5 Years Ago: Monwana Lodge

For a long time, my favorite fishing hat was a black ball cap with the California Republic bear on it that I bought at the Laguna Seca racetrack sometime in the mid-2000s. I’d forgotten to bring a hat to work, you see, so was forced to pay track-side concession prices to keep my pale bald head the right shade of white.

I wore out that hat fishing in 2015 and 2016. I think I was in West Yellowstone around October in 2015 when Mom sprung the idea of going to Africa. I remember getting my shots for the trip at the Greeley, Colorado public health clinic in mid 2016. (Imagine, forced vaccinations for international travel!)

A cold day on the Madison in October, 2021

My current fishing hat is from Monwana Lodge, on the Thornybush Game Reserve in South Africa. It was our first of several wildlife safari destinations on the African adventure of 2016. We flew from Capetown via Jo-burg into the small airport at Hoedspruit in the northeastern part of South Africa. (North South Africa?)

Driving into the Game Reserve was an interesting slow escalation of anticipation. The reason you come here (or at least one of the main reasons) is to see the wildlife of Africa. So of course you are scanning the roadside as you motor along in the open Toyota Landcruiser, hoping to see something.

Hey, look! An antelope! A giraffe! A buffalo! That was before we reached the main gate.

The fence is a noticeable object, to be sure. The Game Reserve is fenced to keep the animals inside and to keep the poachers out. Apparently, and I don’t recall hearing this at the time, the Thornybush Reserve shares an unfenced border with Kruger National Park, so the animals can travel across a wider area. Still, it is a reminder that this experience is not entirely wild, even if the animals certainly are. We would be in a true wild environment later, when we got to the Serengeti Plain.

We got settled into our very comfortable accommodations and quickly set out for our first game drive. The routine was, game drives at dawn and dusk, with a leisurely lunch and siesta mid-day. Despite not being a morning person, I made an exception for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I’m all about a mid-day siesta!

On our first game drive, after seeing some of the lesser creatures of Africa, we very quickly came across the first group of lions. A small group made up entirely of youngsters, they made their opinion of us known when two of them turned their backs to us and took big dumps, which they did not attempt to bury or cover, as your little house lion is accustomed to doing.

It was interesting how acclimated the cats were to the attention of a truck full of tourists, paying us almost no mind. But not ignoring us entirely. After watching them for some time and hearing a thousand or so shutter clicks, the guide asks if we’ve seen enough, then drives on.

A cultural detail that’s worth noting, in South Africa, the safaris seem to mostly employ a white guide that drives the truck, and a black spotter who sits on a fender mounted seat and points out the animals. (A small sample size of course, but the other trucks we saw from other outfits at Thornybush had the same pairing.) Later, in Botswana and Tanzania, we had a single black guide on each outing. There was something about different countries having different rules about using spotters, but also I think national differences due to racial histories. It’s complicated, I’m sure.

We did six game drives at Thornybush, and we saw the “Big Five” most days. Lion, Leopard, Elephant, Rhino and Buffalo. Some were close up and downright personal visits, while some were distant glimpses through the brush. We saw white rhinos up close that were taking advantage of feeding areas… a prolonged drought had severely stressed the animals and the managers were forced to drop hay to keep their animals from starving. But the black rhinos we came across were deep in the bush, only a glimpse to be had. The hyena we saw was also distant and elusive. The elephants were hugely close, and at one point our spotter looked seriously concerned as two jousting males turned towards us.

Back up, quickly!

We saw hippos, but frankly they are not much to see in the scenario we encountered them in, 99% under water, noses and ears poking up. Later, at the Ngorongoro Crater, we had a much more interesting hippo encounter.

Each game drive would have a rest stop where the guides would find a safe location for us to get out and stretch our legs. It was the only chance to look more closely at the smaller creatures at out feet. I took several photos of dung beetles, termites and ants. All just as critical to the ecosystem as the larger critters.

The last morning’s drive was remarkable for two memories: The sparring elephants and for the pride of lions that were visiting a tiny seep of water. They crammed into the ditch shoulder to shoulder to lap it up, then lazed around looking very satisfied with themselves.

We left Thornybush and took quite a long drive to a different airport that would send us to Botswana. The drive took us past neighborhoods that illustrated how the vast majority of South Africans live, and the disparity between the touristy core of Capetown and the rural shantytowns is really something.

Kadizora Safari Camp, Botswana in the next installment.

(Click any image for larger versions and captions.)

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