THURSDAY, MAY 13, 2010 11:54 AM, CDT
A warthog made his home just outside our patio. Zebras and hartebeests roamed the field. As hard as the drive was to get to this park, the exotic scene unfolding right outside my hotel bed perch validated our choice to transfer out of the city.
I was proud of the way I had timed my medicine, my food and my strength so that I could endure what was, in the end, a two and a half hour drive out to the game reserve. I was more proud of Jeff’s ability to navigate foreign roads while driving a rented stick shift on the opposite side of the road, through construction detours and poorly marked transitions. I was thankful for his patience when I needed to stop to walk and circulate my blood, or to find a cool drink amidst the small rural villages we passed through on our journey Northeast. “Stay to the left, look to the right,” we had a little singsong ditty that became our constant refrain as we came up to each turn – especially the right-hand turns.
The rustic-luxury resort seemed some contradictory combination of spa/zoo/Jurassic Park. A five-foot high heavy-duty electric barbed wire perimeter fence reminded me that the animals had the right of way out here in the wild. As we drove into our barbed-wire enclosure, signs of wild animals were everywhere. Monkeys posed for pictures while balancing on the edge of garbage cans. Grazing herds of powerful, yet strangely ugly, wildebeests could be glimpsed in the distance. And then there were the zebras, hartebeests and warthogs that made their home just outside our door.
I rested to recuperate from the taxing drive. Jeff explored the grounds and met with hotel staff to figure out our options for viewing game. It wasn’t long before Jeff’s cheerful voice drifted into the room. In less than an hour, Jeff had established a new friendship with experienced South African game watchers at the Bakubung on their honeymoon. Gerda and Emmett invited us to join them on the next morning’s game drive. Emmett’s dad worked at the resort so they had insider knowledge on how to spot game. Just that morning when they stumbled upon a hard of elephants, they were able to witness the birth of a baby elephant. Oh, how I wanted to witness a game drive.
Worry persisted, though. I knew that their game drive today had lasted six hours. I thought I would be lucky to make it one. What if we got started on the drive and the roads were too rough for me to handle? Would I push my strength too far and hurt my healing? Most important to me – would my limited ability to sit and maneuver interfere with everyone else’s experience? Gerda assured me that if we got started and it was too hard for me, they would turn right around and bring me back. The game park was close, she said. Never would we be more than thirty minutes from our hotel. It would be a small matter for them to bring me back, then continue on their way.
Fortunately, the way that the Pilansberg Park was set up we could drive private cars through the preserve taking our own path at our own pace surrounded by pillows, medicine and snacks to make me nearly as comfortable in the car as I would have been laying in the hotel room. And so I chose to join in the morning’s adventure.
At sunrise we met at the couple’s borrowed Land Rover. We weren’t five minutes into our drive when animals began to appear right next to the car. Gerda and Emmett were astounded. Never had the animals seemed to come to greet them as they did this morning. First a big male elephant crossed the field next to the car, then a pair of zebras grazed the fresh grass. In the bushes right next to the car was a graceful giraffe. By the time we made the 30-minute drive to the park’s headquarters we had seen more types of animals than I had viewed in our local zoo. These animals were living in the wild, doing whatever it is they do all day, oblivious to our camera clicking away.
We stopped at the café for some breakfast and coffee – well, hot chocolate for me. More animals wandered the surrounding fields. My energy waned as we enjoyed the morning sun, and I let the group know it was time for me to return back to the hotel. We snapped pictures to commemorate the day, and I must say, I was able to put on a pretty decent smile in light of the events of the past two weeks.
Our drive back was a tortured mix of excitement and pain. Our most direct path back was blocked by a herd of wildebeests. After waiting a few minutes it was clear the animals were settled in for the day and we would need to find a different route back. The dirt road we chose brought us near watering holes where hippos lay. No sooner would someone say, “Giraffes are my favorite animal in the wild,” then one would come into view around the next turn. A wish to see zebras turned up a cute baby zebra hovering next to its Mom. Huge rhinos lounged right next to the car. Perhaps this was the only animal we failed to glimpse during our tour was the mighty lion.
Returning to the hotel room, I once again allowed my body to rest while Jeff’s excitement grew. The man was addicted to safari. While I lounged and got a much appreciated massage, Jeff took off in the evening to look for more animals. Food at the resort was included in our stay. The restaurant was well known for the quality and variety of food, in fact the US Soccer team used the resort to recuperate after their South African tournaments. We figured if the food was good enough for a professional soccer team, it was good enough for us. What a treat for me that the first night we were there the chef had made chicken noodle soup. The bowl of soup absolutely the best food I had during my entire South African visit.
Jeff set up another early morning wake-up call to get back out into the game preserve while I rested and healed. He came back from this game drive even more excited than before. A large bull elephant and chased his car, and a zebra had stopped in the middle of the road to roll around a scratch her back. He had never anticipated the thrill of spotting animals out in the wild, he said. He couldn’t wait to come back to Africa and bring the kids.
Our days at Pilansberg were a gift. I was able to relax and rest. We had an opportunity to see a side of South Africa that made us want to return to the country some day. Jeff experienced the thrill of safari. And we formed a new friendship with Gerda and Emmett. While far from the ‘vacation’ that Jeff mistakenly labeled it as we packed up to head home (boy was I unnecessarily ruthless in my correction that there was no part of my South Africa trip that qualified as a ‘vacation’, sorry, hon,) our choice to go the game preserve served many important roles in my physical, emotional and spiritual healing.