Round the world and Down Under again

Oh Sydney, you big show-off. I travel round the world via 7 countries, 3 continents and countless photos later to find you basking in the sunshine and frolicking in the waves without a care in the world.

Oh yeah, sure you have the odd bad hair day, but anyone who thinks 18C in winter is cold and that forgetting your bus ticket on the way to work in the morning is the worst thing that can happen to you, is kidding themselves. Yes, I can see you fluffing out your peacock feathers as we speak. And why not? When you’re not hosting a party, putting on a parade or lighting up the harbour with a multi-million dollar firework display, you’re usually strutting about, enjoying a coffee or at the beach surfing. Hmm…life’s tough when you’re having fun.

And today is no exception. It’s the first day of Spring and you’re looking your usual fabulous self. Sure there’s a few clouds about, but nothing worth crying over. So sit back and enjoy yourself with a couple of beachside photos to celebrate the new season.

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Cape Town: Winter Wonderland


I’ve lost count of how many South Africans had warned me about visiting Cape Town in the middle of winter. In fact, their collective response was so consistent that I could have scripted it. Now, where’s the fun in that? The conversation usually went like so:

Me: “…so yeah, I’m planning on traveling down the Garden Route after my month’s volunteer work with African Impact. Going to end in Cape Town – can’t wait!” (I’d say with obvious enthusiasm).

Typical SA: “Oooh that’s great, you’ll love it. So jealous! Cape Town is a beautiful city. When are you going?” (All nods and smiles at this stage).

Me: “Umm…” (I’d drift off as I mentally sorted through my itinerary). “July, mid July.”

Typical SA: “Hmmm…really?” (They’d say with a hint of alarm as they sucked the air in between their teeth and let out a long, slow whistle with a shake of their head. It was all very theatrical). “I don’t know…I’d avoid Cape Town. It’s horrific at that time of the year – constant rain. Freeeeezing cold.” (There’d usually be a slight pause as they weighed up the thought of me going and hating it vs. me not seeing their fair city at all. I could usually see the resolve flickering across their face). “You know what, I’d give it a miss.”

And so the conversation ends. Well South Africans, Capetonians and all in sundry, I am going to prove you wrong. I LOVED IT! I would have shouted it out from the top of Table Mountain, but it was rainy, foggy, freezing cold and I was fearing for my life.

Truth be told, this was the only time during our stay that the weather turned its ugly head in our direction. It just so happened that we were half way up Table Mountain’s Platteklip Gorge trail when it did! Stretching up the front of Table Mountain’s spectacular and impressive cliff face, the Platteklip trail is one of the mountain’s most popular direct ascents. Taking approximately 1-3 hours from start to finish, it is a steep, rocky trail that snakes through boulders the size of small cars, exotic wild flowers, streams and waterfalls. Wandering up through the gorge, it’s easy to forget you’re literally just a stone’s throw away from a large, bustling city center. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to admire the view from the top due to Table Mountain’s famous ‘table cloth’ – orographic clouds that regularly form around the mountain’s plateau. This is one of the reasons why many recommend guided tours of the mountain, as the weather can turn suddenly at any time, making navigation tricky during white-outs. For me, it only gave me an excuse to return to this beautiful city.

Not that I needed an excuse. Cape Town is none other than spectacular. It’s like the annoyingly good-looking kid at school – it doesn’t matter which angle you’re viewing it from, it’s gorgeous. Not only that, beauty with substance! With Table Mountain at the city’s heart, Cape Town offers accessible hiking, powdery white beaches, sleepy fishing villages, historic vineyards, cosmopolitan shopping districts and national parks and wildlife at its doorstep. Yet, for all the beauty and visual harmony, it’s clear to see the city still bares the scars of historical cultural divide and apartheid. One moment you’re gazing in awe at the wealth and splendor of Camps Bay, in all its beachside glitz and glamour, and the next you’re passing the poverty of the surrounding townships. It really is a melting pot of social and cultural ethnic diversity. The majority of Capetonians are South Africans with English heritage, Afrikaans, Cape Coloureds and Black Africans – all living in a delicate (though not always harmonious) balance. As an outsider looking in, I could feel there was an undercurrent of prejudice and racial divide still rippling under the surface, however hopeful and optimistic the locals seemed to appear. I certainly felt the need to keep my wits about me when traveling through certain areas of the city and talking to people about South Africa’s checkered history.

