South Africa, Day 9: At Entabeni.

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The guides woke us at 5:00 a.m. on our second day at Entabeni, and we dragged ourselves out of warm beds into a chilly draft. Even with our heated blankets, it was cold overnight, and given our wooden hut we were afraid to leave the space heater on. We dressed, climbed the precarious staircase to the top of the cliff and were shuttled in game vehicles to the lodge for coffee and biscotti.

Sunrise over Entabeni.

Gareth was our driver again on this morning ride, though it was too early and cold to be too excited about that. Entabeni rock, the lodge and sleeping cabins are on a flat plateau, but the ride was to take us down the mountain into the valley to see more animals. Departing the lodge, we saw more of the same wildebeest and impala. Gareth spotted some elephant tracks and followed them for a bit, to no avail.

The trail down the mountain gave us the most beautiful views, past sheer cliffs and lush vegetation, but we were permanently pitched headfirst at a 45 degree angle. Since I was sitting in the front row atop the vehicle, I basically white-knuckled and prayed the whole way down. There’s a reason I was raised at sea level. As we descended, we watched for cats, like leopards and jaguars, but apparently they are very hard to spot, especially in that early-morning light.

Headed down the mountain.

The valley view, Entabeni.

At the bottom, we entered the valley. Our four cars separated, but the guides kept in constant contact on walkies in case one spotted the elusive animals we tracked. We rode around for about an hour looking for elephants, hippos and any cats but seeing nothing. We heard some jackals and saw one crocodile in a pond, but that was about it. Suddenly the call on the radio came that lions were spotted, and Gareth sped our vehicle in that direction. When we got there, the pride had just killed a zebra, and two young males were still chewing on the remnants. One clearly had a jaw in his mouth. There were also several females and one large male, all sunning themselves with their full bellies. The big one growled to warn the young male away from getting too close, and Gareth told us that the young one will eventually be run off to his own area. He may survive but it will be hard to find another pride to accept him. One by one, all four vehicles arrived and we just sat there and gaped at the lions in awe. It was, in a word, incredible.

Down in the valley plains, Entabeni.

Lion, enjoying his breakfast.

The zebra kill, Entabeni.

The lounging pride, Entabeni.

The lions sleep today, Entabeni.

Lions, Entabeni.

On the way back up the mountain to breakfast, one of the guides called again about a hippo sighting. Sure enough, we went off the trail, rounded a corner and ran right into a three-ton hippopotamus. Instead of being in a water hole as you’d expect, this one was just walking around, and it was huge. As we turned back to the trail, Gareth assured us that early morning can be too cold for animals to come out but that they would appear as the day warmed.

The hippo.

The ride up the mountain trail was more terrifying than coming down, since there’s an ever-present feeling that the vehicle is just going to roll backwards or that the accelerator won’t be powerful enough. But even if it was scarier, it was quicker. At the lodge, we had a full breakfast, which felt like it should have been lunch for as long as we’d been awake. We had the typical spread of eggs, bacon, sausage, the incredible bread, and also yogurt with papaya, melon and other fruits. I ate all of it, ravenously.

After breakfast we rode back to our cabins to shower and re-dress, then had some free time before lunch. Remember how we’d been warned never to walk alone? Well, here’s when I learned my lesson. Each cabin has a sort of driveway of about 20 feet that connects to the road. At each pickup, the vehicles pulled in at each cabin, loaded passengers, drove to the next cabin, and so on. Well, I had decided to venture back to the lodge by myself. I called the front desk for a ride, climbed the stairs and waited there for a vehicle to come. Well, it didn’t. And didn’t. I could hear people at the cabins next door talking through the brush, and it was eerie waiting outside by myself. So I thought I could walk out to the road and down a bit to rendezvous with the other group. I made it halfway down our driveway when I heard a strong snorting … warthogs, I imagine. I surely didn’t stay to find out — instead hightailing it back to my perch by our steps. Meeting that other group was sufficiently less important than, say, my life. Plus, my parents would be really embarrassed to have to tell people I was eaten while on safari in Africa.

Strong Entabeni sun.

The cabin driveway, where we (should) wait for vehicle pickup.

Ravineside lodge, Entabeni.

