Friday, July 19, 2013

DAY #8 - Our Last Hurrah

There is something very unique about that feeling when you wake up on the last day of your trip, knowing you only have a little bit more fun scheduled before you begin your long trek home. That unique feeling is amplified when the morning starts with an incredibly loud lion roar. That'll make you forget your upcoming plane flight!

After the routine stop to the lodge for tea and concrete scones, we huddled into the vehicle for one last game drive on an uncharacteristically cold and cloudy morning. We drove a while in silence, just taking in all the sights, sounds and smells as we reflected on the past few days on safari. It truly had been amazing experience, and we both had developed a huge respect for our guides and trackers and the lifestyle they lead out in the bush. We were definitely going to miss this place.

While taking in the setting, we stumbled across an elephant all by itself. This is incredibly rare, as they almost always travel together in a herd as protection from predators. But as soon as this elephant took a step, we could see why he was alone. He had a broken leg, hurt sometime the night before with the herd, and he was left behind. It is a very sad thing to see an animal of that size hobble around on three legs, as they have so much weight to support, with one less leg to alleviate its weight. One of our British friends was a vet, and it killed her to not go out and try and fix its leg, but H.J. told us that they had strong healing powers, and within days the leg would reset and he would find his way to the herd. When asked about predators, H.J. told us that because the elephant was still standing and eating, he had enough strength to ward off any attacks. We watched him eat and hobble for a bit, and then we slowly drove off, wondering how the poor guy would fare in the days to come.

Poor lil elephant

We got a radio call from another vehicle that said they had found the lions again, so we bolted across some dirt roads back to the main paved road, where we quickly found a male and female lion laying together and spooning on the side of the road. H.J. explained they were in the process of courting and mating, and that it wouldn't be long before we saw the male try and "make his move." Sure enough, within 15 minutes, the male stood up and tried to get frisky with the lioness, but she was having none of it, and gave him a quick growl to let him know to back off. They both stood up and started walking down the paved road together, watching the slow moving vehicles as they passed by. It definitely was an odd experience watching two lions walk on a paved seemed out of place (either the lions or the road). We spent a good amount of time with them before we pushed off to go find some other animals for our new guests in the vehicle.

 Lion spooning

 The male being unsuccessful in his mating attempts

 Taking a stroll down the paved road

 Love this guy

During the next 45 minutes we saw lots of small animals, including another stork, two warthogs, a ton of guinea fowl (football-shaped birds), and two more honey badgers. H.J. said it was rare to see the honey badgers as frequently as we'd seen them during our stay. The animals were super quick on the ground, and you could tell that, although they were small, they were not to be messed with. After we saw those little guys, we found another area for morning coffee and tea, and Julie and I took some photos, talked with H.J. and just listened as we heard the roars of the lions in the distance.


Baby warthog and its mother

 Taking off away from the vehicle

 Guinea fowl (they look like footballs with heads)

Last snack stop of the trip!
We ended the day by going back to visit the buffalo we'd seen the day before. They were in a huge thick portion of the bush, so H.J. turned the steering wheel hard and pushed deep into the plants and grass, and within seconds Julie and I heard an all-too-familiar "pop" and "hiss" sound.

We'd popped another tire.

In the front of about 30 buffalo. Whereas the first time we got a flat, H.J. had instructed us to get out of the vehicle and stand away from the rhino...this time we were so close to the herd of buffalo that he changed the tire with us in the vehicle. For fear of stampede and being deep in the bush, H.J. told us to stay put and within seconds he and Caswell were pumping up the car-jack and sending us into the air. Definitely an odd experience to be in a car while it's being jacked up, and even more odd when you're in an open-air Land Rover, in front of a herd of buffalo, on safari, in the middle of Africa.

Cape Buffalo watching us change our tire

Changing the tire took up the rest of our time on the ride, so we drove back to the lodge for breakfast. H.J. knew we were leaving the lodge around noon, so he agreed to squeeze in an early bushwalk so we could tag along. This walk was led by the other guide, Bernard, with H.J. serving as his backup rifle. We had about 12-14 people on this walk, so it was much less personal, but still fun. They went through the same set of instructions, and within minutes we were in our single file line behind our guides, headed out into the bush. We spent most of the time just walking and looking at tracks, repeating a lot of what we'd done with H.J. the day before. While out on the walk, we saw warthogs, steenbok, and some impala, while we found tracks for giraffes and jackals. It was nice to be out walking one more time, just being totally detached from the hustle and bustle of the world back home, with our biggest concern being "What if we walk into a lion?"

The fact that I even get to write that sentence makes this the coolest trip ever.

After the 45-minute bushwalk, we went back to our room to finish packing, bring our bags to the lodge, and wait for Bernard to chauffeur us back to the Hoedspruit airport. While we waited, we thanked H.J. for being such a tremendous host. I can't say enough about how much H.J. enhanced our experience at Gomo Gomo. We would have had a blast regardless of who our host was, but H.J. was the right mix of funny, responsible, macho, knowledgeable and understanding. We will always have fond memories of H.J. and the lodge, and will never forget the day we stalked a lion on foot with him. #tryandtopthat

We somewhat gloomily loaded up the truck and set out for the airport, and we both sat in the back seat looking out the windows taking in the final scenes of the Greater Kruger National Park. We chatted with Bernard about what it was like to be a guide and his decision to enter this type of work. We then talked about all the animals we'd seen, and Julie said she wished she had seen more zebras. As if on cue, Bernard said "Well, look out to your left then, cuz this is where they normally hang out." And sure enough, within seconds we saw six zebras grazing off the side of the road, sending Julie into one last excited tizzy. Bernard kindly pulled the car over so Julie could snap a couple more photos, and with that, our journey felt complete.

Bernard dropped us off at the airport, we said our goodbyes, and waited in the small airport for about 20 minutes for our plane to arrive. We loaded up our luggage, strapped in, and as we took off, I looked over to see Julie's face pinned against the window, hoping to catch one last glance of an animal running free below us. She had a smile on her face, and I knew I did too. The trip was amazing. So amazing in fact that it made the prospect of the 30+ hours of travel home seem not so daunting.

The flight from Hoedspruit to Johannesburg was short, and then we killed a decent amount of time in the Jo'Burg airport before it was time to jump on our red-eye 10+ hour flight to London. Now, since I'd never been to London, we purposely scheduled a 9-hour layover so we could take the Tube into town (we were due to arrive around 7:00am London time) and go see some of the sights before we finished our journey home. Hey, better than spending time in an airport, right?

*NEXT UP* - London in 5 hours, and we finally come home.

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