The wipers are going like mad on the windshield as we travel yet another clay dirt road, full of bumpy ridges, potholes, and huge puddles from the drenching rain. The South African dry spell has ended with our arrival to the Entabeni Private Game Reserve in the Waterberg Mountains (there is a misty cloud cover at the base of the mountains for our entire stay). Our drive in allows us to experience a small teaser of what is to come (we see warthogs with their alert tails, wildebeest with their blue-ish manes, and a small animal we find out later is a jackal).
Chris pulls the mud-streaked rental car into the covered entrance of Hanglip Mountain Lodge where we are met by several smiling black people and one rather serious white fellow. We shake hands and introduce ourselves all around. The young white dude, turns out, is our ranger for our stay; “Hello, I’m ‘Sinjin’” (his name, I sort out eventually, is StJohn, but pronounced “Sinjin”) I ask if we will be able to go out for our afternoon game drive and he responds: “It’s going to be wet. It’s going to be cold. And it’s going to be miserable. But we will check on the conditions later”. ALLLLLrighty then. Instead of being bothered, I get the giggles. StJohn gives us the spiel: “there’s a TV up there in the lobby area, but I don’t know why you’d want it, you’re in the bush!” and “After dark, I will walk you to your room but there are no gates here and there are wild animals everywhere – this isn’t the city – you must stay aware when you are walking between your room and the lobby because you could get eaten”. At this point I actually give StJohn a little shove in the arm as I’m laughing. He gives me a funny look.
The skies have cleared just enough for us to go on our “wet safari” (as StJohn puts it). We climb into the canopied truck with our camera, binoculars, and some green rain ponchos that serve to cut the wind and keep us dry. StJohn dons his blue tint sunglasses, leather safari hat, and similar green poncho – and (quite possibly reluctantly) begins the game drive. We start asking our twenty questions as we get acquainted. StJohn is a 26 year old good-looking, bearded, intense young man who has been a ranger for several years (2 at Entabeni). He tells us he has been studying the Latin names of various species since he was 13; it is increasingly apparent that he has an extreme respect and passion for nature. He seems to have the bush in his blood; he comes alive as we make our way toward the mountain where we can see waterfalls heavily flowing, the brimming reservoir, and the gushing stream: “See the waterfall? We’re going to go over there. We’re going to give it a go! The water is PUMPing!!” We slosh through the muddy roads (the rain makes them “slippery like snot”) and find the snout and the knobby back of a crocodile, water buck with his toilet seat rear end, hippos round ears, plentiful and beautiful impala, curly antlered kudos, wildebeest (also called the brindle gnu – “gah new” for the sound he expels), many birds, and another delicate and skitterish jackal. StJohn seems to use all of his senses; he listens, looks in all directions (while navigating the rough path we call a road); I even hear him inhale deeply. He watches the ground for animal tracks and dung, listens to the birds, frogs, and telltale signals that prey animals give off when a predator is nearby. As we are ending the drive at dusk, we see a cloud of king and queen termites exploding from a termite mound.
We go on a total of four game drives with StJohn as he shows us the wonders of the bush – the big, bold, powerful animals – the minute colorful flowers, the multitudes of birds that StJohn seems to know so much about, the singing toads and frogs (“at night, you’ll hear the loud raucous of the spotted toad!”. StJohn is passionate about nature. He reminds us that there is so much more to the experience than spotting the Big Five and says “we will see what the bush wants us to see!” – Chris and I respect that and are on the lookout for what is offered. We are driving a few minutes away from the lodge when StJohn stops the truck abruptly, reverses and says “who can find what I’m seeing – it’s a five out of five”. We all start guessing – Elephant? Giraffe? Lion? (maybe it’s behind the tree line). He says its right under our noses – turns out he’s spotted a flap necked chameleon – it is about three feet from the truck, but camouflaged incredibly; it is holding onto the thick blade of tall vertical grass that it blends in with so well and it’s eyes move independent of each other . We all snap photos and watch for about twenty minutes as StJohn gives us more details of the reptile. StJohn is like a mini encyclopedia with an incredible memory.
On the last game drive, StJohn takes us up the mountain where the road has been closed due to heavy rain. It is a long, steep climb and we are rewarded with more animal sightings, incredible panoramic views of the rondavel called Mount Entabeni where we learn that we are standing on rocks that are about two billion years old. StJohn starts the beautiful descent – it is another perspective of the same road and the steepness affects us differently (my knees are pressed against the grab bar in front of me – I can even feel my toes against the front of my sneakers). We pass another ranger who speaks to StJohn in Afrikaans – I ask him if there is something good – he answers by vigorously nodding his head (he does this with his whole upper torso). I know not to ask what it is; I wait and anticipate – like a little kid awaiting Christmas morning. I can see our lodge and this surprise hasn’t presented itself just yet. Suddenly he stops – there are two adult cheetahs lounging under a tree – they are brothers who travel closely together – and they are magnificent!
When we say our farewells StJohn and I hug – a real hug. I feel privileged to have encountered the Entabeni, StJohn’s “happy place”, with him as our guide.
We leave with a sense of satisfaction and at the same time, wanting more. We have seen what the bush wants us to see.