Umlani in Shangaan – the mother tongue spoken by most of the rangers and trackers – means place of rest, but we don’t get much of that. The day starts at 6 a.m. with a gentle knock on the rondavel’s bamboo door and a wake up call for coffee and rusk (a rough equivalent to biscotti) around the fire before leaving on the first of two game drives. We return to a beautiful buffet of fresh fruit, muffins, and yogurt with staff taking orders for a full English breakfast if still hungry. Now’s the chance for that rest, whether drinks on the sundeck overlooking the water hole, a nap, sunning by the pool, or a visit to the treehouse out in the wild alone. If really adventurous and/or romantic, you can reserve it for the night.
Our gourmet lunch is served at the bar/sundeck overlooking the animal parade to the water hole, while we get to know the other guests. Jane and Douglas are the middle-aged safari addicts. This is there eighth trip and second to Umlani. The other returning trekker is the only bachelor in the group, a contemplative guy, Pete. The two honeymooning couples, one from the UK, the other from Ireland, are both named John and Clare, (thank God their accents are different at least). I question the other young couple from the UK, Alf and Alice, “On your honeymoon, too?” They shake their heads no, but Alf chuckles suggestively. They’ve just reserved the treehouse for the night.
After the usual ‘what do you do?’ conversations, these hip young couples engage us in intelligent funny conversations, not saying “fuck” every other word, nor are their heads down, fingers texting like their American counterparts. There are no working cell phones, and the internet is down more than it’s up. The only nod to technology is all the fancy camera equipment. The cliché ‘breath of fresh air’ works for both the environment and the people. Though Cindi and I are two old single American women we’re totally accepted as being pretty hip ourselves.
After the evening game drive the lanterns lead us to the reed boma where we gather around the fire with cocktails to enjoy Giles’ wild animal stories until the drums sound for dinner. The chef appears like a witch doctor in native turban to announce the menu for the evening meal. It’s always a delectable and uniquely South African dish: whether bobotie, a combination of minced beef, curry, raisins and egg; oxtail stew or lamb kabobs. The meal ends with liqueur of choice and a different homemade dessert every night.
As exhaustion sets in, we set off for bed alone, but Giles follows with a torch, “in case a leopard lies crouching in the shadows.” We twitter good night and turn to the flickering lanterns illuminating the bed now covered with delicate mosquito netting straight out of Dinesin’s Out of Africa. I dream of cuddling lion cubs until awakened by the sound of huge hooves crashing through bush right up to the flimsy wall of the hut. With a loud crunching a large animal, probably one of those quick-charging water buffalo, settles down a few feet from the bed. Brave independent Jill is too afraid to get up and see what it is. Sleep eventually takes over.
We sit in the Treehouse the next day. Moses has dropped us off for a few hours this morning. After our night visitor we have decided on a day trip. Even if no animals wander to the waterhole below us I am full in an Eckhart Tolle moment.
But they do. A herd of impalas materializes in the distance mimicking the lights and darks, browns and greys of the bush. They emerge step by delicate step toward the water, dozens of lithe dancers heads high, noses turning on the wind. They drink in momentary safety, trip back and forth and drift in a loose but alert formation back into the bush.
A couple of warthogs blunder in from the other direction, slurp up a drink and trot away in total contrast to the impalas. Two strong-bodied kudos watch a brown snake eagle perch on a gnarled branch. We’ve already scared away the young turtles he was looking for. Seeing nothing he soars away.
Cindi and I sit on different levels of the tree meditating in the utter absence of human sounds and sights. We could be in any era of history from the beginnings of time, but humanity re-emerges. The lorry picks us up for our last game drive.