What should one expect to happen on a trip to a South African game lodge and safari? I thought I knew, but reality trumped my expectations.
We woke early, dressed and met the Lion’s Roar van at the entrance to our hotel. Immanuel, our driver, answered our questions about Port Elizabeth and the surrounding coastal country as we drove the 50 minutes to Hlosi, SA.
Upon arrival, we were met by Chris, an Afrikaan who was obviously nervous. He kept wringing his hands and had a difficult time meeting our eyes as he introduced himself and the lodge.
The lodge was beautifully and simply appointed with fine dark-wood furniture, comfortably cushioned chairs with hand-carved frames, and a wood fire burning in a two-sided fireplace. All of the doors and windows were opened to allow a 60* breeze to move throughout the house.
Salani, one of our hostesses invited us outside to the back deck for “high tea.” The sun was just coming up behind the ridge of mountains in the distance, and began to warm sections of the deck. Malik, my younger son and the pickiest eater of the crew, reluctantly tried what appeared to be a palm-sized pancake with cream and jam on top. “Mm,” he proclaimed, and I released the breath I was holding. My younger child hadn’t eaten more than 1 full meal since we’d left the U.S. 3 days before.
“You’re our only guests today, so the lodge is yours to explore and enjoy,” Chris told us as we finished tea. “Anytime you’re ready to go, just let us know.”
Our safari was scheduled to be a mini three-hour driven tour of the South African countryside. Not like the multiple day tours where visitors sleep outdoors in the wilderness and interact with wildlife. So I didn’t expect much more than a guided tour similar to the safari drive at Animal Kingdom at Disney World in Orlando.
Harry, our tour guide, told us to climb up a ramp to step into an open-air hummer. Once my husband, mother, two sons and I were in, Immanuel, our driver from the hotel, decided to join at the last minute. I got the feeling he didn’t usually do this type of thing, but Harry, a pretty cheerful guy, was more than happy to have him along.
Already, the winter morning had warmed to about 65* and I was able to remove my shawl as we drove over a dusty, bumpy dirt road and passed an odd-looking animal Harry called Sneezy. He sneezed at us and we drove away.
For 10 minutes, we drove over hills and around curves before we came to an abrupt stop at the end of the dirt road. We were perched on the edge of the mountain overlooking a huge valley that reminded me of a scene from the movie Avatar. It was breathtaking and all of us were speechless. I tried to take a picture, but the image looked flat and didn’t really capture the depth of the mountains, valley, river and trees spread out before us.
After a few minutes of moving around the ridge taking pictures and video, we climbed back into the jeep and Harry bumped us down the side of the mountain. We came to another clearing where huge, sturdy mounds covered the ground as far as we could see. Harry stopped, hopped out and grabbed a chunk of one the mounds.
“This is a termite mound,” he explained. He described the type of termite found in this region of SA. “They’re a great source of protein,” he said as he picked one out of the chunk of earth and put it in his mouth! Ew. Time out.
“Are any of you interested in trying one?”
Silence. No one moved, we just looked at him like we couldn’t understand his accented English. Even Immanuel sat like a rock in the front passenger seat.
“I’ll try, why not?”
Who said that? Was that my husband? I thought to myself, “I will never kiss him again if he puts that termite in his mouth.” But… ew, I’m gagging… he put it in his mouth and started to… chew.
“Hm, it tastes minty.” Whatever.
But then, here comes my older son with that look on his face. The look that says, ‘if he can do it, so can I.’ Sigh.
“Just bite the head off, Man!” Harry said cheerily.
A bite and a chew later, another termite gone from the face of the earth. “Hm, it does taste minty!” I’m disgusted and ready to go. So we left and moved on.
Out of nowhere, a huge black ostrich jumped into the path and started running in front of us. Next to us, a small family of warthogs scampered into the brush. As we rounded a curve, the brown dirt of the road changed to white and became soft. Harry pointed and we could see the backs of elephants moving through the trees below. The white dirt turned instantly back to brown and rocks were imbedded in it. We bumped up and down along the path until Harry slammed on the brakes.
“Look!” he exclaimed. “A nursery.” Sure enough, an adult giraffe was surrounded by 3 or 4 baby giraffes. Their necks looked short and their heads small compared to the mother giraffe. “This a female giraffe watching several babies. She’s probably not the mother of them all, but it’s her job to watch them for the herd,” Harry explained. He spent another couple of minutes educating us about how they sleep, the difference between the male and female and their eating and mating habits. Cool.
