Stellenbosch: Winery Dogs

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“Paaauull,” I said hugging him from behind. “I could call the airlines and find out how much it would cost to change our tickets to go home early.” I waited to see how he reacted.  He didn’t turn to look at me. I knew he wouldn’t. One of us has to be firm. In our marriage, it is him.

“No, let’s just go into town today and you can go shopping. You’ll feel better.” He’d probably calculated the difference between a shopping spree and the cost of changing a ticket. “What are you missing most?”

Why did he even ask? “Tucker,” I said walking away. Our dog.

We’ve adopted a dog who lives here on the winery grounds. We call her “Girl.” She’s sort of a Bull Dog/Lab mix with deep brown eyes and a short-haired brown body. She visits us at breakfast on the patio each morning and waits at the cottage steps to see if we will take her on walks. Of course we do.

The winery owner tried to tell us her real name, but we interrupted him and said, “Don’t tell us. We call her Girl and she seems fine with it.”

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We set out tonight on our second walk of the day. On our other walks, we discovered porcupine quills scattered in the rows of grape vines. It had become a contest between us to see who could retrieve the most quills to put in our new safari hats.

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In addition to Girl, five other dogs joined us for our night’s ramble: one brown, happy Lab, two compact and determined black and brown Boston terriers, and two clumsy, grey, floppy-eared Weimaraners. The dogs dashed ahead of us, crossing the path back and forth. There was no clear leader, but Girl hung back staying close to us.

Paul was happy. The last time he walked with dogs was back in Minnesota hunting pheasants. He called out to them, “Get a bird, get a bird. Hunt them up, hunt them up.”

The dogs looked back at us. There was a tilt to their heads that was a bit disturbing. The Boston terriers cocked their heads sideways and, in both of them, one ear up stood up and one flopped down. The Lab wagged his tail smiling, and the two floppy-eared dogs stumbled around on their wobbly legs. Girl stopped. She sat. She did not move.

All hell broke loose. The dogs jumped in the bushes, crashing through the blue salvia and wild rosemary. We heard the frantic beating of wings and scrabbling of canine claws digging into the rocky soil.

Paul and I looked at each other.

“Dogs, dogs, come here! Dogs, dogs, come here,” we shouted. Paul pushed through bushes trying to reach the desperate and panicked sounds of wings breaking in the brush.

Five dogs trotted out of the scratchy green, the cross-eyed floppy-eared puppy triumphantly carrying a fat guinea hen. Her neck was broken and a trail of long, speckled black feathers fluttered to the ground. The dogs jostled one another, and the featherless breast began to tear. As the dogs tasted blood, they began to grab at one another’s mouths.

Girl stared. She stood up and began moving forward with her ears flattened.

“Paul do something!”

“Out, out,” shouted Paul pushing them apart with his knees and slapping their haunches.

They scattered, tails beating hard, and took off up the path six across. Now they were a pack. Even Girl was one of them.

“Paul do something!”

Paul held up the guinea hen. It swung from his fist, an electric blue ring circling its crooked neck.

“Chase the dogs,” Paul yelled. “I’ll get rid of the bird.”

For the next two kilometers—up and down hills, across vineyard rows, over rocks, and through stands of pine trees—Paul and I chased the scraggly, unorganized pack of out of shape winery dogs whose previous idea of bliss was scraps of French bread and brie cheese.

They finally slowed down at the top of the mountain. They all collapsed, their chests heaving. They threw their heads back in defiant glory, and slobber flew in strings from their mouths.

“Gross,” I called as it splatted against my bare legs. “Paul, do something. I don’t want to be responsible for them going rogue and chasing a porcupine.”

They stopped. Six sets of eyes looked at me. They rose as a group and loped off down the hill. Paul and I grabbed hands and began running after them.

“Count them,” Paul panted. “Make sure there are six.”

“One, two, three, four, five,” I squinted in the purple light. “Girl. Girl is the one missing. Paul, run. See if she is down there.” The dogs continued down the hill, their back feet comically landing before their front ones.

The dogs and Paul disappeared over the rise in the road. I was alone. I listened for Girl. Nothing. I didn’t hear any snuffling along the ground or rustling of stiff branches. I didn’t feel her presence. She wasn’t there.

“Girl, Girl, Girl, Girl,” I screamed. “Girl, Girl, Girl, please.” Nothing. Then I heard Paul.

“Come on. Come.” I could barely understand him.

“I’m not coming down there if Girl isn’t there. I’m staying here to look for her.” I had tears in my eyes. Paul appeared out of the darkness.

