Hard to believe when we walked through the front door of our house that the eight months were over and we were finally coming home. Thirteen countries. Countless flights, train rides, rental cars, hotel rooms and Airbnbs. Many museums, tours, adventures and stories. There were loads of laughs and frequent tears. It was scary, exciting, interesting, boring, lonely, invigorating and thrilling. We are endlessly grateful for the opportunity to have been able to hit the pause button on life and head out on this adventure. We will always treasure this time as a family where we learned so much about ourselves and each other and really learning to swear like pirates.
But now we’re home and time to get back into the business of real life. How do we do that again?
Everyone said “you’ll be happy to be in your own bed.” But after eight months of bed-hopping, my bed didn’t feel like my bed anymore. Nights are filled with vivid dreams processing all the things we did and saw. For the first few weeks, I dreamt of the bush every night.
Shifting gears to a different, not quite slower pace has been weird. We enjoyed the breakneck clip we were tearing through our travels. The busy, scheduled days cramming in as much as we could. The endless art, history and culture that we could only do our best to try and absorb like sponges with so much dripping out of our pores, unable to take in any more. Now we’re home in a lovely, but quiet city. History here is a building that was built in the last 100 years. We appreciate being back in our home and native land, but all of us once unpacked and settled started to feel the pangs of missing our adventure. The good and the bad.
So here we are, all unpacked and back in the swing. Kids are back in school and finding their way. Monsieur and I set with the task of “now what?” are working on determining what we want to be when we grow up. Its not an easy endeavour. We gained some insight into our needs and desires for our future career paths while away, but in the lens of a smoky Vancouver fall day its a lot more obscured than we had hoped. But that’s ok, there’s no rush and there is time for more exploration.
In the meantime, we reconnect with our lovely friends and visit with our dear family. We anticipate the arrival of our long-awaited puppy as we put future travel plans on the shelf temporarily while we let the dust settle and remember why Vancouver is our beloved home.
Would we do it again? In a heartbeat. For all the tough days were balanced by so much more. The day that our kids told us that “just because something is different, it doesn’t make it weird” we knew it was all worthwhile.
We started our journey in Hawaii, at the peak of the largest Covid wave yet. Three out of four of us caught it and we had to stay on for two extra weeks. Sounds more wonderful than it actually was.
We stopped back in Vancouver for a short two week break to get everyone boosted and re-packed before we left for Europe. Our arrival in France was at the tail end of their largest Covid wave, restrictions still in place across the country. Within weeks, health restrictions would be lifted across Europe paving the way for much easier travel for us gratefully, but yet another sizeable Covid wave – this time mask and restriction-less.
Shortly after the arrival in Paris, Russia began the war in the Ukraine. We were now faced with a decision. Should we abandon our plans and head home to the relative safety of Canada? The headlines were terrifying and it was all a bit surreal when the headline in Le Figaro was explaining how the pharmacies across France were selling out of iodine pills as residents worried about the fall-out from the nuclear threat (bomb or another disaster at Chernobyl). We looked for ways to help as Ukrainian refugees were fleeing across Europe.
As it started to grow clear that the situation in the Ukraine was not going to end quickly and was headed for a long, drawn out conflict, the headlines turned to Monkey Pox. Another potential pandemic and the possibility of travel restrictions returning. Talk of twenty-one day quarantines coming into play, we decided to wait a bit longer and see what would happen as we discussed the possibility of packing it all in and heading home again.
The state of the world, a constant worry – effects of Brexit, the election of the French President, Paris almost always seemingly on the brink of a riot or a strike etc etc all swirling all the time – we forged ahead with our plans. We managed to avoid the worst of the crazy airport/ luggage drama of the spring and summer. We kept pretty healthy, seemingly avoiding another run in with some new Covid variant. We managed to find a way to fight through home sickness and loneliness.
I look back on the eight months, with all its ups (mostly up) and downs (not as many as it may sound) and feel lucky and grateful. I will treasure this time when I had my family all to myself, our teen and pre-teen at such pivotal times in their lives. We had such great talks over long dinners and drives, sharing wisdoms along with our hopes and fears. Would I do it again? In a New York minute!
