Paul and I Weren’t Ready

We arrived in Johannesberg directly from Ngala. Poor J-burg. It never stood a chance. By the time we got to the hotel, I was so weepy, it was like leaving for college and mistakenly thinking I was never going home. It was dark and we were hungry. We were stepping out the door to find dinner and one of the porters said,

“We can’t allow you to do that.” We looked at him confused.

“What?”

“J-burg is very dangerous and it is almost a certainty your phones will be stolen.”

We ate dinner that night in the employee cafeteria. I really cried then. We returned to our room and I looked at all of the tourist excursions offered in the city. They offered private cars with private tour guides. No way. I called down to the front desk and asked them to book us a bicycle tour in Soweto, one of the powder keg locations of student resistance in the battle  against apartheid. I wanted to see it. I was determined. Paul decided to stay mum. Maybe he should have spoken up. I’m not going to lie. It was a tough day.

A car arrived the next morning to pick us up. One of the staff members came outside and took a picture of our license plate.

“In case you go missing, Mr. Klenk.”

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Soweto was not like I imagined. It was huge. Hundreds of van taxis drove incredibly fast on narrow city streets. Benalia, a twenty-something go -getter, was our tour guide. He jumped curbs and rode without hands while Paul and I wobbled around on our bikes, weaving back and forth next to the traffic, and up hills that never seemed to go downhill. He gave our tour shouting over his shoulder. We didn’t hear a word he said. We were just trying to survive.

The Hector Piterson museum, however was beautifully done. In 1976, the South African government passed a law saying that all black children living in townships would be forced to abandon English and their tribal language and instead speak and read in Afrikaan–the language of the oppressor.  Forcing black South African children to speak Afrikaan would essentially render them voiceless. Thirty children, many just twelve and thirteen years old, gathered outside their school, Phefeni Junior Secondary School, and began singing a traditional Sotho anthem. Police fired on them and Hector was one of the first children killed. The iconic picture of Mbuyisa Makubo carrying Hector while Hector’s 15-year old sister ran alongside became one of the images of apartheid the world could no longer ignore.

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Benalia told the story of his township, his predecessors, and his future with such conviction, I almost believed I could ride that bicycle to the end of the day. Thankfully, he recognized our struggle and called back to the office to pick us up. We spent one more hour in Soweto—I asked to see a school where students were working on computers and practicing their spelling and math. We met seven little students. The girls shyly spoke Zulu to one another while the young boys boasted about their skills while speaking English. Side by side, Zulu and English, Hector and Benalia, Soweto believes in the impossible while making it happen.

Elijah’s Leopard

Elijah picked us up at the airport when we landed in Hoedspruit. We were on our way to Ngala Safari Lodge. I quivered with excitement. It was an hour-long ride and I hovered over his shoulder talking non-stop. I asked him,

“What was the dumbest question a guest has ever asked you?” Elijah was silent for two beats longer than I expected. “I will have to think about that question, Mrs. Klenk. I will tell you when I know.”

My new friendship with Elijah was an unexpected bonus to Paul. Thankful someone else had to listen to me prattle, his head lolled on the back of his seat and his snores were embarrassing.  He missed the warthogs and giraffe I saw by the side of the road, and he did not believe me when I told him there was elephant poop as large as a Thanksgiving turkey and an antelope the size of poodle—one of the miniature ones.

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Poor Elijah. by the end of our stay in Ngala, not only did he have a question for me, he had an entire story by which he could have lost his job and we could have been kicked out of the lodge. But for the kindness of Mamma Connie—and mostly the Black Dame—we were forgiven.

I want to be totally up front with this story. It was Paul’s fault. From the beginning, the middle, and all the way to the end, it was Paul’s enthusiasm that got us in a serious pickle.

I had read in some of the safari materials that guests could visit a local community, talk to teachers and students, and listen to a talk about a compassion care clinic. Sign me up. That’s right down my alley. I dressed carefully, covering my legs with a long skirt in case there were local beliefs that women should dress conservatively. The only problem was that it was hot.

“Elijah, can I open the window?”

