The first week of this month my family journeyed north to the Pilanesberg National Park. While we had done several smaller driving tours of animal sanctuaries, this would be the first time that we really ventured into the bush. Pilanesberg isn’t originally native habitat though. In the 1970’s the South African government created the nature preserve in the crater of an extinct volcano. Over 6,000 animals were brought in from Namibia in the early 1980’s. Today those numbers top 10,000 including lions, elephants, rhinos, and cheetahs. I think everyone’s expectations were lofty, and we tried to prepare our sons for the disappointment of not seeing any of the elusive Big Five. (Can you name them?) The park is simply massive at 250 square miles and while the roads (paved and unpaved) provide access to most of the area, the odds of spotting one of the three lion prides or a southern white rhino is not always in a visitor’s favor. Secretly I was ok with this. I didn’t want the journey to be a drive-through experience or pre-packaged show that’s the same for every tourist. I would always prefer sitting and waiting and letting nature find us if she wanted to.
We arrived at the Bakubung Lodge in the early afternoon and were immediately impressed with the grounds and rooms. It’s winter and the slow season here, so the lodge had shutdown the boilers for the two rooms we had originally booked. My wife’s parents and our youngest would share a room, and my wife and I and our other son would bunk down in the other. We brought air mattresses for the boys just in case. I’m learning that in South Africa you’d best take care of yourself and be pleasantly surprised when it works out that you didn’t have to. It’s much easier than having any sort of expectations, especially when the term “resort” is used. The rooms were comfortable and clean and quiet. We opened the curtains and doors to the patio to see the park immediately on the other side of an electrified fence. The nature was there too.
For dinner we opted for a braai experience hosted by the lodge in the national park. For me this was the most enjoyable part of the trip. I don’t think the rest of my family found it as powerful I did. They can be forgiven as it was a cold open-air truck drive in the dark to the braai. In addition the food wasn’t exactly American kid-friendly, and the boys were already tired. But as we left the hotel grounds and entered the park gates, a mountainous bull elephant emerged from behind a thicket. It froze in the truck’s spotlight unsure what to make of our commotion and the smell of diesel exhaust. Our driver told us to be quiet in a concerning tone. From its massive head two tremendous tusks reached out and down disappearing into the grass. I judged that it was easily twelve feet tall as turned and sauntered back into the night. When the brush stopped moving, we rolled on. Above the truck a million stars appeared. The drive rattled us around for another 20 minutes before coming to an abrupt stop at a human sized gate. Entering the braai area we were welcomed with a song from eight singers and a drummer. The food was laid out buffet style and we sat down on benches around long wooden tables. At the center of it all was a glowing bonfire. The kids didn’t eat much of the unfamiliar food and were restless for the dessert portion. For them, chocolate, whatever its form, is always more appealing than the main course. The camp was protected by a less than intimidating fence and torches, but we were reassured the animals on the other side wanted nothing to do with the noise or light our group was making. Still I couldn’t help but wonder if somewhere out in the darkness something sat salivating at the smell of grilled lamb, chicken, and beef.
As the moon slowly made it’s way above the surrounding hillsides, it struck me that we were completely surrounded by miles of wild and remote natural wilderness. I huddled close to the inviting bonfire and savored the last of traditional Zulu/Tswana meal. I sat there warmed by the red coals and watched my kids watch a group of drummers perform, and I forget about the world beyond the light of the fire. For over an hour that night my family sat there together, sitting and staring into the dancing flames like human beings have done for tens of thousands of years. The drummer’s rhythm and singing ebbed and flowed rising with the smoke up into the star speckled sky. In that moment of holding my family close and absent of the anxieties of the modern world, I felt that maybe this one life could be enough. For all the distance and distractions that moving to South Africa has entailed, we are now who we want to be.