That aside, I contemplated moving to Cape Town on more than one occasion during the few days I was there. It passed my mind while I was enjoying hot chips and calamari on the shore of Hout Bay. I mulled over it while sipping wine in Groot Constantia, South Africa’s oldest and most historical wine estate. I thought about it while wandering through the manicured lawns of Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens. And toyed with the idea as the sun set over Camps Bay.

Ahhh…If only it wasn’t so damn cold and wet during winter! (*wink*)

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Unleashing my wild spirit

It took longer than expected. At least longer than it should have. For one thing, I had a flight already booked out of Cape Town – the final leg of my RTW adventure. The plan was in motion, so why was I making things difficult for myself by procrastinating about what to do next? Perhaps it was the fact that this next trip would mark the end of my cross continental, southern hemispherian backpacking odyssey. Or it might been the fact that I was totally and utterly in denial of going back to ‘the real world’ (whatever that means). Regardless of what it was, one thing was for sure, I wanted to end this awe inspiring and eventful trip of a lifetime on high note. Something that was worthy of a traveling finale.

And so after 3 weeks of indecision, and countless text messages to my faithful GLG to organize things (alas I had no internet access), I finally put aside all far flung ideas of traveling overland to Mozambique via who knows where and decided to do what I had planned to do in the first place: the Garden Route.

Roughly speaking, the Garden Route is the stunning stretch of coast between Port Elisabeth and Cape Town on the Western Cape of South Africa. Sandwiched between the Outeniqua and Tsitsikamma Mountains and the Indian Ocean, it’s a luscious green paradise of inland lagoons, rolling hills, unique marine reserves and indigenous forests. Whether you’re an adrenaline junkie looking for a fix, a nature lover wanting to discover your inner Zen or someone who’s just looking to chill out and watch the world go by, the Garden Route has it all. Feel like hiking through age-old national parks to pristine beaches? Take your pick. Want to attempt the world’s highest bungee jump? Be my guest. Keen to kayak out to watch the Southern Right and Humpback Whales swim by? Grab a paddle. Want to zip-line through a canopy of ancient forest? Tighten your harness. Yep, you guessed it, the GR has it covered.

My traveling buddy Hadar and I decided to do the ‘route’ in style. Backpacking style, that is. As South Africa’s only hop-on, hop-off backpacker bus that delivers travelers door-to-door, the Baz Bus offers a safe and reliable service down the Garden Route. They’re also very accommodating – something we found out after dropping a passenger off at the Wild Spirit Lodge in Nature’s Valley. While the driver was unloading a Dutch traveler’s bags from the mini-bus, the Lodge’s ‘receptionist’ (if you could call him that) strolled out to greet his new guest. Sporting a long beard, hot pink pajama pants and carrying a steaming cup of coffee, he was a sight to be reckoned with. Hadar and I looked on enviously. Who was this colourful character and why did we suddenly feel like we were missing out on something? We flipped through the guidebooks furiously, looking for clues as the bus drove off towards its next destination.

Finally I found a small description in The Alternative Route: ‘…Nothing is perfect and everything is fascinating – the artwork, the frogs and the bumble bees, the mysterious pathways in all directions….from the valley with the waterfall to the hillsides covered in wild flowers and the magical hike through Tsitsikamma’s indigenous forest along pristine beaches to the river mouth. Head back for a well deserved drink beside an open fire and the spectacular views on our tented deck.’ Done. We’d turned the bus around, checked ourselves in, downed a delicious home cooked breakfast, tightened our hiking boots and were on our way before you could say ’Wild Spirit’.

