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The next day was short—I had a session where I was the only presenter, and it went really well but was under attended—and after checking email one last time, Susie and I drove away from the conference in a rented car at about 1 p.m.  By 3 p.m. we’d arrived at Shamwari, a private game park and hotel.  By 3:30 we were eating lunch, a marvelous gourmet buffet where, in addition to some delicious vegetables and noodles, we were offered three types of meat—ham, lamb and blesbok.

“What’s blesbok?” I asked.

“It’s a type of antelope,” said the chef.  I gave it a try—it was cooked like a pork loin, and had a peppery taste that I don’t think was just the seasoning.

Shamwari is an ultra deluxe private game reserve, the kind of place where when you get out of you car, there’s a person waiting who says “You must be tired—just leave your things and your car and we’ll take care of you.”  It’s located on 18,000 hectares of land, and was the personal project of some multimillionaire who decided he wanted to set up a large game conservancy and figured a good way to make it pay for itself was to put a very small, exclusive set of lodges on the grounds.  The idea’s worked quite well, and they’ve managed to reintroduce almost every type of animal that used to inhabit the Western Cape region 100 years ago, including lions and rhinos (white and black).

Immediately after lunch, we were introduced to our personal game ranger, Janine.  She was a twenty-one year old firecracker, one of very few female game rangers in the country—women used to be banned from the profession outright, but South Africa’s new constitution prohibits every type of discrimination you can imagine and some you probably hadn’t even considered (aside: the wording against discrimination so sweeping that the country is debating the legalization of prostitution on constitutional grounds.)

Anyway, Janine loaded Susie and I and a honeymooning Dutch couple into this huge Land Rover with bench seats and no roof or walls and we headed off across the bush-covered landscape.  The ride was bumpy and windy, and it was about 4 p.m. by this point. It was chilly, and I was getting set for a long ride to nowhere when, not even 5 minutes from the lodge, we (OK, Janine) spotted a huge antelope standing in some bushed about 5 meters from the vehicle.  It was a water bok, Janine said, perhaps the biggest one she’d ever seen.

I know it’s sad, but the first thing that went through my head was—this is just like Disneyland!  First of all, the Land Rover looked and moved just like the Raiders of the Lost Arc ride—tipsy-turvy, odd angles, and the impending sense that you’re going to be tossed out at the next dip in the dirt path through the bush.  Second, the animals were just standing there at the side of the road, and our guide saying things like “You’re lucky folks, the big ones don’t often come this close to the lodge” made me feel even more these were animatronic props scattered in the bushes to dupe Northerners like ourselves.

But my cynicism dissolved, oddly enough, about 2 minutes later as we traveled another 300 meters and came across two, no three, no four! giraffes in the bush even closer than the water bok.  They were chewing contentedly on the tops of the bushes, striding slowly around the Rover, crossing the road in front of us.  One of them was bulging in an obviously pregnant way, and Janine reported her find to the other Rovers in the area, one of which pulled up someone back down the road from us.  They showed an awareness of, but little interest in, the Land Rover—we were like scuba divers over a coral reef, among, but not of, the animals around us.  It was amazing.  We watched them for about 5 minutes, though I could have sat there for an hour.  But Janine said there was more to see, and, warning us that we wouldn’t be stopping to look at bok, bounced us off down the dirt paths between the fine-leafed bushes.

“Why won’t we stop for bok?” I asked.

“Specifically, I’ll only stop twice for impala,” she said.  “They’re the McDonalds of Africa—fast, tasty, and on every corner of the park.”

Cutting across an actual road for a brief second, we spotted an ostrich and plunged back into the bush.  It was on its way to join two other ones and was moving somewhat quickly, at what I dubbed a waddletrot.  The Dutch couple giggled as I asked Janine to slow down—“I have a lot of film to use up,” I said.

