It’s the End of the World as We Know It, and … Hey! Look at that Lion!

Well, here we are. 2012. The beginning of the end, so they say.

But, if the curtain really does come down this year, assuming the Mayans didn’t just switch from stone tablet calendars to e-tablet calendars, the opening act was better than Broadway.

Our new year popped open at midnight with a bottle of Cap Classique and a dazzling display of fireworks, flares and flashes of lightning over the Pretoria skyline. Standing on the upper veranda at the home of our friends Yvonne and Danie, we watched as the city celebrated with gushing Roman candles, floating Asian lanterns and soaring distress flares. From the CBD to Sunnyside, back towards the Union Buildings, across to Loftus Versfeld Stadium and beyond the university campus, the night sky was alive with explosive revelry.

Exciting as it was to welcome a new year in a new city with new friends, we could not afford to linger too long into 2012; we had a big day ahead. We were beginning the end at Nkomazi.

Early on New Year’s Day, with our bikes loaded on the back of the Rio, we drove east through the mountains of Mpumalanga for about three-and-a-half hours, pushing ever closer to the border with Swaziland, until we reached the beautiful Nkomazi Game Reserve. Inside the main gate, we met Heinrich, an affable Afrikaner and ranger at the reserve who helped us transfer our gear and bikes to the safari vehicle for the 30-minute drive to camp. Leaving our car at the gate was the first of many unique and rewarding aspects of our Nkomazi experience.

On the drive to camp, we saw most of the usual suspects: wildebeest, impala, warthogs (Jenny’s favorite) and zebra. But there were several more locals who came out to greet us, including blesbok, nyala, giraffe and white rhino. Sightings before settling in. Nice.

Several other staff members were awaiting our arrival as we approached the inner gate at the Komati Tented Lodge. Hopping out of the tall vehicle onto the sandy ground below, we were welcomed by name, offered chilled, scented towels and served a flute of cold ginger beer.

“Thanks, we’re just happy to be here.”

A view of the Komati River from Komati Tented Lodge at Nkomazi

Ulrich, a co-manager of Komati, along with his wife, Arline, gave us the lay of the land at the luxurious lodge. It was amazing. Don’t let the words tented or camp fool you – the place was five-star. But an incredible value.

Like most of the other tents in camp, ours (#9) opened into a richly furnished bedroom, which led into a generous bathroom area, complete with rain shower and separate dressing room. Outside, on the ample private deck overlooking a roaring stretch of Komati River rapids, two wooden chaise lounges sat under an umbrella at the edge of a triangular plunge pool. On the opposite end, hugging the tent to the right of the entry flap, stood a massive, claw-footed outdoor bathtub. We were spoiled.

We got used to it.

In fact, it was this kind of impeccable attention to detail – from knowing our names, planned activities and dietary preferences, to the bottles of water by the bed each night and other little things – that made Nkomazi special.

Over the next two nights and three days, we enjoyed delicious food, struck up stimulating conversations with friends old and new (our buddies Hannah and Bob, and their friend, Ann, were also at Nkomazi), had relaxing massages at the river’s edge, and explored the landscape and wildlife of the reserve – both in open game vehicles and on our mountain bikes (though, I did take a nasty spill).

One of the highlights of the game drives was our time spent watching two lionesses taunt a tower/kaleidoscope/journey (the official names for “herd”) of giraffe. Driving along a grassy path between two outcroppings, we saw four giraffe loping towards us before they stopped and turned their long necks back in the opposite direction. They were running from something.

Sure enough, from behind a lollipop-shaped thorny acacia tree came the self-satisfied saunter of a healthy lioness.

We stopped. She stopped. We stared. She stared.

Lioness watching giraffe at Nkomazi

As we sat in the stillness of the warm, African evening, a thunderstorm was brewing to the west. Lightning bolts pierced the sky above distant mountains.

The giraffe took baby steps away from the lioness, but another big cat appeared. Soon, both were lying in the grass, struggling to choose between chasing or napping. In an instant, it seemed that the feline closest to our vehicle would choose the chase. She sprang to her feet and darted directly towards us. Had she recognized us as human steak kabobs? Would she leap into the middle row, where Jenny and I had just broken one of the cardinal rules of safari by trading seats?

No, she was using the truck as a shield to surprise the giraffe from their left flank. They spotted her as she rounded the rear bumper and ran through a clump of small trees. They trotted safely away, for it was all just a game, anyway. While the lion(s) surely could catch the giraffe, they would need much more help to actually bring one down. These two girls couldn’t do it alone.

Still…it was an exhilarating moment.

From here, it’s probably best to let the pictures tell the story, but let me just say this: Our Fulbright Friend, Cynthia, allowed me to borrow her 300mm lens for this trip, so almost all of my photos show signs of my experimentation with how to keep such a lens in focus and the shots properly exposed, etc. In other words, they are not my best work. Fortunately, I think the magnificence of Nkomazi’s flora and fauna make up for my mediocre photos.

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The kindness of “strangers”

Moving to a new city – any new city – is a challenge if you don’t have a local to show you around and help you get a feel for your surroundings. Fortunately, Jenny and I have had fabulous introductions to Pretoria, thanks to some people we had never actually met. Or, sort of never met…

Cape Malva Pudding

Malva pudding (image by HarshLight via Flickr)

On our second night here, after a day spent walking around our new neighborhood and to the University of Pretoria, Jenny’s colleague, Professor Stella Nkomo, and her husband, Professor Mokubung Nkomo, treated us to dinner at the fabulous Kream Restaurant. Delicious food, tasty South African pinotage and Jenny’s new favorite dessert, malva pudding with Amarula cream sauce, highlighted a great evening of conversation and education about our new home.

The next day, Stella kindly ferried us around town and orientated us with the Brooklyn Mall and its stores, such as Mr. Price, Game, Dis-Chem and Checkers. We stocked up on some staple items before returning to the guesthouse. It was a tremendous help.

On Sunday, we enjoyed another excellent excursion with a “stranger.”

A few days before we left Chicago, we met a woman at a party (thanks, Rabiah!) who dates a man from South Africa. She was coming for a visit soon after we arrived, so we made plans to connect during her stay. But even before Maudlyne landed, her partner, the incomparable Neil Roos, offered to show us some of his favorite spots in Pretoria. So nice.

The Union Buildings: seat of government & home to President Zuma

Neil drove us to the famous Union Buildings, into Central Pretoria, out to the pre-Apartheid black location of Atteridgeville, through the ritzy neighborhood of Waterkloof Ridge and up the hill towards Klapperkop Fort for amazing nighttime views of the city. So fun.

With Maudlyne’s arrival the next night, we ventured out for a drive and to Namaskar Restaurant for some Indian food. Paneer Makhani and Prawn Dum Biryani. So delicious.

We owe all of these kind folks a debt of gratitude for helping us feel at home here. We’ll be happy to do the same for any of you who come for a visit!