After our unplanned but spontaneous stay at the magical Wild Spirit Lodge with musician turned philosopher host Angus (aka silk pajamas), we headed to Knysna. Pronounced ‘Ny-znah’, the town sits perched on a stunning lagoon. Its spectacular setting and warm, temperate climate makes it a perfect all-year-round holiday destination. We were a day too early for their annual Oyster Festival (damn!), so we decided to take advantage of the hostel’s free Knysna Heads sunset tour instead. After being told about strict numbers, we arrived back at the hostel to find 14 people booked on what should have been a 7-person mini-van tour. Apart from our surfer-come-tour guide in the driver seat, it was stacks on for the rest of us. Indeed, with all the white picket fences and coffee shops, I’d forgotten ‘This Is Africa’.

By a sheer stroke of luck, our guide tacted on a ‘bonus’ Knysna Township Tour on the way back to the hostel. As the sun dipped below the horizon, we were taken up to the cliffs overlooking the lagoon where a sprawling maze of ramshackle houses seemed to have the best view in town. Unfortunately this view is bitter sweet for the Xhosa people living in this disadvantaged black community. A result of the apartheid era, life in the township is hard. Many live without running water, electricity or proper hygiene. Walking through the chaotic maze of laneways and makeshift wooden and tin houses, it’s difficult to imagine that only a few kilometers away, white families are driving Land Rovers home from well paid jobs.

However, it’s not all what it seems. Delve deeper and you realise that there’s a real sense of community here that is special and unique. Out of the hardship has come a strength and courage that unites these people in a quest for survival. They support one another and in its own way, it’s a thriving community. Children play in the streets and neighbours actually talk to one another. There are tailors, hairdressers, shoemakers and restaurants – none of which display any signage or advertising. The people just know where to go and who to see when they need something. It’s also comforting to know that philanthropic support is being given by the wider community (including our hostel) to help raise the standard of living for this poor and under privileged township. Freedom has not come easy to these people, but their spirit burns bright. I want to believe that the future for the New South Africa is one of hope.

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It was an all-star cast…

…Rhinos, elephants, cheetahs, zebras, lions – you name it. Passionate conservationists. Researchers studying animal behaviors. Volunteers from every corner of the globe, eager to make a difference. Guides tracking animal prints in the dusty savanna. Local children singing gospel songs with big open smiles. Thirsty warthogs drinking cheekily from the swimming pool. And friends enjoying a braai together under a vast African sky. It couldn’t have been scripted any better. In fact, to illustrate this case in point – the name ‘Thanda’ means ‘love’ in Zulu. Fancy that.

And so, it is with a knot of nostalgia that I finally close this chapter of my trip (in a literary sense) and share with you a selection of my photos from my time at Thanda Private Game Reserve as an African Wildlife Photography and Conservation volunteer.

I’ll let the pictures do the talking…

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The art of waving

To all the cool cats out there, I’d just like to announce that the double hand wave is alive and well. Yep, that’s right. Don’t be shy. Dust off those mittens and inhibitions and unleash your inner child.

You might well be asking what the hell I’m ranting on about. If you are, then you might be guilty of greeting passers by with a curt nod of the head or a weak smile. And if the suns out and you’re feeling generous, you might even throw in a nod/smile combination. Yes, this is probably about as creative as it gets. I know, we’re all busy people with busy lives. We don’t have time for pleasantries anymore, right? Wrong.

While I clearly can’t talk on behalf of all of South Africa, the local people living in the northeastern province of KwaZulu-Natal are very gregarious indeed. Driving through a local community is likened to doing a victory lap after a grand final. People literally stop what they’re doing and raise their hands to wave you by. In fact, so keen are they to celebrate the act of saying hello that I have seen them drop whatever they were holding just to free their hands so they could wave. I’ve seen people stretch out of open windows, their arms flapping about as they attempt to greet passers by. I’ve witnessed a woman carrying a large pitcher of water on her head raise her arms in a friendly double-handed salute. I’ve seen school kids run along the street double hand waving until the dust settles and we’re no more than a spec in the distance. Indeed, this is a community that loves nothing better than to say g’day.