Well, I had intended to try and keep you all entertained with daily dispatches from our time here in the African bush. However, the gruelling schedule of 7 hours in the Defender each day and 3 solid meals (plus snacks) to eat it’s hard to get back to sitting and recalling all we’ve seen and done.
Every 3.5 hour game drive is jammed with so much to see and learn, it’s hard to unpack it all and try to remember the details. Plus, we have been joined by a gang of family and we now number 15 people so our days are joyously filled with game viewing and years of catch up combined. Not to mention celebrating Auntie T’s birthday!
I’ll try and recall the highlights. Most who recount their African safari experience will always discuss their run-ins with the Big Five; Elephant, Leopard, Lion, Rhino and Buffalo. We were very lucky to encounter all of them including the most elusive, the Leopard. Amazingly, it was on our drive in from the airport. We have since, with great luck spotted leopard at least four more times. In fact on one morning drive we were stopped in a dry riverbed to get a better look at a Wooly Neck Stork up in a tree (note: bird watching in the bush is phenomenal). After a few minutes of chatting about the bird and its usual practices, the Little Kid and our Tracker both casually notified us that there was a leopard sitting next to the Defender watching us! I half expected him to whip out his phone and snap a photo. We hadn’t even noticed Ntima sitting there looking at us as if to say “Hello, most elusive member of the Big Five over here! Wake-up humans!” (That would be a pretty funny TikTok.) If I didn’t know better I might have thought he was hunting us! You may remember that Ntima is the local alpha male and he is a very large and beautiful cat. Byron, our guide radioed in to his colleagues giving out coordinates so they could come see. Before anyone else arrived Ntima decided he was bored and off he went. We managed to track him across to the other bank of the river until he disappeared into the thick bush obviously on the hunt for his next meal. This is life in the bush. You never know what you might see.
A little later on the same drive, we caught wind that one of the local Lion prides was hanging out on the side of the road enjoying a snooze while the cubs were suckling. We arrived to see some very irritated Lionesses with some greedy little cubs all jockeying for positions to suckle. Clearly the cubs now have teeth because there was a lot of growling and biting from the moms when the cubs got too rambunctious at the teets. We had seen this pride the day before, snoozing in the sun on some rocks in another area of the dry river bed. They had clearly been feeding the night before because they were good and fat and still had some blood stains on their faces. Today, after a little overnight digestion, it was interesting to see them all a little hungrier and grumpier and mobile rather than in their food comas. We wondered where the big male was. He didn’t seem to be around either day. But while repositioning to get a better view of the grumpy moms and cubs our tracker spotted Limp Bizkit across the road hiding in the grass.
Limp Bizkit has a dislocated hip and walks with a limp, but he is the Alpha of two prides of lions. He is a BIG lion with a beautiful and ample mane. His head is huge and he is formidable. I didn’t quite realize it until we encountered the Birmingham Breakaways.
Who are the Birmingham Breakaways? Well I’m glad you asked. They are not a rock band and they are not a rival to the Sharks or the Jets. As we were heading out on one of our late afternoon drives, Byron explained that we were headed in search of a new group of lions in the area. They had been spotted about an hour south of where we were in the Timbavati and we were setting out to track them down. The six brothers hail from the same pride located in the Birmingham area of the Greater Kruger National Park. At around 3-4 years old, young males head out on their own and prepare for the upcoming battles they would face as they fight to win their own prides some day. These 6 lions are strong and fierce. Big and imposing and full of testosterone, they have united to hunt together. The Birmingham pride territory is located in the South of the Greater Kruger near the Sabi Sands. They have migrated northwards into the Timbavati and were beginning to wreak havoc. Byron was keen to track them down so we could have a look. (Note: in this part of South Africa, the Greater Kruger National Park comprises the largest open reserve for game in the country. It’s roughly the size of the UK and quite recently, Mozambique has opened a mirror reserve on their side of the border adjacent to the eastern edge of the Park. On the western edge there are several private reserves from Phalaborwa down to Sabi Sabi. There are no fences between any of these reserves so the animals flow freely from reserve to reserve and across country borders. It’s only the people who have restricted movement).
