Right now I hear the crackling leaves being blown by the wind. It’s only 11:20 and already I can feel the dry steady heat getting stronger. I see a family of water hogs with bent front leg knees nibbling away at the grass. Impalas are just around the bend with ear twitching every second, ready to spring away at the slightest disturbance. Yup. I am in safari.
We arrived early afternoon at Ngala Safari lodge (I was in love with our safari lodge; we saw excellent game, and had fantastic service and guides. I can’t say enough good things about Ngala), just in time for the afternoon game drive. Ngala owned a private game reserve right outside of Kruger National Park, and I had been anticipating this moment since we decided to do the trip around the world. I wanted to be in the wild; I imagined the safari to bring a feeling of vulnerability and peace at the same time—a rare combination.
We climbed into the jeep for the first time and rode out on the bumpy road amongst the tall golden grass and the red sun getting ready to sleep behind the distant mountains. This was it. I felt like the moment was being watched from a future time. Do you know what I mean? I felt this same way on my wedding day. So much planning and anticipation went into this big moment that when it was finally here to be LIVED I couldn’t grasp it. That’s when I shook my head and focused real hard on the blades of grass and wind, inhaled deeply and listened to the calling birds and buzzing insects.
The jeep comfortably fit us six folks; the other two older couples were South African natives and did safaris all the time (I later found out they did safari four times a year). I could tell from their comments that they were weary of first time safari guests, like us. They didn’t want to be stuck for an eternity staring at easy to spot animals like the impala or the giraffe. One of them even said, “I’m glad you’re not Chinese tourists”. We knew what he meant to our chagrin and I couldn’t help feeling self-conscious now every time I took a photograph. The highlight of the first game drive was seeing a Cheetah with her two cubs, and our guide, Allan, pulling out a small table and trunk full of Whisky, scotch and other alcohol goodies by the water hole. So with a drink in hand, I stood mesmerized by the huge red sun (just like you see in the movies) go down on one side and the eerily golden full moon come up from the opposite side. Stars were popping up in the distance and the only sounds were coming from the hippos and us. I was finally in the moment.
That night I kept waking up. I was too excited about the morning game drive and was paranoid about missing the 5:30 wake-up call. This was supposed to be our best chance of seeing the big five: lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros. The next morning I made sure to not drink a single drop of liquid before getting on the jeep. I learned my lesson from yesterday when I used all my concentration to hold my bladder during the four-hour game drive and I had my own interpretation of what Freud meant about penis envy.
Allan and our tracker, Fanny, halted the jeep at crossroads. They had spotted leopard footprints and knew it couldn’t be too far off. Both men jumped out of the jeep and started following the trail. Then one of the tourists said, “a few years back a group of German tourists were sitting in the jeep while their guide got off to follow a leopard trail. The leopard spotted him first. Instinctively the leopard mauled and killed him on the spot while the Germans helplessly watched. They were scared out of their minds. They didn’t know what to do and just sat there in the jeep for two hours until another jeep passing by found them.” On queue, Allan walked back a second later and said, “Fanny is going on foot to follow the leopard tracks. We’ll catch-up with him later.” I exchanged worried looks with Dumpty. The goods news was that Fanny did return to us unharmed two hours later and the bad news, as you might guess, was that we never found the leopard that day (we found one with a kill up in a tree on the third day). We did, however, check-off buffalo, zebra, vulture, and wildebeest from our list.
Seeing these animals reminded me how fragile we were physically and yet we were their number one enemy. We learned today that another rhino had been poached this morning for its horns. Sadly three to four hundred rhinos are poached each year, making them endangered as a result. I hope our future generation will get to see them in the wild like we did and not behind bars in a zoo. By the end I had become a safari addict and knew that I would be coming back for more….