Elijah was our driver for the afternoon. The car was a late-model SUV—very comfortable. The body of the car was gleaming from a recent washing and even the tires were scrubbed free of mud. The kitchen staff had made lunches for all of us and thoughtfully remembered extra water bottles for when we walked in the community under the strong sun.

“Yes, Mrs. Klenk. I will also make the air colder.”

“Elijah,” Paul said leaning forward into the front seat, “have you seen the Big 5?”

“Mr. Klenk, I have not. I have only been here two months and I have not been on safari. I have just the leopard left. I have seen the others, even the lion, near the lodge.” Elijah spoke carefully and there were times his speech was so formal it made me smile.

This is where we went wildly off track—or others may call it, gone rogue.

“I know where a leopard is,” Paul said. My husband had memorized the roads on the reserve and he recognized we were close to the location where we had encountered a leopard that morning. We were driving on the road that skirted the edge of the reserve property. The safari roads were just on the other side of a stand of brush that grew haphazardly like an inconsequential fence—more bluster than real. Elijah’s foot hesitated over the brake. He looked at us in the rear view mirror. We looked innocently back. That is how Paul and I get in trouble. It always seems like a good idea.

“Elijah, don’t worry. She is very close to here. She is in a tree. Paul pointed through the open window past my hair blowing in the hot wind. “Turn here. It will be just a small detour. I promise.” I wondered if Elijah knew the English word “detour.” It was kind of an old-fashioned term. Elijah slowed the vehicle to a crawl and looked a bit concerned when Paul pointed to a small opening in the brush. He turned slowly.

“Good, yes, Elijah. I know exactly where she is. Allyn and the other guides call her the Black Dame.” Elijah brought the car to a halt. He stared at us in the mirror.

“Yes, I know of the Black Dame. I have heard of her. I think it is best that we turn around now. This is not a safari vehicle. It should not be here on these roads.”

“Elijah,” Paul wheedled (yes, he did wheedle), “see that tree up there? You can see her tail hanging down. Just pull onto that path and you will see her.” Paul spoke with confidence. “You will have the Big 5, Elijah. Just two months here and you will already have the Big 5. I’m impressed.”

Elijah edged forward and pulled up next to the tree where the Black Dame was sleeping. Her large, muscled body rippled as she turned and raised her head. She opened her beautiful Cleopatra eyes and sat up. She yawned. Her mouth was huge. Her teeth were daggers. In that moment I realized she was a serious predator. I probably weighed more than an impala, but I think she could take me if she put her mind to it.

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“I think we should leave, Elijah,” I said. I started to close my window. Paul grabbed my fingers and the glass paused.

“Just a minute.” He leaned across my lap and stuck his head out the window. The big cat tensed and stared down at us. Both Elijah and I struggled to close the window. I grabbed Paul’s head and hauled him back in the car. The Black Dame’s front claws extended onto the branch she was sitting on. Her haunches were in the air. Elijah put the car in reverse and we took off out of the clearing like we were in a safari vehicle. The dust rose around us and I thought of the wasted washing the car had received.

“We are going to the community now. We are only going to that location. We will stay on this road.” Elijah’s arms were straight like he was trying to push the steering wheel away from him. He wiped his brow.

“Elijah, I am so sorry. We didn’t realize she would wake up.” I tried to be conciliatory, but what I really felt was tremendous guilt. “We will tell Mamma Connie what happened.”

“It’s okay, Elijah. I will tell her it was all my idea. That I made you do it.” Paul was serious.

Elijah was silent. The inside of the car was freezing.

“You tell Mamma Connie what happened and then I will talk to her when she comes to speak to me,” he said.

“Could you lose your job?” Paul asked. Elijah didn’t speak.

“Will Mamma Connie make us leave Ngala?” I asked. Elijah didn’t speak.

“This is all your fault, Paul. For once I am not to blame. You had to pretend you were a safari guide and now we are all in trouble.” I shivered. It was cold in the car.

Paul didn’t speak.

On the way home from the community we assured Elijah that everything would be okay. We would talk to Allyn. Mamma Connie loved Allyn. Everything would be fine.

Then we turned the corner and two huge elephants were standing in the road. They were so close I could see their eye lashes. Paul and I didn’t hesitate. We both rolled our windows down to look at the elephants eye to eye.

