Murphy’s law. Sometimes – no matter how much goodwill may have been invested into planning – things just don’t work out the way they should. Take a wildlife safari, for instance and imagine this scenario: At the ungodly hour of four-thirty in the morning, when it is still pitch dark outside, one’s proper physical system has not gained momentum yet, the game reserve is 90 minutes away from the hotel, vision is limited, the vehicle’s irritated GPS fabricates unfathomable directions once the smoothly paved stretch ends and we turn off-road. Rain is pouring (pouring!). Aboard a forlorn minibus a bunch of drowsy journalists are resting their exhausted frames against foggy window panes and limply jump out of their seats involuntarily each time the bus rattles into a pothole with a thud. Or conquers another especially mean hump. And another.
Stirred and shaken on South African off-roads
All kinds of popular song lyrics enter my mind while the bus desperately hobbles along the washboard-like surface: Good Vibrations, Steamy windows, There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Henry, It’s raining again, I lost my way, You left me in the dark…
… while every now and then a boiled egg escapes from a meanwhile soaked breakfast bag packed by a caring hotel chef, bounces along the aisle randomly, comes to an abrupt halt somewhere between the seats, only to continue its odyssey whenever the bus skips over – or a wheel sinks into – an unnoticed obstacle or cavity, all similar to the man-size version of a real-life flipper game. Every treacherous „clack“ issues an understanding egg-chuckle amongst us, who are trying to sip water from glass bottles without knocking our teeth out.
Bearings hadn’t been found first time round, but eventually the bumpy excursion (we had actually been off-road off-road) happily ends at the main entrance gate to the Entabeni Game Conservancy’s Wildside section.
Tracking the Big Five
We are hopelessly delayed, sun is up but refuses to shine. Isn’t it supposed to smile down on me non-stop in these latitudes – or most of the time at least? Nope, not around here and not around this time of year (February). But hey, who cares? We are at the awesomely beautiful southern tip of the African continent (albeit in the northeastern part of it) and this is going to be a veritable game drive, despite the wind and the cold and the rain. Everyone is wide awake now and eager to catch a glimpse of the legendary Big Five: elephant, buffalo, rhino, lion, leopard.
As we arrive seriously late, the ranger has to find a new time slot for us, and luckily does, but unsurprisingly, no 4WD has been reserved for our group. ‘Ours’ is now in use for a different tour and the one we are about to board hasn’t been prepared. A pool of water makes its roof canopy sag dauntingly and nothing good is to be expected from up there (just my premonition). Seats are dappled with tiny lakelets, yet protective rain gear for passengers is scarce. Not usually, but now. All of our bottoms are severely soaked before some plastic jackets and sheets are thankfully witched forth. Yippee. In the end, our padded and mostly hooded windbreakers did not prove adequate enough for an enterprise as cool as this one. None of us had expected these low temperatures in South Africa! It’s oh, so late, everyone’s schedule has already been upset – so, off we go.
The rain lashes out from all sides, the puddle on the canopy rebelliously flops to-and-fro as the jeep scrambles along rough terrain in a crayfish fashion, low branches keep whipping my frozen face – with no space to duck away. I could kick myself for not having chosen a middle seat: The colleague sitting there in state instead is snuggly cuddled between the other bookend and me. I wrap my woollen shawl tighter and pull it over my head, rain is dripping from the tip of my nose, tissues had been tucked into a now inaccessible pocket inside my coat. It is entirely unthinkable to lift off my seat on this motorised rocking-horse without risking to be flung overboard stuntwoman style. Peeping through the strands of wet hair the wind had tugged out from underneath my hood, I try to take some reasonable snapshots with clammy blue fingers, anxious to keep my camera dry and safe at the same time. Good photo footage is why I am here, after all! Fortunately, intermittently and only for the wink of an eye at a time, the rain stops.
But you know what? In these unpleasant weather conditions the scenery presents itself in a manner short of mystical! Who needs sunshine when this is on offer: nature scrubbed squeaky-clean; mountain tops, forest and plains shrouded in wafts of mist; translucent droplets lined up on slim branches like crystals on a chain; dramatic skies; rivers and lakes where there are usually none; paths created by torrents that only experienced rangers can muster – and reverse on, if need be. This is a different kind of Africa, the Hollywoodian „Gorillas-in-the-mist“ variety not to be had here in a summery season.
The true secrets of the savannah
Our ranger turns out quite an entertaining character whose stories make us forget the atypical conditions under which this little safari has to be pulled through. While on the lookout for big game we are taught what a „rockefant“ is and that elephant droppings smell sweet, why which animal behaves the way it does, that wild cats detest rain as much as domesticated ones do and, ha!: that ants kidnap termites to abuse them as slaves!
There’s so much unexpected drama happening within Africa’s fauna: These earth holes were dug by a hungry aardvark (similar to an anteater) in order to excavate a termite’s nest. One can clearly recognise the furrows her long, sharp claws created while digging as deep as this in just a few seconds (says the ranger).
A feast not only for the aardvark, who devours termites and their larvae with relish, but also for the smart ant who is oblivious to the fact that she is about to commit a vile criminal act.
Grasping the opportunity, she and the diligent army that surrounds her cannot wait to snatch a termite’s larva each, ready to schlep it back to their own crawling kingdom. Once hatched, the naïve termite mistakes itself for a pedigree ant (just like Mowgli believed in being a wolf cub), unaware that her sole reason of existence is a merciless life-long slaving marathon within this hostile labour camp.
Two out of five
We spot elephant, giraffe and rhino. Lions loathe the rain, so they were seeking shelter in the undergrowth not to be seen, neither were the leopards. The buffaloes had been safely tucked away in quarantine by the rangers in order to eradicate a disease that had caught hold of them a while ago.
Cheetahs, wildebeest, zebras and an abundance of bird life cross our paths – and when we return to the reception building, even the sun peeps out for just a few minutes, enabling me to take this photo of a tent-cabin within the Entabeni Wildside Safari Camp:
The reserve also offers luxurious accommodation. Please vide:
The closest airport is in Polokwane. It takes approx. 1 1/2-hours to cover the distance to the reserve by car.
Johannesburg can be reached in about three hours’ time.
South Africa offers a host of game reserves, most renowned the Kruger National Park.
This website gives an oversight over a long list of reserves:
Photo credit Aardvark: Louise Joubert – Eigenes Werk, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27417347
All other photos ©Christina Feyerke2020
Author’s remark: Some of the photos needed a bit of technical support in order to help them out of their bad-weather blues.