Do you ever realize that you have been carrying around an opinion about something without ever realizing you even have one? Maybe, for instance, hearing that an acquaintance was going on a safari and wondering, without ever really formulating the thought, “Why would someone go all that way, spend all that money, go somewhere that hot, just to see some animals?” Traveling to sub-saharan Africa, going on safari, was never on my bucket list. If not for my husband, I would probably have gotten old(er) and gray(er) without ever visiting that continent. As it happens, I found myself on a nine hour plane flight, and then holing up for a five hour layover, and then on another twelve hour flight which leaves a lot of, um, time to think about these things – I realized that that was my opinion about going on safari. Why go?
This is why. This and more. There is something about going so far away, just about as far as you can possibly go, that changes you. I am somewhat embarrassed to say that I didn’t even really miss my children. Them and our life in Seattle seemed so impossibly far away that I almost felt like, when thinking about them, I was viewing my twin sister’s life. (I don’t have a twin sister.) Getting away from everything, living a life so different from the everyday, in a landscape and surroundings that are almost impossibly different from the familiar, is an experience whose value I would never have known.
And the animals. Each time we came upon them, no matter who they were, I gasped. And got goose bumps. It’s not like going to the zoo. There is nothing like coming around a corner and watch out! there is a rhino. And her baby. In all their prehistoric glory.
(I got these amazing shots of the hippos on our first full day. Every other time we saw them, they were hidden in the water – eyes and tops of snouts visible only. I feel lucky that we saw them in their full glory. Our guide quizzed us on our first day – what is the animal that kills the most humans in Africa? You might think lions or leopards but technically it is the mosquito (malaria). Second place goes to the hippo. They are violent vegetarians. They might kill you but they won’t eat you. Later in the trip, we went on a boat ride and got to hold a hippo tooth – it was incredibly heavy.)
Our situation was kind of unique. Because we bought this trip at an auction, we did virtually no planning. Our package included six nights at a private game park with all meals and two game drives per day included. Because it was all set, we didn’t look into other options – we didn’t investigate what else is out there in the world of African safari. In a way, that was liberating. We just showed up and had the experience rather than trying to choose the best possible option for our time and money. We both had very modest expectations of what our experience would be but we did assume certain things. I thought we would be in a small global village. That we would be a couple of maybe a handful of Americans surrounded by people from all over the world. In fact, except for one French couple who bore the distinction of not talking to anyone and eating truly incredible quantities of (very bad) food, everyone at our park was American. Not only American, but Americans who had bought the trip at an auction, just like us. (And, we were dismayed to overhear, many had paid a good deal less than we did.)
Our little Zulu Nyala, a 3,000 acre game park about 3 hours north of Durban, had found its marketing niche in American non-profit auctions. (The park is named after the nyala – pictured above – which roam all over the park. They are related to impala and are one of the food sources for the big cats. They are beautiful and graceful.)
So, no global village. Fine. The upside was that everyone spoke English and that there were several small world scenarios. The downside was that, since the park catered to Americans, the food was terrible. After eating divine food in Capetown, I subsisted on bad starch for the six days we were there. Our very first night, when I passed by the meat carving station at the dinner buffet, the carver asked me if I wanted anything. I told him I didn’t eat meat. He told me they were expecting me and were making something special. A few minutes later, out came a hubcap sized bowl of pasta, covered in several pounds of cheese and dotted with – wait for it – rounds of sausage.
And that is basically the only negative things I have to say. Upon arrival, we were assigned to a guide – one who we stayed with our whole trip. Rohan (pronounced Ro-wan) was a 21-year old South African with a slow delivery which belied his intelligence, his incredible depth of knowledge about the wildlife we saw, and his wicked sense of humor. Fluent in four languages (English, Afrikaans, Zulu, and Swahili), Randy asked him, “What is your favorite language?” He took a good twenty-second beat, enough time that I thought he had not heard over the roar of the diesel engine, then he finally answered, “Body language.” Awesome. (The photo above is Rohan with the remains of an impala after a cheetah kill.)
We asked a million questions, he gave a million answers. He took out his camera and was shooting alongside us when we we witnessed the incredibly lovely and moving spectacle of the largest land mammals swimming – with grace and incredible good humor – at the watering hole. His excitement mirrored ours. (I had tears in my eyes when I took that last shot. I had just read a book about elephants and how social and intelligent they are. This is the baby elephant – actually a nine year old – reaching out to her mommy.)
And exciting it was. Our first day, we couldn’t get enough of the impalas and zebras. By day six, we asked him to just drive right by those creatures, now as ubiquitous as deer in North America. I learned so much about animals that I didn’t realize I cared about at all. I only felt afraid three times. One, and this might surprise you, was because of this guy.
This is a buffalo. They are considered one of the “Big 5″, meaning they are one of the hardest big game animals to kill. Game hunters used to come to Africa hoping to kill the Big 5, now tourists just hope to see them. (The others are leopard, lion, black rhino, and elephant.) The buffalo is mean, huge, and really one has one small spot that a bullet will penetrate – just between his eyes. We came upon a large group of them and they ignored us, like most of the animals in the park. They see the truck as just a herd of something so they do not run and they do not charge. We had been warned not to stand up in the truck, not to get out, and to keep our voices down. Just to show why, Rohan got out of the truck, walked to the side of it, and pawed the ground with his foot. All 20 or so buffalo stopped eating and looked right at us. I stopped breathing. They sniffed and went back to eating. He pawed the ground again, they all stopped again and a few of them started walking closer to us. Suddenly, I got very fearful. I mean, the guide knows what he is doing, right? But these are wild animals after all and just one of them could have turned over our truck without much effort. This cutie pie scared me a little too.
Just a kitty cat, right? A cheetah kitty cat. Did you know they can run 60 miles an hour? There were a pair of brothers in the road and three trucks were stopped near them. Everyone was snapping photos and gabbing away and all the guides, tired of sitting, were outside the trucks. Again, I had to wonder – do these guys know what they are doing for real? Are we safe here?
Do I look nervous? By the way, my hair was incredibly curly in Africa.
Being in a landscape so different from what I expected (green rolling hills lots of vegetation and trees – not flay dry savanna) did not make it any less awe inspiring. The beauty was incredible. Seeing the sun everyday and feeling the heat of that sun, after coming off winter in Seattle, was very life-affirming. We are so busy at home, both Randy and me, balancing work and kids and family and friends and each other. It felt very luxurious to have hours upon hours to just sit and read. Our typical day started early with a 5:30am wake-up call for the 6am game drive. After bouncing over the rocky roads for a couple of hours, we would head back to the lodge for breakfast. After that, I would sit on our little terrace and begin the day’s marathon reading session. Lunch was around noon, and then more reading and several dips in the pool. At some point in the afternoon, we would set up in the lobby, the only place where we had internet access, and check in briefly back home. The afternoon game drive set off around 4pm and we were back for dinner by 7pm.
(This is a warthog. We were in the truck when I took this shot. Later in the week, I was walking to the lobby area when I came face to face with one. We were about six feet from one another. We both froze. We looked at each other in the eyes for a moment and then I moved to keep walking. He lowered his head, gave me a low growl, and then turned around and took off.)
After a few days of this routine, we both started to feel a little antsy. Yes, it is lovely to relax but we had flown so far and our little park, filled as it was with amazing animals, was starting to feel a little small. Fortunately, Zulu Nyala counts on you feeling that way and has some wonderful optional diversions. More on those next time.