“Mr. and Mrs. Klenk. It is time to go to the lodge. The windows must remain up. We will not stop again.” Elijah looked at us in the rear view mirror and we looked down in shame.

At the end of the week, Elijah drove us back to the airport. Since Mamma Connie had forgiven us, our little safari adventure was now funny.

“Mrs. Klenk, I have thought about your question since you have arrived. I have an answer. Everyone asks me who my partner is because all the other staff have partners (people they work with). I do not have a partner, but I have seen the Big 5.”

I burst into laughter. I hugged his shoulder.

“Elijah, give me your email address and I will send you the article about our trip to see the Black Dame.”

I wish I was there to see his eyes crinkle. He has been there more than two months now. I bet he has a partner and I am sure he has been on safari.

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Full disclosure: I might have exaggerated a tiny bit about the Black Dame’s interest in us when we were in the car. Okay. Maybe. Also, Paul swears I did not have to “haul his head in the window.” Well, that’s still under debate. The most important part was that Elijah was a brave driver–especially because he had no idea how much trouble the Klenks get into on a regular basis. THANK YOU, ELIJAH.

Thinking of South Africa

Well, I am finally done with my South Africa blog. Okay…I finished it  a month after we got home, but there was a lot to digest and even more to think about. In all, we spent five days in Cape Town at the Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel, five days on safari at the &Beyond Ngala Safari Lodge, two days in Johannesburg, and a week at the Zebra Cottage in Stellenbosch. Thank you, Marianne Birrell, of Marianne Birrell Safaris who arranged our Cape Town and Ngala stays. You did a beautiful and professional job.

I added a few more blog posts that yes, I know, are after the fact. Some of them took a while to write. Others took a movement of heart to say.

I packed my People, Places, and Palate pages full of stories, pictures, and memories. For a writer, a blog is a living scrapbook filled with words that represent experiences. However, if you are more of a picture person, come over for wine and we will show you the almost 2,000 pictures we took on the trip. There are at least 200 of a leopard named the Black Dame.

For the final post in this blog, however, here are a few memories I carry with me from South Africa:

  • Our hotel, The Belmond Mount Nelson, was painted pink to celebrate the end of World War I in 1918. It has stayed pink ever since.
  • Swirling in a handmade African dress made me feel more like a princess than wearing a prom dress.
  • Cricket and Rugby are just plain incomprehensible. We still don’t know how you can get 300 points in one cricket game or why a field goal in rugby is called a dropped goal.
  • We thought the six dogs that roamed the winery were sissy dogs until Paul jokingly told them to hunt up a bird. Mayhem ensued.
  • I spent three weeks learning how to conduct an African handshake. Children on the streets of Cape Town and Soweto were my patient teachers.
  • I bought Paul a leather safari hat which makes him look devastatingly dashing. He now wears it every day at home—“it keeps the rain off my glasses”—I know the truth. He looks like Indiana Jones.
  • We played a drinking game where we used giraffe poop pellets to see who could spit the farthest. They tasted like grass. Done. No more details unless you read the post “Ngala Meeting the Black Dame.”
  • Baboons and monkeys are called bush criminals.
  • I didn’t like hyenas going into my trip and I still don’t. They skitter sideways which I think looks creepy.
  • We almost got kicked out of Ngala. Read “Elijah’s Leopard” to see why.
  • The collective nouns for safari animals now resonate with me: a crash of rhinos, a thunder of hippos, a parade of elephants, a clan of hyenas, a leap of leopards, a parliament of owls, and most hauntingly—a journey of giraffes.
  • To be able to become a tracker on safari, one must be able to tell where a butterfly’s feet and wings left the ground in a square foot of sand. (Lovely, is it not?)

Thank you, friends–Thobeka, Edward, Katie, Pappy (even though you almost got us arrested),  Kaglia, Alti, Elijah, Allyn, Jimmy, Mama Connie, Given,  Benali, the Winery dogs (especially Girl, aka Cocoa), and Freddy–who made our trip not only memorable but now lodged in our hearts.

Come see us in the United States. We live in beautiful Washington State on a salt water inlet. We will take you on walks on the beach, hikes in the mountains, pour you South African wine on our deck, and share pictures of our trip and reminiscence on the kindness and hospitality you showed us in your country. Let us repay you.

