Last June I asked Hamilton where in the world he wanted to go first now that most pandemic restrictions have been lifted. Over the years we talked about some dream destination based on difficulty and intensity of travel and we came up with a short list of places to see while we were fit and able. He decided that South Africa was the top of the list so I happily went to the planning phase. I looked at tours and Hamilton had some “must see” places and we also knew some people in South Africa we wanted to visit. I was happy to do everything but the top of my list was seeing exotic animals in the wild. I tried not to be specific about which ones, I know better than to have expectations when traveling. As a certified crazy cat lady, I had to suppress any idea that I would get to see lions. I even wrote about my white lion obsession a few years ago. Well, I honestly wouldn’t let myself get my hopes up. I really want my experiences to be serendipitous, the unexpected and magical.
A part of our trip to South Africa was a traditional tour which included going to a game ranch to see animals. Early in the morning we flew from Cape Town where the tour started to Johannesburg for the 3 hour bus ride out to the Limpopo Province and the town of Bela Bela. This area and on east to Kruger National Park hundreds of miles away is the open land for African game. We arrived at Mabula Lodge in time for a lovely buffet lunch and then checked into our beautiful room at the edge of the compound. The buildings were thatched with nice porches for relaxing and we weren’t there long when a handsome Eland came by to greet us. Over the course of our two-night stay we were also visited by an impala, stripped mongoose, and a snake! After a bit of a rest, it was time for our first game drive. The drives are late afternoon and early morning when the animals are most active. We were assigned a driver, Franc, for all our drives. Hamilton and I loaded up in the far back seat in the Toyota Land Cruiser that had been modified for game watching. First thing Franc said was “we are going to go to look for lions”. I dare not hope too much. First, we saw a female cheetah lounging in the grass, I only got glimpses of her face through the binoculars but I was very happy. Along the way we saw zebra and warthogs and lots more impala. We found a young jackal chasing a little yellow butterfly. He ran round and round the truck, not realizing he had such an adoring audience for his antics. Finally, he caught the butterfly and trotted on his merry way and we drove on very pleased with the show.
We left one fenced area and entered another fenced portion of the reserve where the lion pride is kept safe from poachers and from endangering human guests. Now these fenced areas are many, many square miles. The animals are managed but they are wild and living in their natural habitat. The game guides/drivers are in constant contact as they search for animals around the preserve, and we soon got notice of a male lion in the vicinity. A few minutes later there he was! A gorgeous tawny male just casually hanging out under a tree less than 30 feet from our vehicle. I couldn’t believe I was getting to see a lion. I got tears in my eyes being so close to this King of Beasts. We hung out with him for the longest time. Then we let another group have a turn and then we caught back up with him laying in the road with the sun setting behind him. My heart skipped many beats as I just tried to absorb the moment, taking just enough pictures to remember, but letting the feelings and the experience become part of my being. As we drove back to the lodge, the sun was setting over the African plain. The land was vivid with color: miles of grassland were burnished gold, the storm clouds dark and dramatic, the final rays of the sun a deep pink. That evening I felt shaky and emotional; I was in Africa and I saw a lion.
The next morning Hamilton and I took a hot air balloon ride over the plain. I wanted to see the land from the air, floating just above the trees. We could see the herds of animals, the sun coming over the mountains and the shadow of the balloon silently crossing the trees. After a very gentle landing and the traditional champagne toast we headed to breakfast and then our next lion encounter. Many years ago, I read The Mystery of the White Lion by Linda Tucker and became obsessed with these lions from the region of Timbavarti in South Africa that have a rare genetic mutation that makes their fur white. Linda also discovered a link between these lions and the lion culture and worship in Egypt and the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet. I remember looking at a map of Africa and thinking there was no way I would ever see those beautiful white lions in their land. Well, I’m here to tell you that my dream of white lions came true! Through many intense synchronicities (meaningful coincidences) our lodge was just up the road from a predator preserve that had white lions and I had the personal contact information of the young game keeper, Aliscia. We were able to find a driver and met with Aliscia late that morning. She took us deep into the Mabaligwe Game Preserve to the Boschpoort Predator Park, a sanctuary for lions, tigers, cheetahs and other predators that have been rescued from people who had no business having wild animals. The male and female white lions had been terribly abused but are now living their best life protected and loved. Rocky, the male, was laying by the fence, I’m sure just waiting for me! I spent a long time talking with them. It was just me and those magnificent lions- -white lions–in Africa! We continued round the park to see tigers, white tigers, a tawny lion pride, hyenas and wild dogs. They all had sad stories with happy endings. If you have a calling to help care for these animals, please contribute to this important work —Aliscia is young and dedicated to these animals the perfect person to fight for the health and safety of wild animals in Africa.
That evening we saw lots of rhinos, zebras and impala as well as a small herd of female Cape buffalo but we were really searching for elephants. And soon we saw elephants or more accurately we heard the elephants crashing through the bush heading toward the dirt road. Elephants are not subtle creatures and we were soon delighted to see extensive dust bathing on the road in front of us and then they were off again crashing through the trees to their next destination. I loved hearing the elephants before I could even see them.
The following morning, we had our final game drive at Mabula Lodge and saw the elusive giraffe I had been wanting to see. We bid a fond farewell to our guide and the beautiful lodge. It was a short stay but oh so memorable. We drove to Johannesburg to catch a flight to our next destination, Zimbabwe, for mighty Victoria Falls, the grand finale of our tour. We landed at Victoria Falls airport—the airport was literally in the middle of nowhere, totally surrounded by bush. But I could see the mist of the falls rising above the bush out the airplane window. During our stay in Zimbabwe, we took a sunset river cruise on the Zambezi River for more elephant and hippo watching and then took a daytrip to nearby Chobe National Park in Botswana to see more elephants, giraffes and baboons. Botswana has tens of thousands of elephants and we got to spend a good part of the morning enjoying the antics of two elephant families down by the Chobe River. I delighted in the babies playing in the water, nursing from their mothers and the adolescents taking mud baths. They were so close to our vehicle we could almost touch them.
Our final morning in Africa was a sunrise visit to Victoria Falls, the world’s largest waterfall at 1 mile (yes, mile) wide and 355 feet tall. The resent heavy rains made the falls so intensely full that much was obscured by the mist coming from the rushing water. But we didn’t miss the power of the falls, or the mist that was like torrential rain, or the multiple rainbows. Hamilton’s parents had wanted to visit Victoria Falls in the 1960’s but it was politically too dangerous, so he was please to fulfill that family dream. On the way out he was able to procure several trillion Zimbabwe dollar notes and I bought a few souvenirs so we went home rich in memories and “dollars”. We left the hotel that morning sorry to leave Africa but full of memories and amazing experiences. I set my timer as we left the lodge for I wanted to see how long it would take us to get home. 34.5 hours later we drove in the driveway of our beloved farmhouse. What an epic journey.