The vehicle came, and I relaxed at the lodge for a bit. Since it had only been two hours since breakfast, of course they served lunch. And of course I ate it. We had some skewered beef, roasted chicken, rice and potatoes — a very similar selection to past meals. I took a brief rest in the cabin after lunch, dressed for the night game drive and rejoined the group at the lodge for afternoon tea.

We all loaded into different vehicles for the second night ride, and this time Simon was our guide. Somehow I got the seat in front beside him, instead of on top with everyone else. How portentous that would be later. We rode down the mountain again … still terrifying!

Afternoon game ride, more rhinos.

Impala, Entabeni.

Back down the mountain.

If you squint, you can see the helicopter landing on the golf course.

On the game ride, Entabeni.

In the valley, our car headed in a different direction. Simon got a call on the radio about elephants, and we rode for forever out into the plains. We passed other cabins and lodges and just seemed to circle endlessly as the sun started to go down. Later we learned that the elephants had migrated into some brush, and they were trying to move them out into the open. By the time we pulled up to them, it was a little too dark, but we could still make them out. Simon revved our vehicle right up near the group of 5 or 6 huge elephants. Despite the dark, we continued to try to take photos so flashes were popping all over, and the elephants nervously waived their trunks at us, trying to sense us.

My elephant photo, in the dark.

Suddenly, three elephants moved toward our vehicle. My heart jumped, because in that moment I could feel their power and how much they could harm us if they were threatened. Simon raised his hand and gave a signal, and they stopped. I think they wanted to walk where our cars were and were increasingly spooked by all the cameras and spotlights on them. Our car backed out and another moved into our place.

Later, we learned that when that second car pulled up, the elephants tried to charge again. The driver hurriedly warned everyone to stop taking pictures or talking and to stay absolutely still. They sat like that for about 25 minutes, in a standoff of sorts, until the elephants retreated. Willy was in that car, and of his 500+ safari rides, he said he had never been in that dangerous a position. Eek!

We all drove to another sundowner spot, but most of us were too cold and tired to even get out of the vehicle. We stayed huddled under our blankets and looked at the stars. Down in the valley, there was really no light noise to interfere with our stargazing, and we could easily spot the Southern Cross, Scorpio and Milky Way again. It’s sort of profound to think that you’re looking at the opposite side of the sky from home. <Insert Fievel reference here.> A contingent of the boys had gone golfing earlier that day, and they joined us during the sundowner. Entabeni’s course includes one hole that goes over the mountain, so after the group tees off, they load a helicopter that drops them down on the green. The prize for a hole-in-one on that hole is $2 million!

We formed a caravan to move back up the mountain for a special fireside dinner. Because I was in the front seat next to Simon, he handed me the spotlight to both highlight his path but also to comb the trees and rock ledges for animal eyes. It was the wrong job for me, the white-knuckle, height fearer, and I know I just moved it around haphazardly to distract myself from the pitched trail, the sheer cliff to the side of us and the piercing darkness. I didn’t spot any animals, but the good news is that we lived.

The dinner was at another lodge out in the bush. We gathered there around a huge fire and were entertained by some African drummers. I hope it was a somewhat authentic presentation and not just the show they trot out for tourists. Oh well, it was amazing regardless. For dinner we had more grilled meats, vegetables, grits, malva pudding. The unexpected part was that after dinner, my table lingered by the fire and started to discuss race in America. We were a group of African-American, White and Hispanic folks, and each of us shared our experiences and interactions (or lack of, in some cases) with other races at home.  We touched on everything from social segregation to interacting with other cultures only at work and how to approach conversations about race relations. The exchange became heated at one point, which highlighted how race is still a hot-button, personal issue in America. But it was such an impromptu, frank conversation, and the important point is that what we’d experienced in South Africa made us talk openly and candidly, sharing our perspectives and finding where we had alignments and conflicts. I think that when we freely and constructively converse like that, we can break barriers and even spur personal growth and development in areas we hadn’t considered. That’s what our trip was all about, so it was the perfect way to end our time in South Africa on that last night.

African drummers.

Fireside dinner, Entabeni.

We left the dinner area and drove about 30 minutes back to our cabins. The sky was incredible, and the Entabeni rock, which is lit at night, was spectacularly beautiful, like we were in a chosen, sacred place. I certainly believe we were.

Back in our cabin, Roz and I continued some of the conversation from dinner, just trying to process and understand all the viewpoints that were raised. But then we slept, since we faced another game ride at 5:00 a.m.

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