Story and photos by Babbie De Derian
THE LURE OF THE BUSH RELEASES EMOTIONS YOU MAY NOT KNOW YOU HAVE . . . AND I AM MOVED TO TEARS OF GRATITUDE
The flight from Sun City to Hoedspruit takes less than an hour. I am impressed with the delicious box lunch and complementary cocktails South African Airways serves on all domestic flights. Another adventure is about to begin as we head for Thornybush Lodge, a Private Game Reserve to track the “big 5” (elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo and rhino).
At a private reserve, accommodations are limited, and Rovers can drive off the roads and into the bush to get closer to the animals. Thanks to South African conservation efforts, the lives of many herds of animals have been saved. By moving them to private preserves, where hunting is prohibited, nature and the survival of the fittest keeps the animal population balanced.
Khalima carries my 50-pound suitcase to my room on her head, refusing to pull it. She grew up carrying firewood and water on her head and is not open to an easier solution. She tells me "What can we do, we need to survive" We have no water so we learn to carry 25 liter cans on our head back to our township. Sometimes it's easy. For us it is not amazing. It is our culture."
My huge room with mosquito netted bed and oversized bath, is out of a Humphrey Bogart movie. There’s also an outdoor shower, which I much prefer. I sit on the deck writing in my journal; baboons and monkeys stare at me from nearby trees; a slight breeze breaks the silence, followed by the cry of a wild animal. A brazen baby monkey swings from a branch onto my deck then scurries away into a thick bush; I hear and feel the call and lure of the wild.
THE GREATEST HUNT IS WITHOUT A GUN AND THE TRACKER’S JOB IS TO READ THE ROAD
I walk apprehensively to the lodge (not sure of what I will encounter on the path). High tea is at four; I munch on ostrich and tomato sandwiches; a giraffe stretches her long graceful neck to nibble leaves at the top of a tree.
Clinton, our ranger arrives, introduces himself and we settle into the Rover for our first afternoon in the bush. July, our tracker, takes his place in a seat attached to the front of the Rover and we're off . . . passing the private airstrip where hundreds of impalas are romping. His job is to scout and read animal tracks. Clinton tells us he will look for a leopard and lion. Bumping along, we spot a bull elephant by the road. Not wanting to risk his charging as he is in "musth" (in heat), we shift into reverse. The curve of his trunk indicates good genes. A month old baby elephant calf and his mother cross the road, followed by a herd of twenty-four. Elephants walk on their tiptoes with the grace of a ballerina and eat all day long. There are sixty-five different muscles in an elephant’s trunk, and it takes three to four months for a calf to learn to use it. A young male starts to charge, swinging his trunk in defiance. He changes his mind, backs away, and continues to rip off branches from a raisin tree. Feeding only on the bark, he strips it to get to the nutrients.
I AM AMAZED AT HOW CLOSE WE GET TO THE LEOPARD AND HER CUBS
Our patience pays off. A female leopard saunters into view, undaunted by our presence. Her two three-month-old cubs take turns racing ahead or lagging behind. Not much larger than domestic cats; their fur is brown; their spots not yet defined. She calls to them, turning her head often to keep them in sight. It is rare, and we are lucky, to come this close to a female with her cubs. Sometimes a female leopard leaves her cubs for two or three days to hunt for food, first disciplining them as to their boundaries in her absence. She moves them every three or four days to protect them from predators.
The sun sets behind the clouds as day fades in the bush. Before dusk surrenders to darkness, we get out of the Rover; Clinton sets a table with refreshments. We sip Sundowners as Clinton points out Southern Hemisphere Constellations; then hold hands in a circle to immortalize the moment. As we head back to the lodge, stars seem to fall out of the sky. Back at camp, Norman is waiting to pour us a sherry. During the night my sleep is disturbed by the roar of a lion and sounds of a kill. It is difficult to tell how close the struggle is.
5 am wakeup
I shower outdoors. The nocturnal animals are not yet awake, but dozens of baboons jump up and down no more than 10 feet away, excited by the water cascading from the oversized shower head.
PAMPERING IN THE BUSH
Two rangers move a massage table from the spa to the lawn, facing the watering hole where two giraffes, rhinos and baboons have gathered to cool off. I undress and stretch out, watching their antics as they watch me being pampered. I nickname my favorite giraffe Gertie as she gracefully bends her front legs and lowers her head to drink. As if on cue, twenty elephants appear from behind a bush and form a ring around the watering hole. The memory of this moment will never fade.
