South Africa: Safari! (Day One)
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.