Last offseason, Nate Solder spent 10 days in South Africa with his family and a few NFL friends, including former Patriots o-lineman Will Svitek.
Patriots players have just two more weeks of vacation to enjoy before the team's offseason strength and conditioning program begins here at Gillette Stadium. Since the Super Bowl on February 1, players have been at their leisure to travel as they wish – some much more than others.
On the one extreme, you have 2014 rookie Malcolm Butler, who has hop-scotched the country since making his Super Bowl clinching interception in Phoenix. Then there's Tom Brady, no stranger to South America, no matter what time of year it is.
Most players' itineraries likely fall somewhere in between, but that doesn't mean their offseason travels aren't fulfilling and even awe-inspiring.
Take left tackle Nate Solder. The big fellow recently joined Twitter and posted a picture of himself camping in some undisclosed desert wilderness. Last offseason, though, he spent 10 days in South Africa with his family and a few NFL friends, including former Patriots o-lineman Will Svitek. Solder was inspired to go on safari by an employee of the agency that represents him, who happens to be a native South African. But he admits he had to be talked into going.
"There were luxury accommodations and it was a pretty fancy trip," recalled Solder, "but when he talked about the animals and being able to get so close to them and racing through the bush in the vehicles… I was sold."
After taking the necessary medical precautions – various booster shots, malaria pills – Solder was soon "chasing after the animals through the bush, and the whole family hooting and hollering," he raved, adding, "I was so excited. We were all throwing our hands in the air. I was standing up and we were getting whacked by branches from trees."
Traveling through Africa often requires flights on very small planes – a potential inconvenience for someone 6-8, 320.
"Yeah, those weren't comfortable," Solder can laugh now.
He kept his weight up by feasting on what he called "amazing" South African cuisine served at the two separate lodge compounds where he and his group stayed. One of the facilities was cabin-like, while the other was a hotel – "more of a compound on top of a cliff," as Solder described it.
Solder's adventures weren't limited to land, though. In Cape Town, he and his now-wife, Lexi, donned wet suits and plunged into the ocean to view sharks up close (in a protective cage, of course).
"It was awesome," said Solder. "Surprising how comfortable you get in the water. You're in the cage, and the sharks are rhythmic – they follow the bait, go away, follow the bait, come back.
"At one point, I looked down and Will's feet were sticking out of the bottom of the cage. I said, 'Um, you might want to lift your legs up,' and he was like, 'No, no, I'm not worried.' We didn't see any of the big male sharks, just juveniles and a few females, but they were plenty big enough for us," he laughed.
On the way back to Boston, the Solder crew flew from Johannesburg to Paris, spending an extra day in the City of Light. They went to Eiffel Tower, but there was too long a line to climb it.
"We walked up and down the Seine," said Solder. "I thought we'd be too tired to sightsee after such a long trip, but we really enjoyed Paris."
In the end, the vacation he had to be persuaded into taking "far exceeded expectation."
"I didn't realize how beautiful Cape Town is. It's right up there with Maui or Honolulu. Really spectacular. We went on a winery tour, went up to Table Mountain, which overlooks the entire city and coastline. The culture is wild there, too. It's the definition of a melting pot, with the eastern and western cultures coming together."
So, he'd go back to Africa again?
"I would," Solder declared. "It would be fun to see other people's reactions to these experiences. It was funny, in the beginning, we saw some giraffes, and everyone was snapping away with their cameras. But by the end, we'd see giraffes all the time and nobody thought anything of it. We almost took it for granted having seen so much. We tried to organize a trip to Kenya to do outreach, but we had to postpone it for now. I definitely would like to do missionary work in Africa at some point.
"I'd been to Costa Rica to do some rafting and Alaska… been on a lot of adventure trips. This was probably the top one, though. I've never done anything like this before. It made me want to see everything else in the world. If there are things like that that are so amazing that I didn't even know about, I wonder what else is out there." PFW
(All photos courtesy Nate and Lexi Solder)