Saturday, 16 February 2013

"Past those gates is Jurassic Park"

Inside Pilanesburg Game Reserve, early morning.
So said Francois, head of transportation for our study abroad group, as he drove us near the entrance to the Pilanesberg Game Reserve. But we didn't go past those gates, where lions and leopards lurk, just yet. First we checked into Manyane Resort, our accommodations for the next two days.  A sounder of warthogs grazed on the front lawn, the first of many animals we would see over the next 48 hours. That was over a week ago, the 7th of February. And due to a spell of procrastination with this blog, I first must rewind to two days before, the 5th (11 days ago, oops).

That Tuesday we went to a performance of Umoja: The Spirit of Togetherness. Insanely talented dancers, percussionists, and singers told the history of South African music and dance. It was a crash history course at its most entertaining.

The following morning we made our first visit to our main service/volunteer sites: a village, and an after school drop-off center for children. The village, Erasmus, is the main opportunity with multiple placements including agriculture, recycling, and helping out with the children. At another village close by, some students will be volunteering in home based cared for the elderly and sick. Then some students will help at the drop-off center, aiding children in their homework who don't have a well-structured home environment. Everyone was nice and welcoming, and I can't wait to actually start volunteering - hopefully with the agriculture and the children. In a couple weeks we'll also have the opportunity to do service at orphanages. We ended the day with Themli boot camp and a game of soccer, a challenge for those less in shape, but entirely worth it.

That brings us back to the two days at the game reserve. Since the program is run by a Jesuit institution, we are starting and ending our five months with a opening and ending retreat. We spent the day in reflection, did fun group exercises, and spent some quiet time out in the sun. Finally the moment we were all waiting for came: our first safari. It was time to go past those gates in an open game drive vehicle. Within the first five minutes our guide/driver pointed out an elephant. Then we saw something I hadn't expected  - a dung beetle rolling dung across the rode. Our guide was incredibly experienced and cautious, noting when even smal creatures were crossing the road. Soon we saw countless wildebeests and zebras, a few kudus, and two ostriches. Then our guide got a call from another guide who had found a leopard - a rare sight. Stealthy and elusive as leopards are, people are lucky if they see one over the course of multiple safaris. We saw one less than an hour into our first game drive. At first we could only see the back of her head, but eventually she walked through to an opening which our guide knew how to find. Then we got to see her close up. She walked back and forth before eventually lying down. I was too in awe to manage any pictures, but I'll never forget finally seeing such a magnificent creature in the wild. We stayed for a while, but eventually we had to move on and let other groups get a look - plus we had other animals to find. And find them we did, including Egyptian geese, antelope, and more zebras and wildebeests. Adding to the beauty of the land was the sun setting and casting spectacular colours over the main watering hole. Near the end of our drive was the favourite find of many - two white rhinos. They were grazing and at one point started coming right towards our vehicle, not turning away until we had a good, long look. Considering their endangered status, it was an extra special experience. Even though we left the reserve, the animal spotting wasn't over for the night quite yet. Where the warthogs had been earlier in the morning, there were now several impala. And just outside the bungalow I was staying in with two others from our group, there was a zebra. Falling asleep, all I could think about was how there was a zebra mere metres away, and I couldn't be happier in that moment.

A zebra grazing with wildebeests.

We woke up bright and early the next morning for our second game drive. There was light in the sky, but the sun wasn't up. Many animals, however, were up, and the first two we saw were kudu females. Sitting near the front, I was able to witness a black-backed jackal crossing the road in front of us. When we drove past where it had crossed, the jackal had disappeared into the bush. Our guide then got a call about lions. We saw a few lionesses, but unfortunately they never came close to the road. They were still glorious to see, sauntering through the tall grass. Throughout the rest of the drive we saw animals both new to us and others we had seen the night before. Springbok, impalas, zebras, and wildebeests were numerous. Right next to the road we encountered giraffes, once which looked directly at us, almost as if posing for our cameras. Then we saw more elephants, and from a distance we saw hippos resting in water. Near the end we saw a young giraffe, and then on the other side of the gate breakfast was being served. We engaged in more reflection for the morning, had a delicious lunch, then made to pack up and leave. Monkeys hanging around the resort were there to send us on our way, an unexpected last animal sighting.

The giraffe that posed for us.
The safari, the leopard sighting in particular, was a dream come true. The retreat was a peaceful way to settle into South Africa. And the past weekend was only beginning. But more on that, and the rest of the week up until the present will be covered in my next blog entry which I will publish tomorrow.

Happy Weekend, wherever you are,

~ The Cloud Catcher

A zebra and her baby. All photos in this post are mine.

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