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African Adventure

An Essex County family turned a personal loss into the experience of a lifetime
Author: Matthew St. Amand
Photographer: Myah Robillard
3 weeks ago
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If 2023 has taught us anything, it’s “Seize the day!” Take nothing for granted.

One of the most meaningful ways of seizing the day is through travel: seeing the world, seeking out new experiences. After losing her mother last year, Marnie Robillard and her family embarked on an epic two-week African safari in August. Inspiration for this adventure came from Marnie’s mother, who loved travel, herself, and who left Marnie’s family the means to take the trip of a lifetime.

“My mom loved to travel,” Marnie recalls. “When she was in her sixties, she went on a six-week trip to China.” 

Marnie and her husband, Jeff, were no strangers to travel adventures.

“My husband has been to Egypt,” she notes, “and we have traveled all over Europe together.”

Planning for the African safari took nine months.

“My brother-in-law was instrumental in planning. He and his family traveled with us,” Marnie says. “We decided on a travel agency in Africa so that we’d have someone close to us. They were fantastic.”

On August 2, Marnie and Jeff Robillard, and their children, Hunter Stuart, 21, and Rhys, 13, flew from Detroit to New York, and then on to Cape Town, South Africa. 

“Our guide, Werner Miller, met us at the airport in Cape Town, and he was with us most of the time we were in South Africa,” Marnie says. “He brought us all over. They have many beautiful wineries. We hiked the Lion’s Head Mountain and visited Boulder’s Beach with all the penguins.”

They also visited the Cape of Good Hope, which is less than 300 kilometers from the most southerly tip of the African continent.

“We drove along Chapman’s Peak on the coast,” Marnie says. “It was one of the most beautiful coast lines we’ve ever seen. We stayed right on the Atlantic Ocean.” 

After four days in Cape Town, the Robillards traveled almost 2,000 kilometers northeast to the Tulela Safari Lodge. They stayed in a private lodge that was fully catered, staffed, complete with a luxury swimming pool, outdoor shower, and deck.

“From our deck, each morning, we had a view of a watering hole where elephants gathered,” Marnie remembers. “One morning some elephants were there, and another came from a different direction. It wanted to join them at the water, and there was a stand-off: the female and two younger elephants who were there first seemed to be telling the other elephant he wasn’t welcome. Eventually, that lone elephant walked away. The next morning, we mentioned this to our guide, and he explained that it was like a stranger showing up and trying to join our picnic.”

At five o’clock each morning, guide Werner Miller pulled up to the lodge with the tracker in a large, open bush vehicle. It was the first of two daily visits to the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve.

“We started out while it was still dark,” Marnie says. “The mornings were cold. Even before the sun rose, the tracker combed the bush with a flashlight, pointing out vegetation. His eyes were so attuned to that landscape that one morning, he spotted a chameleon in a tree, and he was even able to capture it and show it to us up close.”

As the sun rose, the Robillards beheld the majesty of the rugged setting, seeing miniature owls, eagles, as well as different types of plants. The tracker plucked a couple of Spike Thorn leaves and demonstrated how they could be folded, creased, but how the leaves mended themselves after he pressed his finger against the crease. He also showed the group Dwarf Papyrus, a vine that can provide water when crushed with a stone or braided and used to make shelter. 

After the morning venture into the reserve, the family returned to the lodge to rest and have a meal. At three o’clock in the afternoon, Werner and the tracker returned in the open vehicle for the afternoon safari.

“That’s when we saw animals,” Marnie says. “There were wild dogs, which are, apparently, very rare. The guide was very excited. There were hyenas, wildebeests, elk. One afternoon, we stopped and watched as hundreds of African buffalo just walked by our vehicle.”

At one point, the tracker was uncertain they would see lions. He had observed a pride of twenty lions leaving the reserve. Then, on the last afternoon, the tracker noticed lion paw prints along the side of the road.

“They’re close,” he said.

Using skills honed over a lifetime, the tracker guided Werner into the bush, following the paw prints. 

“We tracked the lions for about half-an-hour,” Marnie recalls. “We drove right into the bush! Then he said: ‘Oh my gosh! They have a giraffe!’” 

There were thirteen lions; some feeding on a giraffe they had taken down. Others lay around, resting.

“The lions were looking on completely unbothered by us,” Marnie says. “The tracker took us within feet of them. My son Hunter said to me: ‘It’s like they’re staring right into your soul!’” 

“This never gets old,” Werner was heard to say.

After three days and six treks into the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve, the family traveled to Zimbabwe. What excitement could possibly follow being among lions in their natural habitat? The Robillards found it.

“We toured the Victoria Falls,” Marnie says. “It’s among the largest falls in the world. We stayed at the Victoria Falls Hotel, built when they were building a train line there. There are photographs everywhere of Queen Elizabeth as a young girl when she visited.”

They also took an evening cruise of the Zambezi River.

The coup de grace, however, was the day Hunter Robillard bungee jumped from the Victoria Falls Bridge with his cousin. The bridge stands 420 feet above the Zambezi River. Not to be outdone, Rhys and his father, Jeff, ziplined at the bridge, across the river.

All too soon, the adventure came to an end. The Robillards flew out of Johannesburg to New York, and then New York to Detroit. 

“It was something we will always remember,” Marnie says. “It was truly the trip of a lifetime.”

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