LIMPOPO- South Africa
(This story just appeared in the April edition of JAXFAX Travel Marketing Magazine)
It’s the local baboons running alongside the tarmac as if to welcome us that make me realize that we are not in Kansas anymore. Jeep rovers line up to transport us a few minutes down a sandy road from Eastgate Airport to the Kapama River Lodge in South Africa, one of the largest privately owned game reserves in South Africa. As the porter loads my suitcase, he asks “Where are you from?” After I tell him, he says, “Forget America, you are home now. You are in South Africa.”
I will do that, I promise us both.
The northernmost providence of Limpopo is famous for its wide variety of culture- five different and distinct peoples with their individual arts, language, traditional dress, music, etc. That’s one of the reasons we have chosen Limpopo to tour. But it is the game drives that draw so many visitors to Africa, and Limpopo is one of the finest places to see them.
A myriad of jeep tracks criss-cross this 40,000 acre privately owned Kapama Reserve, where absolutely no hunting is allowed. A single fired shot would scare these magnificent creatures away who parade before us, totally undisturbed, as if we aren’t even present.
Once upon a time, the reserves were ranches, an attempt to raise cattle, but too many wild creatures saw the bovines as an easy meal and the environment was too harsh. Forty water holes remain from those by-gone days, providing opportunities for superb game viewing. The game are traded and purchased amongst reserves to keep the herds healthy and balanced. They are fenced in, all except the leopard, who can climb trees and move about as they wish, disregarding all manmade attempts at control.
We ride in open safari jeeps, with tiered seating so no heads block the view- of lions, elephants, wildebeests, rhinos, warthogs, kudu, impala, zebra, giraffe, Cape buffalo…in two days, we see 50 different mammals. But it is the numbers of animals that astounds us as in 100’s of wallowing Cape buffalo, grunting and lounging in the mud only a few dozen yards from our jeep that we watch for half an hour.
Mother lions walk slowly through the bush, hunting; a female giraffe rips acacia branches with her teeth and eyes us with her long lashes; warthog families trot along, their tails held high; the elephants great ears flap as they walk, placing their feet very deliberately in the sandy soil. Our game spotter sits in a chair like an outrigger seat, off the front of the land rover. Our guide drives and scopes the land, glancing down at the road from time to time, looking for tracks. Not much gets by them.
We go on game drives every morning before dawn, and every evening as the moon rises. During the day we swim, nap, read, and sip cold fruit slushies at the lodge. We also visit Camp Jabalami, owned and operated by the same Roode family as our lodge. Thirteen rescued elephants, along with their tag-along babies, take visitors on an unforgettable walk through the reserve.
There’s also the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Center to visit here at Kapama, which focuses on rare, vulnerable or endangered animals, as well as treat and rehab orphaned and injured animals. The Cheetah Conservation project is one of their core disciplines, as they breed and release cheetahs.
On our evening drive, strange and beautiful bird songs pierce the cooling air, guinea fowl hop across the road, a bush babies eye us with their enormous eyes in the spot- taking up one third of their head. They levitate four yards in a single jump, then hop from tree to tree. The full orange moon rises over the grasslands and we tuck blankets around our legs to ward off the chill. Then a leopard appears on our guide’s sonar. We track him down and accompany him in the jeep as he walks cross country for half an hour> he searches for a meal, his eyes glowing like living coals in the spotlight. He is breath-taking. We hoped to see “The Big Five,”- the five most dangerous animals in Africa and our guide makes our wish come true.
After Kapama, we spend a few days touring the providence, following the Open Africa Ribollo Arts Route where we visit a woodworker, a batik artist, a jewelry maker, a potter’s studio, etc. We stop at Sunland Baobob Tree, the world’s widest of its species with a 47 meter circumference that’s been carbon dated to 6,000 years old. It’s so spacious inside the hollow tree that 60 people could be crammed in or only a handful, enjoying the draft beer, seats and music system! We also check out the Modjadj Cycad Reserve high in the Lobedu Mountains. Here is the oldest and largest concentration of this ancient palmlike plant whose 34 kg cones bear seeds that were once the main diet of prehistoric mammal-like reptiles. Twelve miles of well-constructed trails drop off the mountain to the acacia and grassfeld below.
Our last night in Limpopo is spent at Protea Hotel at The Ranch, outside Polokwane. Their fantastic program, “Walking with the Lions,” a 1 ½ hour walk with young lions, is the highlight of my trip.
“Don’t bend down to tie your shoe or pick up anything off the ground. That red baseball hat dangling from your belt is not allowed- it resembles a pieces of raw meat,” and I quickly remove it.
At times, the lions run ahead, then double back and come towards us. Should I stop or walk towards them? What is the more aggressive behavior? My stomach drops for a moment until a handler tells me what to do. A handler picks up a tail and hands it to me, which I hold like a leash.
The lions walk amongst us like comrades, at our sides, like a pet on a leash. Yet they don’t feel like dogs. Three are females, two males around 9 months old. “Once they are a few years old, the lions look at people differently.” Like they could eat us?
The lions periodically run off and romp, until a handler calls them back with scraps of raw meat. It feels surreal. It feels as if the air is supercharged with electricity.
Helen Keller said, “Life is a either a daring adventure or nothing at all.” A trip to Limpopo, South Africa raises that bar quite high.