“It’s Jack. You’ve been in bed two days. Everything OK?” Yes, I respond and tentatively ask if he has tea. “It’s in the kitchen pantry. There’s cream, bread and butter there as well. It’s an open kitchen, so help yourself.” Ok, I reply back.
I’ve never been happier than when the aging 747 hit terra firma two days ago. Between Tripoli and Johannesburg, my only wish had been to be let off the plane after seeing plates and coffee stirrers and blankets and pillows play hokey with the cabin ceiling for a good twenty minutes. The captain did say he had everything under control and that he was just looking for the altitude with the least turbulence, and I did see the two ladies across the aisle to my right talk about their clubbing exploits in Tewksbury the other night, so I should have felt a little more reassured. But it was harrowing nonetheless.
Hence my jelly knees and my insistence on surviving on crackers and uneaten airplane rolls inside my room. It is fall and chilly and the room has no evidence of heating, so I walk to the bathroom to run the hot water. I flush the toilet bowl repeatedly to see if it drained the other way. It drains but I do not know which direction it goes in the northern hemisphere, so I clearly have no clue. After my languid shower, I walk out and a bunch of people are in the dining room table talking about wild animals and birds and stuff. They all look at me and ask, are you going to Kruger or have you just been there? I am puzzled. Aren’t we in Jo’berg? They nod, and they say no one comes to Jo’burg without going to Kruger National Park. I respond I don’t have time. I’m going to Lesotho and maybe Cape Town if I have the time. Silence.
Then a girl from Poland comes up to me and says, let me talk to you, in hallowed self-appointment to convince people to commune with animals. I am not a big animal fan. I mean, I respect them enough to abhor zoos, but I have never gone out of my way to watch them eat, hunt, or mate, save for the opportunity to point at them and tell my other seven-year old playmates that the stray dogs in my neighborhood are stuck in the butt. And I like shark week only because the narrative makes it sound like they have personalities like my neighbor or my cousin’s vicious landlord. I should be apologizing but I grew up in a culture that didn’t use to keep dogs in the house. Their utilitarian purpose was to keep burglars away and to eat human leftovers so that the garbage would not smell. That culture has since matured and instituted laws that say you should not be harvesting fish with dynamite and no, you may not eat that dog. Not even if it were a stray and it randomly fell next to your frying pan.
The love for animals that others find natural is not organic to me. It needs to be prodded out and framed in terms of conservancy, public safety and non-cruelty, before I say yes, let’s not do that, because, um, rabies.
So I am a bit confused if embarrassed that the people in the table have wantonly decided my transcontinental trip would be a complete waste because I am not going to see the Big Five or the Super Seven or the Magnificent Whatevs.
Karolina whispers, let’s go the fancy hotel next door. They have a wine bar. I think you need a drink. I feel her pull me by the arm and left the judgmental lot back in the hostel. To my delight, the hotel bar serves an excellent selection of South African wines for three to five dollars a bottle. Back home, wine-in-a-box costs more. Karolina tells me she didn’t plan on going to Kruger either but was talked into it by a bunch of backpackers. She had made plans of visiting the Mandela monuments and the political memorials but in retrospect, should have made time to be Kruger for more than a week. She ended up going there for three days and still made Johannesburg and Pretoria.
I tell her I could not afford a safari and that I am not dressed for it. She says I’d be surprised to see the kinds of clothes people wear in a safari. Especially the Koreans. And of course, if I pay in South Africa, I pay in Rand, so that should save me a lot of money. With another bottle of wine under our arms, we walk back to our diminutive hostel.
Jack, the hostel owner, shows me a bunch of trips between sips of milk tea. This one’s two hundred fifty dollars-equivalent, and it leaves tomorrow. Two nights, he says. Three days should be enough to see the big cats and the buffaloes. But again, no promises, he reiterates. Some people have gone for a week without seeing a lion. But the price is really, really attractive, so I dive in.
5:00 AM. All ready but not quite. Just my trusty backpack, some electronic gadgets I should have left home, running shoes, and a bottle of wine. No binoculars, hats, nor earth-tone shirts with that flappy thing on the back, whatsoever. Our small van leaves Jo’burg with two other people, honeymooners from the Isle of Wight, and a hope that lionesses are not attracted to flowery, purple shirts.