Truth be told though, there is actually a very dark side to this sunny exterior. The province of KwaZulu-Natal has the highest rate of people living with HIV in South Africa, with black Africans making up the majority of those affected. In fact, in 2009 there was an estimated 5.6 million people living with HIV and AIDS in South Africa, more than any other country in the world. To put it into perspective, almost 1 in 3 women aged 25-29, and 1 in 4 men aged 30-34 are living with the virus. This staggering figure is made worse by the fact that the stigma of having HIV prevents many of these people from seeking the proper medical treatment. A grim situation indeed. I can’t help but to think about this when we drive through the local communities and watch their faces light up as we pass by. It’s humbling to see that with all the hardship they face, they still greet a perfect stranger with a million dollar smile.

Disappointingly I don’t have any double hand wave photos to share with you other than the shot of the kids in the Land Rover taken by the very talented Kailey Schwerman, a fellow volunteer. BUT – I can give you a taster of what the local community was like with some other shots I took on one of our drives. This is my second last post on Thanda before I take you on a little road trip down the Garden Route to Cape Town, a journey I did before I headed back to Oz.

Note: Photo of kids waving in the Land Rover was taken by Kailey Schwerman.

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Battle of the prides

Sitting only meters from six lions and watching them tear shreds off a giant buffalo is not your average afternoon, by anyone’s standards. But this is exactly what we did during one afternoon game drive after stumbling on two prides of lions enjoying their recent kill.

There’s something strangely unsettling about watching lions devouring their prey. Perhaps it was the fact that we were sitting in an open top safari Land Rover and had nothing but a few blades of grass and a dusty patch of dry earth between us. Or maybe it was the flash of white enamel that we could see behind the blood stained fur around their powerful jaws. Or it could well have been the low guttural sounds that came from deep within their bellies and reverberated around the bush in the late afternoon silence. Whatever it was, I felt my body alive with the thrill of seeing this rare sight and had the goosebumps to prove it.

The weirdest part of this whole spectacle was that for the better part of the hour or so that we sat there and watched them, they completely and utterly ignored us. It was as if we didn’t exist. It was surreal. We had managed to cause a brief flicker of interest upon arrival, but they quickly forgot about us and went about their lion business. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not complaining! To sit and watch them feeding without drawing attention to ourselves enabled us to fully experience the complex dynamics between the two prides. For one thing, the prides were made up of different male/female combinations. One pride had two lionesses and a juvenile male, and the other pride had one lioness and two juvenile males. This, combined with the different ages of the lions created a hierarchy between the two prides. What does all this mean, I hear you ask? Well, interesting dinner conversation, that’s for sure!

When we arrived, the dominant pride was having first feed, gnawing on the exposed bones and flesh of the buffalo (apologies in advance to any vegetarians). Their huge open jaws exposing a mouth full of razor sharp teeth that cut through the skin and muscle with ease. And we could see that they’d been at it for some time. One of the older juvenile male lions had had more than his fair share and lay in a meat-induced coma nearby, completely passed out. His giant paws lay stretched out in front of him and his eyes were closed in what I can only assume was some kind of buffalo bliss.

Meanwhile, the other pride was starting to get impatient. They had been pacing up and down nearby and were slowly edging closer to the lions eating. It was clear they wanted in. Suddenly, the whole atmosphere shifted and tension rose in the air, sending a shiver down my spine. Two of the juvenile lions, both from opposite prides, started slowly circling the buffalo and growling at one another, their faces low to the ground and eyes locked on each other. Immediately, all 8 of us volunteers stopped taking photos and lowered our cameras, frozen with a mixture of anticipation and fear.

