The anxiety of relaxation

2015-02-01 07:30

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It’s like a game of shongololo Tetris, the car zigzagging between the crawlies and the curved cracks in the long straight concrete road, as we head towards a silhouette of giraffes. It’s been five hours of driving from Joburg, but here at the Kruger Park’s Timbavati gate just outside Hoedspruit, we have less than 17km to go to nThambo Tree Camp, a name conjuring up images of, well, dwellings in trees.

Arriving at nThambo bursts this romantic bubble. What the lodge does have is max luxe bungalows on stilts, writing tables, complicated mosquito nets, showers full of moths, a balcony on which at night you may drink G&Ts while elephants graze and snort in the darkness below.

The proximity of the animals means you need a ranger to walk you between the bar and the rooms – ideal for couples who want isolation; bad for people who want to hang out at the bar.

nThambo is of the rigorous school of safari camps; up at 4am for a game drive, back at 9am, breakfast, safari walk, lunch, nap, sunset drive, early to bed, repeat – which is perfect for the guests, all foreign and armed with check lists of animals to see, and hastily memorised facts about political affairs and poverty.

My companion and I sit out the first morning game drive to test out the splash pool, try to stop looking at our phones, try to arrive. And to fantasise about crocodiles.

nThambo is actually not quite in the Kruger, but rather in an area, called the Klaserie Game Reserve, of private property and ex-farms that removed their fences about 20 years ago in an attempt to let the land return to nature, and to enable conservation with tourist dollars.

As a result, it’s cut up with dirt access roads to various properties and arcane laws about who can cross whose property to look at which animals.

We would be bounding along on what often felt like a really big paintball range and encounter groups from other lodges parked just on the other side of a boundary road trying to get a glimpse of lions, fresh from a kill, which we are just metres away from them.

Our guides make jokes sotto voce about the other rangers’ epaulettes.

We watch these two lions doze until our guide whispers: “Has everyone had a proper look? Should we move on to see something else?”

The radio crackles with the names of animals in Shona, used as codewords to belay tourist expectations. Our guide and his co-spotter drift the vehicle into a grove and the smell of pachyderms hits us, overpowering the aroma of decaying trees.

Suddenly, we are engulfed in elephants; ripping tree branches, yanking roots out the ground, bathing in mud, tiny babies bumping up against our vehicle. Our guide hushes us and whispers through a series of facts, enraptured.

The guide reacts to a radioed word and we scoot off through the short-treed brush, finding another vehicle full of rapt game viewers from another lodge perched on the edge of a small water hole. Two rhinos snort at our arrival and, like giant dangerous beetles, vanish into the bush.

We give chase, heading them off road after road, clambering ill-wheeled as they outwit us again, and again, and again, until we see the baby, spooked and leading the mother and male away from us continuously.

We give chase one last time, then: “Have you seen enough?” asks our guide. “Shall we try get a look at something else?”

We drink in a clearing, gin and tonics against the smell of incoming rain and the gentle pitter-patter of a Scandinavian complaining that we saw no leopards today. We drive through the nagapie darkness to dinner.

The most interesting animals on a game drive are the humans; the Europeans at the long table comparing lifestyles, taxes, civilisations. The conversation turns to townships, electricity, shack floods, township tours.

A German, a seasoned traveller, faux pas’ with “Africa is such a wonderful country…” I shoot him a glance and he quickly corrects to “…continent that I will never stop coming here on holiday.”

He loves the animals; we don’t know how lucky we are. An American, who has confessed like a cliché to be a salesman of military hardware, is eager to move to another camp, where he has bought the right to shoot an animal – just a buffalo, there are so many of them.

It means they have to make some financial sacrifices, but the trophy, the prestige...

Clutching another gin, away from the table, I get into a conversation about conservation with our guide. This is where he explains the codewords to me. If you’re heading into camp from a drive and the word ‘leopard’ crackles over the radio, then the guests are gonna want to turn around.

Doesn’t it get boring, seeing the same animals day after day, spilling the same facts? “It’s a performance,” he tells me, “and I feed off their awe.