Two hours into our trip, I gradually notice indications of a car-culture society. The highways are long and smooth, rest areas and gas stations are situated in strategic points, toll fees are omnipresent, and the rolling vistas of maize and goldening wheat vaguely remind me of anytownbetweenVancouverandToronto, Canada. Or the entire state of Nebraska. Except that once in awhile, the driver points to a herd of zebras or kudu. And then, too, you see the futile effort to corral the mines with culm, which only makes them look more conspicuous. And then of course, the townships that accompany the coal mines.
The driver explains there is a pervading sense of social hurt the township systems connote. They were supposed to provide a humane complex for mine workers to live in, but have become areas that foment violence and crime and instruments that segregate the poor from the rest of South African society. He says it is hard to look at them as humane when there is hardly any water or electricity. With non-functional schools and social services, no areas to do business in, and the earth unable to support backyard agriculture, among other things, townships have become less and less of a place to live in and more of a prison, he says. I can imagine how mobility must be a real challenge in these areas. There is an after taste of irony when a shiny highway’s backdrop is several hundred houses with sagging tin-roofs, dusty roads and no plumbing. I realize then that this is closer to my culture. In its little alleys and empty kitchens, there is no room for animal conservation or appreciation. These concepts do not exist if you don’t live humanely. Elementary Maslow. He recounts the difficulty of having grown up in areas similar to this much to the horror of the honeymooning couple. I zone out because I cannot deal with it right now. I am on a safari trip I could hardly afford and I did not burn fifteen thousand miles’ worth of carbon emissions, a couple of which made me question my existence, only to be reminded about home. Please indulge my selfishness just this once.
It is almost sundown when we arrive at the rest camp. It is something fancy, and it must be low season because there are very few people in a place that clearly looks more than two hundred and fifty bucks. Around a rather unnecessary swimming pool, are grass and mud huts made to look so indigent you’d think a topless woman would come out of one and greet you in a clicking language and offer you her baby. Racist and tragic, I digress, but come on now. Grass and mud huts? I wouldn’t be surprised if someone handed me a burning torch and said, watch for the monkeys.
Someone did though. Dita, a Dutch transplant, mans the registration area and warns me that Vervet monkeys are everywhere in the camp. She says they are not shy at all and commands me to secure all my food in the cupboard inside my room. You mean they can sneak into the room? I ask her a little worried. Technically, no, she replies, but they have in the past. She gives me a run down of my schedule and then tells me to freshen up and put on lots of mosquito repellent before the sundown safari. And there’s beer in the fridge if I so please.
So I please myself with a bottle of Castle and after showering in the fancy bath inside my climate-controlled mud and grass hut, head to the parking lot. The couple are already in the canopied, green 4×4, chitchatting with the driver. There is a shotgun in the shotgun seat. I wave, half wishing the alcohol from my pores would repel the mosquitoes because I have no mosquito repellent. They all nod and we head into the bush.
It is most underwhelming when you begin a safari because there is no signal whatsoever that you are in one. There is no pomp and circumstance that only the Circle of Life song can provide. There is no cruise ship bellow nor steam train whistle. No sign whatsoever that you are in the bush but the south african drawl of ground rules you have to abide by–no flash, no noise and keep your arms in the truck so you don’t get scratches from the brambles or lose them from a bite. Until a gurgling sound emanates.
The driver-guide slows the truck and veers right into more dry brush. In less then thirty seconds we are looking at a lioness and two cubs to our left. He signals silence. He says they are full and are resting so there is no need to worry about being tonight’s buffet. I could see that the cats are aware but they are busy licking each other. They are cute and almost orange in the sun. Then another gurgling sound. I notice none of the lions we are looking at are making it. The driver presses a finger to his lips quite dramatically as though he has done this a gazillion times and we drive slightly forward to see a huge lion, mane and all. He is also at rest but he gets up as he sees us. He is not even four feet away to the right from the truck. We move forward so that we do not block his view of the other cats, which could potentially alarm him. We stay for as long as the fading sun would allow, and in this duration, I am counting the ways in which I could be mangled like a rag doll in an open game-viewing vehicle, while a Bear Grylls running commentary about the transposition between game and hunter slowly unfolds. When we could barely see the lions the dark, our driver pushes the truck forward over a small boulder and back to the path we were in. I could feel the lions’ eyes burn themselves into the small of my neck. So this is how it feels like to be a dart board.
We drive around for a little bit in the dark and once in a while, our guide would stop to point at a Cape fox or a Rock Hyrax on a tree. He says its closest relative is the elephant (I’m sorry, but after those lions, everything is amateur hour at this point). He also shows us interesting soil formations like anthills or termite mounds. Apparently, large animals lay on them to seek reprieve from the cold much like a hot water bottle. Or if you’re an aardvark, it’s your free Golden Corral buffet.