None of us could have prepared for what we saw next. As if jolted by a bolt of electricity, both lions swiped a paw at each other and stepped back on their hind legs, roaring in anger. “Oh my god, shit, what are we going to do?” I heard someone squeak next to me. Without taking her eyes off the scene unfolding in front of us, our fearless guide Letishia whispered loudly enough for us all to hear. “Guys, stay calm. We’ll be fine. Keep all arms in the vehicle and your movements to a minimum.” Rest assured this was one command we wouldn’t have trouble following.

In the fading light and dust, all we could see were flashes of their sand coloured manes (still spiky from youth) and tails whipping against the red earth as they lunged towards each other. The other four lions started growling in agitation, clearly ready to join the fight at a moments notice. It was as if we were witnessing a nasty schoolyard brawl, only there was no teacher on lunchtime duty. Armed with nothing but a camera and a tripod, it would have been a very quick fight indeed. We sat glued to our seats and waited.

Luckily for us, it dissipated quickly and the lions shook their dusty heads as they sauntered off in opposite directions, egos bruised. However, just when we thought it was okay to exhale, one of the lionesses snapped her head up and looked over at us intently, as if noticing us for the first time. Then the unthinkable happened. She slowly padded over to the car and around the bonnet until she stood just centimeters in front of me, her yellow eyes boring into mine. She was so close that I could see the flecks of black and gold in her irises and the smudge of fresh blood on the white fur around her mouth. I instinctively shifted away from her in my seat and averted my eyes so she wouldn’t feel threatened (at least that was my intention). I was sure I was about to launch into an out of body experience, brought on by pure fear and adrenaline, when she suddenly blinked, turned around and then promptly disappeared into the scrub. I slowly turned to the others and let out a low whistle, ‘Whoooa, that was close!’ We’d all felt it and it showed on our relieved faces.

Its funny how in the heat of the moment, your animal instincts kick in. All of a sudden you use your 6th sense to guide you, trusting your intuition above all else. Luckily, it’s usually always right.

It wouldn’t have been a fair match anyway.

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Ma Child

I had an ‘Africa’ moment the other day. The kind where I was reduced to a blubbering teary mess and forced to look out the window and focus on steady breathing.  Okay, so I’m prone to these outbursts from time to time, but who isn’t right? So what brought on this public display of raw emotion I hear you say? Well, no less than the sound of twelve teenage girls singing African gospel songs in the back of a bus that was bumping along a dusty road on its way to Thanda.

On this occasion, it crept up on me unexpectedly. There was no time for me to turn and hide my face. No – there I was sitting at the front of the bus facing the gorgeous smiling faces of the local school kids, when one girl spontaneously broke into song, her voice strong, clear and pure. Then every other girl in the bus followed suit, each knowing her own part in this beautiful melody. Their faces were filled with such joy and happiness that I had to instantly blink back the tsunami of tears that were threatening to slide down my cheeks uncontrollably. But it was too late. The moment had gripped me and I was pulled into the soft bosom that is Mother Africa.

That’s the amazing thing about these moments, you are thrown head first into the ‘now’, where nothing else matters. You’re acutely aware of yourself in your surroundings and they become forever etched in your memory. On this day, in this bus, with these singing children, there was nowhere else I’d rather have been. We had picked up a class full of kids aged between 10-17yrs (as they often start school at different ages) from the Mapa School and we were on our way back to the education centre at Intibane, Thanda Private Game Reserve. There we would teach them about different species of wildlife and the importance of conservation. We had planned to finish off the lesson with a simple origami craft session and a fun-filled treasure hunt. We volunteers didn’t know it at the time, but the kids had been rehearsing a play and they performed it for us before they left – singing, dancing and laughing all the way.

