After a long, uneventful nine hour bus ride to Durban, I took a taxi from the bus station to a backpacker's hostel for the night. Once I checked in, I bought a calling card for 20 Rand and called Gielie. I'd been out of contact with him for several days now, and I was hoping we could still connect. Much to my joy (and embarrassment), Gielie and his family had been planning on my arrival and had prepared to take the family and me to a game reserve for the weekend to do some wildlife watching.
Since we'd been out of touch, it meant I was now in Durban, about 2.5 hours away from his farm. And, since they hadn't heard from me, they'd wisely already made reservations at the game reserve and had planned to leave early the next morning (Friday). As we talked on the phone though, Gielie was incredibly hospitable - he told me he would simply get up at 4:00 in the morning and drive down to Durban to fetch me. We'd then go back up to the farm, pick up his family and head on to the game reserve. I was humbled and embarrassed at the same time. My inconvenience to Gielie and his family made me feel terrible. The thought of making him get up so early, drive all the way down and back to Durban, not to mention push back the plans of his entire family for several hours - well, it made me sick. But Gielie was so accommodating - he said it was absolutely no trouble. I was simply amazed at the kindness he'd shown to someone he met only a few weeks ago on a boat in the Antarctic.
6:00 am came early, and after emerging from a quick shower, I was surprised and relieved to find Gielie already in the lobby. It was absolutely great to see a familiar face - my first since starting this trip. We headed outside to a bleak, gray and rainy day. After throwing my bags in the boot, we were on our way.
We filled the time in the car with talk of our trip to the Antarctic, some of the goings-on at his farm, a little about my travels and a bit about South Africa in general. Gielie is a fascinating guy. Born and raised in South Africa, he speaks Afrikaans (a native Dutch-inspired language), English and Zulu. As we drove, he was called several times, and depending on the caller switched effortlessly between all three. Although I couldn't understand much, it was fun to listen to.
We stopped at the halfway point for breakfast at a "Wimpy's" restaurant (think Denny's) near Mooi River. Over a plate of beef sausage, eggs and toast, we discussed the plans for the weekend. To my delight, I found we would stay at the Ithala game reserve for 3 days and 2 nights. They had made reservations to stay in one of the houses in the lodge area, which I thought sounded wonderful.
On our way out the door (at which time I passed by the little convenience store and bought a Mountain Dew! Yes!), Gielie mentioned we'd have a proper "Braai" (a South African barbeque) for one of our meals, and we walked over to a butcher shop near the gas station/restaurant (a combination which is pretty prevalent in South Africa - seemed like every service station along the highway was complete with a restaurant and a butcher shop), to get some meat - sausages, steaks, and a few pounds of something called "Bultong" - dried, aged meat cut into thin chips - very similar to beef jerky, but in my opinion, much better.
About an hour later, the rain had stopped and the clouds had started to give way to some patches of blue sky as we passed through Bergville, a small town about five minutes away from his farm. It was a tiny little town, with probably around 2,000 inhabitants, mostly from the surrounding townships and villages.
About five minutes later, we were headed up a long gravel driveway toward a large farming operation - a couple of grain silos, a couple of large workshops, assorted farming machinery and vehicles and a nice farmhouse, all enclosed by a tall wire fence. We passed through the main gates, where we were waved to by a few of the staff, and then through yet another high-wire fence surrounding the house itself. When I opened the car door, I was greeted by three or four cheerful dogs, led by a small, curly haired fireball named Spike, who Gielie said was the boss. As I grabbed my bags and walked toward the front door of his home, I smiled at its similarities to the farmhouses in Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri I'd been to and lived in. Years of additions and renovations to a smaller core which was probably one of the original structures on the entire farm site.
Once inside, I met Gielie's sons, thirteen year-old Robin, and six year-old Thomas, along with one of Robin's friends from a neighboring farm, Paul, who I found would also be joining us on the trip. I then met Angel, the housemaid who was attending to some laundry. Gielie's wife, Jill, appeared a few moments later, back from running errands in town. After a few minutes of packing bags and food into their white Toyota Land Cruiser, we stuffed ourselves in and took off.