“She’s laying down there waiting. Laying there.”

Ashamed, I joined him on the path. “It probably would have been a good idea to learn her name,” I admitted.

“You think?” Paul was taking deep breaths trying to recover from hiking back up the hill to me.

“Paul, do you think sometime when we are really, really old and can’t travel any more we can get another dog?”

Paul bent over, his hands on his knees, porcupine quills jauntily sticking out of his sweaty leather hat.

Sure.”

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Postscript:

Our beloved Tucker died a month after we returned from South Africa. I miss him every day. I hope he is in a place where he can run mountains like the ones in Stellenbosh with a group of goofy dogs who discover a thirst for life they did not know they had. 

Finding A Male Lion

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While on safari you go for a game ride in the morning and another one in the late afternoon that stretches into the night.  You spend a lot of time with your safari guide. And sometimes he breaks your heart.

This will surprise no one: Paul memorized the roads in the game reserve. He became almost as good at sighting animals in the brush as our guide, Allyn. By the last day he could hunch over with the guides and the trackers and read the prints in the dust.

Paul and I were desperate to see a male lion. Time was running out. We had only one more game drive. Years ago we watched a TV show called “Big Cat Diaries,” and recorded every episode so we could watch them again. Focused on lions, leopards, and cheetahs, the show featured three experts who each tracked one big cat. We actually checked all of the dates the shows premiered because we didn’t want to find out that one of our favorite cats had disappeared.

We needed a lion.

Allyn checked with the other guides and trackers, and there were reports of paw prints belonging to a pride of lions south of the lodge near the lower gate of Kruger Park. We left in a swirl of dust. We flew down the roads—Cheetah Flats, Trevor’s Hole, The Big Dam, Serengeti Corner—to the far end of the game preserve.

Allyn stared ahead, intent on the road, as we drove. Jimmy rode out on the tracker seat and kept his head down looking for tracks. Watching Allyn’s determined shoulders, I felt a familiar feeling, an ache. I too, knew a young man who was courteous, gregarious, and professional. But he also had this part of him that was convinced he was invincible. We rode in silence. We all scanned the sides of the road looking for a creamy, white underbelly turned up to the sun or the smudge of tawny brown lounging on the top of a termite hill.

Allyn turned off the motor and glided to a stop in a lonely intersection of two dirt roads. Jimmy jumped down and looked at the ground. He nodded to Allyn and took off on foot. He carried a walkie talkie and a cell phone. His job was to make visual confirmation of the lions and then return back to the road to get into the vehicle with us.

“While Jimmy is tracking, we’re going back to look closer to the gate. They are here somewhere,” Allyn waved to us impatiently. He was bouncing on the tips of his toes. We all jumped into the car and roared off. My bladder began to ache and then burn.

“Allyn,” I called when he slowed down to take a corner. “I really have to go.”

He slowed the car and pulled over. He turned around and looked at me high on the third seat. “I don’t know if I can find a good place right now.” We were all quiet. “Okay,” he turned the car around and cruised back towards a break in the road. I jumped out and ran to a tree. I had perfected this squat pose close to the ground, but I couldn’t account for a fifty-year old bladder that had witnessed the birth of two children. I looked up and they were all yelling at me. Jimmy had found the lions.

Allyn left the road without hesitation. He guided the car around rocks, and steered around monpane trees. Their leaves, shaped like butterfly wings, trembled as the slender trunks popped up behind us. We reached the edge of a dry ravine. Jimmy signaled to drive around the far end of it. Allyn drove carefully. We reached the other side.

Paul stood up and motioned to Allyn. We looked. Two gorgeous full-grown male lions raised their heads to look balefully at us. They lay in tall grass facing away from each other. After glancing our way, they flopped back to the ground. Their bellies were full and round, and yes, creamy white. Allyn stood up in the front and pumped his fists. He and I grinned at each other. We had our royal lion decked out in full regalia.

A small sound like the hissing of a popped tire escaped into the air. Then the smell followed. It washed over us. Rotting meat and digestive juice mixed together to create an odor that made our eyes water. I felt the urge to vomit rise in my throat.

“Hold your breath,” Paul said squeezing my hand. “It will pass.”

“If it doesn’t, I’m leaning over you to get to the side,” I gasped.

“Oh no,” Allyn said and sat down. “Look at his leg. It’s all torn up. They must have been in a fight.”

The darkest lion rolled onto his back. His right leg was swollen as large as an elephant’s. In the middle of his bloodied knee something white glinted bright and hard.

