Into the Wild – Part One
February 4, 2013
January 7, 2013: the day I checked “safari in Africa” off my bucket list.
Deciding which game reserve to visit when planning this trip was no easy task. Jody consulted all the tourist advisory websites, and as you may expect, everyone extolled the virtues of Kruger National Park, with everything else apparently paling in comparison. Unfortunately, a trip to Kruger would have added a few thousand dollars to the cost of our vacation, involved another flight when I knew I would be sick of flying, and just seemed to be a huge undertaking.
When Jody stumbled upon the Garden Route Game Lodge, it sounded like the perfect fit for us: close enough to drive to, guaranteed animal sightings, evening and morning safaris and meals included, safe, and so affordable that we thought there must be a mistake. If the weather was poor, or some mishap befell our first trip, we could afford to book a second safari there for less than half the cost of one trip to Kruger. Sold.
Our leisurely drive from Glencairn wasn’t quite as picturesque as I’d imagined; instead of lush farm fields, we were greeted with brown landscape pretty much the whole way. However, even dead fields look more interesting with the ever-present mountains looming on the horizon.
Along the route, there was sad evidence of many wildfires. Whole sections of forest had been burned to a crisp, yet some of the foliage clung to life at odd intervals.
As we passed farms with typical herds of sheep and cattle, it was a bit of a shock to have a flock of ostrich suddenly come into view. A taste of sights to come!
About four hours later, we checked in at the reserve and were given an orientation tour by one of the very friendly guides, Anja.
When we saw our “hut”, we knew there would be no roughing it on this trip. Beautiful, private, clean, air-conditioned, and with a fully-stocked mini bar, the chalet was better than most hotels we’ve stayed in!
You see what I mean. We immediately began discussing whether we wanted to stay a second night!
There was just enough time to grab a drink and a snack at the bar before meeting the group for the late afternoon safari.
Luck of the draw put us in one of the newer vehicles with the head ranger, named Hannes. As we piled into the tiered bench seats and got settled, it began to sink in that although the fresh air and sunshine were lovely on our faces, there was no denying how exposed we were. This was a game reserve, yes, but it was impressed upon us that these were still wild animals. They were not tame, and we were not at a zoo. It was reassuring to hear, however, that through careful management, the animals do not view humans as either a source of food, or as a predator. They tolerate the presence of the tours. The vehicles set off from the parking lot in different directions, so that each jeep would follow a separate route through the various compounds for as individualized an experience as possible.
We pulled up to an electric gate, and waited some time while it opened at a positively glacial pace. All of us in the Jeep looked around at one another and laughed nervously, joking that it would not make for a very effective exit in an emergency. There were also several references to feeling as though we were in a real-life Jurassic Park (although those tourists were in enclosed Ford Explorers), and the comment “we all know how that ended”. Ahem.
The first wild creature to show up was deceptively small, and wouldn’t have caught anyone’s attention without Hannes pointing it out. “That’s a butcher bird,” he said, “and it will kill anything smaller than itself. Other birds, snakes, frogs, insects, mice – anything at all. It doesn’t eat the prey, though; the bird will carry it to an acacia tree and impale it on a thorn. Once the prey begins to rot, the bird comes back to feed on the maggots. It is in fact a very smart little farmer.” It seemed too incredible to be true, but sure enough we found evidence of its barbaric ways. Worst of all, the prey is often not yet dead when it is impaled, as we saw firsthand when the cricket began waving its legs frantically in the air.
The next birds we encountered were at the other end of the size spectrum – a pair of ostriches. Hannes provided a few interesting facts about the birds as we passed by, such as the speeds they can reach (70 mph) and that their brains are smaller than just one of their eyes. Although they are the largest bird with the largest egg in terms of sheer size, the ratio of egg to body size is actually one of the smallest! He also pointed out that its kick was powerful enough to kill a lion, and that if cornered, an ostrich could disembowel you with one swipe of its talon. “Best to lie on the ground,” he said. “You’ll get a bit bruised and stomped on, but you’ll live.” Knowledge I didn’t intend to use, but good to know.