We moved in towards some large wildebeest when Janine wrenched the wheel rightwards. “Hold on—I see ...  oh yes, let’s do this! I love it when it’s this easy!” she shouted.  Something gray had caught her eye and next thing I knew, we were slowing rolling towards three white rhinos.  The rhinos were grazing their way along the edge of a gully, and didn’t seem to like us, because they kept disappearing behind bushes.  There was one large on, a mother, and two smaller ones, her kids, I think.  Janine would turn the engine off and let us gape at them, and then would start the Rover up again to bring them back into view.

Which was all fine, until they went over the edge of the gully.  Janine took the Rover over as well—it was amazing.  I finally knew what a mountain goat must feel as it bounds from peak to peak.  We were told never to stand when around the “Big 5”—those animals that were most famous and most dangerous, namely the lion, the elephant, the rhino, the buffalo and the leopard.  However, it was impossible not to stand with the Rover at a 50-degree slant down an eroded dirt embankment—not that the rhinos seemed to care.  Besides, these were the “more docile” white rhinos, not the bloody-sucking black ones, Janine said.

The rhinos finally went over a bluff we couldn’t follow, and Janine tried to back the Rover back up the cliff.  That didn’t meet with 100% success (i.e. we were stuck) so she pulled a three-point turn that took my breath away, and back we went, this time towards some elephants that had wandered nearby. 

The elephants were moving up from the river, and there were probably 15 in the bunch.  They left tiny clues to their passing, such as knocked down bushes, gnawed tree branches, and 20-pound deposits of elephant dung.  Hunting elephants is definitely a matter of having the right firepower, because locating them is like tracking a parade.

Some other things we saw that night: impala, spring bok, impala, dakkar (an antelope that hides in bushes), impala, blesbok (and that made me feel really guilty about lunch, though Janine assured me they don’t serve any of the animals from Shamwari for meals), impala, more giraffes, impala, more elephants, impala, and then we spent the rest of the drive looking for lion.  Apparently, they become easy to spot at night because, Janine said, their eyes reflect the spotlight that she shone around the Rover as we cruised up hills and down dales.

We returned to the lodge when it was well and seriously dark, had some hot chocolate, got changed for dinner, enjoyed a well cooked meal—though it was somewhat like gourmet cuisine on a boat, in that though the chef be excellent and the meal delicious, there are limitations on food ingredients when you are on a game reserve miles from anywhere in the Africa wilds.

We retired to our room, and got to bed early in preparation for our triply early game drive the next day—we were to start it at 7:30 a.m., if you can believe it. Well, it was raining fairly hard the next day, and though both we and the Dutch couple tried our hardest to stay, it eventually came down to a simple question: Did we want to go out in the miserable cold wet, or not?

We did.  And I’m glad we did, because despite the cold and the rain that kept the animals under bushes, we still managed to see impala, zebra, impala, geese, ostrich, herons and an odd bird that I’ll always remember that looked just like the birds Egyptians use in their hieroglyphics. It was about three feet tall, with a red imperious beak, long legs, and huge wings.  Janine said that though it could fly, it rarely did so, preferring to walk for most of its life.  It looked mean, and alien, and we were told that it kills its prey (ground-dwelling lizards and mammals) by punching it to death with a closed claw.  Truly an awesome bird, and I wish I could remember the name of it.

We left Shamwari after a warm bath to shake off the effect of the miserable rain, and drove a little further along to Storms River.

Overheard

“The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

...who said it?

“Almost every American I know does trade large portions of his life for entertainment, hour by weeknight hour, binge by Saturday binge, Facebook check by Facebook check. I’m one of them. In the course of writing this I’ve watched all 13 episodes of House of Cards and who knows how many more West Wing episodes, and I’ve spent any number of blurred hours falling down internet rabbit holes. All instead of reading, or writing, or working, or spending real time with people I love.”

...who said it?

“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”

...who said it?

“I play with variables constantly.”

...who said it?

“Only the person who has learned Continual Love coming from a heart of Gratitude/Worship can effectively deal with the problem of loneliness.”

...who said it?

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