This particular safari in South Africa was different from my previous trips in that husbands/partners were invited; a far cry from all the Bush Ladies Safaris that I have been a part of during the past 18 months. My husband, Leonel Piraino, came along with me to Phinda Private Game Reserve in South Africa. We spent seven spectacular days among a group of dear friends, hosted by Krista Krieger, the Chairman of the Board of the Africa Foundation (USA).
Phinda Private Game Reserve (PPGR), operated by &Beyond, lies an hour and change south of Johannesburg by turboprop, in KwaZulu-Natal, and encompasses 56,800 acres.
We left New York on the 18th of June, arriving in Johannesburg the next morning and checked into the Saxon Hotel, one of my favorite “home away from home” hotels. It has impeccable and kind hospitality, gorgeous décor, and overall spirit of luxury and history (Nelson Mandela holed up at the Saxon to write “The Long Walk To Freedom” in 1990 after 27 years in prison, 18 of which were spent in the Robben Island Prison).
Johannesburg is a vital and cultivated city with lots of contemporary art to see, shopping to do, and interesting places to visit. We spent one day and a romantic night at the Saxon, whereupon Leo caught up on his beauty sleep. I set out to scout some of my well loved haunts: Kim Sacks (offering a beautifully curated collection of African textiles, ceramics, tribal pieces, and horn jewelry), Seringa (a home décor shop, specializing in high end African design owned by the divine Virginia Greenwall and her precious Scottish Terrier Oscar), and two art galleries, Goodman and Everard Read.
Recently, the Goodman Gallery mounted an exhibition “Hail to the Thief II”, by Cape Town artist Brett Murray including a 6 foot acrylic on canvas work entitled “The Spear,” depicting the genitals of President Jacob Zuma. Zuma is a practicing polygamist and was charged with rape before becoming President.
Murray’s work engages government corruption, freedom of speech and censorship. This show has resulted in passionate political debate which has been reported around the world. Unfortunately, the controversy and surrounding national furor had resulted in the canvas being removed before I got there.
Joburg is spread out, so it took me the better part of the morning to visit all my places. I Returned to the Saxon for a lovely poolside lunch with the newly restored Leo, and then hit the sack myself for a quick “kip.” Early evening we had a delicious dinner in the Saxon dining room, where the global menu and fine wines were the perfect ending to a lovely day, and then went to bed early as we had to meet our charter flight the next morning at 8:30 am to fly to Phinda Private Game Reserve where we would join friends and start our safari.
I adore Africa. During the past 18 months, I have been on 3 different safaris, led by Krista, visiting Botswana, Kenya, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, and Zambia. This was Leo’s first time to Africa and I hoped that he would come to love this place and share my appreciation for the wild life, the rich culture of the communities, and the peacefulness that the vast landscape has to offer.
The mid morning winter light was fragile with a mellow golden overlay on the tawny colors of the terrain when our King Air touched down on the black tar landing strip of PPGR. It was the perfect introduction to the bush for Leo.
We were lucky that the airstrip was clear of wandering game, which is so often the case, requiring a circling the runway until they lope off into the bush. Our plane was able to land on the first pass.
When you reach the bush, it as though all the air goes out of you. The tightly wound tensions of city life has no place here, and one is immediately affected by a sense of peacefulness and tranquility that is hard to find in the world today.
Africans welcome guests in a simple manner resonating kindness and sincere hospitality. True to form, there were two jeeps from the &Beyond camps waiting on the periphery of the landing strip, poised to greet us. &Beyond manages PPGR along with 27 other safari camps throughout Sub-Saharan and East Africa. I have visited many and they are TOP RATE!
Cool fruit drinks, and cold towels were proffered, and then we were whisked away by jeep to the Homestead camp at Phinda, an exciting 30-minute ride on a level red dirt road, as smooth and compacted as it gets in these parts, certainly far better than the rocky roads I have driven on in the past.
Having spent time in the bush, I was accustomed to the game that we might see along the way, and hoped that Leonel might see something exciting on the way to camp. But only a few of the ubiquitous Impala presented themselves. Impala are as common as Central Park squirrels if you have been on safari many times.
We arrived at Homestead camp, one of several lodges on the reserve, with the beautiful Krista and her husband Karl Krieger (the famous NYC heart surgeon) there to greet us, along with their two adorable children, Katherineand Konrad. Think K4.
