As we circled towards the runway I could see the open-top Land cruisers waiting by the strip. I closed my eyes as we approached and was jerked with a “bump!” as we touched down. “Thank freakin God” I thought to myself as I quickly gathered all my gear and bid “adieu” to the tiny plane. Stepping onto the sandy savanna in search of our vehicle, we realized our new destination resembled no part of the world we left. We were in remote wilderness encompassed in nature’s raw, fascinating world as low man on the food chain. Once again the crisp air consumed me; its sweetness seemed to adjust the serotonin levels in my brain to “blissful aura”. I was in a state of shock, feeling so far from home yet never closer.
A smiling African man with an eccentrically beautiful accent was waiting with an Exeter River Lodge sign to escort us to the lodge. We boarded the vehicle and bundled up as the whipping wind pounced at our faces once we started cruising through the rugged terrain. Our guide told us to take out our camera in preparation for animal sightings. “Animal sightings!” was I ready to see a lion or a cyclopean herd of elephants? “Yes, yes”. I reasoned with myself that I was fully capable of handling this; that all would be just fine if I kept my hands in the vehicle and did not stand or rock in my seat. “Wait, were those instructions for safari or “It’s a Small World”?
I saw our guide point to the right towards a herd of tawny, sleek antelope that harmoniously scattered using their agile frames to navigate through the thorny bush. It was like witnessing a poetic dance between kin on an elusive stage.
We pulled up to the lodge and were greeted by the kind Exeter staff with some warm hot chocolate. The genuine welcome of each person that passed by radiated a sense of comfort and calm that was unexplainable. Our luggage was taken and we were escorted to the common area of the lodge. This alcove was an open air pavilion built on a hill overlooking the arid bush. Breakfast was offered as a way to ease into our morning and enjoy the sights and sounds of Africa. A man named Ronnie introduced himself as our porter. Tall and thin with a contagious laugh and boyish smile, Ronnie, was just the person I wanted to get to know and understand during our stay at this magical place. We ordered omelets and some honeybush tea and headed over to a spread of fresh fruits, breads, yogurt, and homemade jams. I could not help but feel utterly blessed as I ate with my husband and absorbed the operatic songs of birds as they exposed psychedelic colored wings fluttering through the wiry branches, the vista of elephant lazily grazing in the distance, and baboons foraging through the tall spiny grass.
A short plump man named Oscar approached our table waking us from a deep state of contemplation by offering to show us the grounds and our room. We gratefully obliged as we carried our hot tea and camera bag. The area where guests could roam was fairly small due to the security issue of sharing space with ferocious man-eating carnivores. There was a 24 hour surveillance kept by the staff and trackers, but who really wanted to test the obedience of our bad tempered “guests?”
“Now before we enter your room I want to assure you that the window will be replaced later this afternoon.”
“Um why would our window need to be replaced?” I blurted.
“Well yesterday a few baboons got in because the door was left unlocked and mistook the window as a point of exit while we chased them with sticks”, Oscar said hesitantly.
“They can turn the handle!?” my husband shouted.
“Oh yes, very easily, but don’t worry, if you lock the door you should have no problem at all.”
“Fantastic” my husband slurred sarcastically.
As Oscar swayed the door to our temporary abode, my mouth slowly widened with each glance of the large space. The room was like a palatial oasis with a king size bed, living area, stand-alone tub, and dual rainshower heads that stood completely open facing a glass wall that looked out to the savanna. Rewind to the beautiful glass wall and insert shattered glass wall.
Wow! That baboon must have been quite a big primate” I said
“He was definitely determined to leave and I can assure you that he will not be back” replied Oscar. “Your game drive will begin shortly so you may want to change and get settled before leaving…oh and remember to lock your door”.
“Oh right!” my husband and I said simultaneously as we ran to chain every possible nut and bolt available.
The afternoon game drives began at 4:00 pm just in time to soak in the last bit of sunlight and catch the memorizing sunset. We were introduced to our ranger Ryan, and tracker, Phickson, both having cowboy written all over their adventure- seeking faces, and two couples: one from Dubai the other from Dublin. Once the sun had exchanged places with the moon, the bush turned into a maze of open, low running rivers inhabited with agitated Hippos, dry sand beds, scrubby bush, and open grasslands. It was in these grasslands that we met our first pride of lions. Driving like a crazed man, Ryan was sure that these animals were stalking their dinner. Shuttering out of my skin a rush of fear and dread ran through my veins as we pulled alongside the pride and the Impala that had just been slain. All at once the pride began ripping the helpless creatures into shreds no more than 5 feet from the vehicle. I turned away but I could not block the booming roars, daunting growls and putrid odor of fresh blood permeating the air. Deep in a feeding frenzy, the lions fought one another for food, interlocking in a flesh stripping embrace tearing with knifelike claws pushing their weight around to exert dominance. They paced furiously around the vehicle, only inches from us, searching for prey to quench their veracious appetite.
I wanted to cry, scream, and run in every different direction but everyone else seemed to be having a grand ole’ time calm as a clam, snapping away and cheering the carnivores on. I felt as though I was watching one of those gory Discovery Channel documentaries on the hunting patterns of the night prowler; the kind of programming that causes instant perspiration and nausea. The feeding seemed to last eons as I would slowly allow a sliver of light to pass through my cupped hands exposing an eyeball to the fiasco in front of me. The more I peeked the more I became tempted to free my eyes as my adrenaline pumped and curiosity stirred. The sheer size and strength of these magnificent beasts was humbling and in a very strange way I was completely intrigued.
Finally the lions began to wean off the carcass and starting coming dangerously close-our cue to leave if we wanted to keep all limbs intact. Ryan escorted us back to lodge as we all screamed and ranted about the experience we had just had.
“Brilliant!” “Fascinating”! “Surreal!” “Sexy!” –
We all stopped at the disturbing comment from the dirty-minded Irishman and dropped our heads to keep the mounds of laughter from piling out. I phased out for a moment as I looked up at the perfectly transparent black sky to the Sothern Cross. The same constellation I had starred at from the plane, only this time I was here, I was in Africa, living it, breathing it, embracing it and for the first time in a long time I felt so alive.