Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Exciting New Discoveries

Barely containing my childlike excitement, I lean sideways in my seat, pressing my face against the cold surface of the small window, straining to peer through the thick clouds, eager for my first sight of  "Africa". Finally, as the plane begins its descent to the Hoedspruit airport, the clouds start to separate and I can see clearly the golden grassy African plains, the setting for my family's safari adventure. The grassy plains stretch for miles, broken only by scatterings of cacti, thorny bushes, and trees.
Out of this expanse, I observe as a black dot appears and then stretches to form a line, lengthening until it becomes an airstrip. I feel the familiar jolt as the plane's wheels hit the tarmac and soon the loud whooshing sound of the plane's brakes fills the air. The plane rolls to a halt.  Still peering out the small plane window, I look intently for any sign of civilization, especially for a "standard" airport terminal. Once the seatbelt lights are extinguished and it's safe to leave my seat, I fall in line behind the other passengers, making my way through the aisle of seats and down the narrow stairs, gripping the handrail with one hand, while holding tightly to my small carry-on case with the other.  No terminal in sight, I blindly, along with my mom and sister, continue following the others, walking towards the end of the runway. Finally, the vague shape of a building appears, almost completely camouflaged with its blend of desert colors and fenced wall of what looks like  bamboo. Still following the lead of the people in front of me, I walk through an opening in the bamboo fence.
Looking to the left, my gaze is caught by a line of safari lodge drivers with their uniformed khaki shorts and shirts, standing along the sidewalk near the entrance to the building, holding signs clearly labeled with names.  Smith, Johnson......For a moment,  I experience that same old  nervousness in the pit of my stomach, that fear of being left or somehow forgotten...Jones, Miller....I sigh in relief to see our name.. I don't ever want to repeat the transportation mixups that occurred in our recent international trip to Dubai. So many times, due to language barriers, we were left waiting, tired and stressed, not knowing if someone was going to show.
Later,safely in the company of our driver, my mom, sister, and I wait on the small sidewalk outside the terminal entrance ,watching with humor as a large green tractor pulls up with a small trailer, luggage in tow.
As it rolls to a stop, our driver stands alert as the luggage is unloaded, listening for a word from us, "There it is; that's mine! The pink tag...that's Britt's!". He reaches for our luggage and then, places it in a huge white van with the words Thornybush  printed on the side.
Settled in our seats, having been made comfortable with an offering of cold bottled water from a cooler, we are finally on our way, focused intently on the scenery as the vehicle takes us farther and farther into unknown territory. Tall wire fences line both sides of the road. At intervals, signs appear identifying entryways to various game reserves and lodges.  After traveling for some time, the driver abandons the paved road in favor of a pale dusty, gravel one, the remainder of the lodge trip rough and shaky to say the least, the road marked by uneven ridges.
At last, the moment we have been waiting for..."safari" animals, zebras! At first sight, our immediate impression is amazement! Up close, in the wild, the zebras not only seem much larger than the ones we have seen in zoos, but also more vivid in color. The stark black and white patterned coats were mesmerizing. I could understand how easily the designs could confuse  predators in the crisscrossed thorny branches of the African plains.  Incredibly, those same vivid stripes were echoed in the short seemingly-manicured stiff-haired mane. The beautiful eye-catching patterns reminded me of designs I had once viewed through the lens of a kaleidoscope.
After driving through what seemed a maze of roads heading off in different directions and gaining access through a security point, the vehicle rolled to a stop at what I learned was the main Thornybush lodge. Smiles and hellos as well as small stemmed goblets filled with homemade lemonade awaited  us, the presentation intriguing with tiny edible flowers delicately threaded on toothpicks and suspended on the glass rims. After the brief interval of refreshment, we resumed the second leg of our journey. Transferring to another vehicle, a long army green land rover with the words Shambalala on the door, we were introduced to Ryan, our ranger and guide for the safari. A glimpse into Ryan's personality and sense of humor was soon evident as the rough road led to one bounce too many, sending my small black suitcase flying through the air. With an apology and a sparkle in his eyes, he quickly brought the land rover to a halt, jumping down and retrieving the case, dusting off the thin layer of sand and gravel. I could not help but laugh as the incident emphasized to me the true ruggedness of the safari experience. Traveling in an open vehicle with cases piled in the back, I could only imagine the early days of travel when flying luggage may have been a common experience.
In sharp contrast to the rugged travel,  my first experience  at the Shambalala lodge was the hospitable presentation of a silver bowl filled with moist cloth hand-towels for refreshing and cleansing after the long trip. It felt very much like "pampering" and I liked it! "Ready for a tour of the property?'... We eagerly followed our guide, not at all anticipating what we would see next. Africa came to us....in the form of a warthog crossing the sidewalk, and then, all of a sudden an antelope appearing nearby.  Then, the quiet was interrupted by sounds from a tree branch above us alerting us to the presence of another animal, a cute little monkey, just like ones I've seen in the zoo! However, I was disappointed as he scampered off before I could get my camera out, perhaps a bit camera shy , not wanting to stay close long enough for a photograph.
Lulled by the peacefulness of the animals we had met so far in our tour of the lodge grounds, I strolled confidently ahead only to draw back startled at the sight of a snake on the path in front of me. Quick to assure us that the snake was not real, the guide explained us that the rubber imitation was deliberately placed outside the open doors to the library to discourage unwanted visitors, in particular, the bold baboons. They are notorious for ransacking belongings, searching for anything associated with food. To further emphasize this fact, we are warned to be sure to secure our rooms when leaving them, making sure to slide down the large metal bar that makes up the old-fashioned lock on the doors.
The last stop on the tour was each individual's room, which turned out to be independent structures  resembling small English thatched roof cottages.
Each room's or cottage's interior boasted a rugged stone fireplace, a dreamy bed with sheer white mosquito netting, large footed bathtub, and an  indoor as well as outdoor shower for the full nature experience. The experience continued  as the drapes were drawn back to reveal a full wall of windows with a sliding glass door that opened  up to a wooden deck. The deck overlooked the huge lodge watering hole, providing the perfect spot for viewing wandering wildlife.
A few minutes later, I am left alone to unpack and freshen up, able to relax briefly  and absorb all of the newness of the experience before making my way to the main dining and deck area for "tea."  Not knowing what to expect, "tea" turned out to be an elegant presentation of appetizers and mini-desserts, all of which were delicious. During this time, the chef introduced himself as well as the dinner menu for each night.  "Tea" also was a social gathering for the safari guests, giving us time to talk and become acquainted with each other before leaving for the nightly safari.


