Welcome to Africa

My very first trip to Africa…15 hours straight in from one continent to the next. I landed in Joburg. I had about, an hour, to get to my next flight. Which considering the amount of time it takes to get out of a plane, and figure out how to navigate through an airport in a foreign country you’ve never been to, alone…lets just say one hour really is not enough time to be relax.

So I get out of my plane, and I have to go and pick up my checked luggage, and re check it. Thats the rule. It does not go to your final destination, you must re check.

So I manage to get the bag pick up. I was tired, but excited and a little stressed, so that kept me awake. I waited for my bag impatiently, trying not to look at my watch, knowing it would stress me out even more to know how much time I didn’t have.

One by one, all the other people on my flight came and got their bags as they came out in the baggage claim.

Still I waited.

Eventually, I began to see the same bags come around again and again, and no new ones were being put on. Oh how wonderful, my bag, MY bag, is the one that does not show up, and clearly has gone missing.

I was distraught.

So I went to the nearest information desk, exhausted and trying not to cry, I didn’t really have anything super valuable in my bag that couldn’t be replaced, but being super tired and stressed, well, thats just a terrible mix.

I told the lady at the information desk my problem, her English unfortunate was not that great, but she understood me. she said id better just run and try to catch my flight. She tore off a scrap of paper from something, scribbled a number on it, and handed it to me. She said when I got the chance, call that number, and they could help me find my bag. I thanked her, and I called my mom. It was super early in the morning back home, my mom probably about had a heart attack as she listened to me rapidly try and explain what was going on, while running. And then I said, “I have to go.”

‘Click’

I hung up. To much going on to focus properly. And certainly not enough sleep!

In Joburg, there are a lot of people who stand around looking for lost passengers, and these people will come and help you…for a price. Now I knew about this, and soon as I saw one of the men, I went right to him, gave me some USD, and asked him for help getting to my gate.

I don’t remember what he said his name was, it was an African name I had not heard before, but he was definitely from the area, and had a thick accent. I do remember he had one eye that was clouded over and blue, while his other eye was dark brown. I actually saw him again several years after that, but obviously he didn’t recognize me.

He was very pleasant, and very willing to give me hand getting through everything. And with his help, I got through security and made it to my gate on time. He also told me, when I arrive at my final destination, a small town where I was to be picked up, to check the airport there, sometimes the employees from Joburg forget they are not supposed to send bags all the way through, and they send them anyway.

At the gate in Joburg, I arrived in time to try and send a text to my mom, which did not go through. Great, she’ll probably think I died or something now. And then came a shuttle to pick me up with the other passengers, and it took us to the small plane that would then take me to my final destination.

I boarded the plane, and sat down. I tried to call my mom, the call wouldn’t go through. I called the number I had been given about my lost luggage. The number did not exist. Either it was not written correctly, or it was not active anymore.

So, there I sat, trying not to be to upset, hoping my mom wasn’t worried, and hoping my dad wasn’t on his way to rescue me since I could not contact them, and trying to think of how many things I lost, and what I would need the most to continue my African adventure…

I need a jacket, it gets cold at night, maybe another pair of shorts and an extra shirt…thats probably about it. I can survive without the rest.

We took off.

We rose higher and higher, entering the clouds. I was lucky enough to have window seat…and I looked wearily out the window at the view…my heart soared.

I saw the new world, a bright, beautiful new world of which I had always dreamed I would see one day. Since I was just little, I remember thinking, one day I will see Africa, I will go to the far off place. All those documentaries I watched as a kid and as an adult, always my favorite were the African ones. And now…I had followed my childhood dream. I was here.

I could see the Drakensburg Mountains, so different from any mountain range I had seen before, and as they fell away, my heart soared even higher still, as the bush came into view…the African savanna…savanna country. I could see animals in wilds below, though I was not so sure of their species yet. Forget the stupid lost luggage! I am coming home for the first time!

As we landed on the tiny airstrip, I saw warthog and wildebeest meandering around the runway. Oh what joy! And we landed. At this point I must mention, I came in on a 12:30 flight, just like in the song by Toto, Africa, ‘she’s coming in 12:30 flight..’

And in a later post, I will tell my story of when I ‘blessed the rains down in Africa…’

I stepped out of the plane into a glorious African day, I breathed in the wild air, heard sounds of birds and insects I had never before heard in my life, I smelt the new smells of the bush and African plants, the sun warmed me and my heart danced. I knew in that moment, this was were I belonged, God made me for Africa.

