This is the tree house I stayed in on my last night.  Caroline stayed securely locked up in the stone hut, looking more to sleep than to be kept awake by the nocturnal animals roaming around, growling and searching for food.

I bunked down in the left bed, kept the plastic sides rolled up so I could feel the wind and not miss a sound.  Before drifting off for my first interval of sleep, I heard lions roaring in the distance, creating a flicker of panic in my gut, but not enough to have me run out in the night.  I actually couldn’t if I wanted to.  I had no radio, and the guides were in their own huts too far away, and it was not advisable for me to leave on my own.  So, I contained my fear, remembering the guide’s assurance that I’d be safe.

I awoke to cackling in the distance, which then came closer, but I was too sleepy by that time to really let it worry me.  I’d heard that hyenas came through the camp (see footprints), which happens frequently, and they just go on, and only will attack if threatened.   Even though, on our safari’s, we were only a few feet from a herd of elephants, we stayed still, didn’t make a sound, and all was well.

I slept on and off, and before first light, I heard a call from below.  “Breakfast!”  I’d made it.  I survived a night in the tree house.  I suggested they create tee-shirts to sell, which made the guide, Rein (pronounced “Ryan”) smile.

About a half hour later, we climbed aboard the van which took us further into the jungle to find the creatures waking up for their morning drink, or just to move to another spot for the day.  It was an awesome feeling to be walking along paths that have been unchanged for centuries: the rocks, the trees, the watering holes, all have been here since time began.  Tracks upon tracks we saw, and soon I could tell the fresh ones from the older ones, I could tell that an elephant herd had been through by the freshness of the dung.  I learned that even the nastiest of creatures had a purpose, whether adding nutrients to the ground, or keeping the population balanced.

I guess the one creature I’ll remember the most is the magnificent elephant.  We had a chance to visit with some at a rehab facility for ones who’d been traumatized, and the handlers made so much progress that the animals we saw allowed us to touch and feel them.  They also laid down for us, which is not the most comfortable position for an elephant since tons of weight are then pushing into their internal organs: it’s okay for awhile, but they had their limits.

The mother of the herd is a toughie, and protective of their babies. They allow the girls in their family to remain as long as they want, but they kick out the boys so they can start their own herd.  To keep them in the family would create inbreeding, and that’s not good for their survival.

And yet, they can be so delicate, like that morning they smelled us in the wind and over 30 elephants stopped moving, silently creeping into the bush to become as invisible as they could, and not even a tusk was seen; they became deathly quiet. Rein suggested that since they were aware of our presence, and their actions proved they were unsure of our intentions, that we should slowly walk away.  Even he with his rifle, wouldn’t be able to protect us from a herd of stampeding elephants.

If asked what I came away with on this trip, it’d be that global travel is not as scary as I thought, that South Africa is a very welcoming place for tourists and they will go out of their way to show you the best their country has to offer.  The meals were top notch, the hotel staff (even with an annoying American asking what time it was because she didn’t bring a watch) was patient and helpful, and I learned to live for a bit on South African time:  while there is a schedule, life move as a slower pace.

And, the best part?  That I went with my daughter to show her a bit of the world before she goes off in it.  I hoped she learned that cultures very different from our own are made up of people, just like us.  That even if we don’t speak the same language, there’s always a way to communicate.  And one can survive without electricity, and internet, and cell phones.  That being together and hearing the sounds of the jungle, seeing the Southern Cross in the sky, and eating some of the best foods we’ve ever had can be the best entertainment yet.

(Here, you can see a bit of Caroline as we viewed one of most scenic spots in the country:  Blyde River Canyon.) 

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