Homestead camp is different from the tented camps that I have stayed in before. It is a permanent, fully structured house, situated on a scenic wooded property in the reserve. It encompasses several luxurious en suite bedrooms, a dining room, living room, gym — a euphemism for a small treadmill — and a large meandering outdoor living area decorated in a luxurious African motif.
The on-site swimming pool is designed to integrate nature and humans alike, and as such juts out onto the periphery of the bush, where game comes freely to spy on the guests and munch the grass. While kids are playing Marco Polo in the pool, they might encounter a Wildebeest drinking water in the deep end … not such a bad way to take a swim if you’re into that kind of thing …
Some of us had been on safari before, and some of “newbies,” but I can assure you that we all learned new things in the bush of Phinda.
Not all safaris are equal. There are many elements that can make or break a trip into the African bush. The first and foremost aspect is the group, which needs to be likeminded. We were very fortunate: Krista had done her homework and had cobbled together a gang of friends who were quarried from the same lode, so to speak.
We all loved to see wildlife. We all loved to laugh (24/7). We all loved to party, and we all loved to go the extra mile in seeing and doing new things in the bush. This is a very tall order, and frankly is the only time I have seen such honest harmony for the entirety of a safari.
Everyone was a good sport; on time for the 6 AM game drives, supportive of each other, and great fun to be with! It was a 10 in terms of group compatibility!
Then there is the aspect of the Rangers who accompany guests on safari and are a huge part of our lives while we are visiting any given camp. They need to be cute, and they need to be able to roll with the group, all while maintaining some degree of control.
These guys are the designated Bush Educators/Nannies who teach us all encyclopedic information about the wildlife we are seeing, as well as governing our behavior, in the name of keeping us safe. The rogues in any group are capable of jumping out of a jeep (the #1 NO NO) to do something STUPID like trying to ride a lion … It is the Rangers’ job to deal with that … Not pretty at times. But Rangers always prevail!
Mark (pronounced Mahk) Lindsay-Rea, our designated Phinda Ranger on this trip was a blessing. He, along with Mike Karantonis, who has travelled with our band of Merry Women throughout many travels in Africa, joined this safari as a trusted and valued brother in the bush …
Mahk and Mike, and my husband (a minority of men within the female population of our group) were the recipients of all manner of vulgar comments and lewd jokes perpetrated by the ladies during our game drives. And the boys gave as good as they got. Think Chris Rock unleashed!
We saw all kinds of wild life: Herds of Elephant, Prides of Lion, Cheetahs with their cubs, Dazzles of Zebra as well as White Rhino and Leopard.
Culinary life at camp, orchestrated by Chef Andreas was insane! I did the count on daily meals served and clocked in at 4 meals per day. My expanding waist line will attest!
Imagine: Get up at 6 AM, grab a handful of bush cookies made of pure sugar and butter, and a cup of tea, go on a game drive and return to camp at 11 AM to EAT again. Nap and then EAT lunch. Read, swim, etc, and go on the 4 PM afternoon game drive. Return to camp around 6:30 PM, shower and change, and then EAT dinner. NOT a pretty picture unless you are 22 years old!!
After the every early morning game drive we would return to find an incredible array of fresh fruit, an omelet stand, home made bread, various cheeses, etc. And then, at 2 PM, lunch would be served. That is, until Krista put the kibosh on lunch, thank God. After a day or two, our meal count came down to three … scarcely a help in the weight gain department. Somehow, I never located the treadmill.
Krista, who has the energy of a caged leopard, decided that a few of us needed to go on a “Rhino Darting Expedition.” OK, What is that? Of course we wanted to be a part of this adventure, which was a rare privilege not available to the average tourist.
Phinda has a large population of White Rhino, and the vet and conservation team at the reserve are religiously intent upon protecting the Rhinos from the encroaching Chinese Mafia who are rapidly poaching these animals in the name of selling the horns (reduced to a powder form) to a large home market, convinced of its sexual properties. Each poached horn is worth USD $55,000.
Tagging a Rhino involves a process that involves a bit of luck and a lot of training and skill. A helicopter, carrying the vet and a few conservationists, goes in search of an untagged White Rhino throughout the 56,800 acres of the reserve. In advance there is some degree of intelligence where a given animal might be, but a lot is up to good weather, dependable behavior by the animal, and the ability to identify an untagged Rhino from the air. This process can take anywhere from 1 to 5 hours. Sometimes it is impossible to find an untagged animal and the mission is called off.
This is the first step in a risky and potentially dangerous operation.