As South Africans, we tend to be quite blasé about what we have here. When a Scandinavian loses their shit over a giraffe, it makes me really appreciate that giraffe.”

“Has everyone looked enough?” asks our guide in the predawn light. We are surrounded by a clump of buffaloes, snorting and lazing, even the clicking cameras unenthusiastic. Everyone nods, buffaloes are unphotogenic – besides their lack of majesty, their dark hides against the dust make for shitty exposure.

Today, the elephants look sad, constantly harried by a never-ending stream of vehicles, swarms of clicking cameras, just trying to uproot a tree in peace, unaware that the intrusions are what keeps them alive, but also sometimes culled.

We stare at the same lions again, they are less languid today and on the radio the guides chatter, hoping to witness a kill. I’m part of this, on the back of the jeep, ruminating over the fact that I am heartsore because the universe is a tricky place.

On the way back, in an open stretch of land, is a gnu, freestanding, the forever-alone gnu, he ambles away, the forever-alone gnu.

On our last drive at nThambo, we come across a small pack of African wild dogs. Rapidly edging towards extinction, there are apparently only about 250 of this seldom-seen hypercarnivore in the greater Kruger area.

They lope about, with pups gamboling, unconcerned on the roadway, our guide in ecstasy, constantly forgetting to talk us through it all. But the painted dog is not majestic enough, does not carry the weight of a million fictions such as the lion, the elephant, the crocodile, and so the cameras soon wind down.

A Scandinavian asks what the chances are of seeing a leopard today.

At nThambo’s sister camp, the more family-oriented Africa On Foot, we discover a pool far superior and are anxious to relax after all the desperate seeing.

It is here, replete with pink gins, that we meet a Dutch couple who are trying to work out whether to move to Cape Town or Sydney. It is also here that we decide to take psychedelics for our last evening drive.

Our new guide is less in awe of our surroundings than overwhelmed by them, his lead guide is chiding him for wrong turns, missed opportunities. We drift aimlessly, coming across a few pockets of buck, the shrooms have kicked in and everything is lush and in reach, full of goddamn nuance.

The jeep breaks through a beyoncé of impala as we rush to our prize. The impala shimmy and ass waggle and jump alongside us and vanish into the brush and we lurch around a new section of the property, into an open savannah, and then into some shrub and there, below a tree, are the two lions.

It’s the fourth or fifth time we’ve seen them and they’re just as docile as before; the psychedelics make me start to suspect that they are somehow actors in this whole debacle. Their fur, however, looks invitingly soft and I imagine touching it, I can see myself reaching out, we are but metres away.

My companion beats me to it, leaning out the vehicle to try a selfie with the lion. Our lead ranger loses his shit and dresses us down for nearly dying. While the lecture continues, I calmly visualise the vivid colours of a fresh kill.

The best way to judge a resort is through its opportunities for art photography. Africa On Foot’s rondavels, while closely packed, non-isolated, a short safe walk to the bar, lack the elegance and colonial pretension of nThambo, which at this point I am beginning to dearly miss. We dine with the surly ranger who knows just what to say to get his tips from the Americans.

Late night at the bar, tragedies of tourist folly are traded. The reason guests are not allowed to walk alone at night at nThambo, apparently, is because once a Scandinavian did in fact see a leopard. We retreat to the rondavel across lawns imagined with scorpions.

We leave in the early light. Passing, in the distance, our former guide transferring awe to a new group of Scandinavians. On the road ahead of us is a silhouette.

We draw closer, speculating leopard, but it is a far more elegant beast – the hyena. He stares us down, shrugs and heads off. As we turn on to the tar road, we are irritated with a clutch of zebras. We saw no crocodiles.

Young was a guest of nThambo Tree Camp and Africa On Foot. Rates at nThambo are R2?650 per person per night (including meals and activities), or R2?950 (fully inclusive). Africa On Foot charges R2?195 per person per night, including all meals and activities. Children 12 and under get a 50% discount

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