We finally arrive at our dinner area, which is, again, some kinda fancy. You alight from the truck accompanied by two men with shotguns, because, I guess, we are in the middle of the brush and could be attacked by something, and walk through a pathway that lends itself to a low, Japanese-garden like soribashi over nothing but sharp rocks. Totally unnecessary, I think, but on the other side is glamping in its purest form. Candle-lit tables surround a grand baobab tree and hanging from its glorious branches are an explosion of mini chandeliers powered by a quietly humming generator. There is a braii on one side where a decent sized cow is broiling in a spit, and chicken and spicy sausages called boerewors are barbecued. Red and white wine on every table and absolutely everyone is dressed in safari chic—khaki shorts, flappy shirts, hiking boots, hats and binoculars around their neck. I stick out like a sore thumb in my purple, floral tee, my really tiny shorts (they are fashionable in Europe, I swear!), my Adidas runners, and my iPhone which I hope can pass for binoculars because it has zooming capabilities. Everyone smells citric and between the guests and the camp staff, there is a force field of citronella oils that all mosquitoes this side of South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique could never penetrate. At the very least, I am safe from mosquitoes.
Wine is poured, pap is scooped, dinner is served and stories are exchanged. Folks from Switzerland recount their stories of adventure in the Okavango delta in Botswana where safaris are markedly wilder and rougher. A retiree from Germany mouths their nth trip to the Skeleton Coast in Namibia. A guide, seated next to me, whispers they have nothing on Zimbabwe. For the first time in my life, I have nothing to say. I am humbled by my sheer ignorance. When all eyes were finally on me, I reply, I dive, so fish. They all laugh at my joke. Then I add my last safari was at Animal Kingdom in DisneyWorld where the 4x4s are guided by a mechanical track built into the ground. They all laugh, except that this isn’t a joke. They think I’m a major funny guy so I am quickly becoming the toast of the night, which I find mighty uncomfortable. As I back into my food and stuff my mouth with sausages so I can feign the inability to respond with a full mouth, some guide came to the rescue. He tells everybody to keep still. We hear a huffing sound that gradually gets louder. Then the treetops to one direction start to move. First slowly, then more more violently. Then out of the thick brush a huge elephant appears, and stares suspended. My heart jumps up my throat, pushing all the sausage out of my mouth.
For what seems like forever, we just sit there and watch the elephant. Alarm has a tendency to correct one’s posture because I notice everybody beginning to look like a meerkat. Finally, the elephant turns around and proceeds back into the brush. The tree tops shake heavily until they don’t. Then everybody goes back to talking about their adventures. I am puzzled so I ask the guide next to me what just happened. He says once in a while elephants walk towards to the baobab tree to scratch an itch and they do attack people. But as long as you remain quiet and as long as it sees the shards of sharp rocks surrounding the tree, it would turn around completely. Then two things turn on in my head like light bulbs as bright as the chandeliers hanging overhead: That explains the Japanese bridge and, elephants can’t jump. I laugh at the prospect of the last thought.
On the way home there are a few more people in our truck. We stop in our path as our guide shines a light on an area about fifteen feet away. On a termite mound is the most beautiful cat you could ever imagine. Jaguar!!! I muffle a scream. You can hear the sound of air being displaced as everybody’s head turn to me in a mix of disgust and disappointment. A guy mutters, Jaguar-South America, Leopard-Africa. I am so embarrassed I feel a tail coil between my legs.
The next day, I pass by a spa on the pebbly path to the themed breakfast area. I peek in and ask if they have some mosquito repellant. The attendant says no, but I could ask at the front desk. Of course I forget because at the breakfast area, I am treated by simian football Sunday. Fruit and vegetables and protein line the buffet table while the staff busy themselves with chasing monkeys away with mops and brooms and fly swatters. Every now and then, a quarterback would run past and grab a banana from the table to the cheers of the people having breakfast. I sit at a table with a group of Italians and stuff my face with pineapples. One of the ladies asks if my name were Miles. I say yes, why? Word got around last night that I am a lucky charm because less then three hours into the safari, my group has already seen three of the Big Five. I am confused but learn later that, apparently, the elephant, lion and leopard, together with the buffalo and the white rhino, make up the Big Five. Apparently, a safari is not complete without seeing all these. And apparently, leopards are so elusive that many people, guides included, do not see one for weeks on end. So, why me and not the married couple? Maybe because they are always busy eating each other’s faces (to be fair, I learn later on that they went home on another truck and didn’t see the leopard that night).
