The next couple of days at Elephant Plains continue along just fine. Because of the bad weather – it’s been windy and rainy – we do not have to eat in the boma again. The weather is disappointing, but at least we don’t have to skip dinner. Craig and I each have our second spa treatment, and it’s as wonderful as the first. After dinner one night, we find a petal-filled bubble bath along with a bottle of champagne waiting for us back in our rondavel; another honeymoon treat from the nice folks at Ele Plains. Most importantly, we have incredible wildlife sightings every time we go out. We see more lions and more rhinos. We see several big herds of elephants including baby ellies – some only a couple of weeks old. We see giraffe and zebra, and all sorts of antelope. We see hippo pods and buffalo herds. We see vervet monkeys, but only hear the bark of the baboons. And we see two more leopards. One is Shadow, the daughter of Karula, whom we saw our first time out; and the following morning we see a big male leopard, although Richard quickly loses sight of it while vehicles from other lodges seem to stay on his trail.
Sometimes in the quiet just before dawn, I imagined that I could hear the thunder of hooves on the plains or the full-bellied roar of a lion splitting the night, or see the platinum elephants crossing a river in moonlight. I felt twisted, cracked, and dry, like the roots of a tough desert plant ripped out of the hardscrabble ground. How could we not go back to Africa? How does one decide not to breathe?
-Mark Owens, “Secrets of the Savanna.”
“The Big Five” is a term created by white hunters in Africa, which identifies what they consider the five most difficult and dangerous animals to hunt; and therefore the most prized trophies. The term has been adopted by photographic safaris as well, and is often used as a measure of a successful safari. The Big Five includes the elephant, lion, leopard, African buffalo, and rhino. At this point, we’ve seen the Big Five several times over, as well as many other animals. Whatever our issues may be about this place, or safaris in general, our sightings have been outstanding. As I’ve said before, the animals never let us down.
We’re about to embark on our sixth game drive in Sabi Sands, and Craig and I have our ideal seating arrangement figured out. The vehicles have three rows of three seats each, not including seats for the ranger and tracker. The tracker, by the way, has an extremely vulnerable seat that comes off the front end of the vehicle. It’s practical for tracking, but I have no idea how they actually stay in the seat while in motion on rough terrain. They also have absolutely no protection from the wildlife, whereas we could at least duck down into the vehicle if necessary. So far, we’ve never had a completely full vehicle so there’s been some breathing room. We’ve decided we like to sit in the back row at either end, with the middle seat free for extra camera equipment and jackets. We realize this is a luxury, but why not take advantage of it while we can? Being in the back and on the outer edges seems to us to be the best position to see the wildlife and not be surrounded by other people that we have to jockey around for the best photo ops. I’m not sure if this seating advantage is real or perceived, but we try to get to the vehicle early before each drive to make sure we get these plum seats.
On this drive, we’re still with the couple from Arizona, but the German couple has left and are replaced by an Egyptian couple that live in St. Louis, having just arrived after wine tasting in Cape Town. I met them briefly earlier in the afternoon while I was attempting to photograph some birds outside our rondavel; they seemed quite friendly, and I was looking forward to spending some time with the lodge’s newest guests. We start on our drive and soon come upon a herd of elephants. Suddenly, the elephants start moving in and gather near the back of the vehicle, where Craig and I sit in our favorite seats. The elephants are getting a little too close for comfort. They are obviously trying to figure out what we are and if we’re friend or foe. Elephants are generally very gentle animals, but if they feel threatened in any way they will do whatever they have to do to defend themselves and their young. There are lots of young elephants here, and with an average elephant weighing six to eight tons, you don’t question their wariness. We ask Richard if we’re in trouble here, but he says we’re fine although we shouldn’t make any sudden movements. Craig and I remain as still as we can be, but the elephants don’t seem to be backing off, so Craig finally asks Richard if he can move the vehicle away just a bit.
