Inb the bush

Saturday, February 27
I’ve started reading Paul Theroux’s book about traveling overland from Cairo to Cape Town. In the introduction, he says the word “safari” means “journey” in Swahili and has nothing to do with animals. But for Americans like me it has everything to do with journeying into the bush and shooting animals — either with guns or (more often today) cameras. In my mind, it comes with even more specific imagery — sitting around campfires in a wilderness an order of magnitude wilder than anything in the Americas.

I’ve learned that the reality of contemporary safaris is actually not so wild. From what I gather, you either drive yourself around in a car and camp at a crowded campground in a place like Kruger National Park, or you stay in a 5-star lodge, paying $500-$1000 a day for pampering and chauffeuring around in a Land Rover. But we’ve found a middle ground which has dazzled us.

We’re staying in a game reserve called Madikwe. It’s about 4 hours northwest of Joburg, on the Botswana border. Now the fourth-largest reserve in the country, when it was created in 1992 more large mammals were relocated here (around 8000 of them) than has been done anywhere else in all of Africa. You can only enter if you’re staying at one of the 20 or so lodges, all of which are 4 or 5 star facilities. Or you can stay at Mosetlha, as we’re doing.

Here there’s no electricity or running water. But there are 9 raised wooden platforms scattered around the grounds. They have corrugated metal roofs and the walls are closed on two sides, but openings in the other two are open enough to make you feel that you’re more outside than in. You have to wonder why the baboons and lions and mongeese and wild dogs and Mozambique spitting cobras and puff adders and other creatures who live here don’t enter the cabins at night. But apparently something about the human presence puts them off.

There ARE currently two Cape buffalo who’ve recently taken to visiting the grounds. I heard one of them at 2:30 this morning, walking past our platform, chomping on something herbivorous and occasionally snorting. I’m furious with myself for not getting up to look at him. But frankly, I was too scared! Buffalo rank among the legendary Big Five — the most dangerous large mammals, in the one-time estimation of hunters. And of the 5, the buffalo is considered the most dangerous of all. Plus he sounded immense (they weigh close to a literal ton).

The owners of Mosetlha, Chris and June, happen to be staying here at the moment, and Chris insisted at breakfast that the buffalos actually are “nice old boys” (best avoided on foot, but fine to look at from the safety of our platform. June says almost every major animal type that lives in the reserve has wondered into Mosetlha at some point or another, with the exception of the white rhino (and they’ve been seen right outside the gate). Just a few weeks ago, lions killed a hyena next to her house here.

But we guests at Mosetlha don’t just wait passively for animals to wander in and visit us. Like the folks at the safari lodges, we also go out on two major game drives per day. Steve and I experienced our first one yesterday.

We arrived around two, ate a lunch of hamburgers and salads, got settled into our cabin, and then set off in the Land Rover around 4:30. The only other guests in the camp, a South African couple named Rene and Mandy, accompanied us. Our driver and guide was a tall muscular and knowledgeable fellow named Andrew. The color of dark chocolate, Andrew has a calm demeanor, and he steered the Land Rover over the dirt trails with the focused patience of someone who is used to hunting, day in, day out. At first I felt distracted by the big picture. Madikwe is mostly what the locals call “bushveld” – an ecosystem similar to the savannah but with more trees. Bushwillows and more than a dozen species of acacia predominate. This time of year (the rainy season) the myriad grasses have grown dense and green. A couple of dramatic hills rise up, against a backdrop of surrounding countryside that looks as vast and uninhabited as anything I’ve ever seen in the American West.

Soon, however, Andrew was pointing out animals that yanked my attention in closer. We passed a group of Burchell’s zebra grazing side-by-side with a dozen impala. We only glimpsed the baboon dashing across the road far ahead of us, but we were able to pull up and park no more than 20 feet from the lioness and her two 7-month-old cubs gnawing on zebra parts under the shade of some trees. Later, we spotted an acacia swaying in the distance. After a while it cracked and fell over – pushed over by a big bull elephant who had recently been in a sexual frenzy. We caught up with him and watched him nibbling on the leaves that once had crowned the tree. That’s all he wanted; he would leave behind the rest.

You can read my words and think, oh yeah, she’s on safari. Of course she’s going to see lions and elephants. I myself of course expected to see lions and elephants, of the sort I’ve seen in countless nature programs and National Geographic photos.

What I still don’t understand is why the actual experience of seeing them in their native habitat moved me so profoundly. At times my eyes filled with tears. Was it the sheer physical beauty of the tableaux? Or the depth of my gratitude that I’ve lived to experience this? Was it the sense of amazing interconnectedness that overwhelmed me? I have no idea, but for maybe the first time in my life, the word “dumbstruck” really makes sense to me.

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