The ostriches weren’t the only ones who looked profoundly confused that day–though that seems to be a permanent expression for them. As for us–my roommate, our landlady, and me–I’d like to think that our confusion isn’t as permanent a state as theirs. But I can only speak for myself.
A couple of weeks ago, the three of us spent a whole burning afternoon creeping over well-worn dirt roads under power lines and across the plains of a nearby nature park where the animals run free and the patrons do just about the same. We’d brought a cooler full of Western Cape rosé wine and Simba chips and we were eager to do some rhino spotting. Our chariot on this trek was an appropriately khaki 4X4 that even had its own fridge in the back. Truly, this country is a wild wasteland.
Regardless of our all-terrain land yacht, sweat dripped down my back and pooled underneath my thighs, the heat made worse everytime we turned off the car. With the shaking and rumbling gone, the animals would come closer and glance noncommittally at us through open windows. It was if they were telling us with their eyes, “Yes, I do know you’re there, but don’t think I’m going to let it affect my life,” before turning away haughtily. I think I could open a gallery with all the…artistic butt pictures I managed to take with a camera that always seems to delay a second too long. The variety of animals (and their butts) living in the park is impressive for someplace only 20 minutes away from the city. We were Mean Girls level of being actively ignored by ostriches, giraffes, zebras, warthogs, bok, wildebeests, water buffalo, and, yes, even by the rhinos. Not since middle school have I felt so widely shunned.
Apparently, it had been birthing season not too long before so some of the first creatures we came upon were these adorably ugly miniature versions of ostriches and warthogs. I’m telling you, if you see a baby warthog and don’t want to pick it up and cuddle it, then you may not have a soul.
At the nuclear risk of being cliche, at a reserve (even a small one like the one we were at) there’s finally a sense of proportion when seeing these animals without a fence between you. I don’t mean to sound dense, but these animals are huge. A group of wildebeest was lying down on either side of the road and we stopped again to get a look but then one leveraged itself up on legs that shouldn’t be able to support the weight of that head, those shoulders, that mass of muscle and life. But it did and looked my roommate straight in the eye as if to say, “Yeah, come at me, punk.” Needless to say, we did not come at it. In-person, I could also notice parts of them that I never could while looking down at the savanna enclosure at my childhood zoo. For instance, ostrich underbellies are just odd-looking, and the babies’ tummies bulge ungracefully from between their scrawny legs.
The best moment (or so we thought) was when we parked up on a hill overlooking the park as the sun went down and the animals were migrating en masse towards us. It was there we found the rhinos after two-and-a-half hours of searching–a mother and a toddler. Both had their horns blunted. There is something enthralling to their massive, ambling grace. The three of us sat captive as the herds moved, the rhinos edged nearer and nearer, and the sun fell behind us, casting a warm, surreal light. The scene was at once ancient and immediate–as we watched over the rims of our plastic wine glasses.
We arrived at the gate at 6:58 to leave and it took a few seconds to realize something was wrong. The gates were supposed to be locked at 7 and yet there we were on the wrong side of the padlock. Some choice words were spoken and we drove to some chalets available for renting inside the park for those who not only want nature nearby them while in a car but also while having a braai.
One was unlocked and unoccupied by human or beast. The universe, it seemed, was going to provide for us one way or another.
It was then we realized that we were not alone and met our (human) neighbors who, together with us, made quite an international crowd: Bulgaria, Slovakia, Great Britain, America, Ireland, and, of course, South Africa. They shared their food and drinks and we shared our chocolates and political opinions about Trump.
Earlier, as we drove by the chalets, I had expressed the desire to spend the night in one of them some day soon. Be careful with your words, dear children.
That night we slept with the door wide open (on the second floor, that is–I’m not at that level yet) and awoke to discover that the previous night had not been a dream, that we had, in fact, been locked in with the animals. We were not dead. We had not been mauled–nor had the car which was real a concern since the rhinos apparently like to get friendly with large vehicles. And, after a short sleep, we found that yes, we had enjoyed ourselves.
I can only hope that the rest of my stay here proves to be as story-worthy in a good way. In the meantime, the title of this post is the working name of my (fake) autobiography.