So … we got up at 5:30 AM, and hopped into the vehicle at 6 AM, all antennae up. Very cold outside, we wore fleeces, and had hot water bottles on our laps along with tartan wool blankets.
Mark and Mike were on a walkie-talkie with the helicopter. Our vehicle drove through the bush, following the trajectory of the chopper. After 3 hours of driving along bumpy, rugged terrain, the heli radioed in that they had identified an untagged immature female White Rhino, who was traveling with her mother. The chopper flew low to the ground and drove off the mother in order to isolate the baby for the 30 minutes needed to perform the tagging procedure.
At that point we were within 5 minutes from the site of the Rhino and we kicked up the dust in fast pursuit. While we were driving to meet the chopper, the vet shot a dart into the Rhino from the lowered heli, which took effect within minutes. Her mother was nearby, but sufficiently far away not to constitute a threat.
As we arrived on the scene, the baby female Rhino (aged 18 months) was beginning to feel the effects of the Neuro Toxin. She quickly collapsed down onto the ground, completely anesthetized.
I was impressed by the alacrity and professionalism of the vet and the team of conservationists. The second the chopper touched down after darting the Rhino, the team was off and running to see to the health and well being of the animal.
The five-member group spent no more than thirty minutes doing their job: drilling a tiny hole into her horn and inserting a GPS chip, and then clipping her ear with a specific numeric code which would allow them to track her by air for the rest of her life. None of this was painful to her. We stood alongside her and petted her while the team went about their business. Blood was drawn to do medical tests.
There was one aspect of this process which was a bit daunting. When we met with the vet at 6:30 AM before the operation went forward, he alerted us to the fact that the huge dosage of serum used to put down a Rhino would be fatal to a human if they touched the site of injection. He told us that our Ranger and he each had a syringe filled with the antidote, should one of us transgress the rules, and come into contact with the Neuro Toxin. It would be a very painful shot, injected into the joint of the knee, on site. Death would occur in a few minutes without the antidote. That intel certainly got my attention.
I took this as a serious wake up call, as did all my fellow travelers. Luckily, we all steered clear of the injection site. Things seem to come in extremes in the bush. Within 30 minutes of the darting, the medical aspects were completed, and we were told to leave the field. The vet injected her with the antidote, and in several minutes, she was back on her feet, albeit a bit woozy and disoriented. Had she been a Black Rhino, we would have had 2 seconds to leave after the antidote had been administered. Black Rhinos are much more aggressive than White Rhinos, and we could have been charged.
Then the vet and the heli took off, certain that the baby Rhino was safe and their mission was accomplished. We succors, sat in the jeep and waited twenty minutes to see the baby re-united with her mother. I have to say that some of us cried when we saw them together, safe and sound, and knowing that this little girl would be watched by loving conservationists from afar for the rest of her life.
For those of you who are upset by this depiction, I say: Get over it. The benefit to the Rhino far outweighs any anxiety suffered during the quick procedure. I was there, and she did not suffer.
That is Africa.
What can one do to top a Rhino darting Expedition?
Go to visit a local community! I am on the Advisory Board of the Africa Foundation, and every time I travel there with Krista, she takes our group to visit the local communities where AF has made grants to establish medical clinics, water supplies, classrooms, dormitories, kitchens, and many other important aspects of community life.
One morning we piled into the camp vehicles to visit a local community school. Our “one-time” objective was to deliver snacks to all the 500 students. Though we do not give grants for food, this school has a policy of providing midday snacks to kids whose parents can afford to pay for them. The remainder of the school population, whose parents cannot pay, go without snacks. So we provided for all the kids to have treats that day (USD $250), and visited with the teachers and students.
It was complete pandemonium. Once the students heard food was on hand, they were very hard to corral. We are talking oranges and bags of popcorn. I was in charge of getting the Second Grade in control, and I did a very poor job.
The Africa Foundation has funded this school at least 8 classrooms, computer labs, teachers offices and bathrooms. This primary school which started with classrooms that consisted of the shade of a tree is now a full service school, and also includes an Orphans and Vulnerable Children’s Centre for kids in need of extra assistance, such as supplemented feeding and counseling.
Next up, Krista and I and a few other members of our gang drove to a medical clinic that AF is involved with. It has a wing specifically designated for AIDS patients, and also provides neo-natal care, as well as treatment for patients with Malaria and TB, along with injuries and other local health issues. We met with the head of the clinic and talked with her about what else is needed and how to deal with certain government policy issues that are annoying and counterproductive.
