My husband I were finishing the last part of our 2009 African Safari by flying to the Singita Private Game Reserve in the Sabi Sands Private Reserve in the Kruger National Park, South Africa. To get there, we had to take a charter flight from a private company at the Johannesburg International Airport. Although we had spent a few days at a Sandton City hotel for a little rest and relaxation, we were still tired when we arrived at Federal Air. Traffic is always unpredictable in Johannesburg. We arrived very early, so early that we were the first passengers to arrive. That was fine for us, because we could claim our favorite ‘sleeping couch’ before anyone else had a chance! After all our bags were unloaded and checked in, we proceeded to their breakfast snacks and coffee. That in no way impaired my ability lay down full length on the soft couch for a nap before our flight. I soon fell asleep with the occasional muffled sounds of newly arriving safari guests. I had napped for a while, when I heard men speaking behind me. I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop, but their voices were louder and stronger than anyone else’s. As I slept there with my eyes closed, I thought I recognized one of the voices.
This got my attention to be fully awake, eyes shut. What I was hearing did not make any sense to me. I was dreaming that the best wide receiver in the whole world, Arizona Cardinals’ Larry Fitzgerald, was speaking right next to me. No, no way. I was hearing a sound-alike. I could not stand it! I crept up and peeked over the back of the couch. I saw a big black man with his Bose earphones perched on the top of his head talking with two other big men. He sure looked like Larry. I had seen him close up just once on the Cardinal’s field during a pre-game warm up. No, yes, no, yes, maybe. I got up and went past them to the snack counter with a slight glance to the side to see the three. As I stood at the snack counter watching them, I decided that I had a 50/50 chance of being right. The short blonde in her safari getup waltzed over to the threesome, and stood in front of ‘Larry.’ ‘Excuse me, my name is Shirley Kleppe, are you Larry Fitzgerald?’ Upon this request, Larry stood up full length like a huge spruce tree and said, ‘Yes, mame, I am Larry Fitzgerald!’ Big smiles grew on our faces. With my hand extended, I said, ‘Pleased to me you, Larry, I’m a Cardinals season ticket holder! Where are you going?’ Larry said he and his friends were going into the Sabi Sands on safari. I asked about his camera equipment, and his friends excitedly said that Larry had given them his ‘old equipment.’ They presented all their cameras and lenses for my inspection. Being a safari wildlife photographer and devoted Canon camera user, I identified their equipment immediately. Larry had just purchased the new Canon 5D Mark 11 with the Canon 70-200 IS L f2.8 lens. I was all over that, because we had the same set up! Larry did give his friends some great cameras, however, but he did give away the right stuff! They all laughed! By this time, my husband, Steve, recognized what was going on! ‘Hey, Steve, meet Larry Fitzgerald!’ Steve was thrilled! We continued the conversation until the first flight was called. Steve and I gathered our gear to go down to the waiting area. We said goodbye to the guys, wishing them a great experience, thinking we would never see them again. As we waited, we soon found out that we were on flight two, not one. Flight one was a full flight and cleared out the whole waiting room, except for the three guys. As experienced travelers, it did not take long for us to come to realization that Larry and his friends would be on the same flight with us. The flight was called and we boarded. I sat in the first front seat and Steve behind me. The guys went for the very back seats. Well, this was fortuitous! I passed out the bottled water from the cooler box, and the five of us settled into a question and answer conversation. When we had been in the air for a while the two guys fell asleep, but Larry was alert the entire time.
I was not sure where they were staying. As we approached the Londolozi airstrip for a landing, I thought this was another plus! Londolozi and Singita owners have a gentleman’s agreement to share property visitation for animal viewing. Would we see them again on safari? The charter landed and everyone got off. Larry was front and center supervising the bags, as the other two headed for the woods! They were loaded into their safari truck, and we said goodbye once more. I just knew we would see them again.
The next morning out on safari, our ranger, Lee Bennett, got a radio call from a Londolozi truck that they had spotted a male leopard that had just attacked and killed a calving cape buffalo’s baby. We were close and rushed to the scene. There were several trucks already there, so we approached slowly as to not scare the animals. There was one truck that was next to the female buffalo. The closer we got, I recognized the three guys. ‘Steve, that’s Larry and his friends!’ We edged up, and waved to them. Everyone was having a great time! We pulled aside their truck and listened to their account of the past few minutes. They saw the whole thing. It was not pretty, but this is the bush. It is survival of the fittest. I asked if they got some really great photos. Maybe not. We had backed up to go see the leopard, when Steve asked Lee to stop and go back to Larry. I have invented a special platform bean bag to stabilize a camera and lens in the cramped situation in a safari truck. Larry said he was having a hard time hand holding his camera and big lens for sharp photos. Steve loaned Larry his Lense On! setup and monopod to use for the rest of the day. Larry accepted. As we were about to leave, Larry said that their camp was having a bush BBQ and they wanted us to come to dinner with them that night. At first we did not want to impose, but the guys insisted. We accepted.
At 3:30pm, Steve and I left Singita for afternoon safari. Animal sighting can be patchy any where in Africa, but Singita usually has outstanding results. After sundowners, we drove over to Londolozi. We were greeted by the camp managers, and were given a short tour. Larry and his friends soon arrived. The conversations led in many directions, but all were interesting. We were led into the outdoor BBQ area called the boma. All cooking grills were loaded with food with many busy cooks. It smelled so delicious. The wine was passed around, with Larry declining. He does not drink. By the time I got to the table, everyone had found their chair positions. One last chair for me was on the end next to Larry. Our rangers and trackers always eat with us too in this situation. When the food was ready, Larry was first out of his seat to pull my chair out for me. Larry had already won my respect, but this was more than I could have hoped for. Larry handed me my plate as all stood in line placing me first. Wow! I was watching what these big guys were eating: lots of meat and veggies. No corn, potatoes, or bread went on their plates. That was our diet too. Larry got to the table in time to again to pull my chair out for me.
As we ate, the conversation swirled around many topics. I asked about Larry’s parents. He is very proud of his father and very sad about losing his mother to breast cancer. Since I have just lost my own mother to breast cancer, we talked about what each of us had gone through. I cannot remember everything we discussed, but Larry listened intently and discussed passionately. He is focused. His two friends were football players, Jarrod Allen, and James Harvey ‘Boomer’ Grigsby. The guys were all intelligent, respectful, thoughtful, responsive, and a whole lot of fun! Boomer was very entertaining by leaping over a huge firepit to dance with the local dancers. I had no idea a man that size could get off the ground so high! I bet they could give the Masai warriors a run for their money!
The evening, unfortunately, came to an end. It was an encounter that only happens in your dreams. As our truck for departure was being prepared, we said ‘goodbye’ to our hosts. I shook hands with Boomer and thanked him for the evening invitation. I extended my hand for Jarrod. He would not have anything to do with that! He reached down with a big bear hug lifting me high into the atmosphere! I hoped their parents would know that they had succeeded in raising successful and caring men.
We said a special goodbye to Larry, giving him his own Lense On! for future photo adventures. We exchanged information, making it a point to meet again. We could have not met a more wonderful person in such a short period of time. We are grateful and wish him the best. Larry Fitzgerald goes to Africa often and takes many wildlife photos. He loves his Lense On!
Larry is the ‘Real Deal.’
Check out my article, ‘Meeting the Cards’ Larry Fitzgerald on Safari’ on azcentral.com!