Eventually, Harry decided it was time for us to take a break. He stopped the jeep, pulled out a cloth and spread out wooden dishes and bowls. Out of nowhere he fills them with fresh veggie slices and pieces of dried meat. Amazingly, it didn’t feel strange to be eating eggrolls and samosas a few yards from a herd of zebra drinking from a water hole along the path.
Another hour and several animals later, we witnessed a zebra, an ostrich and a gnu standing together like they were sharing a joke during a coffee break at work. We saw all kinds of unique animals and birds – some I’d seen, but several I’d never even heard of. The 3-hour trip had turned into several hours of excitement and exploration. It was all so interesting, we didn’t realize how much time had gone by until Harry announced our return as the sun started going down behind the mountains. We had to have been out there for about 4 or 5 hours.
I thought the whole thing was over and we’d drive back to the hotel, but we were asked to wash up for dinner. Andrew, our chef, was perturbed that we’d taken so long and allowed his specially-prepared dinner to get cold, so we had to rush the “wash up.”
We were served a four-course meal that included grilled ostrich, roasted stuffed chicken, and an assortment of vegetables prepared in various ways. Our dessert consisted of chocolate mousse and an exquisite date pudding.
OMG! The date pudding was so good. I made Andrew come out from the kitchen to explain how he made it, show me the ingredients from the kitchen and, in the end, put it in a disposable container so I could take it with me. Delectable. Only Malik was displeased, but Andrew made him a last-minute fruit plate with fruits Malik hadn’t eaten before. So everyone was happy in the end.
After dinner, Chris took us to visit the cottages. They were simple but plush. Each cottage had a queen-sized bed with a pillow-top mattress and mosquito net around it. Each bathroom had a brand-new claw-foot tub, glass and marble shower and the floor was made of heated stones. It opened to an enclosed patio with an outdoor shower, Jacuzzi and a stone bench for sunning or air drying after a shower. No televisions, no internet, no telephones. A male ostrich chased a female across the lawn as we stepped onto the back porch and sat in outdoor chairs at one of the cottages. A monkey scampered up a nearby tree and a herd of zebras ran past in the fading light. I wanted to stay, but reluctantly followed Chris back to the main lodge.
Chris. The Afrikaan had originally been nervous and uncomfortable around us. Now he was making jokes, tickling Malik, and telling us about his life. He told us about moving to Port Elizabeth from “Jo’Berg” (which everyone in SA calls Johannesburg) because it was too fast-paced. He shared how much he loved the relaxed and laid-back nature of Hlosi and the surrounding small towns.
We stepped into the lobby as the sun finally disappeared. I asked Immanuel what time the soccer match between Brazil and Portugal started. He glanced at his watch. “Fifteen minutes. If you’re not in a hurry, I’d rather watch it than listen to it on the radio.”
Ten minutes later, Immanuel, Harry, my older son and I were perched around the bar at the back of the lodge watching the plasma perched above the counter. Salani served beers to the men, wine to me and a South African guava juice to Little Maurice (my kids’ new favorite drink). My husband and mother had fallen asleep by the fire in the library. My younger son was outside chasing a monkey and an ostrich.
During half-time, Salani shared her story of moving to Hlosi from Zimbabwe because of social and economic unrest in her native country. She gave us a real-life account of living in a land of fighting and governmental instability. Her mother and brother were still there, but she and her sister had come with thousands of other refugees to South Africa to look for work and a better life. They were both working and sending money and food home to their mother.
I asked Harry if they often had Black Americans visit at the resort as guests. “No, not really. Blacks from America tend to go other places for safaris and tours.”
“What about Blacks from the Caribbean?” I asked.
“Almost never. Their travel agents and tour guides connect to other townships and countries.”
Is this why we were being treated like family instead of visiting guests? Is this why we were still here when our visit was supposed to have ended 6 hours earlier? Is this why I felt like I was visiting my family in South Carolina instead of a game lodge in South Africa?
When we finally got ready to leave, it was like leaving family friends. There were tight hugs, Facebook names and email addresses exchanged, and it took another 30 minutes to actually get out the door and in the van.
I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to go back to the Radisson Blu in town with its American/European amenities and W décor. I wanted to stay at Lion’s Roar where it felt like home.