I finally give up on getting any sleep, and Craig and I head out to have breakfast. As we sit outside on the deck in the early morning sun, watching impala graze at the waterhole while eating a delicious meal that includes eggs benedict, fresh tropical fruit and juice, fresh baked goods, and yogurt and granola, everything seems a little more settled with the start of a new day. When we finish up, Craig goes off to his much-anticipated spa appointment. We have both booked the “African Revitalizing Body Experience” – a trio of treatments including a body scrub, full-body massage, and African body mud mask. It makes me more relaxed just thinking about. Meanwhile, I sit on the deck by the pool working on my African tan, while watching a group of five elephants with their babies by the waterhole, along with two buffalo and a family of warthogs. I sink into my deck chair, trying to be happy about the fact that I finally have some downtime; something we never had at Antelope Park. I can just enjoy this beautiful sight and not have to rush off in a truck with no brakes to go scoop lion poop and pick up animal bones. And I am indeed enjoying the view – it’s incredible – but I’m having a hard time relaxing, and just when I’m about to give up it’s time to make a quick stop back at the rondavel before my spa appointment.
While I’m there, Craig returns, and it’s easy to see he is a changed man. He tells me it was the best massage he’s ever had in his life, and he wants to book another one ASAP. “Whatever it takes to keep these good vibes going,” I think to myself. In fact, as proof of how relaxed Craig is he tells me that he didn’t even mind listening to Enya, the standard-issue spa background music. I’m pretty sure he will deny he said this in the future, but it surely signifies the mood surrounding us has taken a positive turn. We’re both still struggling with so many mixed emotions, but we aren’t working on an escape plan any longer. We know we will stay here for the rest of the week, although whether or not we eat dinner again still remains to be seen.
I head over to the spa myself now, eager to be in the same state of bliss that Craig is in. The luxurious bathroom is candle-lit and flower-scented. The treatment room has a window wall with a view of the waterhole, and if you have a chance to look up while getting your massage you just might see elephants right outside. I think how amazing it must be to work in this room everyday. And I thought I had a great view from my desk back in Seattle! I think of all the spas I’ve been to with their private-but-windowless rooms; this is just so beautiful and so surreal. And then the relaxation truly begins. Body scrub, then a shower. Check. Massage, mud mask, and another shower. Check. Body like jello. Check. And when I get back to our rondavel, I tell Craig I’m in agreement with him: it was the best massage I’ve ever had, and I want to book another one ASAP.
While I was getting pampered, Craig has had an amusing encounter with a ranger-in-training we somewhat affectionately call “Cabana Boy.” We noticed him at dinner in the boma last night. He’s very young and extremely nervous, fueled by his insecurity and desire to do a good job. Slightly cherubic, he has a Prince Valiant haircut and wears khaki short-shorts. Craig was in the curio shop and wanted to purchase a game drive book, but there was no one there to help him, nor anyone at reception next door. He saw Cabana Boy behind the bar in the lounge and asked him if he could purchase the book from him. He said “yes,” of course; but having to run over to reception in order to process the order apparently almost put him over the edge. I’m sure he was nervous that someone would come to the bar and not find him there, and it’s not his fault if they assign only one person to attend the front desk, the curio shop, and the bar. This is unlikely to pose a problem anyway, as we notice in-between game drives that everyone seems to mostly disappear into their rooms. You might see one or two people looking out at the waterhole near the pool, or new arrivals scoping out the grounds, but most people seem to tuck into their rooms between activities. I suspect it may be the 5am wake-up call that encourages everyone to take a mid-afternoon nap.
On the way to lunch, we stop at the reception desk to make another spa appointment. The receptionist gives us a funny look, knowing we just barely had our appointments. But there is only one therapist/aesthetician at the lodge, and all the guests are on the same schedule trying to book appointments in-between game drives and meals, so there are limited openings. If we wait, we chance missing out altogether. So with another “African Revitalizing Body Experience” lined up for Craig, and a “Rejuvenating Facial” for me, we head into the dining room. Richard comes over to join us again for lunch. He wants to make sure we’re okay since we missed our morning game drive, but we explain that we just needed a bit of rest after all of our traveling, telling him that we just had our amazing spa treatments and are now fully relaxed and ready to go.