The drive was beautiful. South Africa reminds me a lot of Missouri, with its rolling hills and green farmland. We passed small farms and large operations, feedlots and open pastures full of grazing cattle - many of which were Brahman, along with the Angus and Herefords traditionally found in the US. Most of the planted fields were full of corn, most of it turning golden brown and ready for harvest. In freshly planted fields, I saw a lot of center-pivot irrigation, very familiar from my family's farming operations in Nebraska. We passed by a few traditional villages and townships, characterized by their similar-looking squatty houses placed perilously close to each other. Fairly often, some of the small houses were accompanied by round mud huts with pointed thatched roofs, and surrounded by a small barbed wire fence.
After about three hours, we approached the game park on a winding road through a small set of hills. At one point, young Thomas exclaimed "There's a warthog!" Now, everyone else in the car seemed fairly blasé about hearing this, but I'd never seen a warthog outside of "The Lion King", so even this got me excited. I looked out to the right, and sure enough, there was a little hairy pig-shaped beast trotting along with his tail in the air like an antenna - ugly as sin with large yellowing tusks protruding from its long face. Gielie just laughed and said "You'll see plenty of those. They're a bloody menace".
We stopped at the front gate to fill up the Land Cruiser, and to pay the park entrance fee. We then headed toward the lodge and our little villa to unpack the vehicle and go for a game drive. As we drove, we indeed saw many more warthogs - including some little warthog piglets, which also ran with their tails straight up. We passed a herd of beautiful Impala standing right next to the road, along with a pale long-necked giraffe striding along a hill in the distance. I'm pretty sure I was the most excited person in the entire reserve at that point.
We reached our cozy little home, which turned out to be really nice. Jill had booked a three bedroom cottage, which meant I had my own room - again a very thoughtful and considerate gesture. We unloaded the Land Cruiser, then jumped back in and headed out for a game drive. For those unfamiliar (as I was), a game drive is exactly what it sounds like. You drive slowly along one of many marked trails throughout the game reserve, keeping a close eye out for wild animals, particularly the "Big Five". In Africa, the official Big Five are the lion, the leopard, the rhino, the buffalo and the elephant.
In the first five minutes we ran across a clan of about 15 baboons, hanging out by the side of the road. About ten minutes later, Jill spotted a cat on the left side of the car. When we stopped and pulled back, we all saw that it was most definitely a leopard. It hung around to watch us for a few short minutes, and then disappeared into the bush. It was a really rare sighting - apparently leopards are by far the hardest of the Big Five to spot.
As we continued on, we saw a few wildebeests (aka "gnu"), lots of impala, and several giraffes. We also saw what turned out to be some of my favorite animals, the zebra. For whatever reason, I found them to be absolutely beautiful creatures. Their stripes set them off so distinctly from all the others - they have a presence about them that is somehow different from the other animals. Anyway, if you ever want a picture of a zebra, I have about a thousand.
Our first drive took about two and a half or three hours. We had to be back to the lodge area by around 6:00 pm for our own safety (something which Thomas reminded us about frequently - worried we were going to be locked out of our cottage). Once landed, we walked down to the lodge's restaurant for a nice buffet dinner and then went to the bar (complete with spears, shields and a huge buffalo head above the bartender's head) for a quick drink.
The next morning we woke up at around 6:00 for an early morning game drive. The morning was cool and crisp - not a cloud in the sky as the early morning sun bathed the large rock formations and scraggly bush near our villa in a golden light.
We still hadn't seen a rhino or an elephant, something which Gielie was determined to rectify. We drove around a different section of the park, seeing many of the same animals as yesterday, though every time was wonderful. We stopped around 8:30 or so to have a quick breakfast picnic in a beautiful little campsite near a small creek. After driving around for another couple hours, we headed back to the lodge, where we broke out the charcoal and the meat for "a proper Braai" lunch. We were true carnivores - with steak, sausage and bacon on the menu.
As we ate outside, we saw a lot of a lot of rock dassies - or "Rock Grabbits" as Tom called them. They are weird little critters - think really agile groundhogs without tails that can scale sheer rocks and jump from tree to tree. As we walked to the lodge and back last night, I noticed a few warnings about monkeys. Apparently they are quite a problem, as they are quite clever, and have figured out people are an easier source for food than finding it on their own. If you leave a window open in your cottage, there's a better than average chance you won't have any food in your house when you get back. Apparently locking things is now necessary, as they've even figured out how to open doors.
