I was excited for Tuesday morning and its promise of a return to nature. My destination was a unique mix of ecosystems that hosts exotic animals both on land and in the water, thanks to Lake St. Lucia. Called iSimangaliso (and you have to love a name whose second letter is capitalized), my destination was about three hours north of where I was staying in Durban.
When making my plans, I had been given two choices. I could rent a car and drive myself, or, for not all that much more (thanks to my strong dollar), someone could drive me. Apprehensive about driving on the wrong side of the road for so long in a foreign country where I might be unaware of local customs, I had opted for the driver. And I’m glad I did.
He picked me up around 9:00. We stopped at the Kwazulu Natal Society of Arts for some (amazing) gift shopping, and then headed north to the animals.
It was a gray, rainy, day. But my driver was able to offer running commentary on the changing landscape, and intriguing conversation about South Africa. I thoroughly enjoyed the ride.
For reasons that are not clear to me, it took four people to staff the secluded and remote entrance to iSimangaliso. Eager to see more wildlife, I signed in, and made my way to Makakatana Bay Lodge — the only privately owned safari lodge on the banks of Lake St. Lucia — where I’d be staying. The next thing I saw was a sign warning of elephants, crocodiles, and hippos.
I checked into the lodge.
Then after a truly delicious lunch I set out for an afternoon game ride. The weather limited our visibility, and, I knew, would detract from the quality of any photos I took. Still, I lucked out. I was the only one who had arrived in time for the ride. I had a guide and a car to myself for a few hours.
The immediate highlights were some close encounters with zebras, giraffe, and rhinos. Because it was just me, I was even allowed out of the vehicle. Unexpectedly, I was particularly taken by the zebras.
But I had primarily headed to iSimangaliso to see Lake St. Lucia, as a contrast to what I had seen in Pilanesberg; I was hoping for more than just a scaled-down reprise. So we made a decision. Instead of hanging out with the animals we could see, we would try our luck and head to a large watering hole around dusk, in the hope that something would come by. We knew there was a good chance that we would see nothing. But there was also an outside chance that we would see something.
And did we ever. We arrived just in time to see a whole herd of elephants! Once again we carefully dismounted the vehicle, then stared in awe and wonder at the magnificent sight of the pachyderms standing ankle-deep (?) in the water and drinking. Within minutes the huge creatures were in retreat, then, impossibly, gone.
What a way to bid farewell to the last rays of sunlight.
Along the way, I was learning more about South Africa, though still not what I was hoping to. My goal had been to see what lay beyond my bubble, but instead I was discovering how hard it was to leave that bubble. I had already been stymied in one attempt. Now, a couple of us were toying with the idea of leaving the hotel for breakfast at a restaurant at a near-by mall. Unfortunately, the staff at the front desk of the hotel didn’t know exactly how to make that happen. The consensus was to take a taxi, but there was disagreement about how to arrange one. Just call that morning, some thought. Better to order it the night before, others advised. Even that might not work, said a few. What if we had to cancel? They didn’t know.
In the end, the trip didn’t work out, though a car did show up. Disappointed, I was grateful that my currency was so strong. I paid the driver a few dollars for what would have been a one-way fare, added a tip, and stayed in my bubble.
Later that day most of us headed to the airport. The timing was tight enough that I was a little concerned we might miss our flight to Durban. And though we were set to land long after dinnertime, our schedule didn’t seem to include time for dinner. Fortunately, the flight was delayed, giving us an opportunity for a surprisingly edible bite to eat at the airport. And it’s a good thing, because the delayed flight leaving Cape Town was matched by a pre-arranged taxi that got lost in Durban, so I didn’t get to my host family there until very late.The next day, as I headed out to the conference, I was delighted to find monkeys running along the roof of my host family’s house — though no one else seemed particularly impressed.
The conference, the smallest and briefest of the three at which I presented in South Africa, was cordial, friendly, and low-key. It was set in an adorable building with old-world charm (I bizarrely forgot to take pictures) and located walking distance from a luxurious beach.
Durban was my last stop before returning to the glory of nature, and under other circumstances I might have been eager to leave. But in this case my considerable enthusiasm was tempered by the knowledge that moving on also meant saying good-bye to new friends.
Thursday brought the sad realizition that I had to leave the glory of safari. So after one last early game ride, I reluctantly boarded a taxi back to the real world. I had a conference in Cape Town to attend.As if the bush itself was crying out “don’t leave me!” our progress out of the park was impeded almost immediately by a giraffe crossing right in front of us on its way to a watering hole. Though time was short — and though my good cameras were no longer within reach — I insisted that we stop. The giraffe approached the water, looked around to check its safety, then bent down low to drink.