Best Regards,

Lesley

Farewell to Freddy

The most poignant moment of our 19 days in South Africa happened in the airport as we were leaving.

We had five suitcases, two carry-on bags, a filthy rental car, and Paul and I were getting a little cranky. It had been 19 solid days together. We spent our final day in Cape Town visiting the Belmond Mount Nelson and Green Market Square for last minute gifts–or just more stuff. We were tired and we still had to wait for a midnight flight to Paris.

We got in line to return the car. I heard a voice behind me.

“Ma’am would you like help with your bags?”

I turned around. A small man stood tall with his chest up and looked at me directly in the eye. He had before him a suitcase cart. He wore the official orange vest of the airport employees. He was dressed simply; his coat worn but clean and mended; his shoes shined, his hair was short and the color grey was beginning to creep like moss over his head. He smiled.

“May I help you?”

“Yes!” I said. I began rolling the bags and lifting them on the cart.

“Ma’am, let me help.” He took the bags and stacked them on the cart. He motioned for my heavy carry-on bag and placed it securely on the cart. “Sir, yours, please.” Paul handed him his carry-on too. We both stood silent. We didn’t know what to do. We were used to struggling with our own junk.

“My name is Freddy. I am your porter. My job is to help you.” I was reminded of Given and his simple declaration of service.

“Okay,” I said as we walked through the dark empty parking lot together. Paul and I shuffled next to Freddy our arms and shoulders empty. “My name is Lesley. That’s Paul, my husband.”

Freddy smiled while confidently pushing the car. It weighed at least 250 pounds. “Did you enjoy your stay in Cape Town?” His voice was low and steady. We continued walking uphill through two more parking lots.

“We did! We love it here.” Even tired and crabby, I was still in love with Cape Town.

“And you are from where?” he inquired.

“Seattle,” Paul said. “In the U.S.”

“Of course, Freddy said. “Sleepless in Seattle. That was a good movie. I remember it. Tom Hanks, yes?” We all laughed.

“What do you do here at the airport?” Paul asked carefully.

“I am a porter. I help people with their bags. I will help you with the VAT process as well.”

I looked unsure.

“If you spent money here in South Africa you will get a portion of the tax back since you are not a citizen of South Africa.” Paul and I nodded. Thank goodness we happened upon Freddy. We didn’t know anything about that.

“Will you show us how to get our bags wrapped in plastic too?” I asked. “I’m worried I packed my bag so tightly it will burst open.” When we left Cape Town to fly to Ngala, I admired a machine that twirled a suitcase covering it in saran wrap.

“Yes, Lesley and Paul, I will have your bags wrapped for you.”

Freddy continued pushing our cart up the steep hill to the departure terminal. Paul and I looked at each other. I motioned at his wallet and mouthed “do you have a tip?” He nodded.

“It is hard to find work in South Africa,” Freddy said. “So many people have come here from other countries. There is not enough work.” He cleared his throat and changed subjects. “Where did you stay in Cape Town?”

“At the Belmond Mount Nelson. It is so beautiful.” I sighed. “Just beautiful.”

“I know that hotel. Yes, she is wonderful. I was there once for a dinner for my work many, many years ago.”

We arrived at the check-in counter and Freddy unloaded our bags, handed us our VAT and plastic wrapping receipts, and then nodded his head to us. I handed him two unopened water bottles.

“Here Freddy, would you like these? We can’t take them through Security.”

Freddy took the two bottles and placed one on the counter for the agent at the check-in counter.  “It was a pleasure meeting you Paul and Lesley. Have a safe trip home.” He turned to leave and Paul handed him a 100 Rand note. It was the equivalent of eight dollars American. Freddy smiled again, shook our hands and left.

“That was nice of you to give him that tip. Porters don’t make a salary here. They work for tips,” the agent said.

I turned and looked at Paul. I got teary-eyed. Most of the time Paul can withstand my pleas, but this time it was written on his face too.