Life is full of defining moments too – big and small. One of my more embarrassing moments during the program came two weeks earlier during our first conservation education lesson – this time with primary school children (aged between 7-9yrs old) from the Mdletshe School, which borders the Thanda Private Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal. The little kids had been a hoot, and we’d had loads of fun teaching them about lions, monkeys and hyenas. We even made paper lion masks together and played a type of ‘animal’ charades where they had to guess which animal we were playing (with the teacher’s help as the kids couldn’t speak English). And so the moment unfolded…there I was swooping around the classroom like a bird, flapping my arms like wings and soaring around the children’s desks like an eagle in the sky. Instead of yelling out the Zulu word for ‘bird’ in unison, they were yelling out a whole array of Zulu names with unpronounceable tongue clicks. Feeling like I should help them along (as they were probably calling out specific bird names rather than just ‘bird’) I asked the teacher how to say ‘bird’ in Zulu. At that exact moment the classroom door opened and a small little girl appeared. The teacher then looked at me and replied, “Ma child” with a smile. Without skipping a beat, I started calling out ‘Ma child’ (trying to copy the teacher’s Zulu accent) and continued to flap my arms enthusiastically, nodding to the children and encouraging them to join me. It took a moment for me to realise (unfortunately a long moment that was captured on video camera) that the children had become quiet and that the teacher was looking at me with a somewhat confused (and dare I say concerned) expression on her face. She put her hand on the little girl’s head, cleared her throat and repeated a little more firmly, ‘this is ma child’.

‘Oooh….that’s your daughter!’ I managed to stutter in the awkward silence as the realisation finally dawned on me. Indeed life is full of little moments, it’s just that some are more memorable than others.

Mdletshe School Development Program

The Mdletshe School was originally established by Mrs Hloniphile Hdlouu in 1996 as a crèche for under five year olds in the Mdletshe community. However, with no primary school in the region, it soon flourished into a modest school for grades 1-3 with over 130 children. However, as the school isn’t registered, it doesn’t receive funding from the government, so relies solely on the generosity of the community for school supplies and food handouts. There are four kind and gregarious teachers who also selflessly donate their time to teaching the kids.

That’s where we can help. The Happy Africa Foundation plans to help Mdletshe School develop facilities that will help solidify its importance and ensure its longevity in the community. Money raised will go towards:

Stage 1 – constructing a fence around the school perimeter. This will establish a designated area for the school within the community and ensure the safety of the kids.

Stage 2 – building male and female toilets. Currently the children have to climb through the barbwire fence and go in the bush or behind a tree.

Stage 3 – building a 4th classroom to be used as a crèche for the smaller children.

Please contact me if you wish to donate to the Happy Africa Foundation to help this community project.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A simple life

Driving into Tonga Village under the cloak of darkness was like entering an enchanted secret garden. It was barely 6pm, but already the sun had set and the stars were bright in the black velvet sky. After 2 hours drive north of Thanda Private Game Reserve in far north South Africa, we turned off the main road onto a narrow dusty track hidden in the thick scrub. Bumping along this winding road it was impossible to imagine what lay beyond the darkness – so you can imagine our surprise when we finally pulled up to find a woman with a big smile and a head torch beckoning us toward a path lit by candles and lanterns.

Welcome to Tonga Village, a small cluster of traditional rondles (thatched round houses made from mud brick and grass) nestled in amongst amarulla trees, banana palms and aloe cactus. Overlooking an idyllic lake, this tiny village is a world of its own. With no electricity or running hot water, it’s like stepping back in time where delicious meals are enjoyed with friends beside a crackling fire and lazy days pass slowly in the sunshine with a good book in hand.

This is a place full of peace and tranquility. The sort of place where hot showers are heated by an outside oven and soul food is cooked on an open fire (including fresh bread baked twice daily!). Wander down to the lake and you’ll find women singing as they chase fish into nets in what is an age-old Tongan tradition. Paddle a canoe out through the reeds and you might just find a cheeky hippo munching on juicy lettuce leaves in one of the lakeside veggie patches. Or take a walk down a dirt track and join the local kids in a game of pool – an unlikely pass time in this bushland wilderness.