Richard, and all the rangers, carry rifles in their vehicles – just in case. Maybe there was no imminent threat with the elephants, but they clearly were unsure about us being in the midst of their herd, and it made sense to us to move away instead of potentially getting into a situation where Richard would have to resort to using his rifle. On the other hand, the rifle is zipped up in its case. In a true emergency, would any of the rangers really be able to get the gun out fast enough? I’m certainly glad we never had to find out, and I suspect it’s a rare occurrence if it has ever happened at all. In my opinion, we’re intruding on the animals land, so they have every right to be upset if they choose to be. Obviously, a lodge has liability issues and can’t allow their guests to get injured or killed by wild animals, but on the other hand isn’t that a risk you should accept being out in the bush amongst predators and eight-ton mammals? It’s yet another situation that I feel conflicted about it. Is it right to follow and even chase animals through the bush even if it is just to look at them? I wasn’t sure about this before we left for Africa; and I’m still not sure, no matter how amazing it is.
We continue to drive around for awhile, and then see something that, for me, will be the highlight of the time we spend here. We’ve seen several lions so far, but most have been pairs or small groups of males called “bachelor prides” or “coalitions.” Bachelor prides consist of young male lions that are old enough to be kicked out of the pride they’re born into, but are not yet old enough and strong enough to head up a pride of their own. Or, they can be made up of older male lions that have been ousted from their pride by younger, stronger males, and are left, if they’re lucky to still be alive, to spend the rest of their days roaming through the bush on their own. But we haven’t seen a family pride yet – until now. Camouflaged within the grass we see some movement, and then one by one a whole family appears: one male, two females, and eight beautiful cubs! Four cubs are about three months old, and the other four are about eight months old. What a spectacular family! All the lions, including the little cubs, look healthy and in great shape; although there is a wound on the big male’s leg, but it doesn’t appear to hamper his movement. Craig reflexively eeowws at the little cubs, and one of the younger ones eeowws back and starts heading towards the truck. Craig is ready to scoop him up and bring him home with us, and who am I argue? But the cub’s father is nearby and Craig decides it’s probably best not to upset dad. I’m just awestruck and can hardly believe this is real. I turn to Craig and say, “I’m calling them the Honeymoon Pride!”
The pride is on the move, and the cubs bound after their parents through the bush as they all try to keep up with the adults. At one point the two lionesses go off in their own direction, and it looks like they’ve noticed some buffalo that we saw earlier near the river. The male is still nearby and comes up behind one side of the truck while the cubs rub against him, but then they suddenly race off to join their moms and spoil any hunting the lionesses were thinking about. This is such a treat to see this family and these little cubs. The mortality rate for cubs in the wild is extremely high, and while the survival of this pride’s cubs is not guaranteed it’s so great to see this family with healthy looking cubs and strong family ties. It’s a perfect example of how lions are supposed to live and is the perfect conclusion, not just to our time at Ele Plains, but to our entire trip. Here it is, for real, right before our eyes: the physical manifestation of the goal of ALERT – a lion family in the wild. It feels like we’ve come full circle in our journey.
Back at the lodge, still in awe, we grab a drink at the bar before dinner. We see Richard, and Craig offers to buy him a drink. After all, it’s our last night here. Richard politely refuses because, he says, he’s trying to lose weight. Craig and I give each other a quizzical look. From our very first lunch with Richard, to all our subsequent meals, he’s eaten a full plate of food including dessert, “because I deserve it!” This is truly not to make a judgment, it’s just humorous to us and we really would have liked to buy him a drink. While we haven’t agreed with everything he’s said, he’s a nice guy and he clearly loves what he does. We stand in the breezeway and chat with him a little longer, then for the last time we hear the pathetic sound of the drumbeat and we go into the dining room for our final dinner.