“Allyn,” I whispered. “Can’t you dart him with antibiotic?” He shook his head. He looked miserable.

“No. Kruger doesn’t do that. This is the bush.”

Paul pulled me down. “Let him be for a while.”

Allyn was back in his role as the genial safari guide by the time we were within the center of the reserve. We pulled the car over to view a sunset that stretched across the African sky. The lodge had packed us a sundowner basket to celebrate our lion find. Our motley group, now a family, danced and laughed as our teeth tore into impala jerky. Our gin and tonics were cold in our hands.

I watched Allyn’s profile grow dark as the sun finally set behind the Drakensburg Mountains. He is not my child, but I know what it is like to have your boy deliver what he thought was the perfect gift only to discover it was flawed in a way that hurt to the bone.

Hyena vs. Lioness

 

Friends,

I’m tired, and it is not from all the traveling and sleeping in different beds. I thought blogging would be like writing my articles at home. Yesterday I listened to the safari guide describe the traveling habits of  African Wild Dogs while squinting in the darkness taking notes. Today I finally threw my notebook in my bag. I think it is time for something new–being present.

Two days into our five-day safari, I get it.The morning starts at 4:45 am with a gentle knock at our door–“Mr. and Mrs. Klenk. Time for safari.” We climb out of bed and Paul is ready in two seconds. I take a bit longer. It is cold in the morning. It’s not what I wear that is important, it’s how many layers can I put on and not look like a marshmallow. We go to the gathering space, a large thatched room that morphs into a small coffee table in the morning and expands into an elegant dining room with flickering candles by night. Our safari guides stand at the table pouring us coffee and giving us a hearty hello. Paul may not like this, but I have to say they are the hunkiest group of guys I have ever seen. I wonder if having good legs is part of the job requirement. I watch the other groups warily. When they move, I move. Our guide Allyn knows me by now. I want our car to go first. I don’t want to follow in someone else’s dust.

Jimmy greets us at the car. He is our tracker. He lives on site. He is quiet and moves little. He rides on a seat jutting out in front of the car and doesn’t even totter when we go through water holes or down the deep sides of a river bed. He does not move his head much, but there is nothing that gets past him. He sees the flick of an impala’s white tail, hears the first shuffling step of a herd of  cape buffalo, and smells the sheening odor of the hyenas digging into a fresh carcass.

We ride for four hours in the morning returning to the lodge at 9:30 am. We are staying in  a private reserve. Neighboring lodges cannot cross into our territory and we cannot cross into theirs. The animals, luckily, are free to roam wherever they  want. Thank goodness. I don’t want to peer across a road and not be able to chase the lions.

That is one of the hardest parts for me to get used to. Kruger Park is not a zoo. It is wild land where we must respect the animals’ world. Cars politely take turns lining up to see a leopard in a tree. But when there is a lion and hyena stand-off, it is every car for itself. We leave the road, crash through thorn bushes, spin out in the two-feet deep sand river bed, and basically screech through the bush to beat the other cars there.

The first day we were on our night safari which starts at 3:30 in the afternoon and ends at 7:30 pm. That night was different. Time didn’t matter.

It was past twilight and Allyn heard some guides squawking on the radio, “Hyenas and lions, Tibavate Road.” We sped through the dust cresting hills with all four wheels in the air. The landings were hard, but the car was tough. We approached the clearing and  Allyn said tersely  on the radio, “Position 1, I say. Position 1.” He then slowed to a crawl and cut the motor immediately.  We could barely see in the darkness, but Jimmy turned on a red spotlight. It lit up the scene without changing the animals’ behavior. I crept over to Paul’s side of the car and pushed my way under his arm.

A lioness was cornered by eight hyenas. Her back was against two fallen tress. She lay with her paws out front, her eyes riveted on the creatures in front of her. I say creatures because that’s what they are. It seems God put them together out of all of the parts he had left over. They have short front and back legs yet their back and necks are so large and muscled they look  like the hunchback of Notre Dame. They scuttle back and forth sometimes even sideways. The sound, though. God made that unique. If it was just one grating hum like a cicada, you could get used to it. No. Not these creatures. They chuckle softly and then a moan begins from one. Another begins trilling in sharp barks. And then the screaming starts. Through it all, the lion stared straight ahead. She didn’t flinch. They broke apart and began circling her, one after another lunging towards her. I smelled something putrid and looked down. A hyena was crouched next to the car. They began using the cars as shields. And they kept screaming.

“They are either going to attack her as a group, or she will strike one herself. She will die if they all get to her. But she will kill the one she grabs,” Allyn said. His eyes never left the scene.