It’s not hard to see why the Tongans are a peace loving people. They live a simple and happy life centered around a matriarchal family and the land they share with Mother Nature. In fact, in all of South Africa’s tumultuous and colourful history, the Tongans have never fought a war – which is surprising considering that their kingdom stretches all the way from the Mozambique border to the seaside village of St Lucia in Kwa-Zulu Natal. However, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. For years the Tongans lived with heartache and unrest. This was brought on when their families were torn apart by the creation of a new international border between South Africa and Mozambique. This new border was established following a land rights discrepancy between the Portuguese and the English. Due to a treaty declaring that these two nations should never go to war, they sought out the French to mediate on the issue. And so a new international border was drawn and the fate of many a Tongan family was decided on.

Our Tongan village began with land and animal conservationist Digs Pascoe, CEO of Space for Elephants Foundation. Ever since he was a young man, Digs would paddle his canoe down through the lake system when it flooded each year, coming to rest on a bank populated by a small Tongan community. After becoming friends with the local tribes-people and proving to them that he respected their land and culture, they offered him a piece of land to build his own hut on. Years on, Digs has worked with the local community to build the village into the place it is today – a special and unique slice of life away from the modern day hustle and bustle of city life.

One evening, after enjoying yet another scrumptious meal and sitting beside the fire laughing with good friends, I looked up at the stars and wondered why life can’t always be this simple. What more does one need other than peace, love and happiness? Yes, I think I must be a Tongan through and through.

Photo of me taken by Tessa Wienker

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Close encounter of the elephant kind

There’s something slightly unnerving about being in an open top jeep at dusk in the middle of the African savanna and seeing a tree as tall as a house start to shake uncontrollably. Even more unnerving is seeing that tree come crashing down in front of you with a loud crack and the silhouette of a fully grown elephant bull standing in its place. This is the scene that unfolded as eight of us photography volunteers sat glued to our seats in the fading light.

Under normal circumstances, we’d have had our cameras up and ready, poised for action, however our guide Letishia whispered strict and urgent orders that we were not to move an inch – that meant no standing up, no arms out of the vehicle, no talking, no fidgeting and definitely no photos. We were to act and behave as one so that the elephant perceived us as a large, peaceful being (that just happened to move on four wheels). So there we were, frozen with a mixture of fear and awe as one of the animal kingdom’s largest came trundling towards us.

Turn the clock back half an hour and we had been tracking the only two cheetahs on the reserve when our guide Letishia receive a call in that the researchers had stumbled upon a herd of elephants drinking from the watering hole. The only challenge was getting there with enough light to see the animals as they were on the other side of the reserve. Torn between the possibility of following the cheetahs and seeing them kill a prey (most likely an unfortunate impala minding its own business) or laying eyes on the elephants for the first time, we chose the latter. We’d been talking for days about wanting to see the elephants and this sighting had got our hopes up. So off we went, driving over the bumpy dirt track sending a plume of dust in our wake.

When we finally did arrive at the watering hole, two young elephants were sipping water, their grey trunks disappearing into the muddy shallows and their large ears flapping in the breeze. What a sight! However, our excitement was quickly replaced by disappointment when they promptly disappeared into the thick scrub. Fueled on by the chance to catch them on the other side of the trees, we slowly drove around and down a narrow track that barely fit the width of our jeep. It was along this tiny overgrown path that we encountered our giant tree chopping elephant bull.

Still shaken from this magnificent display of brut power and strength, I couldn’t tear my eyes off its huge lumbering frame moving towards us in the near darkness. It therefore came as a complete shock to hear Letishia bang the side of the car door and yell out over her shoulder behind us, “Hey big boy, what ya doing eh?” What the – had I missed something? I slowly turned my body around and craned by neck to see what the commotion was about (careful not to draw attention to myself, of course). There towering above the 4WD Landrover jeep was a giant elephant, its tusks reaching out over us and its trunk curled in the air ready to trumpet. It was so close you could hear it breathing in the still night air. While we sat there gob smacked, Letishia continued her confident and dominating rant, “Don’t think you’re coming any closer big boy, don’t go getting cheeky on me.” Unfortunately for us, this elephant just happened to feel very cheeky indeed and it moved its trunk over our heads and came to rest on Claudia, an assistant movie director from Germany. All of a sudden the colour drained from her face as the elephant commenced to tousle her hair and sniff her neck, its eyes peering down between two gigantic dumbo ears. If we’d been unnerved before, we were certainly overwhelmed with uncertainty now!

