Having spent over a week in the country as an advance scout, I felt a certain degree of pressure to make the first few days in Bloemfontein go smoothly and remarkably and remarkably smoothly for the rest of the family. After the first few days, I felt that Megg and I would be in it together to make things work. But the first week, in my opinion, was on me.
There were the logistics – car, place to stay, getting around, knowing which shops to go to find what, etc. – and these were smooth enough. Though not our first choice, my presence for some time before the rest of us arrived proved to be tremendously helpful here. I felt a degree of comfort and familiarity upon our return that I surely didn’t feel upon my initial arrival nearly a month ago (wow!).
But there was more riding on the first couple of days than simply not having any of the basics go spectacularly wrong (on this point, look for a future post on load shedding and the general lack of central heat during the South African winter, small details in an otherwise warm welcome). For Sadie, there was the promise of animals. Upon initially hearing that we would be spending months in South Africa when we first told her, Sadie was surprisingly enthusiastic about it, and we quickly realized it was because she imagined that every day would be spent visiting wild animals. She was stunned and almost confused when we explained that there would be some days where we simply went to the grocery or to get haircuts. “They have grocery stores in Africa?” she exclaimed. This, of course, is a common misconception about Africa. In all honesty, the most surprising thing thus far has been just how similar life is here to life at home. And while South Africa is perhaps more modernized than other parts of Africa, it will have been worth coming if only to make the point that those living in Africa do not lead lives too far different than lives we know.
A quick note on Ben – he has been ambivalent about this whole excursion from the start. He has incorporated it into his narrative of things that are happening in his life, but he has displayed neither excitement nor reservation. His attitude has been more along the lines of “Just tell me where to be and when and I’ll come along.”
So considering that Sadie was expecting to see antelopes around every corner, imagine her disappointment when days one and two were spent shopping for groceries and bathmats and hangers and a coffee maker. On day three, given yet another afternoon of perfect weather, we packed a picnic and headed up Naval Hill to the Franklin Game Reserve. This park is the only game reserve in South Africa located within a city limit and it is four minutes from our home, up a fairly steep hill and overlooking Bloemfontein below and what seems like the entire Free State in the distance. I drove excessively slowly just to make sure that if there was anything to see we would not miss it.
We were rewarded fairly quickly as we spotted a giant furry monster walking along the grassy savannah atop the hill’s plateau. What was it? We had no idea, but crept closer and watched it cross the field. To its left, we spotted two ostriches pecking at the ground. This was all about 100 yards away from us, but the kids were thrilled. Upon further research, it was a wildebeest that we first spotted, a buffalo-sized creature with legs that seemed a bit too skinny for the heft above. You may know them best as the stampede that (spoiler alert) kills Mufasa in The Lion King. Anyway, we watched the wildebeest for some time as it crossed over to a herd of what we think were impalas lounging in the grass. There were 8-10 impalas, complete with elegantly curved and striped antlers, that seemed not to notice either us peering at them from a distance or the lone wildebeest walking right past them.
I returned to the car relieved that we had spotted at least something. We continued to crawl along the road atop Naval Hill past the various view points, peering out our windows and listening intently. Near view post 4, we heard a strange growl out the left (passenger) side of the car. We stopped. “Did you hear that growl?” someone asked. We all had. We waited but heard nothing further and I suggested that we pull up to the view post and get out to look around. I had gone less than five feet before I stopped the car again, my heart and stomach skipping a beat.
Twenty feet away stood an enormous giraffe, munching at a nearby tree. “Oh my gosh!” The others leaned over to see and before long we were all out of the car, watching the giraffe, inching ever closer, taking selfies, and taking turns saying to each other “Can you believe there is a wild giraffe right here?” At the closest point, I think Sadie was about 10 feet from it, which felt even closer given that the giraffe was so tall. We followed it as it meandered from tree to tree (according to our safari book, giraffes can only eat from any particular tree for so long because the tree will make its leaves taste bitter as a defense mechanism to avoid having all its leaves eaten – fascinating). We watched it go #2 and made sure not to step in it. We waved and had conversations. “Hi there, Mr. Giraffe!”, etc. It was an incredible thing.
Of course, it isn’t like we haven’t seen giraffes before. Indeed, the kids have fed lettuce stalks to the giraffes in our zoo, so we have actually been closer to giraffes than we were. But there was definitely something about the fact that this particular giraffe was not at a zoo that made this encounter different and more special. Although it may seem obvious that encountering a giraffe in the wild is more special than feeding a giraffe at a zoo, it isn’t easy to identify precisely why that is. The truth is that the giraffe didn’t behave all that differently from the giraffes at the zoo – for the most part, this giraffe was as disinterested in us as any giraffe we have encountered before. Perhaps it is that the giraffe we came upon on Naval Hill had not been tamed or trained to interact with humans. Or maybe it is that on a couple of occasions, it was not disinterested – it clearly saw us, took us in, maybe sized up whether we were threatening, and having decided we were not, went about its business. In those moments, we were truly “with” the giraffe in a way that isn’t possible in the protected space of a zoo. Certainly, the removal of a barrier between us made for a more intimate interaction as the removal of any barrier does. Regardless, it was special, indeed more special than any human-animal interaction (not including dogs/friends) I’ve had given the closeness and the context. (more giraffe and other pictures here)
At some point, after nearly an hour, we decided that it was time to move on. We had not gone thirty feet before we found another giraffe, perhaps the mate, also eating along the side of the road. We did not linger for this second giraffe, pushing on around the hill to the final view post, which includes a giant statue of Nelson Mandela and a sprawling view of Bloemfontein and beyond. We parked and the kids and I walked toward the statue. There were other people there, but also something else. What was it? A few more steps and it was clear – an ostrich was up atop the hill like any other visitor (no cell phone though), just hanging out at the base of the Mandela statue. We joined the half dozen other people and the ostrich, careful not to get too close and flabbergasted at the fact of a wild and giant bird traipsing around the site. Was there really a wild ostrich just hanging out with us? Yep. At one point, Meggan and Ben returned to the car to fetch the kids’ journals and the ostrich ended up between them and the entrance to the viewing area, inspecting nearby cars and poking its head in the window of a small car. They waited in the car for the giant bird to move before returning to us. Later, after another visitor teased the ostrich and fed it some french fries, it clearly saw Sadie as another potential source of food and followed her as we walked away with increasing urgency toward our car. This encounter was intimate in its own way, but certainly not as pleasant as our time with the giraffe.
We continued down the hill, fruitlessly searching for zebras. We were home in five minutes, all ecstatic at this first wild animal experience and me relieved that the trip had gotten off to a good start. I’m sure we will return to Naval Hill throughout our time here, but I doubt we will have another encounter quite like that.