We relaxed until around 3:30 (as the animals rest during the heat of midday) when we headed down to the main lodge office for an official "night drive", complete with guides. We boarded a big off-road vehicle - one of those you see in the movies - about 10 feet tall, painted dark green, a big noisy diesel engine, huge tires, a covered top and no doors or windows. It was a nice drive, and we saw many more of the animals we'd seen already - zebra, impala, giraffe and, of course, a bunch of warthogs.
The sun started to dip below the high ridges in the west, and we were treated to a beautiful African sunset. There's nothing quite like it - the purple-red of the evening sky silhouetted by the country's iconic thorn trees. Once the sun had removed itself completely, the stars made a vibrant appearance above us. I don't know if I've ever felt closer to the stars of the Milky Way than that night. I felt you could almost touch them.
As we continued the drive in the dark, the guides handed us some big spotlights which we could shine into the bush while we drove along. Not necessarily the most efficient method of spotting game, but a unique experience. It was an eerie effect to see the reflected eyes of impala and other animals staring back at you in the night.
We got back to the lodge around 7:00. After dinner, Gielie was still disappointed we'd not seen an elephant or rhino, which are apparently fairly prominent members of this game reserve. He proposed a change of plan for Sunday's drive home - a journey to another game reserve about two hours away called Hluhluwe-Imfolozi (don't ask me for a pronunciation of that one). Again, their hospitality humbled me. They'd all seen plenty of elephants and rhinos. But they were willing to drive two hours in the opposite direction on a Sunday, with work and school the next day, for a chance of allowing me to see some more wildlife.
We got up early the next morning, and headed out. We drove along a set of roads which were the most direct to the other game park, but turned out to be completely dirt, and a bit bumpy and full of sharp twists and turns. Not a good mix for Robin's friend Paul, who unfortunately gets a little car sick. We had to pull over two or three times for the poor guy.
We reached the second park at around noon, keeping a sharp eye out. About ten minutes into the drive, Jill spotted an elephant, just off the road, behind a large tree. It was a beautiful young bull, chewing on some leaves. I've always loved elephants. As a child, they were always my favorite. I'm not entirely sure why, but I've always had a fascination with their size and grace - their commanding presence and strength. Seeing one in the wild, not 20 feet away was an amazing experience.
After about ten minutes, and about 100 photos later we drove on, stopping for a picnic at a nearby campsite. It offered a spectacular view to deep valley with silver vein of water running through the center. We drove back toward the reserve's lodge, spotting another elephant along the way. This one was a bit larger than the first, and had obviously recently had a nice mud bath. He was working on a large root in the ground, kicking it and prying on it with his tusks. It was pretty entertaining to watch.
About 15 minutes later we reached the reserve's magnificent lodge, where we stopped to have a quick drink. The back deck afforded a beautiful view of what seemed to be the entire park. I of course made some poor bystander take a quick photo of our group.
On our way out, we ran into a roadblock. A small group of buffalo were standing right in the road, oblivious and indifferent to any inconvenience they were causing. They are magnificent creatures - large and bulky, and apparently very dangerous. Gielie said many game hunters fear the buffalo the most because of their unpredictability, strength and speed. They've been known to charge hunters and even wildlife watchers without provocation. We watched this small group from a distance for a few minutes. They were covered with oxpeckers - small red-beaked birds which remove ticks and other small insects from the dark hides of the buffalo. It was quite a sight.
Around 3:00 or so, we headed back towards the farm (where they invited me to stay with them for a few days), now a five or six hour journey because of our detour through Imfolozi. As we drove, I was at a loss for words at the kindness Gielie and his family had shown me this weekend. They took me in as one of their own, provided me with transportation, shelter and food, gave me experiences in the African wilderness that I'll never forget, and to top it off, and wouldn't allow me to pay for anything despite my attempts. Gielie did say however, "When I come to Kansas City, I'm paying for nothing." - You have my word Gielie. I can't describe how fondly I think of this family, and how I would do anything for them. They were an absolute blessing to me, and one I'll never forget.