Destination: South Africa: Safari
Discoveries in South Africa
“Africa is mystic; it is wild… I have lifted my plane from the Nairobi airport for perhaps a thousand flights and I have never felt her wheels glide from the earth into the air without knowing the uncertainty and exhilaration of firstborn adventure.” Beryl Markham, West With the Night
This morning in Kruger National Park, in the darkness before dawn, I was escorted to breakfast by a Singita Sweni staff member so that a leopard didn’t eat me on the way to the lodge. He walked carefully, flashlight methodically sweeping the shrubs and trees on either side of the boardwalk, eyes alert. Setting off to track lions, we got stuck in an impala traffic jam, a herd of them blocking the red dirt road. While eating crocodile carpaccio for lunch, our conversation was interrupted by the barking of baboons, who were chasing each other along the riverbank near a mother and baby hippo lumbering in for a dip. Just below the deck, we had a perfect view of a six-foot python mid-kill, at work on a wounded impala foal. But we didn’t talk about any of these things over our meal; they were all too commonplace to merit discussion. What we talked about was the moment on our morning game drive when we startled the family of elephants and the matriarch swiveled to face us, reprimanding us loudly, flaring her big ears and staring us down—head cocked, trunk swinging, body menacing—while two other elephants repositioned themselves to block her baby completely from our view. Back off. Message received. “For two and a half seconds, we all spoke elephant,” my fellow safari goer Richard declared later. Sensing her anger, we urged our guide to throw the Land Rover into reverse pronto, but he kept cool. “Let the matriarch be in control,” he said. “She needs to make the decision, not us.” We stayed stock still while she considered us for a minute or two, then she turned and led the parade into a thicket of trees.
Part of the reason it feels so invigorating to be in the bush is that it requires you to be fully engaged at all times. You are always on point, looking and listening; you take nothing for granted. All grasses might very well conceal lions or pythons. All animals need to be watched closely and read, their body language interpreted, their next move predicted. There is the constant exhilaration of discovery (the leopard in the tree) and the sense that you don’t quite know what will happen next.
Going to South Africa for the first time, I knew that the safari portion of my trip would be magical. But I didn’t expect that the countryside of the Western Cape and the people I met all along the way would be just as compelling and unforgettable. South Africa has one of the most magnificent landscapes I have ever seen: rugged, wild and over-the-top stunning. I was captivated by the dramatic mountains that rise sharply from the ocean in Cape Town, the impeccably planted vineyards and gentle beauty of Franschhoek, the wind-carved sandstone along the coast near Hermanus, the endless views of the fynbos, the soft blonde grass of the woodland savannah, the stark silhouettes of leadwood trees, the big sky. And everywhere we went, we met the most extraordinary people, all of them adventurous, knowledgable and totally engaged with life, with a marvelous sense of mischief and fun. (Where else could you find an estate making serious wines with cheeky names like Bored Doe or Goats Do Roam?)
We pressed our guides for tales of near mishaps with venomous snakes (more common than you might think), facing down lions and being charged by elephants (almost all of them had been at one time or another, leading me to seriously question the wisdom of embarking on a bush walk). One of our guides used to raise puff adders in his bathroom as a kid; another had a pet cheetah cub that he rehabilitated and released into the wild. But we also struggled to understand the country’s complicated legacy of racial injustice. Our amazing Micato Safaris guide, Alan, told us stories about growing up in Cape Town, where, in the local parlance, he was referred to as a “colored” man (not black, not white). He told us about how, during apartheid, white police used to drive through the townships and fire at random into homes and crowds, killing dozens at a time, for no other reason than to create a pervasive atmosphere of fear and intimidation. Then there were the daily indignities, quiet but excruciating. He described walking down the street with his mother, and having a white man spit on her as he walked past. About going into a store to buy a soda and being told, “Did you read the sign? It says ‘no dogs allowed.’” About wanting to send his musical prodigy son to the best (white) school in 1998 and having to sue to be allowed to do so. About his son’s subsequent 13th birthday party and how all his classmates RSVPed yes —until the parents saw the directions to his house and realized it wasn’t a white child’s party, at which point they called and canceled.
But Alan also told stories of hope and interracial friendships, and learning to find peace. He testified for three hours at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (South Africa’s version of a war crimes tribunal) in 1995, and he said that when he walked out, “For the first time, I felt like a South African. At the end, they asked me, ‘Are you prepared to forgive?’ And I realized that the first step was that I had to forgive myself for being so angry. I thought that if Nelson Mandela could do it, so could I.” Years later, Alan’s son was invited to sing a solo performance for Mandela. And when he graduated, they held the party at their house, but this time all the classmates came. Now Alan says, “We are trying to build a unified country; we are looking for the good in each other. There’s a heartbeat here.” To hear these stories, and how raw and recent the pain is, and see people in the midst of working through it, determined to rise above and build a country they are proud of, is an intensely moving experience.
We witnessed many examples of the heartbeat Alan described: the kind, affectionate, respectful relationship between our black Tsonga tracker at Royal Malewane and his partner, a white guide from Johannesburg; the soccer field that the owners of Grootbos built for the local community in Gansbaai; the muffins baked daily by Le Quartier Francais for schoolchildren; the beautiful mural painted on the walls of a Franschhoek school by a famous painter who had stayed at La Residence nearby and wanted to leave a gift behind. We met people committed to preserving the landscape, protecting the endangered animals, and recording the nuanced skills of tracking for future generations. And we stayed at incredible properties all along the way, all of them five-star, all of them special. Highlights included Grootbos, a gorgeous eco lodge in the coastal fynbos; the decadent La Residence, nestled into the hills of Franschhoek, and Delaire Graff, in Stellenbosch; the dreamy Africa House at Royal Malewane, my favorite property of all time; and Singita Sweni in Kruger National Park, which is built to feel like an eagle’s nest. I am so excited to share all that I have discovered that we’ll be creating the perfect 10-day itinerary for South Africa for Indagare members soon. If you are interested, please let me know, and I will hand-pick all my favorite guides. A destination report will post shortly.
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