We drove for about an hour and then spent a good 90 minutes searching the thick bush for any sign of the lions. Finally we decided to pack in the search and enjoy sundowners over-looking a dry river crossing. After our drinks break, we turned tail and headed back to camp only slightly disappointed that the Birmingham Breakaways had eluded us. We saw plenty of other great things in the meantime, so who could complain.
The next morning at 6:30am, we met a very excited Byron who told us that the Birmingham boys had been found! Just 150 metres from our sundowners location, the boys had taken down a water buffalo at around one in the morning. A local ranger down there heard the incredible noise that 6 male lions make while hunting and killing a buffalo and headed out in the middle of the night to find them. He sent Byron the coordinates and we were off to check them out.
By the time we arrived the buffalo had been disemboweled; a lung, entrails and stomach contents put to the side. Three quarters of the buffalo had been eaten with the hide and ribs licked clean on the hind end. Four of the boys were fast asleep in the sunshine, digesting the first course of their meal. Two of the boys were still dining, one of them with his whole head inside the poor buffalo. We watched them for a while, taking their turns snacking on the beast. We were very close, the smell of the buffalo and its internal organs spread about the kill site was horrendous. After a while, the Defenders were arriving and lining up behind us for their chance to have a look. So off we went back to camp for breakfast. Somehow we still had an appetite for yet another delicious Motswari meal. And no, buffalo was not on the menu.
That afternoon, after the family arrived from Cape Town we thought it was only fair that we return to the kill site so they could also catch a glimpse of the now notorious Birmingham Breakaways. High-tailing it down on the sand roads, we were grateful to arrive at the kill site, only to see that the buffalo had been re-located several metres and had been flipped over several times. A second lung had been located – obviously not palatable to the Boys – and the animal was now missing its cheeks and lower jaw. The eyes and skull with its massive horns still in place. However, judging by how contorted the body was it was clear that there wasn’t much left inside the hide with only the ribs left to maintain the original shape of the animal. The lions were still taking turns snacking and napping and the hyenas were circling, observing from a safe distance waiting for their reservation at Chez Water Buffalo.
We snuck in quite close to the boys, safe in the open top Defender watching them go about the business of taking turns at the buffet. One of the bigger boys came quite close to my side of the vehicle to lay for a nap. His head was big, his mane a little fluffier than the others. Perhaps he’s a little older? For sure, he’s a little stronger. Watching him, he looked straight into my eyes. Without a word of a lie. I know that the lion’s vision isn’t great in this situation. He can see the vehicle, but he can’t differentiate me from the car BUT he was looking me right in the eye. Completely intimidated, I couldn’t maintain the eye contact. Everyone told me not to look away, the minute I did he jumped up and all I could think was the next jump was at me. He didn’t but I was done. Luckily he was too full to want a bite of this middle aged woman. Bye Birmingham Breakaways, you win. I’m out!
With my heart still beating out of my chest, we very gratefully had to leave the kill site and make room for the vehicles circling behind us. You see, a kill site is no different than Heathrow on a busy day. I was glad that we had now all seen the Boys and we were good. If you happen to see a Timbavati Water Buffalo, you might want to give them a heads up to avoid the Southern section for a little while.
Back to Limp Bizkit. On our second visit with him following the intimidating visit with the largest of the Birmingham Breakaways, I realized just how much bigger he is than the adolescents. And I was glad he had a limp.
In addition to the lion and leopard sightings, we also spotted about 17 different rhinos, including one group of 6 animals. Incredible to see especially since the white rhino are an endangered species. The rhino were fascinating to observe and didn’t really seem to care too much about us and the Defender we were in. Hearing many stories of rhinos charging vehicles, we were happy that our encounters were much more passive.
Rounding out the Big Five are the elephants and the water buffalo. Elephants are plentiful in the Greater Kruger National Park and the current census has the population at around 13,000. Only 18 years ago, the number was almost half. They are flourishing here, but the concern is the balance to the ecosystem as elephants need to eat a lot and one of their favourite foods are tree roots and nutrient rich cambium layers under tree barks. Their eating often ends in the destruction of the tree. We watched a large bull push a 10+ metre tree down with its front foot just to get at the roots. Water buffalo usually travel in very elusive large herds of 500+ animals. It’s amazing that you can see evidence of the large herd passing through, grazed grasses down to stubs and lots of poop, and never see the herd. We did encounter a handful of bulls travelling in pairs and of course the single carcass with the Birmingham Breakaways, but I have to say that I was glad not to run into the herd with that many ornery 400kg sized buffalo. When they threaten to charge, they follow through. Not something you want to tangle with.