The Africa Foundation is raising funds to complete a vital expansion of this clinic for women and children. They hope to complete the funding by the fall of 2012 and begin construction. The South African government has committed to providing the nurses’ accommodations once AF has completed the monetary drive for the expansion.
Back into the vehicle and down the road to the Kuhlani Special School for children with special needs. This is a subject which remains somewhat taboo within many rural African communities. Most often children with special needs are left aside, and remain pariahs.
We were there during the early evening meal, and met many of the children and teachers. The children presented had so many different types of disabilities that it broke my heart, and made me think about the squandering of dollars I spend daily in the name of stupid things!
The Africa Foundation has built new classrooms, bathrooms, dormitories and a kitchen here, and has prevailed upon the South African government to contribute funds. As of this reporting, the government has given ZAR 58,000,000 (approximately USD $7 million) in the name of building projects here, to be completed in 18 months. Very exciting!
This will additionally enable the school to service a much larger catchment area and house more than 300 students. It will also enable the school to offer the proper training, occupational therapy, and education of these students.
Every single day of this trip was filled with magical moments: sighting animals and observing them in their natural habitat, laughing with our Rangers and friends, and simply feeling blessed to be in this extraordinary landscape where you are a million miles away from what passes for civilization.
There were also moments of naughtiness that occurred which would surely titillate all; but what happens in the bush stays in the bush!
Well, maybe one small story. In the beginning of our safari one of the single ladies made a joke about sexy rangers and Leo decided he would shoot a “Ranger Calendar.”
This entailed all manner of embarrassment for the manly rangers who were not accustomed to a strange male approaching them in the bush and basically insisting they pose in cheesy situations. Leo had them taking off their shirts, holding up skulls of dead animals, and draped over vehicles with suggestive smiles on their faces. He was shameless in his pursuit of Mr. May or Mr. June. You get the picture.
Whenever we would pass a new “candidate “ in our jeep, Leo would ask their birth month, and if he already had that month covered, we would shoot off, leaving a very bewildered and confused ranger behind.
Leo’s “calendar boys” were found along every road we traveled. There happened to be a ranger training program going on at Phinda that week, and the bush was filled with a high ratio of ranger to animal. We of course remained in the jeeps, convulsed with laughter whenever Leo began shooting one of these poor boys (average age 24).
Mike and Mark were slightly appalled but were most helpful throughout in coaxing their skeptical cohorts to participate. Needless to say, they demanded their own pages in the calendar.
So towards the end of the week, we all decided that a Khaki Fever party was in order, where we invited all the rangers (enough for 2 calendars) to come for cocktails and a buffet dinner at Homestead camp, to thank them for being such good sports. The head Ranger at Phinda came along to insure “proper behavior” on their part. I wore my newly acquired tribal “monkey fur” skirt (which you may see me wearing on Madison Avenue this fall) and danced my heart out with Leo.
Proper behavior is a very interpretive term and when Leo and I went to bed, Khaki Fever was still in full swing in the camp. What happens in the bush stays in the bush. All I can say is that Krista and Leo and I were the sole characters at breakfast the next morning.
Once you get into the African bush, some things are a constant: the awe that comes from observing unadulterated nature, and the adventures that await you around every corner. And the power of silence, while sitting still in a jeep looking out at a landscape that has existed for thousands of years, and stretches farther than the eye can see.
The tranquility and beauty is unsurpassed, and I wish that everyone I love could experience this at least once in a lifetime. It is truly Heaven on Earth, and needs to be preserved at all cost.
Thankfully Leo loved Africa as much as I do, and I hope to have many more years of travel to this incredible place with him, and with my daughter Lily.
Sadly the day came when it was time to leave. Despite the appearance of a Mozambique Bush Cobra on a camp walkway that had freaked me out a few days before, I was loath to leave this path and return to the jitters that are my constant companion in NYC.
But there is an end to every good story. We drove to the landing strip once again, and in the gorgeous African sunset, with a herd of Nyala nodding good-bye, we took off on the King Air for our return to Johannesburg, the first leg home to America.
We had a day in Joburg and visited the Apartheid Museum, which is a MUST for every traveler to South Africa. It is arresting, brutal and tragic. Yet there is hope when you see how far things have come, through great sacrifice, in many ways, to this extraordinary land. There is so much more to achieve, both politically and in terms of conservation.
I count the days until I will be back in the African bush. But until then, I will have my mental snap shots of the sunsets, the animals going about their lives, and the silence which I can still hear … all beckoning me to come back. It is my sanity, and where a big piece of my heart lies.