The cheetah's unflinching stare bore into my seven-year-old son. It seemed to be assessing him as it would a baby gazelle, already salivating at the prospect of that succulent, white meat. I never knew how much my protective, mother lioness instincts would kick in. But then I'd never seen a cheetah draw a bead on my son.
Cheetahs can run 60 miles an hour, and accelerate from zero to 68 mph in three seconds, faster than a Lamborghini. But they can be out run by a man over time. I know all this because my son, Skyler, was infatuated with cheetahs. This is how we found ourselves at the Ann van Dyk cheetah rehabilitation center outside Pretoria, South Africa. We were on spring break during our year living in Mozambique and knew we needed to design a trip around our seven- and ten-year-old kids. Otherwise, we might strangle each other.
The center's staff had carefully embedded Skyler in the center of the open-sided safari bus saying it was possible, had he been sitting on the edge, that the free-roaming cheetahs could mistake him for a tasty morsel. I didn't doubt they were right. As we left they instructed us, and Skyler in particular, not to make any sudden moves to prevent the cheetahs from springing and hitting their exceptionally light skulls on the chain link fence, and cracking them. We carefully crept away, newly in awe of their predatory power.
Driving our rented van (our claptrap jeep had broken down yet again), through the Karoo Desert to Capetown we found ourselves in Southern California, or that's how it felt after Mozambique. Minimalist, white condos perched over sparkling water, against brilliant blue skies; bouncers manned the doors of neon-lit nightclubs; pizzerias opened onto sun-baked patios and potted palms. In other circumstances, Peter and I would probably have found a spot with a view and settled in, wiling away the morning over coffee, sliding into a tantalizing East Indian lunch, slipping into an evening of wine and tapas until we melted back into bed. And, given a few more days, we'd probably have started working.
Well that was not going to happen; not with kids in need of entertainment. Instead, we took the cable car to the top of Table Mountain and skidded down a vertiginous, 3,500-foot ravine via stone stairs and dirt trails; we waited in interminable lines to plummet down the Ratanga-Junction-amusement-park waterfall in a plastic log and dangle upside down in the open air from a hundred-foot high roller coaster (the previous group of riders had been stuck there for a full five minutes, but our daughter Molly was not about to bail); and we drove twenty-nine miles out the Cape Peninsula to commune with African penguins. This was only the beginning.
Two days later, we found ourselves dangling again, this time more than one hundred feet up in the air from a zip line in Tsitsikamma Park along the Garden Route.
"Mom, you should look down. It's so cool!" Skyler eagerly urged me on. He looked ready to spill out of his oversized harness into the treetops below. But he probably would have thought that was fun!
He didn't seem to realize that if I had looked down, I'd have frozen to my little tree platform, paralyzed, as the others continued zig-zagging trunk to trunk, 1,000 meters down to the coast, dragging a gloved hand for a brake on the cable above so as not to slam into the next tree. Skyler's hands were so small they had to fasten the giant, adult-sized glove around his wrist with a rubber band.
Our next stop, Durban, boasts of an inordinate number of Great White sharks, so many that the city has sunk enormous nets so that people can swim off the beaches. But if that feels too tame, you can be dropped into shark-infested waters in a tiny cage for a heart-pumping, adrenaline-boosting, extra-close-up encounter; a prospect our kids found enchanting. We found it so sketchy we headed to the land-bound uShaka Marine World instead. Luckily, they quickly forgot the allure of shark jaws as they defied gravity, flipping in pulley-rigged harnesses for a few rand a ride.
The choice of our next destination was driven by Peter and me, though still by children's fantasy. J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings had been one of our favorite childhood series. Hearing Tolkien had grown up near the Drakensberg Mountains, we went in search of the Shire. Sure enough the thatched Zulu huts became round, and the hills started rolling until they rose into the not-so-distant, plenty forbidding mountains of "Mordor." Bedding down for a few nights at Didima Camp in our own thatched hobbit hut, we hiked up into goblin caves and found on their walls not the tracings of goblins but the remarkably clear San people paintings of running animals and spear-toting men from as long as 2,400 years ago.
Two weeks later, we picked up our jeep with its rebuilt engine and putted back over the border into Mozambique, tired but exhilarated. Although I might have liked more coffee houses and wine bars, nine years later that vacation still rates as one of the best. Our kids kept us moving, so that insidious magnet, work, didn't have a chance to suck us back in. And they forced us to be enterprising, to find active things to do. By the end, we felt rejuvenated by the physical activity and had got a real mental break. Thanks kids—for your contagious energy, your eyes-wide wonder, your curiosity about everything. You can design a trip anytime.