Thursday, January 21, 2016

African Animals and Audacity

 While in South Africa, I was privileged to go on two game reserve drives -- on two photo safaris. One at Tamboti Lodge and a second at Mongeno Lodge. They are both on the Denoking Game Reserve. It was a unique chance to see the Big 5 -- the lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, and hippo -- We saw three of the five. And it was glorious.

Derrick runs Tamboti Lodge and took us out on our first night in the bush veld. He told the same story about impalas five times. They have a “follow marking” on their tail that looks like the letter M. He told us that McDonald’s sponsors then on the reserve. He meant you see them around every corner -- like the Golden Arches. It wasn't even funny the first time. But he also shared with us his immense knowledge of the game reserve in vivid and passionate ways. He clearly loves sharing this experience with others.

Niko and Darnikko were our driver and game tracker, respectively, on the Mongeno game drive the next day. Darnikko rode up front in an unprotected tracker seat and used hand signals to relay animal track information to the driver. It was a unique system that led to us seeing more game than we expected. They were a profound team.

What we saw on our two game drives was tremendous and magnificent. We got to see a cervil, two cheetahs, two white rhinos, multiple giraffes, several elephants, many antelope (impalas, waterboks, springboks, elands, etc.), lots of warthogs, six hippos, flying/jumping monkeys, tons of unique birds (including fish Eagles and kingfishers), too many zebras to count, and numerous cape buffalo. We saw 3 of the big five. And we also saw two very rare cat sightings in the wild - the cervil and cheetahs.

It was an experience that is hard to describe.

I was determined to see African elephants for my mother-in-love, Jane. And on the first drive we did not see any elephants. It had disappointed me a little bit. Can you imagine being a bit disappointed seeing zebras and giraffes in the wild. Don't get me wrong, I was super excited. But I was a little sad not seeing an elephant yet.

The next day at Mongeno, we tracked lots of animals as we drove around the reserve. Then we heard trees crashing near us and an eagle-eyed member of our group saw a glimpse of an elephant. Nikko drove around a bit and we saw them through the trees. So we stopped and waited. And they did not disappoint. Two brothers were eating their way through the bush.

When they came into full view I was dumbstruck. They were massive and beautiful. They were powerful and inquisitive. They were spectacular.

They began getting closer and closer to the truck. I had my Nikon 3300D loaded with the telephoto lens. It was set on the multiple shot sport setting so I was shooting pictures as fast as I could. Then they were too close. So I pulled out my cell phone and just kept on taking photos.

If the guide had let me, I could have reached out and easily touched the elephant closest to our bush vehicle. It was just two feet from me. I got the picture of a lifetime.

And it happened during the trip of a lifetime. I went to South Africa to learn and listen. I went to be part of a social justice group exploring race and culture in South Africa. And I experienced more than I can express in this or any post. It was an audacious trip. We did more in 12 days than I usually pack into a month. But audacity is what it takes when tackling the tough issues of our day.

Nikko, Darnikko, and Derrick are facing the realities of life in a still evolving South Africa. They are facing poachers and preservation issues daily. They also represent the best of South Africa. Darnikko has been trained as a tracker since he was a child. But he was also the black South African sitting in the most exposed spot on the truck.

The audacity of a black man giving directions  to a white South African is still new. But it happened despite the oddity in the arrangement.

The audacity of our vehicle stopping right on the road where two mature elephants were busting down trees with their trunks and waiting for them to come closer was mind blowing.

I will remember coming face to face with an elephant for the rest of my life. But I also came face to face with South Africa and have gained so much from the experience. I am humbled by the audacity of going there. I am amazed by the audacity of people living into the realities of a new South Africa. I am blessed by the chance to interact with cultural icons, pastors, advocates, historians, entrepreneurs, guides, drivers, service directors, and so many others v on this trip. The audacity of it all blows my mind.

And the audacity of this experience means that I will never see the world the same again.

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