At 08:03 local time, the plane touched down in Johannesburg. Although the last flight was a whopping 15-hours total air time, the South African Airlines flight crew did an amazing job making sure we were as comfortable as possible. After a trip through customs to get my passport stamped, and several laps around terminals A and B, I found my shuttle and was off for the 7-hour land trek to Skukuza Rest Camp in Kruger National Park. The only hiccup being I was the only one without cellphone service. Having prepared a week in advance, I had added the AT&T International Passport plan to my service. Oh well, I’ll figure it out later. At least I would have WiFi, albeit limited, at camp.
Finally feeling the exhaustion beginning to sink in, I sat in the van trying my best to catch up with old colleagues and make new connections with Wildlife Endocrinologists from around the world. It would be 16:43 when we would drive through the gates to Kruger. About 60 miles from our destination we saw Olive baboons grazing along the roadway. Wild baboons! My mind simple couldn’t process it. I was as excited as my body would allow. Then, as we drove through the entrance to Kruger, there they were, wild South African elephants. They were a small family group with two young calves. I couldn’t believe my eyes. As we were running late and pressed for time, our driver slowed to a crawl for a few moments for attendees to grab cameras to document the moment. What did I do? Mouth hanging open, hand over my heart, I just sat and starred. Not a single picture. Just a moment in time that will forever be all mine, tears welling in my eyes. I felt like I had finally come home.
After checking in at the main gate we headed to the Conference Center at Skukuza Camp. We would see Cape Buffalo, Thompson’s gazelle, more elephants, Impala, and a very cheeky warthog that decided to put a tourist who wondered too close in his place. It was like a dream. I’ve seen these animals so many times in documentaries, but here they were. I still couldn’t process it all. Running on hardly any sleep for the last 36 hours, I was mentally beat. I’m hoping a good night’s rest will refresh me for a 04:00 game drive.
Once at the Camp I registered for the conference and got the directions for my home sweet home for the next five days, a Safari tent. Ever since I read my first Jane Goodall book many, many years ago, I wanted to runoff to Africa and live in a Safari tent. My time had finally come, even if just for a few days. Walking through the front door, was everything I hoped it would be. Inside I would find a huge space filled with four cots, a fridge, and a large floor fan. Off to work, I briefly unpacked and took stock with all the things I brought, making sure the camera, and particular long lens, were in good working order despite an 8000+ mile trip. Settled in with the limited time I had, I changed into a fresh shirt and headed to dinner.
Walking from the tent to the supper boma, I was met by another cheeky wart hog that wasn’t as happy to see me as I was to him. Whether jet lag or complacency, I continued to walk by as if I were at a zoo. It was at this time the warthog decided I wasn’t coming any further and decided to give a little charge. Lucky for me two rangers came driving up and demanded I get in. They sternly reminded me that this was in fact a wild animal that could cause significant harm with the tusks jutting out from all sides of his large mouth. Wake up, Tina! I thanked them for the ride and for the warning. After all, this is Africa. I’m not in Orlando anymore.
Dinner was delicious. A variety of local fare was served. Funny enough, when I was preparing to leave for my trip, my mom had asked what I would be eating. As all mother’s do, mine still worries if I am getting enough nourishment. Mom asked, “What do they eat in South Africa, buffalo?” I laughed and told her “Don’t be silly. Of course they don’t eat Cape Buffalo.” I can’t wait to tell her how wrong I was. As for dinner, I had a very interesting piece of Water Buffalo pie with brianni seasoning.
After good food and great conversation, and a few cans of a newly introduced treat called Grapetizer (a sparkling non-alcoholic grade juice) I was finished for the evening. It was 19:30 local time and I still had to wash the grit and grim of the trip off before absolutely crashing for the night. After all, I had a 04:00 wake-up for a sunrise drive.
Fortunately, I was escorted back to by tent by a lovely group of ladies who were also part of the hosting group. Walking back, they told me about their research and also pointed out bush babies in the trees. Grabbing toiletries and clean clothes I headed to the communal shower. As I stood in the shower reviewing the last 48-hours I heard the sweetest tweets and squeals. My first night in South Africa and I was being serenaded by Fruit bats while I bathed.
Finding my way back to the tent, I spent a few minutes preparing for the early morning ahead. Checking cameras and alarms in anticipation for a sunrise with some amazing creatures most people only ever see as pictures in a book. How did I get so lucky?