I followed the other passengers to where the bags were to be picked up. A man with a sign that had my name on it was waiting there to pick me up. Because I was arriving a day later than the usual pick up, I had had to make arrangements with Trophy Taxi Service to take me to my final destination. They are a fantastic business by the way. They were very professional and I highly recommend them.

My taxi driver led me to where the luggage was to be picked up. A little blue tractor arrive, pulling behind it a trailer full of luggage. They unloaded all the bags into a pile on the road. and went off for the next batch. Everyone began picking through the bags. Then lo and behold, my green Deuter backpack was there! I guess the employees at the airport had decided to send it on…which they really are not supposed to do…but, no worries now!

Advice: I suggest when traveling to Johannesburg, and then catching. flight to somewhere else, always check to see if your checked luggage has arrived in Joburg first, and if it never comes out on the conveyor belt, honestly you can probably assume its been sent on, though, it really is not supposed to be sent on. I had my bag sent to my final destination twice, the rest of the time, it arrived and I re checked it. But now I try never tp even check a bag.

Off we went! It would be about an hour plus to reach the reserve where I would be staying as a volunteer.

I was still fighting sleep as we went, but the excitement I felt kept me awake. As we drove, I would see vervet monkeys, baboons and warthogs along the sides of the road. I saw some impala antelope, and wildebeest. And the birds, oh so many lovely birds that I had never seen before! I was head over heals in love.

Drakensburg Mountains

We will skip ahead to my arrival at the reserve…we arrived at the gate of the reserve, where awaited me was my first friend in Africa.

He introduced himself as Alpha. That was his name.

I later learned that the generations growing up during the horrible Apartheid, had to choose English names in order to attend school. And so many of the mothers of these children would find an English book, quite often the Bible, and pick out a name for their son or daughter to use.

So the first person I met on the reserve, the reserve I returned to year after year, and received my Field Guide qualification on, was a man named Alpha. We shook hands, and he loved my name when I said it, and with a big smile, said it a couple more times, “Savannah. Suh-VAN-ah….welcome to South Africa!”

I said thank you and farewell to my taxi drive, and I followed Alpha to the open game vehicle he had driven to pick me up in. I got in the passenger seat, and we started driving down the little dirt, bush road, into the wilds beyond.

As we went along I asked Alpha some questions about himself, and about what wildlife he had seen, and experiences he had had. We got along good, though it didn’t take long to realize his English was a bit limited. This is when I learned, that when any native there that does not speak great English does not understand you, they just smile real big and say, “O-kaaay.” which in translation mean, “I have no idea what you are saying.”

I then noted in the open glove box in front of me, amongst some old tools and nails and screws, a hand made slingshot. The wood was obviously from some kind of sturdy tree that must have grown on the reserve, and the sling itself was made of two strands of tire rubber and a little bit of leather glove scrap.

Having grown up with a slingshot, I complimented on the handiwork. Alpha was very pleased that I even knew what it was, and he stopped the vehicle, and said, “Would you like to shoot some?”

Well, yeah of course I would!

He pulled out some rocks he had been carrying in his pocket, and a few more that were in the glove box. We got out, and he let me go first. I shot at a tree a good ways off and hit it. Alpha was impressed, and said I could again. He then showed me the way he liked to shoot, and so we went back and forth a bit, shooting the stones into the bush. But it was getting later in the day, and we needed to get to the main camp.

The rest of the drive with Alpha was very enjoyable, despite any language barrier, when two people share a passion in something, no language is required. He pointed out little things of interest, birds and trees, and then we pulled up at the main camp, which was a research base for wildlife conservation purposes. Here we said our goodbyes for the day, he had other work he had to go do.

I stood awkwardly in the shade of the open car port, a couple rangers came by, one British and one Dutch, they said a quick hello, and that, “Mike will be here in about an hour.”

Mike was the manager that was supposed to pick me up and take me to my camp.

The rangers then got in one of the open Land Rover vehicles, and drove away.

Now I felt even more awkward, and very much out of place.

And still I was not able to contact home. I felt a bit upset, out of weariness and exhaustion, and the worry that my parents were most likely worried.

But then there were giraffes.