As previously mentioned, last night we returned to our rondavel to find a chilled bottle of champagne waiting for us, but we were too tired to drink it then and thought we would save it for tonight. Earlier in the day we saw Cabana Boy and asked him if he could have it chilled for dinner. He said it was no problem, and he’d get it while we were on our afternoon game drive. So we sit down at our table, and when we see Cabana Boy we ask him about the champagne. He nervously tells us he hasn’t had a chance to get, but will do so straight away. Oh, you can see the stress in his face! We’re sorry Cabana Boy, but we do want our champagne. He runs off to go get it and puts it in a bucket to chill, and we give him a big thank you. The ironic thing is the champagne is really bad; it’s way too sweet and neither of us could even finish our first glass. Oh well, it’s the thought that counts!
Tomorrow morning, our last morning, we have the opportunity to go on the morning game drive if we want. Craig decides to skip it in hopes of getting some extra sleep and some packing done before our long journey home, having had a such a good outing this afternoon. But I can’t miss our very last game drive. I don’t know when I’m going to be back in Africa, and I don’t want to miss this opportunity to see the amazing wildlife one last time. And secretly, I’m hoping that we’ll see the lion family again. I’m trying not to get my hopes up too high because I know I’ll be disappointed if we don’t see them, but there is a chance we might if we go back to where we saw them tonight.
In the morning I leave a few minutes later than I should to get to the vehicle, since Craig wasn’t up to encourage me to move faster, and my favorite seat is taken! The Egyptian couple are sitting in the back row, one on each end, with piles of camera equipment in the middle. We could tell they were envious of our seats during yesterday’s game drive. While they seemed friendly when I first met them near our rondavel, that seemed to change once we were in the safari vehicle. Maybe it’s the competition of who has the best camera equipment, the biggest lens, or who can get the best shot. It can change the mood depending on the personalities of the guests, and this couple have several big lenses – which says it all. So, I sit on the end in the middle row, which is really absolutely fine.
The morning drive does not disappoint at all. We see herds of elephants, we see a huge 1000-plus herd of buffalo, we see rhinos and hippos, and we see a group of six giraffe, including an adult male with two younger males who are getting a lesson in how to fight. It’s called “necking,” and the two youngsters practice this graceful dance. This is an important step towards learning how to spar with male competitors for dominance in order to mate with receptive females. Watching these beautiful giraffes you realize that all these animals are out here just living their lives. They’re raising families and teaching their young the skills they need to become strong, independent adults, or they’re hunting for food, or they’re trying to recover from wounds. It’s an honor to come across wildlife just going about their business and getting a glimpse into their everyday lives.
Then, shortly afterwards, we do indeed find the lion family. All eleven of them are together, and we follow them through the bush down to a large water hole where the entire family drinks. It is a perfect moment. After they’ve all slated their thirst, they come quite close to our vehicles and lay down and relax. The adults are spread out, with the kids bouncing around from one adult to the next and playing with each other. At one point the male walks up to the road at the top of the hill and his pride members take turns lying next to him. He’s a good dad and doesn’t seem to mind all the cubs vying for his attention. Some of the cubs get distracted when they find a buffalo skull nearby, and I’m reminded of when Paza and Penya had an impala skull to play with. Then comes a bit of human amusement. The husband of the Egyptian couple has a pair of glasses perched on his head that fall off and onto the ground when he’s taking a photograph of the lions. We can’t get them; they’re gone. But he’s fussy about it, “They’re my good glasses!” he says. Well, not any longer. Now they are a lion toy. Richard tells him that he’ll let the other rangers know that he lost his glasses and maybe someone can pick them up if they come by and the lions are gone. “Serves him right for taking my seat,” I think to myself, as I push my glasses against my face.
We finally bid the lion family farewell, and it’s so hard to leave them. I could watch them all day, but it’s once again the perfect ending to our time here, although I wish Craig would have been here to see them. We continue on our morning drive for awhile as we head back towards the lodge. Along the way we meet up with a vehicle from another lodge and they have found the lost glasses, although they first tease him with a different pair of glasses. He seems kind of upset, while the rest of us laugh; but the ranger finally reveals they do have the right glasses. They’re intact with no teeth marks, which is really too bad as that would have made a great story just asking to be embellished.