Unsure of where to look, my eyes darted back and forth between the cheeky elephant getting up close and personal with Claudia and the lumbering elephant moving closer and closer to the front of the jeep (who I swear was still picking tree branch splinters from in between his teeth). This was definitely no episode of Babar, that’s for sure.

But like all happy endings, we escape unscathed.  The elephant bulls soon lost interest in this strange 4-wheeled beast with nine heads, and realizing that we posed no threat to them, they disappeared into the trees to find a more tasty evening meal. While the rest of us breathed a sigh of relief and collapsed into a frenzy of excited chatter, only Claudia cradled her head in her hands, still coming to grips with what just happened. When she finally did look up at us, she had a huge grin on her face and her eyes danced with the light of someone who’d just experienced one of life’s little ‘moments’.

There’s a sign on the notice board at the Intibane lodge that says, “Anything that is unrelated to elephants is irrelephant.” In the near darkness of the African savanna that night, this certainly rung true.

Note: due to not being able to take photos of the elephants that evening, I have included photos of elephants that we saw on another game drive. This was also a memorable moment as we saw the whole herd this time including five baby elephant calves! They were adorable and you can see from the shots that a few of them had a lot of Dutch courage coming up and trumpeting at us. I have a feeling that these little calves are going to be cheeky when they get older too…

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Morning glory

You know you’re in Africa when the closest thing to a traffic jam is being stuck bumper to bumper with a herd of water buffalo. And this is exactly where we found ourselves on one of our early morning game drives. No sooner had we driven 15mins into the reserve than we found ourselves stopped short by a group of eighty water buffalo milling around with no apparent purpose or direction. Some had wandered onto the road and stood there in complete boredom, while others lay in the grass, occasionally swatting the birds that had set up camp on their backs. Many of them were preening themselves by licking the inside of their nostrils (a difficult task made easy by their long pink tongues) or the birds were doing it for them by pecking the sleep from their eyes. Whatever they were doing, they weren’t doing it in a hurry that’s for sure. So we watched and waited. And waited. No road rage from us volunteers though, no – it was a perfect opportunity to take lots of photos!

When we finally did make some headway, we did a beeline to the nearest watering hole, eager to see who else was up and active at that time of the morning. By a sheer stroke of luck, we found not one, but three different species of animals all sipping water from the same hole. A tower of giraffes stood at one end, a dazzle of zebras had the other side secured and a few shy wildebeest stood coyly in the middle. Our guide Letishia killed the motor and we sat in complete stillness while watching them quench their thirst. While witnessing this rare display of animal unity, she enlightened us on a few interesting facts.

For instance, giraffes don’t have a voice box. They communicate by emitting vibrations into the Earth. Incidentally zebras can also pick up these vibrations and they choose to hang around giraffes so that they can tap into their danger signals. Who would have thought eh? More interesting than this however, is that giraffes will only drink water if they absolutely have to. They can go for days without topping up their water reserve and will only do so if they’re running on empty. To truly understand why, you need to see a giraffe drinking as this is an experience in itself! They will walk up the very edge of the water, widen their front legs into a banana split (which can be hilarious to watch if the ground is slippery) then bend each of the their front knees so that they can slowly lower their heads and chest to the water. You see, the distance between their heads and the water is so great that they need to perform this tricky maneuver just to maintain balance. As you can imagine, this compromising position can make them a very easy target if ‘discovered’ by a predator – which is why they’d rather go thirsty.

Makes turning on the tap and grabbing a glass of water seem far too easy…Then again, I forget that we’re the super predator.

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