It’s taken a few days to consider how to discuss our recent experience in the Timbavati Reserve near Kruger National Park in the northeast corner of SA. I’ve been on safaris before but this felt different. Perhaps it was the nature of the safari (game drives with occasional walking vs. more walking oriented), the environment (Kruger is vast but concentrated, with every form of game – particularly the big 5 – readily available), but I think it must have been the glee on my children’s faces as they giggled at the antics of young animals playing with each other and their mothers, as they peered through industrial strength binoculars at yet another sighting, as they struggled out of bed every morning at 5am but forgot their weariness the minute we saw the first impala, the first eagle of the day. This felt different.
Everything about our 3 day adventure in the bush was remarkable – Chris uses the word spiritual. All around us we experienced the immensity and intensity of nature and the earth and our role in both; endless land and sky punctuated with a constant, never ending mix of joyous life beginnings and bloody endings, of the simple reality that the fittest, fastest and smartest survive longest, of the importance and joy of community between and among different animal and bird species and humankind; of the clarity, fragility, and strength of life, of the wisdom of men and women completely committed to preserving their beloved country and this planet. We marveled at:
– Multiple herds of elephants with babies of all sizes cooling themselves off at watering holes or browsing in the vegetation;
– A reluctant hippo demonstrating his displeasure by roaring loudly at us, exposing a cavernous mouth almost as tall as Luke in height;
– A carcass of an old bull elephant being torn savagely by hyenas and vultures while a bereaved relative bellowed – from a safe distance – to try to protect the corpse as at least 70 additional vultures flew in circles overhead or perched on nearby trees, a clear sign of death;
– Joyful, playful three month old lion clubs – the first in this region for a long time – trying – and struggling – to climb small bushes and trees while their mother watches carefully;
– Packs of (about 30) zebras taunting bigger packs of (at least 20) wild dogs, who, while vigilant, laid contentedly in the sun to avoid indigestion after what must have been large meals, as an ever-opportunistic hyena circled nearby;
– A mother rhino and her little rhino cub (who must have weighed more than me) we finally located after walking in the bush for about 30 minutes,
– Mother leopard and her cub lounging in a tree at night after sating their appetite by consuming an impala they had hidden in the tree earlier that day;
– Old bull Cape Buffalo trudging slowly at the back of a pack of at least 20 buffalo of all sizes on their way to find nourishment and, in the hot sun, shade;
– Groups of graceful, elegant giraffes munching contentedly on vegetation while a lone adult giraffe gnawed aggressively on the remnants of an impala leg left draped in a tree after its predator – likely a leopard – was finished with it.
– What felt like millions of Impala – called the McDonalds of Kruger because they represented such delectable “fast food” for predators and sported what looks like the letter M on their behinds, sprinkled in with Steenboks;
– Many many species of utterly beautiful indigenous birds, punctuated by the wisdom of many large owls whose nodded eyelids seemed to acknowledge our presence as we marveled at them through industrial strength binoculars many meters away.
And so much more.
In just three days we learned so much. We learnt that most animal species are maternalistic; with males often banished from the pride/herd by the females. We learned that because adult male lions often kill cubs who are not their offspring, female lions partner with more than one lion so paternity isn’t clear. We learned that all the various ecosystems – human, animal, ecological, climate, plant, birdlife – must be in alignment for all three to survive and thrive. We learned that the best sightings are early morning (thus requiring 5am wake up calls) and in late afternoon/early evening (our 4pm safaris often didn’t end until 7:30, which were followed by cocktails and then dinner which often went until 10). We learned that it’s not morally correct to shine bright lights at non-nocturnal animals after sunset, since the temporary blindness would make them more vulnerable to predator attack. We were inspired by the amazing respect for nature, for conservation, for education of every member of the Tanda Thula family.
And we were utterly blown away by the knowledge bestowed on us by our tracker – a local gentleman named Given (bestowed upon his birth because his mother felt he was a gift from heaven 35 years ago) who lives about 100K away from the park but works for 6 weeks at a time, with two off; and our guide Antony, a witty, intelligent friendly bushman from the central part of the country featuring guide credentials matched by only a few others in South Africa, who was relentless in tracking every lead (we were usually the last safari truck back to the camp each night) in explaining every plant, every bird, every shape in the dirt that looked like scribbles to us but was actually clear evidence of an animal’s recent experience; in ensuring that we had a mind-blowing experience in the bush. Mission Accomplished and we are so unbelievably, incredibly grateful!
This experience is part of what we sought when we moved to Africa. This connection with the soil, the animals, the air, the bush, the humans who are so very committed to education, to inspiration, to conservation – it’s challenging to articulate, going to be hard when we leave, and utterly impossible to forget.