The following day we loaded up the lodge’s safari truck for our afternoon tour. After the cold temps the previous night we each wore several layers and hoarded blankets in preparation. The boys tried to contain their excitement and rattled off as many animal facts, relevant or not, pertaining park’s wildlife. Entering the gates in the daylight was exhilarating. Armed with their gift shop binoculars, the boys kept watch as we bounced along a dirt road deep into the heart of the park. In the distance we spotted herds of kudos and impalas. On a ridge in the distance our guide spotted a cheetah. While I agree it did resemble a four-legged animal, from 300m away I wouldn’t bet on correctly identifying it. The afternoon was spent bobbing along in the back of the truck, calling out zebra and giraffes and cape buffalo. On the way back to the lodge we did find a family of elephants crowded near the road and a lone hippo in the tall grass next to a lake. The boys pointed and posed for pictures, and felt a sense of accomplishment. The sun set over the hills and left us with a parting gift of magnificent reds and yellows and finally a deep purple before finally turning on the stars for the night. If our only experience at Pilanesberg was our four hour tour, we would have left satisfied. However, the park held back something special for the following morning.
On day three the lodge was completely fogged over as we made our way to breakfast in the canteen. Bundled in the same clothes as the previous days, we climbed aboard the truck and settled in for a morning of limited visibility. Our guide was in a great mood and tried his best to make us laugh as we re-entered the southern gates. For an hour we drove along mostly in silence looking at the fog sitting heavy on the golden grass fields. In what would be a trip-defining moment for my son, the truck slowed and the guide pointed out a group of elephants to our right. The other people on the truck repeatedly said elephant and pointed to where the bushes moved with something sort of large and gray. Our eldest but not our quietest child then corrected everyone by pointing out the elephants were actually a group of rhinos. The southern white rhinos (not to be confused with the tragically extinct northern white counterparts) are imposing and prehistoric looking animals. About five of them snorted and chewed and slowly bulldozed their way through the underbrush towards the truck. The largest stopped about 20 meters away and gave us a spectacular view of his size and majestic presence. Looking around the truck, I saw smiles and wonder and bewilderment on everyone’s faces. Several nationalities were represented on our tour and every single smile betrayed the same overpowering emotion, something between awe and fascination. For just a moment we were all children again, marveling at the raw power and beauty of the animals before us.
With our spirits high and as the fog started to slowly burn off, we continued on the rough dirt road with our eldest chirping about how he had correctly identified the rhinos when no one else did. Within a few kilometers we spotted few cape wild dogs (the original native inhabitants of the park). Just as our driver was pointing out the fact that the dogs were usually an indication of lions, we heard it. The truck creeped forward not more than fifty meters until the sound of lions was clear. The fog had lifted enough to see a hundred meters clearly, and there off to the left of the truck, the western pride, comprised of a dozen or big cats, had just taken down a cape buffalo or a larger kudu for breakfast. Through the tall grass we could see the lions circling and ripping at their kill. We couldn’t take our eyes off of them. As the largest one ate, he kept the others at bay with a sound that I can’t describe, but that I can still feel in my chest. It rumbled like thunder in the distance. It is a sound that inspired a primitive fear in me. There’s no other way to say it. I don’t care how good your surround system is, this wasn’t only audible, it was palpable as well. We held our boys a little tighter as the truck maneuvered for a better look at the feasting lions.
Within minutes the pride was on the move again. On big paws and with a carefreeness that bordered on arrogance, they walked out of the grass and onto the dirt road. Our truck followed, rolling in neutral as the cats crossed in front of us and drank from a stream that ran by on our right. By now the sighting had been radioed in and other cars and trucks had shown up to get a glimpse of the digesting cats. Having seen the show and feeling supremely lucky, we moved on to find a mother and calf hippo at the head of the same stream the lions were drinking from. Further down the road a family of giraffes and zebra enjoyed a late brunch overlooking the valley behind us. The sun warmed the metal frame of the truck and we started back to the lodge for lunch. My youngest son sat on my lap, his head bouncing off my shoulder as he gazed out over the foreign landscape as we rumbled along.
I don’t know what this international adventure will continue to mean for me and my family. We are happier here, I know that. The boys have a wide circle of international friends and they love their school. My wife is absolutely crushing her job. I’m content in reading and writing and running a little every day. And for the first time in my life, I’m a father first, not a teacher, not a coach, not a parent who is pulled in too many directions. But in four years time from now will I go back to teaching? Will we find a little American suburb of another artsy up-and-coming city to call our own? Can you go back? Do I want to? Would you? I don’t know the answers yet, but I’m terrified of losing this feeling of aliveness which permeates every aspect of our African days.
Be good and keep in touch.