Each guest goes out with the same ranger and tracker during their stay, and the rangers will join their newest arrivals at meals to make them feel welcome and answer questions. At Ele Plains, the rangers are all white South Africans, with at least a few of them being Afrikaners, and they are each paired up with a local Shangaan tracker. We notice that the trackers do not make the rounds in the dining room. We don’t know why, but it’s too bad. Like the lion handlers we worked side-by-side with at AP, we’d like to hear the trackers’ stories and get their perspective on life. We get a similar feeling with the trackers that we get when we try to talk with the waitstaff here; there’s just a sense of formality that doesn’t feel quite right out in the bush. And yet, it really isn’t formal here at all. Maybe it’s just that people talk in hushed tones and don’t really socialize with one another. Maybe it’s that everyone seems to disappear between game drives and meals. Maybe it’s just that Craig and I are still struggling a bit to feel comfortable here and to fit in.
After lunch Craig relaxes inside our room, still reveling in his “the best massage of my life” glow. As lovely as our room is, I can never bear to stay inside when the sun and animals are calling to me outside. I find two kudu only a few meters away from our deck nibbling on some leaves, and with my new found interest in birds I start prowling around the landscaping, trying to get up close to a Little Bee-eater I spot. There’s a gardener working nearby, and I wonder if I’m going to get in trouble for tromping through his plants, but instead he helps me find the Little Bee-eater that I’ve lost in a tree. Craig and I are both surprised how we’ve quickly been taken in by the birdlife in Africa, and quietly admit to ourselves and each other that we might indeed become birders.
It’s time for the afternoon game drive, and with our sundowner order placed we head out into the bush again. This time we’re with a very friendly, older couple from Arizona, and a nice couple from Germany who don’t speak much English; all of whom have just arrived today. We see impala, giraffe, and elephants; but the highlight of this afternoon is seeing a pack of African Wild Dogs, or Painted Dogs as they’re also called. Our sighting even includes some pups that trail behind the leaders of the pack. Wild Dogs are endangered, and are already extinct in several countries. There are only about 4,000 left on the continent, and less than 200 in the greater Kruger area, so it’s a rare treat to see them. I knew there had been previous sightings here before, and I’d even seen them on Africam, but I wasn’t counting on getting to see them myself in person. They are beautiful, with their colorful patchwork coat and big black ears. We follow them as they head down the road when they stumble upon several paper bags that are sitting out in the bush a little off the road. Richard and Clement don’t know what these bags are doing here, but they seem to be very intentionally placed and we assume they’re filled with something. There are a couple of trucks next to us from another lodge and it seems like maybe the bags are for this other group. Maybe they’re brown-bagging it in the bush? If there is food in the bags, it would explain why the dogs are so intrigued by them, although they seem to waver between curiosity and wariness at these foreign objects. After the dogs trot away from the bags, but not before re-arranging them a bit, a couple of dogs discover an elephant hiding behind the trees and give the poor elephant a bit of a chase.
On this drive we also see another pair of fraternal lions. One of them is wounded and is breathing very hard while desperately trying to lick his wounds, which he can’t easily reach. Several of us express concern regarding how heavily the lion is breathing, as it really appears to be a struggle for him, but Richard shrugs it off and says it likely due to the fact that the lion has just had a big meal, or that he’s hot and is trying to cool down. We’re suspicious of this response, and although we’re not lion experts we’re pretty sure he’s wrong. Generally, it’s fairly obvious when a lion has just had a meal; something that’s not at all apparent with this lion, especially given his injured state. And it’s not that hot. In fact, it’s quickly cooling down. Maybe Richard is trying to protect us from the grim reality of life in the bush, but here it is in front of our eyes. No matter what the reason is for the heavy breathing, this lion has been injured. Richard suspects that this was caused by the pair we saw last night, mentioning that he had heard some lions early in the morning in what sounded like a scuffle. The injured lion now rolls over on his back, and at first it looks like he’s in a relaxed, almost playful position with his legs in the air. We then realize he also has some wounds around his groin that, again, he’s trying to lick but can’t reach. Richard chuckles, “Well, he should count himself lucky to still have his balls.” Maybe he’s just trying to lighten the mood, but it seems in poor taste, especially since he repeats this “joke” multiple times. This is a real, live animal in front of us. It’s extremely difficult to watch him, as he’s obviously in pain, and it is a reminder of the hard lesson you learn when you involve yourself with wildlife. Whether it’s out on a game drive at a posh safari lodge, or getting your hands dirty volunteering: you can’t intervene with wild animals, no matter how much you want to, and even if you know you could help. And it breaks your heart.
