Notes from the bush

Two lions in the midst of one of many naps.
Two lions in the midst of one of many naps.

I slept lightly that first night in the hut at the Serondella Game Lodge in South Africa. There weren’t any locks on the doors.

I’d placed one Converse sneaker in front of the glass-plated double doors at the entrance, with the idea that if an intruder came in, the sneaker would block the doors and make a sound loud enough to wake me. (What would I have done then other than sit up and gasp?  I now ask myself.) Later, I realized the flaw in my booby trap: The doors swung out, not in.

That first night, I lay awake and jetlagged – seven hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time – in a giant, comfortable bed, staring through mosquito netting at the cavernous interior of a randovel, the traditional African name for a hut with stone walls and high thatched roofs. Our randovel, called The Lion Suite, was built for two and its walls were decorated with African masks that stared back down at me as I tried to rest. When I finally did sleep, I dreamt of a living marionette with a face like an “Elf on the Shelf.” I’m not sure if that was a side effect of the antimalarial Malarone pills – bad dreams aren’t listed as a side effect as they are on some other similar medications – or if it was just a side effect of being too chicken to embrace the safari experience. At first.

Sometime during the second night, I accepted the fact that I was in the middle of a private resort in the bush, or bushveld, South Africa’s savannah, and that there was no one but other vacationers on safari for miles in any direction. The only things that might be lurking outside on the resort grounds were nyala, a type of antelope, and small, long-tailed vervet monkeys.

An electric fence around the grounds kept out larger animals like elephants, our hostess Kelly told us upon check-in, although “a persistent leopard” could get through the fence, she noted calmly. Regardless, none of the creatures from the bush turned door handles, so it wasn’t necessary to sleep lightly, although ensuring the doors were closed was a good idea so that thieving monkeys and defecating baboons didn’t make themselves too at home in the randovel.

What I came to realize was having no locks on the doors was a luxury, not a danger, that went along with the air conditioning, Wi-Fi connectivity, his-and-her sinks in the wash room, and an indoor Jacuzzi and shower with ample hot water and views of a watering hole where animals like giraffes and warthogs came to drink. The windows near the tub and shower didn’t have curtains, but again, the only peepers could be the occasional curious monkey. I figured there was no reason to be shy in front of one of them since if they came near, they too would be naked.

Serondella, which can accommodate only about 12 guests at a time, is one of several resorts in the fenced-in Thornybush Game Reserve, a 30,000-acre habitat adjacent to Kruger National Park. The private resorts offer travelers ample opportunity to view African game in their natural setting without ever roughing it. There was a private chef to cook dinners like beef Bearnaise and desserts including berry–and-buttermilk panacotta. A bartender fittingly named Trust served cocktails and after-dinner drinks, including a locally made, Irish Cream-like liqueur called Amarula made from the fruit of marula trees. It probably wasn’t what Hemingway had in mind when he romanticized safaris and you could bet the famous lion tamer Clyde Beatty or even Groucho Marx’s Capt. Spaulding didn’t get five-star meals during their travels, both real and imagined.

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Summer in South Africa runs through what is our winter. We visited in November at the end of spring and when we’d wake at 5 a.m. for our morning game drives, it was still cool enough for a jacket. It was the dry season and the banks of the Monwana River were sandy and covered in animal footprints. The flora’s palette was all gray and yellow from lack of water, offering camouflage for golden-furred predators but creating an obstacle for plant-eaters like the dozens of pregnant impalas. They needed green plants to deliver healthy babies, rangers told me.

Game drives consist of piling into an open-top Land Rover with three rows of seats. A ranger drives and a tracker sits on a throne on the front of the truck, which has a steel-plated undercarriage for when it off-roads over shrubs and small trees. Our ranger, Chad, and tracker, Sidney, spoke in English and Afrikaans to other rangers and trackers on radio – forming a network of Land Rovers across the preserves with knowledge of where particular animals were or where they might be headed next.

Two lions in the midst of one of many naps.

Two lions in the midst of one of many naps.

The bush and the preserve teem with everything from 300 bird species to black mamba snakes, crocodiles and hippopotamuses. On our game drives, we came across giraffes feeding off the leaves of tall trees, a herd of zebras prancing through the brush and a couple of cheetah looking for breakfast.

The goal each day for Chad and Sidney was to show tourists as many of the so-called “Big Five” as possible. The Big Five are lions, leopards, elephants, buffaloes and the elusive black rhinoceroses, which are on the critically endangered list.

It is jarring for a passenger to first encounter lions in these environs. What strikes a first-time safari-goer is just how close the Land Rovers get to the lions, which are largely uninterested and lethargic. The animals are accustomed to being watched by tourists in Land Rovers and rangers and trackers said that as long as passengers stay in the truck and don’t do anything to call attention to themselves, the cats don’t look at the truck as either a danger or prey. And so, the rangers pull the truck close enough to the cats that you are as near and as cautiously comfortable as fellow subway passengers. The lions don’t seem to acknowledge your presence at all, although, of course, they might look at you differently if you were on foot.