“Who’s going to win?” I whispered.

“It’s fifty fifty at this point,” he replied.

“I hate hyenas,” I said.

He turned and looked at me kindly. “Don’t. They are just as magnificent. Watch them work.”

The screams climbed higher and higher. Then two hyenas lunged hard and fast. The lion stood up and roared with her mouth wide open. Even in the dimness I could see her white teeth. She pulled up tall and roared into the hyenas’ faces.

The screaming stilled. The hyenas disappeared into the bush muttering to each other. The lion stood up and ambled through a gap between two cars. The last I saw of her, her tail flicked, just once.

 

 

 

Joy, Joy, Joy

 

Joy, joy, joy. Unfettered joy. Never did I think a tour to Robben Island would end in such a powerful and healing emotion.

Robben Island is the prison where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 years. It can only be reached by boat five miles out to sea. The barren island, covered in scrub brush and attacked by crushing waves from the Atlantic Ocean, echoes with emptiness through the silent cells, peeling paint, and lifeless vegetation.  I was prepared to feel sadness and grief when faced with the site of the quarry where Mandela dug rocks and the sisal map where he slept each night.

So how did the joy happen? Their names are Kagali and Atli. They live with their families in North Pretoria and attend a school called Assumption Convent Primary School. They were on an 8-day school trip to Cape Town. After the tour of the prison was over, we all boarded the boat to return to the city. Paul and I were surrounded on the top deck by 40 or so young people. It started out that two boys were sitting next to me, but two beautiful little girls waved their hands and motioned for the boys to switch places. So, I had the privilege of sitting next them for the hour-long ride.

At first they were shy. I complimented them on their beautiful, long braided hair. They giggled.

“Are you from the US?” they asked. I nodded.

“How old do you have to be to drive a car in America?”

“Teenagers can get a license when they are sixteen, but they have to practice a lot before then.”  They both sighed and shook their heads.

“We have to wait until we are eighteen. There is a saying, “If you die before you are eighteen, you have never lived.” They looked at me with earnest faces. Next to me I felt Paul shudder with silent laughter.

The boat rocked back and forth in the surf, dropping down into the bottom of the swells and rising to the crest again. We all crashed into each other. Paul leaned towards them.

“What did you think about Robben Island?” The girls dropped their eyes at his directness. The Ohio State hat was perched low on his forehead.

“It was educational, “Kaglia said.

“It was a once in a lifetime experience,” Atli added.

Paul pressed a bit, “How did it make you feel?”

They looked at one another. I could see them making up their minds whether or not to share their thoughts with us.

“Actually, when we found out that the president we have now was there too, we were very surprised. Not a lot of South Africans like him.”

I was stunned by their honesty. “Do you learn a lot about apartheid in school?”

“Oh yes,” Kaglia enthused. “We also learn about world history and the social sciences.”

I decided to share my own truth. “When so many teenagers in South Africa were getting hurt in the 1980s, Paul and I were teenagers at the same time. I feel badly that I didn’t pay more attention to how terrible apartheid was. I was going to dances and playing sports. I should have been thinking about the teenagers in the townships.”

They looked me in silence. I could tell they weren’t sure what to say.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” I asked.

“I want to be a gynecologist,” Atli piped up in a rush.

“And I want to be a pediatrician,” Kaglia grinned.

“So you are going to help them be born,” I said pointing to Atli, “and you are going to take care of them while they are children?” Kaglia smiled and crinkled her eyes.

“Yes, because we are best friends. We want to be friends for always.” The girls bumped their shoulders together.

All I could do was smile. I felt such love for these two little ones who dreamed without fear, loved without consequences, and shared their hopes with a stranger.

“What do you do in America?”

I hesitated. My full-time job working at a state education agency would be too hard to explain.I described my freelance writing position instead.

“I write articles for an online newspaper about special but unknown people in my town. I tell their stories.” I tried to make my explanation simple.

“So, you are an American journalist,” they looked at me wide-eyed.

“Yes, I am.” It felt strange to hear the words out loud.

“When did you know you wanted to be a journalist?” Kaglia asked.

“From the time I was a little girl.” It was true.

“So you are just like us. We are young and know what we want to do too.”

“Kaglia and Atlia, you are going to be amazing when you grow up,”I said.

The girs shook our hands formally as the boat was docking and we stood up to disembark.

“Girls, can I write an article about you?”

“Yes, yes, yes! They busily wrote their email addresses in my notebook.

Joy, joy, joy.