By odd coincidence, I had been told just that morning how rare it is to witness giraffes drinking. But no one had told me how strikingly beautiful it is. I was already sorry to be leaving, and with this new sight I almost told the driver to go back to the lodge. After all, how could Cape Town possibly offer anything but a bitter reminder that I was no longer on safari?
I resisted the urge to return, though, bade a mental farewell to the giraffe and her friends, and told the taxi driver to continue onward to O.R. Tambo international airport.
To say that I am a spoiled traveler is an understatement. I fly a lot, almost always on Delta, and Delta tends to treat me well. My flight from Joburg to Cape Town was on the African discount airline Kulula Air, and that had me worried. But it turned out okay.I landed too late to see much of Cape Town that evening. Then the power went out around sunset, because South Africa doesn’t have enough electricity. Rolling blackouts are common. (In Orwellian fashion, these are described as “load shedding.” It’s not that they’ve run out of power, you see. They just have too much load, so they shed some of it from time to time.) Unlike in Joburg, where four-hour outages are common, this one was set to last less than three.
So there I was in a dark, unlit, foreign city, far away from the bush. I did have a spectacular view from my hosts’ apartment, but there were no giraffes.
I lucked out that night, with delightful hosts who took me to one of the best meals of my life, at La Colombe. (If you’re in Africa, anywhere in Africa, stop by — no matter how long the flight. It’s worth it.) The conversation matched the food, and made for a superb evening.
The next day I got to see a bit of the city, and I have to say, Cape Town is truly beautiful, with majestic mountains and sweeping vistas, striking architecture and verdant vegetation, rolling hills and waves exploding against a magnificent shoreline. The only thing missing, really, were the giraffes. And the elephants. And the zebras and the lions. And the rest of the glory of raw nature.
That afternoon I headed out of town to the conference venue, my second in South Africa. It was at another hotel, the Protea, in a lovely region called Stellenbosch. While offering lots of outdoor space and a picturesque countryside view, it was less resort-like than the Indaba. And there were still no giraffes.
But the people more than made up for it. I may have been in a pedestrian, suburban conference center, but the right company can make that an extraordinary experience, too.
Though the novelty of the game rides had started to wear off by my third day, the exhilaration and joy hadn’t. The bush is magical, and Black Rhino Lodge is a magnificent gateway to it. So once again I woke up before sunrise, took full advantage of my lodging, and then boarded an open-air vehicle to head back into Pilansberg National Park.
I had already seen a lion up close, rhinos even closer, an owl, and a wide variety of animals in the distance. As I explained, the rhinos blocked our way to see the leopard, so I had yet to see that big cat. Would I today?
At this point the photos really tell the story, so here are a few of my favorites:
Click on any of the thumbnails for a larger view:
Even though I saw it with my own eyes, I’m still amazed at how well a huge animal can camouflage itself in the bush.
My first day of safari — really, half a day — was extraordinary, and left me eager for more. So when I awoke the next day before sunrise, the anticipation of returning to the game park overshadowed any lingering fatigue.
A light breakfast and a bit of pre-dawn coffee fortified us, and we were off. The owl of the previous day had been an unexpected treat, but we still hadn’t seen any lions or leopards. Would we today?
The air was brisk, cold in fact, at under 40F. But again, enthusiasm more than made up for that. We drove the first leg quickly, our driver eager to bring us to the heart of park.
Unlike the mostly flat Kruger, Pilanesberg lies inside one of only three of the world’s alkali volcanic craters. And while I’m not entirely sure what that means, one benefit was that our journey into the park took us by a plateau overlooking the brush. The view was magnificent — majestically peaceful, timeless, alluring, and deceptive. How could such a sparse landscape be home to so many huge animals?
We saw an elephant or two from afar, some rare buffalo that interested our guide more than me, giraffes, zebras, gnus, and impalas all over the place. But no lions or leopards. And we had to return to base camp.
There’s no way to call a drive through Pilanesberg disappointing. And I had been told that lion sightings aren’t as exciting as they sound, because lions are usually really far away. But still, I wanted to see a big cat.
So I was especially excited when our afternoon drive started with the report of a leopard.
But we were waylaid on our way to see it — by a pair of rhinos! The huge animals lumbered lazily right at us, blocking our dirt road, forcing us to wait patiently, and ultimately passing but a few feet to our right.
By the time we were able to journey on, we had lost the leopard. But our hearts were still pounding from the encounter with the rhinos.
With dusk, we once again headed back to camp, taking a brief detour for what our guide called a surprise.