We spent time appreciating the herds of impala, plenty of other birds, and various springbok before entering the enclosure of the first of the “big” animals. Compared to the raccoons and squirrels we have back home, pretty much everything we encountered seemed monstrous. We came upon a herd of Cape buffalo, and were surprised to hear from Hannes that these were the deadliest of all African animals. They kill more lions than are killed by lions, and kill more humans than all the other animals combined. Could that really be right? These docile-looking….cows? Hannes warned us that they were notoriously cranky, and explained their extremely effective way of protecting themselves from predators. The buffalo form a circle, with the biggest and strongest bulls on the outside, then a ring of horned cows on the inside, followed by the vulnerable calves at the very centre. A predator that did manage to make its way to the inner circle would likely not also be successful in getting back out.
As Hannes was telling us it is their highly unpredictable nature that makes them especially dangerous to humans, he cut himself off mid-sentence, hopped in the cab of the Jeep, and backed us up and away in a hurry. Once we were at a safe distance, he explained how important it was to read and respect an animal’s body language, and he’d taken his cue from a direct gaze and a swishing tail. We were good with his decision.
It was a long and hilariously bumpy ride across the rough terrain to reach the next sight. There were rough trails to follow, but sometimes the guides chose to deviate depending on where the animals were: the goal was always to get us as close as safely possible. The sun was still blazing above us, but a beautiful breeze kept us comfortable as we bounced and lurched past frequently sharp vegetation. Even the plants are out to get you.
We came around a bend and there, standing on a hill, was an absolutely glorious sight.
I assumed incorrectly that this was as close as we’d come to such a large animal, but of course Hannes’ voice rang out with his standard, “Let me get you closer.”
He told us not to worry, as their eyesight was so bad we appeared as just one big blob to them. I just prayed they didn’t become curious about the blob, and they didn’t. Hannes explained to us that staff and rangers had to watch them at all times, to prevent poachers from getting at them. Part of what made the experience of seeing them so moving was the knowledge that they are in such dire straits. We spent the longest amount of time with these two astounding animals, angling for better views, talking about their plight, and just quietly admiring them.
As we finally moved on, it was a bizarre sight to turn and see another tour group approach the rhino, with the springbok in the foreground and ostriches running loose on the side.
We could see the next animal from a good distance away, standing tall as he was amongst the vegetation. Hannes explained we were meeting their teenaged giraffe, who, like most teenagers, did not currently enjoy spending much time with his parents. He wandered off each morning to spend the day by himself or hanging with some of the other animals, before returning to his parents in the evening.
Hannes covered all sorts of interesting giraffe facts with us, such as that females give birth standing up so that the newborns fall four feet to the ground and knock the fluids from their own lungs. They also have four separate blood pressures in order to deal with their level of activity and still pump blood all the way up to their brains. And apparently giraffes are worse insomniacs than I am, taking a few naps per day that total less than half an hour of sleep!
The young giraffe appeared curious about us, and came quite close to our vehicle, but eventually lost interest and loped off to find himself a snack.
It was nearing the end of our allotted safari time, but we had one more stop to make. Hannes told us they had taken on a couple of cheetahs a few years back, and had had a successful mating season this year with the birth of two cubs. It was the first time cheetahs were born in the wild on the Cape in a hundred years.
He was on a mission to find these cheetahs for us, and we circled the acres of dense brush several times before someone called out, “I see them!”
They barely took any notice of us, lazing around and doing a bit of playing, the two boys with their mother. Suddenly one of the youngsters sat up and looked out to the horizon, his attention fixated on something. “They’re a bit excited today, they caught and killed a young ostrich earlier this morning,” Hannes explained. He said the cheetahs were helping them to keep the population of other animals in check naturally, removing the necessity of culling any herds. I respected the process; I just had no desire to witness it.
On our way back, Hannes continued to stop the truck and hop out, enthusiastic to show us something new. This included the history of the paintbrush reed, which separates into sections of differing widths, forming a full set of paintbrushes with hollow stems for ink.
We returned to the lodge spectacularly late for our buffet dinner, but we didn’t care. The sun was setting with glorious views outside, and I felt I could literally burst with happiness.
Our dinner was absolutely wonderful, with great food, great wine, and great service. And to think we were about to do it all again in the morning with a completely different route….