“Find Freddy. He needs more money. He helped us so much.” Paul kissed me and took off on that slow jog of his that I love. I’d never tell him, but he looks like he is running on his tip toes. I could see him glancing at all of the porters sitting in their orange vests. That’s when I really looked at the patrons at the airport. Orange vests were everywhere. Everywhere.

“How many porters are here?” I asked.

The agent looked up surprised. He thought we were gone. “I don’t know. It changes every day. Freddy is the best, ” he said shrugging his shoulders. “he is not too proud to help anyone even if they only give him a rand.”

I sat and waited for Paul. Freddy was one of the good guys. I knew it in my heart. He was hardworking, respectful, kind, pleasant. He was a good man. Why didn’t he have a job?  Yes, I understand that people have things that happen that turn their life away from the direction it should be heading. There are personal issues, family issues, issues, issues, issues.

It came down to Freddy for me. Paul says that all countries have some sort of racism and class issues. South Africa, the United States, France, and many others are still toiling away at the issues that mark our countries with ugliness. During our time in the Winelands, when work would let out, hundreds of black  South Africans would stream onto the sides of the highways to walk home to the shanty towns of small houses built out of corrugated metal. There were a few of those large taxi vans like in Soweto that would pick up passengers and people would cram their way into the vehicle. It took me days to realize that the people walking on the highway did not own cars. Yes, go ahead and shake your head. How could I have not known? It wasn’t my experience. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t own a car.

Paul came huffing back. He handed me a piece of paper. It said FREDDY. And there was a phone number next to it.

“Call the Mount Nelson when we get home. Tell them about Freddy.”

And, so I did. I contacted the Belmond Mount Nelson. I told them everything Freddy had done. “The Mount Nelson uniform was meant for someone like him,” I said. I kept that piece of paper with his name and number. I don’t want to forget him or how he conducts himself each and every day. He is one of the good ones–in spite of the issues.

 

 

Meeting the Black Dame

Ngala (which means Lion) Safari Lodge is located within the Ngala Game Reserve which borders Kruger National Park which borders the countries of Zimbabwe to the north and Mozambique to the east. Why does this matter? Because there are few fences in Africa and animals are free to roam across the bush. The Drakensberg and Limpopo mountains are always in the distance and this is important because a safari never ends.

Our game reserve is 36,000 acres. After five days on safari, the names Cheetah Flats, Little Serengeti, Skananaan Road, Big Bend, and the dry riverbed of the Timbavate River all had meaning to us. These are the places where we met the animals of Africa and where we learned about their struggles for survival. It is where we met the Black Dame.

Our lodge is nestled inside a stand of mopane and tamboti trees. Elephants, Cape buffalo, and hippos visit the lodge’s watering hole when they choose, drinking and splashing while guests take pictures and leave their lunches to the monkeys.

 

There are 21 thatched cottages and a family lodge. It is good to know that the ceilings are thatched because centipedes are known to fall directly on you while you are sleeping. It is quite startling when it happens. Our cottage was luxurious with fine linens, a deep tub with a floor to ceiling window, and an outdoor shower in a tall, private courtyard. I was sure if I knocked on the door across the way, Ernest Hemmingway himself may have answered the door. A slow-moving fan rustled above our bed and we slept with sturdy screen doors open to the night. Every door in the lodge was secured tightly against the shrewd and ignoble antics of the baboons. Baboons and monkeys are called bush criminals. Their play is charming, but when they dash up and steal your food, your camera, or your glasses, you let them have them. Baboons are strong enough to injure a person. The lodge has given up trying to scare them away. It is best to live alongside them if not in peace then in vigilance. I shook my finger at a monkey who was directly above my head, and he lunged and swung on the branch. I screamed and jumped into a woman’s lap. I think the monkey laughed.

When we first arrived at Ngala, we were greeted by our butler. Yes, I said butler.

“Paul,” I said to my husband, “I can’t have a butler.” Given was our butler at Ngala.

Given became my best friend at Ngala. Sometimes he held my hand while we were walking through the grounds. We talked to each other without taking a breath, and his smile was broad and sincere, and I couldn’t help but feel love. Yes, love.  He brought us chilled wine after lunch and again after dinner, he folded my clothes, and left a book mark for my reading. He held my scarf for me and insisted I have the warmest blanket for the chilly morning drives.  He pampered me.