The Italians cheer when I walk into their truck. I am not superstitious so I feel the pain of being pressured to conjure elusive animals at the fall of a hat. I choose the back of the truck where a chatty retired teacher from Denver assumes the role of backseat Steve Irwin. I am as educated about animals as Brian Fellowes of MadTV, so I move one seat up where Enrico, a college student who is as interested as wildlife as he is fixing his pompadour, sits.
Cool wind brushes my face and I finally get a good glimpse of Kruger. It was a game reserve established by the Transvaal Republic’s James Kruger in 1898. As the years rolled along, the value of the precursors to eco-tourism was recognized and in 1926, private lands were joined to become Kruger National Park. It is arguably the most organized safari destination in Africa as the system is highly regulated and infrastructure is in place. Today, the park straddles the borders of Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa, and although the extent of policing against poachers vary in each country, social media has helped both in encouraging and preventing the crime. When a tourist sees a rare white rhino, for instance, takes a photo and uploads it on social media, a geolocation is tagged onto the photo. This allows poachers to locate their victims. On the other hand, visitors, who can by the way independently drive on designated roads in the park, can alert authorities of suspected poachers and their locations. As long as tourists who upload photos of animals exclude geo-tags, then social media is tilted towards doing good.
Three minutes after entering the security gates of the park, our guide sees a pack of wild dogs. He stops excitedly and says he hasn’t seen wild dogs in three months. Everybody looks at me with adoration. I look away. The place smells like carcass and the dogs look like hyenas. I say they look like hyenas, and of course, little Miss Denver decides to educate me of their subtle differences until she was shushed by one of the Italians. They are beautiful in a very crafty way (probably a lasting influence of Banzai, Shenzi and the adorably wall-eyed Ed), and travel in packs. They are also the piranha of the land in that they can hunt and reduce prey into bones in minutes. The guide then says they are even rarer than the leopard and they belong to the Super Seven, with the cheetah rounding it off with the Big Five. Ok, so that’s more pressure. Now I have to conjure a cheetah as well?
A safari is also not a walk in the park. It is not National Geographic. You do not view an animal in the most flattering of angles because you have no control over it. And human eyes are not like long-focus lenses by nature. They’ve probably evolved to see as far out so as to quickly run from a predator. And the way it’s looking right now, humans will probably just need two feet of depth to read from tablets. One time, when the guide points to an alleged lioness resting in the shade, I could only make out a furry butt. It could very well be a fluffy hare. And you can definitely not pause it, color correct it, flip it or reverse it. And you could take hours before seeing another interesting creature. Which we do in the form of another leopard crossing the road in front of our truck. But it is so quick, it could have been my childhood.
Animals also tend to steer clear of people. Like really, really clear of people. African buffaloes graze by a watering hole but stomp away like snotty socialites whose afternoon tea we’ve just breached. Right before we leave for the day, and as the pressure mounts because I have not fully conjured all five, our guide stops the truck at an embankment of a dried up river. We are all quiet. He adjusts his binoculars several times and finally asks for my phone. He lines the camera lens of the phone to one eyepiece of the binoculars and shoots several times and then hands it back to me. I fall off my seat to discover he had sighted a white rhino. It is really far and if you don’t use binoculars you could easily mistake it for a lazy boulder. But it is a white rhino nonetheless. Yes! My job here is done, bye!
Everybody claps and pats me on the back and then asks if we could see a cheetah. Who am I, Scout Ranger Albus Dumbledore, Keeper of the Super Seven? I ask them and they all laugh. We drive home and random impalas and oryx would leap next to us, zebras would look up and giraffes would look down at us, and wildebeests would start fake stampedes before realizing it’s just those strange creatures–the only ones in the circle constantly disturbing it, looking for purpose in an arbitrary existence. An elephant bull would trumpet and a calf would come scurrying across the asphalt in front of us. As the sun sets in a dreamy fabric of African bliss I realize this is probably it. This is probably what all the fuss is about. It’s not just the animals, not just the baobab in the sunset, not just the mosquitoes that could actually kill you. It is probable because there will never be a way to etch this portrait in words or in paint. Never because it refuses to stay still. I can play the Circle of Life in my head but it is not required.
(All photos ©Miles Sanchez)