Feeling pretty low after seeing the wounded lion, we do get a chance on the game drive to stop for sundowners and hors d’oeuvres, which we hope will lift our spirits. It’s really quite lovely to get out of the truck, stretch your legs in the bush, have a gin and tonic and a snack while the sun sets and hornbills run around at your feet looking for crumbs. We’re especially thankful for the snack, because we still don’t think we can bear having dinner again in the boma. After our respite, including potty breaks behind the termite mounds, we continue our safari. The wind is starting to pick up and it’s feeling stormy. Hats and gloves go on as we spread the blankets over our legs to keep warm.
When we return to the lodge, the warm towels and brandy are again waiting for us, and then we quickly freshen up. When we enter our rondavel, there is a bougainvillea petal trail leading to our bed decorated with a bougainvillea heart. Ele Plains know it’s our honeymoon, however belated, and it’s a nice touch. We head to dinner, not really knowing what we’re going to do if the boma is set up, but it’s not feeling like al fresco dining weather, so we’re hoping there’s a Plan B. In short order, we discover Plan B is to eat in the dining room, which is no different from being in a restaurant with a variety of two- and four-top tables. We are so relieved! But there’s still something awkward about the dining room, which we’ve noticed at all of our meals so far. Everyone eats on their own. There doesn’t appear to be much socializing amongst guests, and this really surprises me. If I pass by someone walking through the grounds I might get a “hello” or a quick nod, but it just doesn’t feel that friendly. I thought that at a small lodge like this, with a limited number of guests (about 20) where we’re all here for the same reason, isolated in the middle of the bush together with everyone on the same schedule doing the same things, there would be more interaction. It’s another disappointment; although perhaps unique to this set of guests. It would be interesting to know where people are from. Is this their first time to Africa? If so, what do they think so far? If not, where else have they been? But there’s very little of that here, whether it’s during meals, on the game drives, or sitting out by the pool. That being said, we do join the couple from Arizona for dinner. This is not only their first time in Africa, but it sounds like it’s the nicest place they’ve ever stayed at, anywhere; and they are in awe of everything, from the wildlife, to the food, to their suite overlooking the waterhole. It’s nice to chat with some folks here, although it seems odd to be all way in Africa talking to Americans.
The following morning, there’s a knock on our door – it’s our 5am wake-up call. This is our first morning drive, and our day will start even earlier than it did at AP. Game drives start at 5:30am and it’s chilly outside, but Ele Plains has thought of everything and we are handed hot water bottles to place on our laps under big blankets. We’ll see elephants, giraffe, zebras, and various antelope species. We’ll also see our first white rhinos, who appear shy and gentle. They don’t run away, but they don’t seem to want anything to do with us either, and they keep their distance. They look so prehistoric, and in fact rhino species date back 15 million years. Next, we’ll stop in a clearing and have hot coffee and rusks, which are similar to biscotti, before continuing on. We then chance upon the Southern Coalition, a bachelor pride of four male lions whose name gets bestowed on them by Craig. In just three game drives we’ve encountered three different bachelor groups of lions. It’s interesting that they’re all so close to one another, especially given how territorial male lions are. Of course, that is probably why we saw the wounded lion last night, and we again hope that lion is going to be okay.
We’re settling into a groove here at Elephant Plains: outstanding wildlife viewing, delicious food, a luxurious room, spa treatments. Really, what’s not to like? So the guests aren’t overly friendly and the staff is a bit formal and awkward. Maybe it’s just all too surreal for us to have such luxuries out in the bush, out in the middle of nowhere. And yet, despite being in the middle of the bush in our beautiful rondavel, we never hear the sounds of any animals. That disappoints us, because hearing the lions and other animals – whether it was the sound of frogs in the river or vervet monkeys jumping on top of our tent – was one of our favorite things about our time at AP and something we didn’t expect would disappear during our stay at Ele Plains. Maybe it’s the location of our rondavel. Maybe it’s because we have proper walls here and not ones made of canvas.
Craig and I acknowledge that there are some things here that we’re not entirely happy about, and there are some things that are just simply different from what we’ve known these past couple of weeks. But that was the point of this part of our trip. It wasn’t meant to be the same as the first part of our trip; it was meant to be intentionally different. Not only as our honeymoon part of the trip, but as an opportunity to see another part of Africa and experience it in a different way. Maybe we’ve learned it’s not the ideal way for us, or maybe it’s just the juxtaposition of the two experiences that we can’t reconcile. Maybe Africa has just soaked into our skin so much more than we ever expected, and we’re completely overwhelmed. But it is lovely. Ultimately, we’re here for the wildlife, and the animals have certainly not let us down. Little by little, we’re starting to look forward to the rest of our stay.