Late afternoon creeps up and the air cools down. We drive down a dry dusty riverbed. Ahead of us a pride of lazy lions doze in the afternoon sun. They are close enough to pet, but we have been taught the rules. As long as we stay within our boundaries, they will remain docile.
A huge male lifts his heavy yet graceful head. His soulful amber eyes stare at me; they pierce my soul; we are both filled with emotions. The moment passes; satisfied we pose no threat, his closes his eyes and drops his head.
5:30 AM wakeup call
LEOPARD TRACKS IN THE BUSH LEAVE IMPRINTS IN MY HEART
Crimson stripes light the darkness. As daylight begins to color the sky, we set out on our farewell adventure with July on the tracking seat and Clinton at the wheel. The deep respect and bond between tracker and ranger, both for the animals and each other, is communicated in silence with just the quiet motion of the hands, as they pause to read and interpret fresh animal footprints, every path of the way. Clinton communicates with other rangers by phone.
We stop often for the two men to read, re evaluate and talk with each other in a special sign language. A herd of buffaloes, each weighing three quarters of a ton, cross and block the road. Clinton tells us "these are the chaps we must respect" so we proceed slowly until they move off the road. July determines our leopard has moved into the bush, and he and Clinton take off with rifle in hand, leaving Yvonne and I alone in the rover. They disappear from sight as they follow the leopard tracks on foot. While we wait patiently for their return, a herd of buffaloes clomp through the thicket and surround our rover. They take note of our presence but move on. After twenty minutes, July comes running back alone, jumps into the driver's seat, and backs down the road in reverse to pick up Clinton. We think they spotted our leopard. Instead they too had a scary encounter with the herd of buffaloes.
We drive off the road to follow fresh tracks down an embankment. Tension mounts as the Rover crashes through the bush, knocking down trees, defying nature. Branches fly! Spider webs stretch like clotheslines! Trees ravaged by hungry elephants appear as naked sculptures; a red rain bird in a tree is a sign rain is on the way to the parched reserve.
Massive birds shriek; two zebras turn and stare. I cling to the sides of the Rover and to my emotions as they flow through me like a raging river. We stop precariously on an incline; we can smell our leopard. Clinton and July get out of the rover with rifle in hand, and use a machete to blaze a trail through the dense thickets. We witness the intense drama, teamwork, and dialogue between ranger and tracker. It is their “hunt” and pride is on the line.
It takes two and a half hours of intense, dangerous and strategic maneuvering to find our leopard lying down resting . . . hidden by high growth. She stretches and moves on. We back up and race ahead, to position us in front of her. Our leopard saunters by, oblivious to the perils we have endured. Thanks to the patience, determination and cunning of two men, this last day in the bush leaves indelible imprints in my heart. And I have never felt so privileged to be alive.
When it is time to leave I give Glory, one of the servers, my blue plastic shoes. Yvonne photographs her wearing them; we bid our farewells. I am humbled by emotions almost too overwhelming to bear.
On our way to the airport, we pass a Zulu village with several mud huts. Our driver points out the hut of the chief. He tells me one of the chiefs is looking for a wife. We continue driving and pull into what appears to be a more affluent Zulu Village.
I see the chief from a distance wearing a loin cloth; he has a long beard and is holding a wood induka stick (Zulu boys receive one for protection and a sign of maturity when they reach puberty). I move closer; there is an introduction of sorts; my husband to be doesn't speak English; I don’t speak Zulu. He grunts and I grunt back trying to emulate his language. We grunt back and forth; I take off a silver bracelet and offer it to him as my dowry. We smile; I step forward to share an embrace, looking around for my cows. I am psyched at the thought of calling my daughter and telling her, your Mom is getting married to a Zulu chief. The driver tells me we must go, or I will miss my plane. Thinking I did not please the chief enough to become his bride, I am a little disappointed. When we get to the airport, I am told it was all a big joke on me; that this was in fact not only a tourist attraction but it was the mock Zulu village built as a set when they were filming the movie Chaka Khan. My husband to be, the chief, was a Hollywood extra left behind.
WE MEET IN THE BUSH AS STRANGERS BUT LEAVE AS FRIENDS
The emotional, spiritual, and sensual powers of the South African bush are intense. To be surrounded by nature in the raw is to confront your own fears and mortality. It is a life changing cathartic experience that releases pent up emotions that may have contaminated healthy judgments. The healing process out here is undeniable. The adrenaline rush of crashing through dense thickets, knocking down every obstacle in a quest to confront the "big 5" is a potent lesson in life. The tracking is the pursuit of a dream . . . and the sighting living your goal.
Perhaps there is no world outside the wild . . . only wild people.
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