Where the roads don’t go

Various people have told me that they’d be nervous traveling in South Africa or afraid of being so close to safari animals. But I’ve felt very safe on the game drives, and South Africa is actually a very easy place to travel: almost everyone speaks English, the roads are great, the food wonderful.

But I’ll admit, there are two times I’ve been nervous.

The first was when one of those stinking monkeys tried to stare down Scott for his lunch yesterday. We shooed, then yelled, then waved our arms and rattled our chairs at him. The bugger didn’t show the slightest fear of taking on a 6’3 human. And he had sharp teeth. And he was across a lunch table from my daughter. So we backed off and he got to have the cheese.

The second time was last night on the way home from a far-flung search for leopard.

Along the way, we saw a herd of at least a half dozen elephant with a couple babies, right at dusk. We watched them and took lots of photos. As quickly as they appeared, they disappeared into the brush without a trace. Words like awesome and amazing just don’t do it justice. Audrey promised she’d never take the smile off her face. (she’s broken the promise already, but we don’t hold it against her)

We continued on for some time, looking for leopard in a lush area, thick with bushes and trees. We turned a corner, and there he was. “Dhuma,” the locals call him. Standing in a field, body tensed, on the prowl for something. He looked directly at us from about… 30 feet?… then practically rolled his eyes with the knowledge that we’d just cost him dinner.

As he slinked deeper into the thicket of bushes, the guides wanted to keep a visual on him (another jeep was on their way to see too) so we drove off the road (dirt track) and went right into the brush. We followed him briefly but lost sight just as it got dark. And then we had to get the Land Rover out of the bushes.

Backward and forward, this way and that, literally driving through and over huge bushes, with tree branches thwacking into the rover right at head level. Audrey and I had our heads on the seats, darkness was all around, we had no idea if the guides knew how to get out, and a leopard was out there somewhere.

This was not the scary part.

After maybe 15 minutes we finally made our way out of the thicket of bushes and everyone just about cheered. Since the adventure had taken so long and we were so far from the lodge, our guide Lawrence asked if it’d be okay to skip the usual drink break. No one objected. Leopards are better than cocktails any day.

We’d been out at least three hours and it was completely dark when we started the long drive “home.” Bumping along the dirt trail, Audrey fell asleep with her head in my lap. Our Land Rover has three rows of three seats, and on this drive we’d gotten the coveted front row. As Lawrence drove, our tracker, Franz, riding in the jump seat just off the hood shone a spot light back and forth across the road and along the sides of the road, looking for the eye shine of animals that might be out in the dark.

The narrow road meandered back and forth and up and down as the spot light shone back and forth, back and forth, nearly lulling the rest of us to sleep. And then, as we came around a bend, a gigantic bull elephant was standing in the middle of our headlights, maybe 50 feet away. He raised his trunk and flapped his ears to their full size and walked a step toward us.

Lawrence put the jeep in reverse and backed up about 10 feet so our headlights weren’t shining directly at the elephant. We collectively held our breath.

I’ve seen Lawrence five feet from a lion without a care in the world, watched Franz jump off the Rover to track all manner of predators, on foot, by himself, in the bushes. This was the first time either of them looked nervous.

The elephant walked silently off the road to our left side, but was he just waiting to ram us as we drove by? In his usual cheerful tone, Lawrence announced to us “sorry guys, but this elephant, he is no good.” And with that, he turned the Rover right and drove off the road, back into unknown brush. Driving once again over and through bushes in the dark, we made a wide detour around the elephant and got back on the road a few minutes later.

Audrey slept through the whole thing, and we were soon welcomed back to the lodge with smiling faces for dinner.



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