Giraffes

What lovely creature! Like dinosaurs from some prehistoric, their long and beautiful necks, the ginger leaf like patterns, my heart returned to a state of bliss. This was Africa. These were giraffes. Everything is going to be just fine.

After an hour or more, there came Mike driving down the dirt road. He was a tall, stern English South African.

There wasn’t much of a greeting, and I was feeling a bit confused. But Mike let me send a quick email to my parents to say I was fine, and then he said he would take me to the Garonga Camp, instead of the Bush Camp, because the plans had changed. So now I was feeling confused. Where in the world was going?

Well first we went to Mike’s house, to get his dogs. He had two dogs, Khala, a border collie, and Shongi, a ‘sausage dog’. The came running to the open vehicle and got in. And, like most dogs, wasted no time in realizing I was a good person and got into my lap up front. Both of them. I was feeling happy now. Dogs are truly blessed creatures.

Khala the dog

We looked for elephants as we drove, we found some tracks that were fairly fresh, and Mike said he had seen a herd earlier. But we never saw any elephants that day. Still, the very prospect of seeing the world’s largest land mammal, in this very reserve, let’s just say I was very happy.

We arrived at the Garonga Camp, which was an old Farmhouse, refurbished to work as an extra camp for volunteers. There was a small swimming pool to the side, and an old stone storage building on the other side. Surrounded by a low wire fence. Beyond the fence was a large orchard, in which grew the fresh produce for many of the lodges on the reserve. There was a small stone house near the farmhouse, which is where they farmhands stayed, and then on the other side of the farmhouse was an open carport and a very old scrappy looking building, which is where tools and equipment was kept. And then behind the farmhouse, the bush became thicker, with larger trees, there was a dried out river bed there, and beyond that…the wild unknown.

Certainly this was not the Bush Camp I had signed up for, but, I had nothing but hope and excitement for whatever adventures would be held here.

I had arrived just in time for the afternoon drive. I don’t remember if I even went inside the farmhouse. I think I left my bag with Mike, and he sent me to the waiting game vehicle.

The other volunteers were already in the vehicle, and the ranger driving that day was named Toko.

Toko is of the Zulu tripe, he has an amazing life story, growing up during the apartheid, what he went through is truly stunning. Yet he tells all his stories seeing the humorous side of everything. Toko went into the Special Forces in South Africa. He was one of the first black men to join the military, and the way he managed to pull it off is very funny. Toko became one of the finest trackers, probably in the world, he did work with anti-poaching, his work on this particular reserve actually started as fence patrol, and he was almost eaten by a lion one night as he patrolled on his little motorbike. The only reason he wasn’t eaten was because he had a backpack on.

So Toko has many fantastic stories, and he is a fabulous storyteller.

I met Toko, introduced myself, and was about to get in the back of the open game viewer with the other volunteers. Then Toko stopped me. He asked me, “Can you track?”

I answered that I could a little, it had always been something I enjoyed, since I was very little.

“Do you know what a cheetah track looks like?” Toko asked.

I answered that I did, and he asked me to explain, and I did.

The reason I knew was because, before coming to Africa, I had been determined not to look like a helpless fool, so I put tons of time into researching different tracks, learning about the wildlife, and learning the sounds of different common birds and mammals. Knowing that I would want to know what I was hearing at night.We were meant to be searching for cheetah and white rhino this evening, for research purposes.

After explaining the cheetah track to Toko, he pointed at the small seat at the front of the vehicle, designated for trackers.

“You can track for us.”

Thus began my friendship with Toko, and the unleashing of my love for tracking.

We drove all over, the wind that blew into my face on the drive was sweet and exhilarating. I was so in love with Africa, and to be there, I was sure that I could feel God’s pleasure.

We eventually found cheetah tracks. And we followed them on and on into the evening, and I actually didn’t do to bad a job as the tracker, and was able to keep on the trail. That is, until we reached a very rocky area, and eventually, even Toko said we had better try again tomorrow.

We then turned our attention to the white rhino.

Toko knew the area where one had been seen, so we started there. And sure enough we have tracks. I was amazed by the size of the three toed tracks, so dinosaur like and strange. Toko asked me, which way I thought they were going. I pointed, hoping I was right, since these were tracks I had never seen in my life. I was right. And onward we went.

I learned that day, that animals like using the dirt roads to travel by, because, like us, they know its easier that crashing through the thick and thorny bush. Who wants to deal with that, when its clearly easier to take the large trails made by man? The big cats even use the roads to hunt, knowing they can tread quicker and quieter on an open road.

