"We're going to be in for a rough ride!" Even though it seems an entirely fitting statement to describe 2020, it is the last thing I wanted to hear from the pilot before taking off in a small plane to the middle of the Kalahari.
The Fireblade Aviation pilot immediately picked up on my jitters. "Not very confident on small planes, are you?" Even though he was wearing a mask, I could tell he was smiling. "If you feel nervous at any stage during the flight, just chat to me, and I'll talk you through it." That warm reassurance and professionalism would prove to be a consistent thread throughout my experience at Tswalu, the beautiful Oppenheimer lodge in the Green Kalahari in South Africa.
Although as a seasoned writer on African travel I know I shouldn't admit it, I've always been a stickler for the Big Five. In theory, of course, I've always been aware that there is so much more to the African bush than these beasts, but I somehow felt I would miss out if didn't tick off these five majestic animals on safari. My stay at Tswalu taught me how short-sighted I have been throughout the years. Worse, it showed me just how much I had been missing out on by focusing on only five animals.
The black mane of the Kalahari lion helps it keep cool.
There was something magical about sitting a few feet away from a large family of meerkats with youngsters and watching their behavior. It was heartwarming and hilarious to see the dads desperately try and keep their unruly meerkat toddlers in one place -- an impossible task it turned out, as the toddlers simply disappeared in the burrows to come out at a different spot each time. And I can't even begin to explain the thrill of seeing the very rare Cape fox in its natural environment.
Because each room at Tswalu has a dedicated game ranger, every guest is in charge of his or her own game experience, and you can live your own dream safari. "Nothing is impossible at Tswalu. We are in the business of making dreams come true," said my assigned game ranger, Juan Venter. He explained that many clients come specifically to Tswalu to track the elusive pangolin. "These clients have heard on every single safari that the pangolin is difficult -- if not impossible -- to find. I won't tell them how challenging it is -- they know. Instead, I'll tell them what we can do to find them, even if that means waking up at 1 a.m. to head out into the wilderness."
Venter's passion for the Kalahari is tangible, and his knowledge of wildlife is unparalleled. This is, in part, what made my stay so memorable. With no time limits and no other guests' preferences to take into consideration, Venter taught me about the unique desert landscape of the Kalahari, the harshness of the environment and the impact it had on the behavior and the appearance of wildlife. The Kalahari lion for example is significantly larger than the other lions in Africa, and adaptation to its environment. The mane of the Kalahari lion is black and it helps the lions to keep cool in the hot Kalahari temperatures.
Venter explained that the animals in the Kalahari collaborate in ways that are unlike in any other wilderness in the world. "There are a lot of pacts happening between animals in the Kalahari; it's all about family, teamwork and collaboration," he said. "The animals simply won't be able to survive without each other." As an example, cheetah moms will stay with their cubs for up to five years compared with 18 months in other parts of Africa.
The game rangers and trackers at Tswalu have mastered the long-forgotten art of storytelling. While tracking a mother lion and her cubs through the desert, Venter painted the picture the tracks were telling. I could visualize how the "teen" lions had split off from the main pride to go off on their own mission. The events unfolded in front of my eyes as Venter explained the animals' reasoning and behavior simply through their tracks. He explained how the moms with the small cubs would have tried to protect the cubs from the unruly "teen" lions who were likely to become a threat to the cubs. I felt connected to this pride of lions before even seeing them.
The highlight of my trip however was tracking cheetah on foot, the thrill of hearing that the tracks were fresh so they must be extremely close by. When we finally found the three cheetahs lying under a tree, Venter took decisive action. He explained how we needed to move downwind from the cheetahs so they could become aware of our presence without being startled. He analyzed the cheetahs' behavior for me every step of the way. Eventually, we sat close to these beautiful animals -- completely one with nature.
During my on-foot tracking experience, I suddenly realized how the Tswalu staff manages to implement Covid protocols so naturally and effortlessly. Every game ranger, every member of the team has been trained for years on protocols to keep travelers safe, whether it is on walking safaris, horseback safaris or vehicle safaris. They know exactly what to do to protect travelers from the dangers of the wild. The Covid protocols are just another set of practices to follow to keep travelers safe from a very different danger. Tswalu has no big, in-your-face signs urging social distancing. Instead, the tables are intuitively placed to observe social distancing. There are modern sanitization stations that don't clash with the decor. It's friendly, effortless and safe. For travelers requiring a Covid test for travel, Tswalu has an on-site medical center that provides testing.
During my writing career, I have been very fortunate to have had some of the most amazing wildlife experiences. None, however, came close to what I experienced in the Green Kalahari. At Tswalu, I learned how to slow down, shed my preconceived ideas of what the wilderness is and truly see the animals -- and be one with nature.