Changing His Spots

Travelers can read Heart of Darkness and “The Short Happy Life of Francis
Macomber,” they can watch Out of Africa and The African Quee, and they
can study the Discovery Channel’s documentaries about wildebeest migrations. They can
peruse Internet sites about the Mother Continent until they feel woozy. But no matter what
their pre-trip research, those travelers will not be prepared for the sensory-enriched,
perspective-changing wonders Africa provides. However, tourists who seek luxury without
inconvenience, wild animals without danger and varied cultures without misunderstandings
should probably receive their doses of Africa between television commercials. Everyone else
should head south. In my case, south meant South Africa, and South African Airways made the
long trip as pleasant as possible. Poor sleepers like me should steal from their children,
if they must, to upgrade to Premium Business Class. The gourmet food, unparalleled service
and seats that convert into beds greatly enhanced the 18-hour flight from JFK Airport in
New York to Johannesburg. Travelers who sleep readily should be OK in economy class. No
matter how they get to Africa, however, travelers who believe that great things are worth
working for will not be disappointed. In fact, some people believe that once you’ve visited
Africa, felt its rhythms, basked in its special light, interacted with its people, tasted
its foods and watched the wild animals in their natural habitats, you’ll never quite be
happy anywhere else. The French call this condition of longing Mal d’Afrique. One
simple way to ease this African absence once you’ve returned home is to pour yourself a
glass of Amarula Cream. This liqueur is produced from the fruit of marula trees, which grow
only in subequatorial Africa. Local tribes use marula trees in their wedding ceremonies,
earning it the name “The Marriage Tree.” The Venda people brew tea from marula bark in
order to influence the sex of mothers’ unborn children. And after elephants have trunked up
all the ripe fruit that has fallen to the ground, they’ll shake the tree to release even
more delights. You don’t need to work so hard, though, to enjoy this indigenous fruit and
the Made-in-Africa effects of Amarula Cream. You simply have to buy a bottle (amarula.com).
You don’t have to buy an RV, however, or even ship yours south in order to experience South
Africa’s more than 800 campgrounds. If South Africans didn’t invent trailers, they may have
perfected them — at least the kind that unfold into rugged, fully loaded vehicles
specifically designed to negotiate the rough terrain that safaris generally deliver. Attach
a rig from Bushlore Africa or Nelspruit Offroad Caravan Rentals to a de rigueur Land Rover,
and you’re off. Or rent a “camper” (a motorhome in North America) from Afritrax, then head
for South Africa’s premier outdoor location, Kruger National Park. Consisting of nearly 5
million acres (an area larger than Israel), Kruger National Park runs north-south for 217
miles along the Mozambique border. Most of the park’s terrain is called Lowveld, a savannah
punctuated by trees and bushes. The catch-all phrase “The Bush” accurately describes the
landscape, as camera-wielding visitors riding in open vehicles quickly learn to duck
branches and dance from side to side to avoid thorny bushes. But wildlife is why people
make these treks. More than 100 species of reptiles, 500 species of birds, nearly 140
species of mammals, 50 species of fish and 33 kinds of amphibians live in Kruger. RVers can
drive the park’s roads unescorted and hope to see wildlife, then go home and do research to
learn about the species they saw. Or they can do what I did: stay at the luxurious Ngala
Private Game Reserve in Kruger National Park, and get the benefit of a ranger’s and a
tracker’s wealth of knowledge and years of experience. Then visitors will know what they’re
looking at — and how to handle wildlife encounters — when they brave the bush alone.
Ngala means “lion” in the Shangaan language. John Marimane, the Shangaan tracker
assigned to the Land Rover I rode in, had supernatural powers, as far as I’m concerned. He
sat in the seat mounted to the front-left of the Land Rover’s hood (drivers sit on the
right side), a vantage point from which he tracked and spotted game. We Ngala guests sat in
the rows of seats behind Brandon Eldridge, our hyper-knowledgeable, extremely personable
ranger, and tried our best to look for game, especially the Big Five — lion, elephant,
Cape buffalo, rhinoceros and leopard. We may as well have had our eyes closed. While
traveling about 20 miles per hour, John would motion for Brandon to stop, then jump off the
vehicle because he had spotted a single print in the road dust made by a paw, foot or hoof.
He’d then walk off into the bush, carrying only a walkie-talkie. The Winchester Magnum .458
stayed with Brandon, who’d drive away, telling us about the digestive tracks of ruminants
or the mating habits of dung beetles, the killing prowess of a particular lioness or the
weather-predicting abilities of leopard tortoises. Meanwhile, John would track a creature
through Ngala’s 35,000 acres, materialize somehow, jump back in his seat, then lead us to
the animal. In four game drives (early morning and afternoon drives are included in an
Ngala stay), we saw many hundreds of animals, including four of the Big Five (missed the
rhino), as well as hippos, crocs, jackals, zebras, warthogs, giraffes, impalas, kudus,
duikers, a bush baby, an African rock python and at least a dozen others. Survival of the
fittest was on full display, and as I smiled across the seemingly endless expanse of that
harsh landscape from the back of the Land Rover, taking pictures and ducking and dancing
around bushes, I thought about the pressures of the workaday world back home, the desire to
make the grade, the need to keep up with the Joneses. In the kill-or-be-killed environment
of the game reserve, the stresses are entirely different. I know which I prefer.

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