Happy with our sightings, we roll ahead, and David shushes us and makes sure we’re all seated (this rule seems to be the most challenging for many in my group). In front of us is a female lion sound asleep, with paws up, and tail wagging, and, next to her, a male is walking toward a zebra carcass. Bright red like a bull’s eye, the male devours thin strips of black-and-white flesh. After the male falls back into a post-Thanksgiving dinner sleep, two brothers jaunt over, and they begin finishing the meal. We’re no more than six or seven feet from this family, and the backdrop of the late-afternoon sun over a small lake is a familiar picture in my head. This scene, depicted in cartoons, postcards, movies, and Discovery Channel specials, is nothing compared to this real-life experience.
Massive spotlights point us back to the lodge, waving like a movie premiere to the lit-up Jaci’s Lodges sign. The staff once again welcomes us with a drink, we sit around the yellow Spanish-style fireplace. Like kids who swear they just saw a monster, we recall our adventure with machine gun speed to anyone who will listen. A teacup-lit table is set up for us already near an outdoor fire pit, still high-above the trees, and the chef serves a three-course meal that’s an ideal ending to the day. I also get to sit with Jaci herself, who talks a little about her life in the bush and raising her two kids here. “We moved to the Reserve from Pretoria where Jan and his brother owned and ran their two restaurants,” she tells me over our vegetarian options. She and her husband met on Bazaruto Island, Mozambique, and Jaci knew that “city life” wasn’t for her. “He promised me we would live in the bush, and boy did he deliver! We have been living in Madikwe since 1994.” Just one year before her boys were born the lodge had already existed, but Jaci’s tree houses were a vision that she and her husband made a reality.
In my bed feeling like a tent caterpillar in mosquito-net-covered cocoon, I get up and double check the lock and drift off to tales of the lion and the sounds of night creatures.
Knock, knock. “Are you up?” a staff member asks. (You’ll never see this person, he truly has a gift for ghosting). It’s 5:30 A.M., and we’re given ten minutes to get ready for our game drive in the lobby. A pre-breakfast (as we call it) of cereal and coffee waits for us to grab like a kid about to miss the school bus.
This outing is different than the others. Our vehicle is equipped with massive Canon cameras, thanks in part to Canon Professional Photographer Andrew Aveley who fell in love with Madikwe and leads special photographic tours throughout the year. We have so much fun playing around with these cameras that are more expensive than some cars. It makes the safari feel like a game to see who will get the best shot, or who will capture the only image of a certain creature (I am the only one who manages to get a photo of the jackal, Jacki’s spirit animal), It also seems to be a stroke of luck that we manage to see all of the Big 5 (African buffalo, lion, white rhino, the African Savannah elephant, and the elusive leopard, who we see high atop a cliff).
After a leisurely brunch, we have the afternoon to ourselves. Not one to remain idle for too long, I walk to the Terrapin Photographic Hide. Crawling like a jackal through the dark underwater tunnel, I ultimately arrive in a room with viewing panels. I’m in the middle of the water, right outside the lodge’s electric fence. A flange of baboons is along the shoreline. I spend over an hour watching their shenanigans. It’s like a bizarre pool party. Mom and dad are in the back making sweet monkey love, and the kids dunk each other in the water and run around screaming—ah, Madikwe swim club! Soon, a crash of white rhino shows the baboons who is boss and run over for a quick drink before carrying on with their day. Before it gets dark, I plop in my own watering hole, a small round pool surrounded by loungers. No one is there, and it’s well hidden. The sounds of monkeys, birds, and unidentifiable creatures (although any dangerous animal is stuck behind the electric fence), it creates a vulnerable feeling, especially when a certain writer lets his imagination loose.
As our safari experience draws to an end, we celebrate our last night together with an amazing dinner under the moonlight in the bush. The entire staff of the lodge is busy preparing our meal: the flame roars with iron skillets and pots busy bubbling. Our drinks are already made, and we sit around the fire continuing to reflect on our time. A long table is set with nothing but small candles, the light of the fire, and the night sky providing us with an enchanting atmosphere. We chat about our adventures, eating boerewors (sausage), sheeps’ head stew, and chicken, all mushed together with some flavorful pap (like polenta). It’s just the animals and us. Like a moony teenager, drunk on the atmosphere, hospitality, adventure, and wine, I look out at the reserve. The darkness covers the land like a shroud, but out there, life is teeming. Out there, lion clubs are sleeping after their meal with their families, moths kamikaze into wine glasses, the go-away bird is finally quiet in its nest, bush babies are just opening their big eyes, giraffes are still standing tall protecting those who are trying to sleep, and we’re here, part of this ecosystem. We may not always see the big picture, recognize our place on this earth, or the beauty and balance that sustains us, but here in Africa, it’s what I’ve experienced that makes it all so beautiful.
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