 

I asked him if I could visit the kitchen and meet our chef, Duma. Given was overcome with excitement. Thank goodness I had showered and washed my hair after the dust of the morning drive. Given took 24 pictures of me and the staff. He introduced me and handed them my camera so he could be in the picture. He was thrilled as I asked questions and took notes on the task of feeding 75 people five times a day—rusks and coffee early morning, breakfast after our drives, lunch at noon, tea at three, and dinner late in the evening.  Given told me everyone’s name and I tried to write them down. I visited the laundresses and they hugged and patted me because they loved my green African dress. He showed me where the staff ate, where they lived, and the pantry that was triple locked because of the monkeys and the baboons. When we finished our tour, I asked him to sit down and have tea with me. He looked at as if I had asked him to join me on the moon. He said,

“No, I am a butler.”  I was ashamed at my breach of etiquette. I didn’t know what else to say so I asked him where his community was located. He said Hutchinson was 3 ½ hours from Ngala. I then asked him how often he went home to see his family. He smiled at me with genuine compassion. “Mrs. Klenk, I go home when I am not a butler.”

Every morning at 4:45, there would be a tap at our door and a voice would tell us it was time for safari. We were also told that if we did not rouse, another tap would come at our door. “It is important,” he said “to greet the day.” We ate rusks in the morning. Like biscotti, rusks are dunked in coffee and they then turn to mush. Allyn, our guide, and close in age of our oldest son (and that was important because it was the lens by which I saw everything), would greet us, pull out a map, and show us where our journey would take us that morning. It was different every day because we went where the animals went. We always stopped for the sunrise. Always. It looked different every day. Allyn says that every drive begins with a little bit of imagination and a lot of hope.

Paul and I listed all the animals we saw on safari: elephants, lions, hyenas, leopards, warthogs, cape buffalo, kudu, hippos, rhinos, giraffe, zebra, alligator, African wild dog, impalas, wildebeest, gnus, bush bucks, antelope; baboons, monkeys, dikas, mongoose, honey badger; I’ll keep thinking. There are more.

 

I thought I would be impatient with bird watching, but it became a challenge between the birds and me. I found myself looking for the agile lilac-breasted roller, the magpie shriek that kills birds by impaling them on thorns, and the bird whose name escapes me but is known as a cackling old woman. We drove by an eagle’s nest twice each day, and I wanted so wp-1479159652103.jpgbadly to see the eggs hatch before we left. They did not, but the mother and father were diligent parents and I believe the hatchlings are snug in their nest as I write.

While on safari you do not stay on roads. You rocket into the brush, spin around tangled grass, knock down noxious thorn bushes, and drag branches in your wake. But you do not run over mopane trees. Mopane is a Zulu word that means butterfly because the leaves look like butterfly wings. Mopane trees became the symbol of my happiness while on safari. We rode in three seats, climbing one after another. The safari vehicle was open to the sky. I cannot call it a jeep, but it wasn’t a car. It was something all its own because it can cross deep puddles, tilt dangerously sideways against a ravine side, and bump over the tops of rocks higher than I could jump.

There was a ritual you follow when you find an animal or animals. First, Allyn cuts the motor and we glide to a stop. Second, there is always a hush. You talk in a whisper. It is like seeing animals as you have not seen them before. For example, watching giraffes, you notice they glide. You see them anew only because you have a tracker.

 

Jimmy was our tracker. He raised his finger slightly to signal Allyn when he saw an animal. He rode out on a chair that juts out beyond the end of the safari vehicle.  When looking for lions, Jimmy left the vehicle and entered the bush. If you turned your head and then looked back, he was gone, blended into the trees and tall grasses. He did not carry a gun. He could look through the brush and thorns and see animals without revealing his presence. He found African Wild Dogs and lions for us by following their prints, their scent, and the path they left behind. I asked him if he was ever afraid and he shook his head and gave me a small smile.

“No, if I was I would not go.”

Allyn told me that to become a tracker of Jimmy’s caliber you must be able to see the imprint of a moth’s feet and wings as it took off in flight from a bed of sand.

