. So many memories. So many new friends.

Shortly after returning home from their adventure, Maridada started a new job, going from being an event planner to becoming an ACT Recovery Counselor in Chicago, working with people suffering from severe mental illness (and making much less money). “Before the trip, when I thought about making the career transition, I thought, ‘How am I going to do this?’ Then seeing how the local tribes live happily, working for every single thing they have, I came home and was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I have so much.’ It’s hard to reconcile the difference between the world we live in and the world they live in. Even as cancer survivors and the struggles we’ve all been through, this type of experience really puts things in perspective.”

Words by Lindsey Emery, (Photos by Matt Rusher) 

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