A lot of emphasis is put on the Big Five, and for good reason. These are formidable predators and/ or very large animals. But inside the Greater Kruger there is just so much to see; giraffe, hippos, crocodile, hyena, jackal, baboons, zebra, wildebeest, ostrich, honey badgers, buck of all sizes, insects big and small, birds of every shape and colouring, plant life and so much more. A game drive can be filled with thrilling moments and totally peaceful zen-like quiet. It’s easy to disconnect with the modern world and just fall into the routine of communing with nature. The sunsets are as breathtaking here as they are from any shoreline, the air so clear, the colours so vibrant. The southern constellations and the Milky Way are so easy to see with the naked eye as the skies are so dark.
I try to rationalize how the bush can bring me as much joy as the busy streets of Paris. I’m just as happy in both places.
When I remember our time in the Timbavati at Motswari, I will fondly recall the wonderful people we met here. The Shangaan-Tsonga people that keep all the wheels rolling in camp are incredible. They were very kind to share their song, dance and drumming including the Little Kid in the performance on our last night. We fell in love with the sweet and kind folks at Motswari. There were some tears shed when it was time to say goodbye.
As I’m catching up on my blog posts, I’m writing this from the couch at home in Vancouver and I can say that it feels like it was a dream when we were in the African bushveldt, keeping company with the animals and our wonderful new friends.
Following our first morning drive, we feasted on a delicious breakfast. Why does food taste so much better in the bush? Even instant coffee tastes better than the finest barista prepared espresso in Italy. Delish!
Life in the game park is a routine and we were quickly getting into the groove:
5:30am – Wake-up to the knock on the door, quickly get dressed into the warmest clothing you brought.
6:00am – Coffee and a muffin or piece of fruit in the lounge. Quick check for texts and emails.
6:15am – One last pee and bundle up and head to the gate to meet our guide Byron.
6:30am – Climb into the Defender and head out into the bush.
9:15am – Stop for coffee/ hot chocolate and a biscuit/ dried fruit.
10:00am – Return to camp for breakfast.
10:45am – Catch-up on email, messages, writing
12:00pm – Nap/ Shower/ Read
2:30pm – Lunch
3:30pm – Depart on Evening Drive
5:45pm – Stop for Sundowners (aka cocktails) and biltong/ nuts/ pretzels
7:00pm – Return to camp for dinner/ Quick pee/ Freshen up
7:30pm – Pre-Dinner Cocktails
8:00pm – Dinner Feast
9:00pm – Bedtime
Our second evening drive was less eventful than our morning or last evening drives. We saw a couple of bull elephants and decided not to disturb their dinner. A giraffe and a lovely herd of zebra made an appearance. But we loved the drive nonetheless. The warm evening, cool breezes, clear skies made for a beautiful time in the bush even though the Big 5 were elusive. Towards the end of our ride there was much brouhaha over the radio. The guides all say animal names in the local Tsonga/ Shongaan language to try and keep an element of surprise for the guests and prevent any disappointment if the Ingwa (leopard) doesn’t turn up. We were listening and learned quickly that there was a hippo in camp and that we were to be warned. Hippos are probably the second most dangerous animal in Africa behind only the mosquito. They are herbivores, but they are grouchy and they have VERY big mouths and teeth and will attack when bothered or worse, surprised. In addition, it sounded like perhaps there were lions in the camp too. Did we really need to go back? Surely the defender would be a comfy place for 4 Canadians a guide and a tracker to sleep for the night? Well, the lions were a bit of a ruse, as we quickly learned that we were being treated to a lovely braai (South African BBQ) under the stars out in the bush. I wish I had photos but it was too dark. We were thrilled to see the amazing constellations of the Southern Hemisphere including the Southern Cross as well as the Milky Way.