The rangers carry rifles, but the only time I saw any draw the weapon from its case was when they ventured off on foot away from the immediate vicinity of the truck. The guides worried little about the big cats, but they always tried to keep a safe distance from animals that might charge, specifically elephants, black rhinos and even the placid-looking buffaloes.

Although the guides were able to communicate with other guides as to where the action was on any particular day, they were left mostly to their own tracking talents to find rhinos. The animals are in the midst of a poaching crisis, which is dwindling their populations and threatening their continued existence. They’re hunted for their horns, which are sold on the black market and are thought in parts of the world to have medicinal powers for treating disease, sicknesses and even erectile dysfunction. According to Julian Rademeyer’s book “Killing for Profit: Exposing the Illegal Rhino Horn Trade,” the cost of rhino horn per kilogram is more than gold, cocaine or heroin in some Asian countries.

Poachers, financed by wealthy smuggling rings, have become so sophisticated that rangers and trackers never discuss rhino sighting via radio. They ask tourists not to tweet or use other social media that contain GPS tracking information for fear that the poachers could locate some rhinos, which they sometimes hack the horns off of using nothing more humane than a handsaw. White rhinos are larger than black rhinos but more lumbering and peaceful. The animals are gray and are called “white” due to a mistranslation into English of the Afrikaans word meaning “wide.”

A leopard passes at a brisk pace.

A leopard passes at a brisk pace.

Safaris on the African continent were once pursuits of white Westerners seeking trophies who depleted the animal populations. Ironically, modern safaris on the preserves are more likely to attract those sympathetic to the giant creatures. One Friday afternoon, we stumbled across five white rhinos slowly crossing a grassy clearing. Watching those relics from the prehistoric era in their giant serenity is something that can’t be easily explained, but suffice to say that with all the emotions it brought, none of us had any itch to do their leathery hides any harm.

At the lodge one morning by the pool, a worker on a laptop explained to an English couple that their chances of seeing a black rhino were close to 0 percent. We accepted that near impossibility, but on the way back to the lodge from one game drive, Chad slammed on the brakes of the truck and gunned the engine in reverse. “Black rhino,” he said. Off to the left side of the car, the rhino looked up at us with an audible sound noting his curiosity: “Hmmm?”

Everyone in the truck picked up their cameras and clicked away, trying to catch a clear snapshot through pesky tree branches. I did, too, but then stopped. It was a moment I decided I’d rather experience not through a viewfinder but with my own eyes. Then he was off into the trees again. I hope he is wandering somewhere there still today, defying the odds and staying safe from his misguided would-be killers.

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Leopards are not as few or elusive as the black rhino, but they are certainly more camera-shy than lions – which are leopards’ only natural threat in the bush. If you stumble upon leopards, they are not as carefree as lions and will get up and walk away to find somewhere more private. In our tracking the animals, they seemed to know the guides were looking for them and did their best to stay out of sight or appear only briefly before disappearing into thick foliage.

In four days in the bush, we saw a female on foot and one afternoon we got close enough to a couple that we heard the male growl something to its female companion. And on one of our late afternoon drives, we finally met one ready for its close-up – a young male who licked his paws much to the delight of his photographers, who felt a deep gratification as if they had accomplished something just by sitting there in the truck as passengers.

At the end of each of the day’s two game drives, the ranger would find an open spot and park. The vacationers would file out of the Land Rover and have a snack and a drink. During the morning drives, we drank coffee and ate muffins. On the later drives, just as the sun was about to set, Trust packed us a beer or a cocktail to drink as a “sundowner” while we snacked on exotic jerky and chips.

The sunsets in the bush start like a blast of glowing orange juice on the horizon before the sky turns into various flavors of sherbet – peach, than orange, then raspberry – and finally a sip of red wine. Soon the sun is gone and the large African moon is all that remains to light the sky.

One night, we found a spot in an open field amid bone fragments from animals that had ended up as meals for the big cats. But before we could park and get out for our sundowners, we noticed a female elephant slowly walking toward us. We sat there breathlessly and without a word as she walked on my side of the truck, close enough that I could have touched the creases in her hide.

She let out a low, guttural hum that was a call to find others of her kind. Slowly, she walked through some trees – her trunk swinging, her massive size crushing branches in her way as easily as a person might part a curtain. Soon she was out of sight into the sherbet sunset while insects played a steady, rhythmic symphony.

This is the first of a two-part report from Mark on his African holiday. Next month, Mark visits Mauritius. Follow him on Twitter, @marklungariello.

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