I admired Allyn’s knowledge; I worshipped Jimmy’s courage. A tracker is always listening while the guide is always talking. Allyn would laugh if he knew I said that. It’s the tracker’s job to find the animals and the guide’s job to open your eyes to what it is like be that animal. Did you know that a giraffe is voiceless? Or that the white underside of impala’s tail is meant to confuse a predator while the black top of the tail is meant to help it blend into the bush? Did you know that you could drink snake venom and be fine—it is only when it enters the blood stream that it kills? Did you know that a leopard does not have spots, but instead rosettes? When you are close enough to the Black Dame you can see how her coat is scattered with roses.

We leave for late-day safari after afternoon tea. Again, we plan our four-hour drive. The sun begins to set at 6:00, and we stop to watch the sky creep with pink and then orange.

 

Before dusk arrives, Allyn and Jimmy set up a table, settle a fluttering table cloth on it, and put out snacks and drinks. I discovered the snacks were corn nuts and jerky. Impala jerky. That would have been nice to know.  With the wind quiets you get to know your companions better. The Norwegians, Christian and Nina, our young ones, were beautiful, tall, and blinked their sky-blue eyes like giraffe. They didn’t talk much, but they loved riding in the third seat. We called it the Disneyland seat because of its propensity to cause flight to those sitting in it during a particularly thrilling chase.  Paul and Andre were classic middle children, laid-back and willing to go along with the group. Erica and I were first born children with definite opinions and a passion to see as much as we could as fast as we could. Here’s what’s interesting: When we returned to the lodge, we all stuck together. We were a tribe. There is something about peeing with other women behind a termite hill while the men all stood peeing in a row and looking at the landscape that bonded us. That and maybe the giraffe poop story.

Allyn convinced us that he and his friends had giraffe and impala poop spitting contests when he was a young boy. I should have listened more carefully. He grew up in Pretoria, the capitol of South Africa. I am pretty sure there weren’t giraffes or impalas grazing in suburban back yards.  He gave each of us a handful of dried poop pellets collected from a nearby desiccated pile.

“They taste just like grass,” he said. There was a grin tugging at his cheeks and his chocolate-colored eyes were dancing. He makes his mother ride in a different safari vehicle when she comes to visit. If she is with her son, she will tap on the back of his head like a woodpecker and tell him to slow down and quit driving so fast. I love her, of course.

Sundowning is also about your first cocktail of the day, and after a few hours of spinning in the dust, chasing the flash of a tail, and hurtling down the road to be the first vehicle at a new carcass, you are ready for a drink. The lodge thoughtfully packs everything—gin, tonic, several kinds of wine, whiskey, and vodka.

The spitting contest commenced. Paul and Erica were pros. I think Andre abstained, but Christian and Nina were game to try, so I put a poop pellet in my mouth. But then I couldn’t do it. I gagged, bent over and let it slide out of my mouth. It looked less like grass and exactly like fresh poop when it hit the ground. I had additional glasses of wine after that. I prayed for wine’s antiseptic qualities. Music is not allowed in the Ngala Reserve, but that didn’t stop us from singing songs we remembered from our youth; or, in my case, a borrowed youth.

“Hey,” Allyn called as I made my hands stiff and swooped them out in front of me. “You’re dancing like the Backstreet Boys.”

“I am not.” I laughed from the belly that had clenched as if punched. I lied. I had indeed danced to their music seventeen years ago when my son was eight and discovering boy bands. Allyn’s innocent recollection of an experience we shared while continents apart stung; it was a reminder that my son’s childhood was now just a memory. “I bet you wore your hair like theirs too,” I dared.

“You mean like this?” He used his fingers to rustle through hair to make it stick straight up above his forehead.

“Yes,” I said and held my glass out for more wine.  I thought of his mother. Did she too work the comb and the hairspray carefully in the morning until it met his approval? It was a long time ago and I wondered why I couldn’t let go of my boy who now is a man. Perhaps I hope that my son, like Allyn, lives fully, with joy, and aware of the fragility of life. I know my time with Allyn was a mere five days while my relationship with my son is 25 years, but I am convinced that Allyn opened windows for us that are closed to me with my son. My heart hurts about that.

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The sun was dropping behind us melting the branches of a tree. Halcyon moments are rare, but this counted as one.

