I had never really thought about visiting Africa. I’m ashamed to admit it now, but it just never occurred to me. I travel for food and I knew nothing about the food cultures of the entire continent, save some info on northern Africa. So when this opportunity to travel to South Africa for work came up, I was excited to go, but not that excited.
Maybe that’s why it completely blew my head open. Really. I came home and told Doug about my trip and I started to cry. I was at work this morning telling my co-worker about it and I started to cry. (And those of you who know me know that I am not the kind of person who cries at work.) I feel like my heart has been cracked open and scrambled â€” but in a magnificent way. And I’ve only just scratched the surface of the tiniest mote of Africa’s dust. I can’t wait to learn more and see more and visit more. It’s the birthplace of humanity, people!
There’s much to discuss overall because South Africa is a totally fascinating place with a still shocking recent history, a real masala of cultures, and a ringing energy. But I have to talk about the magic of the veld first.
I feel compelled to write about this right now because I never want to let this feeling go. My trip was filled with these vaporous, ephemeral moments that I knew could never be captured in photos. I knew all I could do was to take a long, strong hit off them, hold my breath, and try to make the memories seep into my bloodstream.
Kruger National Park and the Singita Game Reserves look the way Africa looks in the movies — Rumpelstiltskin-spun straw; arid, ruddy dirt; crooked, threadbare marula trees. The sunlight charges the dusty air with yellow gold in the late afternoon. Its rays turn into white gold as the sun begins to set in the late afternoon, casting long, silver-lined shadows on the grass. Then the last light of the day burnishes rose gold as a fuchsia sun sets the horizon on fire. The light is unreal.
And then the moon! The moon, which appears simultaneously in the sky with the sun only on full moon nights, pops up on the horizon as intense and bright as lava. As it crosses the night sky, it turns platinum white.
(I swear, below, that bright thing is the moon!)
I stayed in South Africa for ten days trying to inhale as much of the country as I could. During my final evening game drive at the Singita Sabi Sand Game Reserve, we had seen everything you could want to see: a pack of nine rhinoceroses placidly grazing new grass like paleolithic lawn mowers. A herd of cape buffalo 200 deep, their Gothic black valkyrie horns cutting through the sterling light. Lions lolling in an empty, sandy riverbed with dusty manes and full stomachs. Surprisingly stocky, placid giraffes. A sleek, calm leopard wearing a collar of spots around its neck, its tongue hanging limp in its panting mouth. A family of a dozen elephants, from a (relatively) tiny two-month-old calf drinking water between the legs of the clan matriarch to a young bull who stood right next to the vehicle for an eye- and nostril-ful of our Land Rover. Sometimes it was so quiet you could hear the buzzing of a single mosquito. Other times the cacophony could give a Lower East Side street a run for its money. I could never have imagined how much richer my life would be for having seen these things. There’s something so enchanting about hanging out with the animals and seeing them (almost) as they should always be. It isn’t just the peace of knowing that humans have given these animals a wild haven; it’s also the safe space that the animals grant to you as you observe them.
My field guide, Marc Alkema (left), is an empathic, passionate veld dweller. He’s been a guide for 12 years; the David Attenborough narration was fantastic, of course, but so was the feeling of absolute security I felt with him, even around the big game. There are few pleasures greater than to be in the care of someone who knows and loves what they do. I can’t thank him enough for sharing his world with me.
You know what’s awesome? Being reminded that there are still plenty of things in this world that can move me to tears.
Have you heard of the African wild dog? They’re an endangered species; farmers shoot them because they fear for their livestock. They’re incredible predators with an 80% strike rate. They’re sometimes called “painted wolves” because of their distinct mottled markings. They trot with light feet and instead of barking, they communicate with this distinct, high-pitched wheeze.
This ostrich had the most amazing gait. It looked like a pinheaded model with long, knock-kneed gams and a voluminous, feathery bolero around its shoulders. She took one look at us, turned at the end of the catwalk, and sashayed away.
Hyenas — way more charming than they’re portrayed in popular culture. The cubs are super cute and puppy-like. Here, they’ve made a den in an old termite hill, the tops of which always point north, like a good cool-temp apartment.
Warthogs look like heshers with mullets and chops.
Did you know that leopards can carry twice their weight up into trees? Here, a leopard has pulled the body of an impala up, hanging its neck from the crook of this tree. Can you see it? They do this to keep their food from the hyenas (though sometimes lions scavenge their kills, too).
The moment that broke me happened night before I had to leave. We were driving back to the lodge when we came to a hill where a blubbery boysenberry hippo was enjoying his nightly meal, chomping on grass and paying no mind to the traffic jam he was causing. He finally mozied away and we crested the hill, driving down into the dry stone bed of a low stream. There were large, glass-like puddles of still water between wide, flat rocks. Marc cut the engine and Louis, our tracker, turned off the floodlight he had been using to sweep for nocturnal animals. The cool night air enveloped us, and without the sound of the Land Rover, the full-scale orchestra of bush sounds poured into our ears — the snorts and guttural, staccato woofs of the hippos; the low, wooded croak of toads; the high-stringed chirps of the huge katydid populace.
I turned to my left and saw what Marc knew was there – thousands of fireflies bobbing and sparkling, their phosphorescent tails glowing bluish-green at eye level. The insects’ spectacular light show blended seamlessly with the stars of the southern hemisphere — the southern cross and Scorpio and Aries and the pearly smear of the Milky Way twinkling all around us in an infinite curve. It was a moment of beauty I wanted to sear into my heart forever. I’ll never, ever forget it.
This experience made me grateful for those precious moments of splendor and reminded me how generous the world can be with them when you pay attention. I cried quite a bit that night and I cried again the morning I had to leave. On our way from the airport, the man in my shuttle with kind eyes tapped me on the shoulder and said, “I was moved to see you so touched by Africa. We all are. Is this your first time?” he asked.
I nodded sheepishly.
“Well,” he said, “I know it won’t be your last.”