The rhino tracks eventually went off the dirt road and into the bush. And we came to a stop. Toko said he would go on foot to see if he could find the rhino. He told us to stay at the vehicle.

I learned the names of the other volunteers, there was a British family, and a girl a few years older than me, I was 18 at the time, and her name was Charlene. She was from Sweden I believe. There are some stories to be shared involving her later.

Toko came back, after we had all begun enjoying our surroundings and trying to figure out species of birds that flew by, and Toko assured us the rhino had moved on too deep, but tomorrow, we will find him.

By this time golden amber light of the evening began to fade into a deep purple and blue, night was fast approaching. The first stars began to appear in the sky, as the sun sank in deep red on the western horizon. It was getting chilly, and I had not brought my jacket, since I had rushed to the vehicle. But that was not a problem. Happiness made up for the chill in the air.

Evening falls in the bush…moon near mid-upper left corner

We were nearing the camp, Toko handed me a spotlight to shine back and forth to look for eyes. And then, I saw them…my joy was complete, as two spotted hyenas strayed out of the darkness, eyes gleaming as we pulled up close to them. Spotted Hyenas are one of my most favorite mammals. And now, I was seeing them in person, and so close! I almost cried I was so joyful. I kept the light shining on them, and the other volunteers took down research notes, and got pictures. The two beautiful creatures moved away into the night, to go about their own business.

As the lights of the farmhouse came into view, a black-backed jackal came out, and went across the road, to quick for pictures, but it was such a beautiful sight, its eyes glowed a sapphire blue in the light.

We pulled into the camp, or farmhouse rather. And another ranger, named Andrew, introduced himself. He had already started a fire for us, and we all went in to prepare for dinner.

I have no memory of what we ate to be honest. But I do remember eating it outside by the fire, with Toko and Andrew and Mike, who had not yet gone home. The other volunteers had been at the camp a week or more already, so I guess some of the magic and joy of the bush had left them. But not me, this was my dream, and I intended to spend every singe moment of it, living.

Fire with moon in background

I listened to the rangers chat and share stories, but I found myself ever distracted by the wild sounds of the night beyond. The chirping of crickets, the whisper of bat wings, the frog like ‘prrrup’ of a African Scops Owl, the rising and descending whistles of a Pearl-spotted Owlet, the yelps and howls of black-backed jackals, and the blessed whooping of spotted hyenas. When I did not recognize a sound, I asked the rangers what species made it, and when I was certain I knew a sound, I confirmed it with them. Thus, unknowingly, beginning my journey to becoming a ranger myself.

I ‘enjoyed’ my first cup of instant chicory coffee after dinner, its a taste you just get used to and eventually you forget what good coffee tastes like and then you begin to enjoy it. I drank this with Toko and Andrew by the fire, the other volunteers came and went inside and out, while Mike had gone home for the night.

It was getting to be time for bed, the other volunteers were going now, and Toko retired also. Only me and Andrew left. I stayed out with him and helped him put out the fire, and we enjoyed a brief moment of complete peace. The sound of sizzling embers as the fire died, and we watched the last clouds of smoke descend in the heaven. Staring up at the sky, the smoke died away, and all became clear. The night above was alight with so many stars, due to lack of any pollution, that the light of the stars themselves cast shadows. Here I was almost driven to tears again, so moved by the beauty and natural joy around me. For just a moment we marveled at this beauty, and the sounds of a nocturnal bush. But then it was time for bed.

I did ask Andrew to let me stay outside, to let me sleep out. But this was not allowed. He promised however, that he would check the condition of an old sleep out deck beyond the dried riverbed behind the farmhouse. And if it was fit, the next night he would let me go there to sleep. This worked for me. Everyone went to bed, and the house was dark. But sometime, during the middle of the night, I awoke, the calls of hyenas seemed so close, I got up silently, creeping across the cold hard floor of the bedroom I shared with the other volunteers, and I went out of the room, and went to look outside the clear glass door at the entrance. It was dark outside, and the nocturnal wildlife seemed to be in a frenzy of music. I thought, though I could not be certain, that I saw dark shapes beyond the fence encompassing the camp. But I do not know what they were, or even if for sure I saw them. I returned to the warmth of my bed. And thus ended my first day in Africa. This, was my welcome to Africa.

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