A lion! And not off in the distance, but right in front of us, relaxing just beyond our vehicle. At peace with the world, or perhaps indifferent to it, the feline was both oddly immediate and completely surreal, as if suggesting both of course there’s a lion amid the otherwise quotidian grass and also there’s wonder beyond imagine in this place.
What a way to end a drive through the bush.
As an avid nature photographer, I’ve always wanted to go on a safari. So after almost 40 hours of travel, a visit to Soweto, a great weekend in a hotel-that-was-practically-a-resort, and a morning in Joburg, I was ready to join some of my fellow international presenters for a journey to the Pilanesberg game reserve.
Just a few hours from downtown Joburg (and notice, by the way, how quickly I adopt the local nickname for the city), the Pilanesberg sits inside the crater of an extinct volcano, and serves as host to more animals than I can list here: lions, of course, and giraffe, rhinos (black and white) and elephants, zebras, and so much more. At 150,000 acres, the park is not large by African standards — the more famous Kruger is almost five million acres — but its proximity and malaria-free status make it an ideal destination. (Kruger, I was told, is “almost malaria free” in the winter, but to me, “almost malaria free” is the same as “malarial.”)
So off we went, departing a suburban development and winding our way into the country. By lunchtime we were checking in to the Black Rhino Lodge. And wow, what a glorious spot. The rooms — private chalets, really — are exquisite. The staff is outstanding. And the setting is beyond belief.
Even so, I was there for the animals. (Or, at least, I thought I was — but that’s a tale for another day.) When we boarded open-air vehicles to go on a two-hour game ride that afternoon, I half feared that the thunder of my pounding heart would scare off any animals we might happen upon. Was it really possible that I’d see a wild lion, or a leopard, or a giraffe? How close would they be? Would they look different in their natural environment?
I tried to limit my expectations. After all, we only had a bit of time before dark.
The setting was incredible. Pockets of small green trees punctuated vast expanses of golden grass beneath cloud-streaked blue skies. If serenity and awe had a visual representation, this was surely it.
Right off the bat we saw an impala, a deer-like animal that’s actually a kind of antelope. It was so beautiful and so striking that we insisted our driver stop. We didn’t yet know that impalas are as common there as squirrels are in New York.
Then we saw a rhinoceros! A huge behemoth gracefully lumbering through the sun-drenched Africa landscape, it didn’t seem real. I look at the photo now, and, even knowing I was there, wonder if it wasn’t a trick.
But dusk followed soon after, my first day in the bush meeting too quick an end. Despite the luxury of the lodge, I wasn’t ready to leave the animals.
Then, well after dusk, our guide spotted an owl! It was the perfect end to my initial taste of the bush.
And things were going to get much better.
Though I had arrived in Johannesburg on Thursday, I didn’t actually get to see the city until Monday. And at that, I only had a few hours. Fortunately, I had a guide, Max, with detailed local knowledge.
We started from a hill overlooking various parts of the city. The location itself was populated by people of various backgrounds communing with their gods.
To one side, industry mixed with residences in a blend that stretched to a mountain ridge at the horizon. Born of a gold rush, Johannesburg grew up practically unguided, an organic if disorganized response to basic human need. So it was no surprise that apartment buildings, stadiums, offices, and factories all sat side by side. Highlighting the contradictions of the city, my view was framed by the trash and debris that had been left untended upon our hill.
In another direction was the infamous Hillbrow — once a luxury destination, now known mostly for its urban decay and crime. And to be known for crime in Johannesburg is something, because the whole city is riddled with the imminent threat of violence. Most people I spoke with had either been carjacked themselves or knew someone else who had, for instance.
The houses in the suburbs, where I had stayed, evidence a clear reaction to this violence in the form of high walls, barbed wire (sometimes electrified), external gates, and even internal gates within a residence. These were placed between the entrance hall and the sleeping quarters, the idea being to prevent an intruder from killing you as part of a burglary. People left their compounds only by car.
Hillbrow itself was next. There I saw more contradictions. Newly renovated high-rises offered a promise for the future, right next to drug-infested, mafia-controlled buildings that even the police wouldn’t enter. Indeed, even the nicer buildings were protected not by the police but by a private security force called “Bad Boyz.”
Yet people in Hillbrow seemed at home, strolling down the streets and interacting freely as one does in a community. In yet another contradiction, the vibrancy of such an impoverished region was a stark contrast to the walled-off sterility of the richer areas.
At least, so it seemed to me.
IN ADDITION to writing and traveling the world lecturing about his books, Hoffman has also directed a dance troupe, taught darkroom technique, and explored Patagonia on horseback. He lives just north of New York City.
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