  1. I'm jealous. We went on a Safari trip a few years ago when we were in South Africa, and there's nothing like it. For me, it was the elephants and giraffes that really wowed me!

    If you have time/the ability to go to Botswana, it's worth it. I sat next to a local South African on the plane ride in and he said not to miss out on Botswana. It wasn't in our budget, but who knows when you'd ever go back, so we did it and it was so incredible.

    Enjoy the rest of your African adventure!

    1. Dennis from Sweden just loves you Whitney :)

      I wish you nothing but the best of luck babe!

    2. Nihir I definitely want to go back to South Africa. Thank you for letting me know about Botswana.

  2. Thank you Dennis! The doors that the Lord has opened for me has been unreal.

  3. Whitney I'm a big fan. Followed you on Masterchef, made your excellent buttermilk chicken and was very sad I cldn't make it to see you at the Good Food & Wine show in Cape Town. But please, we are a country and our name is South Africa, not just Africa. Most Americans lump us all together, under the umbrella term "Africa", like its one big giant country. This upsets us deeply, as there are over 54 vastly different countries on the African continent, each of which deserves to be called its given name by tourists. Other African countries like Angola, Egypt, Liberia etc, have little in common South Africa, in terms of people, language, infrastructure, landscape, animals, fauna and flora. As a proud South African I respectfully request that you call us by our proper name. This helps educate other tourists about Africa being a continent and not some vague enormous country.

    Thank you :)