I’m so happy I went out this morning and try not to rub it in when I return to the lodge and find Craig waiting for me on the deck. In typical fashion, he’s deep in conversation with another guest. I ooh and aah at my lion photos. We have a final, delicious breakfast while watching the elephants at the waterhole, then go back to our rondavel for the last time to pack our bags and check out.
This part of our trip had a rough start. We suffered major culture shock at Ele Plains, which is ironic because we didn’t really go through culture shock when we arrived in Zimbabwe. Being in Zim felt like home right away, although it shouldn’t have. But in the end we did enjoy our time here and would recommend it without hesitation, depending on the experience one is looking for. Craig and I might not even be opposed to coming back ourselves sometime. It’s absolutely beautiful, the food was great, and the wildlife sightings were outstanding. I think it just depends on one’s expectations. I wonder how we would have felt if we had come here on safari first and then went to Antelope Park? But now that I’ve been to AP and had my first experience with “voluntourism,” my view on how I want to travel and experience the world has forever changed. It’s such a completely different experience to work alongside local people towards a common goal that you believe in with all your being. It changes your perspective from an outsider looking in, to being inside. Once you’ve had that experience it’s hard to sit back and be an observer again, no matter how beautiful the scenery.
We have a couple of hours to wait before our bush plane comes to pick us up. We spend that time sitting on the deck enjoying the view and reading our books about Zimbabwe. We’re still reading about Zimbabwe. We can’t stop. Cabana boy is on duty at the bar, and when Craig wants to get a cup of coffee and buy a cigar the poor boy is once again pushed to his limits. The coffee doesn’t seem to be too much of a problem, but I don’t think he’s ever dealt with a cigar. Matches? A cigar cutter? He looks at Craig like he’s asking for the world, but we finally get it all sorted and next time Cabana Boy will know exactly what to do. We relax awhile longer, and then Richard tells us it’s time to bid farewell to Ele Plains. He drives us out to the airstrip and we make the rounds to ensure there are no animals nearby that might get in the way, chasing off some impala while we wait for the plane’s arrival, which we can see as a speck in the distance. We get on board and start our very long journey home.
It’s many hours later. We’re on the plane from Johannesburg to London and that’s when I lose it. It’s late and it’s dark, and in the silence and privacy of my first class pod the tears that have been threatening for days finally come rushing forth. I pick up my journal, thinking that this might be a good time to write something. I’ve been writing down the activities I’ve participated in and the animals I’ve seen, but I haven’t spent much time writing about how I feel. One reason is that we’ve just been so busy that I haven’t had the time. The other reason is that I haven’t known how to express everything I’ve been feeling. I haven’t known where to begin and how to make sense of it. This has been such an incredible journey, and it’s been completely overwhelming. But in the quiet of the night before trying to sleep – which I know I won’t be able to anyway – I make a very short, very ineloquent stab at writing how I feel: “I miss Africa, I miss Zimbabwe and Antelope Park, and I want to be back there. It felt so right to be there. I loved the bush, the animals, the people, the light, the sun, the landscape. Maybe I’m still romanticizing it, but I really felt at home there like I’ve never felt before. And yet now I’m going home, and I don’t know what that means anymore. I don’t know what ‘home’ is. I don’t know what’s next or how to move forward, but I don’t want to go back to life as I’ve known it, to the life I’m supposed to lead. I’m not sure it’s the life I want anymore. I’m grateful for it, but I think there’s something else out there for me, for us. I feel at a complete loss.”
I was in love with Africa before I ever set foot there, and for both me and Craig the reality is that it has been the love affair to end all love affairs. Now we’re leaving our beloved behind. We know Africa will be waiting for us to return, and we know without a doubt that we will return. We don’t know when, or where, or how just yet; we only know that it is imperative. Africa has seeped into our blood and into our souls. In the immortal words of Mackay, one of our favorite lion handlers, “You need a plan.” Ita zano.