Sunday, October 21, 2007

12. October On Safari

All photos by Maddie Pryor.
Sunday arrives cool, overcast and unusually early for us with a 6:30am wake-up call. The animals are generally most active in the morning, before the notorious African heat, so this is the best time to head out - this time in a slightly smaller 4x4. The rhinos happen to be in a pasture right near the lodge, so we are greeted with their prehistoric presence right off. These are white rhinos - a term that, interestingly here, has nothing to do with their skin color. “White” comes from an English misinterpretation of the Dutch/Afrikaans word for “wide” - they are also known as the square-lipped rhinocerous for the size of their mouths. They are tremendously near-sighted, with which I sympathize, however they make up for it by hearing and smelling exceptionally well.

Our truck plugs capably up a steep hillside of earthy 4’ - 6’ moguls, passing a herd of wildebeest in a short, scrubby forest. We’re told there will most likely be more on the high plain above us, so we don’t linger. Cresting the hill, we see Mossel Bay & the Indian ocean to one side of us and the game reserve to the other. There are herds of impala, including the black impala, specially bred here to supplement a species comparably rare to the white tiger. We also spot bontebok - another variety of antelope that were handily culled into a tiny population by both human & animal predators to due their highly visible dramatic coloring. They have highly contrasting white, deep brown and black in an evolutionarily unfortunate combination that practically create a target on their heads and tails.

In the next valley, we see more rhinos and another truck of gawkers at a good distance, and then the giraffes! Gracefully stepping through the shrub, a family of giraffes is breakfasting daintily on thorny trees - stripping them of leaves as efficiently as a kebab. In addition to the obvious neck length, their tongues are handy tools - about 20” long, and are colored bluish black to prevent potentially painful sunburn in a long days’ grazing. Wildebeest are munching peacefully right next to the giraffes, their long, dark coats glistening beautifully. They are understandably skittish as we drive past, herding their young away. We spend about 3 1/2 hours meandering through the backyards of these animals - passing by an enormous comined herd of impala, bontebok and some water buck on the way out. Our guide quipped that the proof water buck were the first animals onto Noah’s ark is the white ring of fur on their backsides - they were the first to sit on toilets while the paint was still wet....

Upon return to the lodge, arrangements have been made to move us into a “Family Tent” - which we’d originally reserved but had been unavailable upon arrival. The sun comes out, and the temperature goes up as we again pop in the riverboat, heading in the opposite direction to the last mini-dock in the estuary valley. Going across the meadow to our tent is a boardwalk with an eight-foot gap in it. This tent comes with a new warning - to be aware that rhinos sometimes feast in this meadow - the boardwalk gap allows them better access. [Ok, so we’re going on a safari and we’re going to watch out for 1. monkeys and 2. rhinos.)

We spend a lovely afternoon enjoying our new, slightly larger tent that has a deck with a hammock swing and a very cool dipping pool and head to the lodge for an elephant ride before dinner! There is a family of three elephants, Sam, Tsotse - meaning “naughty” and 2-month old baby Chimi, meaning “surprise” as Tsotse had never been expected to become pregnant. After a 2-year gestation period, Tsotse looks after the baby who is still nursing exclusively while Sam is now the only one taking riders - just two at a time. The earth burm and wooden platform to saddle up elephant-style is about 12 or 15 feet above the road. Maddie and I get onto a stretch-Harley sized saddle behind Joseph, the trainder. Originally trained in Zimbabwe, the elder elephants are tri-lingual, responding to commands in a native Zimbabwean tongue, French, and English. Chimi seems to speak the language of little critters everywhere, leaping about and jumping up playfully on the guide like an overgrown puppy. So, with an “Allez!,” Sam ambles casually forward - giving us an elphants’ eye view tour of the valley, stopping as he or Chimi want to snack, and as Chimi wants to rest. Upon our return, Finn jumps up on the platform - as excitedly as Chimi - ready for his ride. He deflates upon being informed that, despite our advance bookings, etc, this will be the last ride of the day, and tomorrow, our last day, is booked. Finn brightens somewhat at the possibility of feeding the elephants tomorrow instead.

There is also one last lion tour today, and they’ve been freshly fed this morning. We take the enormous 4x4 up to the lion enclosure. The gate is already conveniently wide open when we get to the top, from the first dinner, er, viewing truck already there. The lions are feasting heartily on the disemboweled horse carcass. It’s a disturbing sight for those not used to oversized carnivores in the wild. Maggie's Farm it's not.

It IS a game lodge, so dinner is a bizarre menu that includes many of the animals we had seen in preserve - stuffed wildebeest, impala/buck venison sausage, crocodile tail, ostrich steaks.... Not for the faint of heart. We sampled a bit of everything - when in Rome - and settled in to watch the Argentina-England rugby quarterfinal match. Quite bushed, literally and figuratively, from our day, however, we left at 40 minutes (halftime) for our tent.

Once again, we take the truck to the landing, to the boat - this time, mandatory, as the tent is on the opposite side of the river from the lodge. Our escort is one of the many 20-somethings that probably make internship wage at the resort and he putts cautiously upriver - ostensibly to alert any wildlife in the meadow of our arrival. At the dock, we hear a shuffle of large hooves. With little help from the mini-spotlight attached to the boat, Bailey and Finn at the bow can just make out the large hind end of a steer-like animal. Our guide jokes that he’ll make a distraction as we run across the dark meadow, through the gap, remember, and into the woods to our tent. He then calls a trainer to come investigate. We all wait in the boat. The trainer arrives with one paltry flashlight and pronounces the coast clear, leading the way across the meadow - roughly the width of a football field. Just past the midway gap, we hear a warning snort, that must be 20 feet away, tops, but sounds closer. “Wok fastah” says the guide, in front. We sprint for the tent. We offer to have the guide stay to wait it out, but he declines. We don’t hear any stampeding or screaming as he walks back through, so all ends well enough.

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