Following dinner, we were driven back to camp. Apparently the hippo was still lurking (or perhaps they just hadn’t been able to confirm his departure) so we walked back to our rondaavels singing Mamma Mia nice and loud to try and scare any hiding predators away. Surely ABBA is better than a gun?
The following morning, the kids were up and out of bed without much yelling. It was amazing to see them embrace the rhythm of the bush so quickly. We grabbed our quick coffees and were at the gate to meet Byron and David well before 6:30am. It was great to get a very cold but nice and early start.
Again we found the game to be a little elusive. We saw plenty of impala herds and a few tiny steinboks, which have become my spirit animal as we’ve seen so many. Finally, we spotted a large herd of elephants leaving the watering hole. Another safari vehicle was parked close to the water, so we steered alongside the herd but from a safe distance as they seemed to be making quite a hasty departure from the watering hole. There was much trumpeting, ear flapping and crashing around. Two larger adolescent bulls were locking trunks and crashing their tusks together. It was incredible to see the force of there two giant animals locked in a fight. We wondered if they were fighting for the territory of the herd, but as we watched Byron confirmed that they were just sparring. If it was a real fight, it would be much more violent. With this we couldn’t figure out what was riling the elephants up so much, but we did know that it didn’t feel like a safe place to be with all this anxious energy. We watched a large female breaking limbs off passing trees with her trunk and violently throwing them over her shoulder and it was a little scary. We backed away and headed back towards the watering hole. We pulled alongside the other vehicle and they explained that a rhino had come down for a drink and was the cause of all the commotion. Apparently he charged an elephant, so they were on the move away.
A few minutes later, we found the aforementioned rhino. Byron recognized him from his notched ear and his re-regrowing horn (all part of anti-poaching/ conservation measures to protect these poor guys). This rhino has a reputation for being a total dick. He’ll charge anything just for the sake of it. Luckily for us he was a-glow in the glory of his previous elephant charge and wasn’t taking much interest in us. We left him to crow and hold his ground and circled back around to check on our herd.
Byron found us a spot of safety pulling up to a felled tree and nestling between the limbs and the root system. The Defender had cover and we were afforded a front row seat to the herd now starting to calm down. In the middle we discovered a very new calf who was doing a pretty good job of keeping up with mum. She was doing her best to keep the little one safe and away from the rambunctious boys taking advantage of the commotion to let off more steam. Within several minutes of patient watching the herd dynamics they began to settle and return to their normal quiet munching selves. It was quite a sight to see and the social dynamics of herds, packs and prides never cease to fascinate me.
Following our elephant encounter we set off back on the road. Pretty soon, David spotted fresh leopard tracks from his seat on the the hood of the vehicle. Off we went in pursuit following the tracks, stopping at every fork in the road to see which way she went. We were able to follow her for several kilometres but to no avail. Eventually we decided to take a coffee break on the bank of the dry riverbed beside one of the old broken dams. Apparently the dam is a favourite spot for the lions and leopards to hang out, but they remained elusive. We didn’t care, we were enjoying the beautiful morning in the bush as the sun was just starting to warm things up.
From there we landed at a larger watering hole, helped by a still running river inflowing and a still intact dam. Up on the dam wall, we could see 5 huge crocodiles and several birds (heron, Egyptian geese, storks and others) all vying for the best waterfront spot for lunch, we just hoped we wouldn’t see them become lunch! Five hippos surfaced ahead of us, 4 females and one baby. They even gave us some snorty croaky calls. Sadly no big hippo yawns so we could see their teeth from a safe distance.
Across the watering hole, a large impala herd and a few waterbuck were all heading to safe shallows to find a drink. There was also an elegant giraffe enjoying a leafy breakfast. We hoped we would soon catch him coming for a drink as well, but sadly something spooked him and instead we watched him take off on a bit of a run. Pretty thrilling just the same. We wondered if perhaps there were lions lurking over on the opposite shore as the impala and waterbuck also seemed to run past one particular bushy section. Upon closer inspection, we didn’t find any lazy lions hiding in the shrubs.
Pretty soon we were back at camp for yet another delicious breakfast. I don’t really need to eat any more but of course I do, with a hollow threat that I won’t eat lunch. But we all know that I will because who can resist a yummy meal in the wilderness?