Goodby to Mosetlha
March 2, 2010
We’re airborne again, en route to Durban, the biggest port in Africa and South African’s most Indian city. It will be the launching point for our next adventure. But up here at 37,000 feet, I’m still thinking about our stay at Mosetlha.

I can’t help comparing one aspect to it to our visit last year to the cattle ranch in Argentina. That was a magical place, and from the instant we arrived, I regretted that we only had one night to experience it.

In contrast, three nights at Mosetlha felt just about right. In addition to the congenial (occasionally electrifying) conversations we enjoyed over meals with Chris and June and the other guests, it gave us six separate game drives. We left every day on the morning ones at 5:30 a.m. and didn’t return until 9:30 a.m. or a bit later. Then we departed again at 4:30 and usually returned around 8-ish. So that meant we spent almost 8 hours a day in the Land Rovers. (In the middle of the day, we ate big breaksfasts (at 945) and lunches (2-ish), showered, napped, read, or hung out in the communal room and chatted with the other guests.)

Although 24 hours of game driving felt like enough to have really experienced it, I never once felt bored, even though most of the time we were searching for animals, rather than actually viewing them. But Madikwe includes multiple landscapes — grasslands, mountainsides, acacia forests, a river — and their appearance changed throughout the long days. I loved dawn the most, watching the sky go from charcoal opacity through shades of navy and then neon streaked violet, then lightening to a luminous opal. The juxtaposition of that sky with the verdant emerald bush and hillsides, the red earth, the distant purple wilderness and the black tree forms in the foreground impressed me as one of the most beautiful landscapes I’d ever seen.

Driving through it hypnotized and soothed me, and every encounter with an animal woke me up. Some flooded us all with adrenaline, as when we screenched to a halt to gape at a huge white rhihno staring at us not more than 20 feet from the road. We studied each other in cautious silence for a while, then (apparently reassured that our Land Rover was neither another male rhino, nor a likely competitor for his grass), he lowered himself to the ground, flopped over and started to snooze. That made him look comical, until a few minutes later someone prompted him to leapt to his feet faster than I would have dreamed possible. If he had wanted to reach us and drive his murderously sharp horn through our vehicle, I have no doubt he could have done so even though Andrew had already started the engine. But he didn’t.

Another unforgettable moiment came one evening just before sunset, as we were making our way over a narrow track. The tall dense bush pressed in on each side. We’d been looking for elephants with no success, when suddenly Andrew spotted a big matriarch 200 feet away. A few seconds later, we could see that she was leading a youngster who in turn preceded a tiny (as elephants go) baby. More elephants followed in the line — not so such a herd as a parade of elephants. We stopped countng when we got to about two dozen, but by then the impeturbable Andrew was looking worried. Although the animals seemed to be moving in the opposite direction from us, and on a parallel track, I knew he feared that they might swing over and double back, which would trap us. (And the elephants in the south part of Madikwe have historically been the most aggressive animals in the park, many of them refugees from areas of Mozambique where years of civil war taught them a lot about the human capacity for atrocities. Nothing bad happened; Andrew reversed the Landie and we withdrew. But it was thrilling to suddenly feel so vulnerable and small.

We never did see a leopard (the final member of the Big Five),but we did encounter the extremely rare and endangered African wild dogs, as well as hyenas, jackals, a wild cat, bunches of wildebeest, impala, zebra, giraffes, kudu, a mongoose and more — almost 20 mammals in all. I also checked off almost 40 species of birds on the list of 350-plus supplied by the camp. And the giant millipedes, leopard tortoise, and puff adder felt like special gifts, each in their own way.

But in the end, by the time we departed, I had begun to understand the viewpoint of our fellow guests Rene and Mandy, veterans of countless game drives throughout the years. While you might start out by checking animals off a list, seeing them for a second time turned out to be just as interesting, if a little bit different. Their behavior and demeanor, rather than their mere existence, started to command your attention. Do this enough, like Rene and Mandy, and I could imagine coming, like them, to revere the dung beetle as much as the Cape buffalo, for that matter, to simply delight in spending time in the wondrous place that serves as home to them all.

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