Although it happens every night, I am never prepared for dusk. It is stealthy. It does not have color when it arrives and, for a moment, you panic. On safari, the darkness  hides the animals and you are afraid they might be gone. But, they aren’t it. You must put your trust in your guide and your tracker day and night. They know the way.

Allyn began talking about the Black Dame. Jimmy wandered back. He did not drink and usually left our party to look for prints in the sand. This is what Allyn said:

“We’ll probably find her tomorrow. She made a kill today—an impala—and another group saw it in a tree. It was fresh. The Black Dame is an 8-year old leopard. Her son still comes to see her. Her eyes are surrounded with thick black fur that makes her look like Cleopatra. It’s as if she knows that she is a queen. She suns herself, climbs trees, and eats impalas close to the safari vehicles. She removes the fur before eating. We don’t know why, but she doesn’t like the taste of fur.”

 

We learned the Black Dame is at ease with the safari vehicles having grown up with them. She yanks the fur from the body of her kill with delicate, swift pulls of her front teeth. She grinds its bones with her back molars until it sounds like  garden tools scraping across cement. She is known for glancing at a vehicle filled with picture-snapping guests and leaping into the branches of a tree from where she had been standing.

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We met the Black Dame four times while at Ngala. Once she had her back turned and did not acknowledge us. Another time she was in a tree sunning herself. We also saw her on a non-sanctioned trip into the reserve. (You can read about it in the blog post, “Elijah’s Leopard”) She saved the best for last. She was sleeping on the ground at first sight. Hearing us, she woke, stretched, yawned, and walked to the tree. She leaped, the roses scattered across her fur blooming as she left the ground. My heart was in my throat and my pulse was pounding. She does that to you. 20161003_211934

When we arrived back at the lodge at night, we were often sleepy, cold, and stiff. Security guards met us and walked us back to our cottages with flash lights. Without any fences, the animals of Ngala could wander into our place as well. Which they did while we were there.

“Mrs. Klenk, you must come to the boma tonight,” Given said squeezing my hand. Although I was tired, I agreed. There was a tall gate behind the open-air thatched lodge where we ate breakfast and lunch. Tonight, the gate was open. The boma is open to the night with sand for a floor and an enormous bonfire that sends sparks into the blackness. I sank into my chair and our group members settled too. Given and the other butlers poured wine, and Allyn entertained all of us with stories from his time as a safari guide.

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“There was a guest,” Allyn started, “who asked how often the windsock on the runway was filled with food for the giraffes. I didn’t laugh,” Allyn promised. The rest of us snickered. “Okay,” he said warming to the stories. “Another guest inquired how long it takes for the wildebeest to grown into its zebra stripes. I’m not kidding, it really happened.” he smirked as we began to laugh and shake our heads. I breathed deeply of the smoke’s spicy scent.

“Fine,” he said, giving up. “I did laugh one time. I couldn’t help it, because I would have suffered an aneurysm if I hadn’t. There was a guest who was impatient and hard to please. Finally we were headed back to the lodge. He…he was a big guy. He had taken his belt off to loosen his pants on the way back. When I  pulled up to the lodge, he forgot about his pants and stood up.  He fell face first to the ground.”

We didn’t just laugh; we snorted, harrumphed, and cried. Allyn’s young face beamed and I was reminded again of my son. He too could tell a story with aplomb.

Inside the boma, hundreds of sparkling lanterns whisper and greet you. They flicker and glow on the tables and from the top of the wall. They hang from the branches of the enormous weeping boere bean tree and swing slightly in the draft of the fire. We tried again and again, but the camera could not capture the dancing light. It was meant for the moment and no more.

So now we are home in our own little beautiful corner on earth. I know people say they leave a bit of themselves behind when they depart a place that has special meaning to them. I believe it. I don’t know if I can return to Ngala. Without my tribe, without Allyn and Jimmy, that little piece of me would be lost to the wind. I want our time there to be like a spider web in autumn— unexpected in its beauty, undone with a touch, and discovered by few. I now understand why the safari guides are reluctant to name the animals that live in the bush. I want the Black Dame to stay exactly where she is—in the tree where we saw her last.

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