Sunday, October 21, 2007

11. October Mossel Bay - Botlierskop Game Reserve

After a very civilized breakfast on the stoep of “Le Franschoek” and a morning swim, we head east - up and over the pass where we are treated to an eagle-eye view of the charming village of Franschoek. We drive along the N2 through this breadbasket of SA - gently rolling hills and endless fields of wheat, and probably also hops & barley, dotted by the occasional ostrich and sheep farms. The road runs through open prairie & farm area along a fantastically craggy mountain range, giving us a tremendous sense of deja vu when we crest a hill to be greeted with a 3000 foot rockface bursting into sight just a few kilometers away. It was one scenic turnout and a continent shy of the feeling of cresting the last hill on Rte. 36 West out of Denver to suddenly find Boulder & the Flatirons dead ahead.

We pass through Mossel Bay - a relatively nondescript area which appears to have a larger segment of middle class in both town & township - and on to our final destination - Botlierskop Private Game Reserve. You really can't visit Africa without going on some type of safari. For brief tours like ours, it’s been recommended to visit the private reserves rather than the large national parks, like Kruger, as we’re more likely to actually see a variety of wildlife that might otherwise take weeks to view in their enormous natural habitat. Botlierskop is a “mere” 30,000 hectacres (over 74 thousand acres) that touts themselves as being located in the “malaria free” and “crime free” Western Cape. Hm.

We arrive at Botlierskop too late for the afternoon safari, but in time for the Lion Drive. The lions are a group of 2 males, 2 females that had been rescued as orphans and hand-raised in captivity. They were taken in by the wildlife veterinarian owner of Botlierskop when the woman who raised them found her Lion Budget exceeding her Means. Other interested parties included “Canned Lion Hunt” operations - think “fish in a barrel” where the lions are drugged and/or fenced into a small area for “Big Game Hunter” trophies - an adventure that runs in the tens of thousands of dollars and up. The lions are now kept within a 100 hectacre fenced area on a hilltop at the edge of the valley. Now with only a 25% chance of survival in the wild, they are fed a fresh horse -older or lame and undiseased, and yes, fresh - approximately once a week, and made to run behind the truck for exercise. The lions are not allowed to free prey, as they would most likely get all hopped up on adrenaline and go right through the fence. They will go after truck tires, like dogs, but more successfully, as they can pop them. Dicey business. We travel in an enormous 4x4 that has open seating at least six feet from the ground and wood-covered metal gates along the side, but somehow it seems of nominal comfort. (That, coupled with the fact that the driver and guide leave the gate to the enclosure open when we drive in. And no, there wasn’t a second safety enclosure.) The lions are still nibbling at a bit of last week’s yummies - it looks like a leg bone. One of the lionesses begins to roar, and all the others join in. With some to each side of the truck, it is a stereophonic experience that you can feel in your chest. Ancient instinct sets your heart & adrenaline to maximum speed. The driver is more composed, of course, as he informs us that, in the wild, only the males, particularly the dominant male of a pride, would initiate the roaring. The second lioness is casually sauntering away from us in the general direction of the gate. She is still a good many yards from the gate when the guide hops out to shut it, but I’m sure she could close the distance handily if inspired. In nostalgic colonial fashion, we are served sherry on the veranda of the lodge overlooking the valley upon successfully arriving alive. Pip, pip.

Our tent is ready, we’re told. We take the 4x4 to the landing for a little, somewhat Disney-esque, riverboat ride to the platform tents. The tents are the reason I chose this particular reserve - they are fun and quite swank. Our letter of welcome reminds us to secure all tent flaps tightly against the monkeys. They tend to get in and loot the place - eating all the fruit and drinking the sherry. Again with the sherry. And, we’re told, the monkeys always pick up the tent phones. Apparently drunk dialing starts further back in the evolutionary chain than originally thought....

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