Zebra Crossing: The first zebra spotted by Bhale in the wild
Hatari, Safaris, Born Free, Invictus… Africa had been a dream forever! It took root back in 2003 at the South African Embassy in London. Eventually I ended up studying the leopard-human conflict in India, degrees and jobs followed and almost seven years later, in 2010, the day finally dawned that my ‘African dream’ fell into place.
Amidst the World Cup frenzy, the day that I was to embark upon a journey to South Africa was fixed! The flight was not too long and soon enough my Dad, brother and me were in Port Elizabeth.
Spotted! The Fastest Felines
There she was, the petite and ever-smiling Aby tossing her blonde hair. She took us to the Town House for lunch and as they fixed up something vegetarian, I was still trying to digest the fact that I was actually there.
At the door of Long Lee Manor, we met Johan and Isabel. I felt like a little child, gave Johan a tight hug and blinked my eyes in disbelief. This was not real was it?
A little while later I got onto my first game drive. When I saw my first Zebra, my mind went ‘Oh my god, I am actually here…’ Elephants, rhinos, cheetahs, Kudu’s, springboks and all the other antelope which I am still confused about came on display.
The elephant parade on the big meadow was the highlight and we went back for dinner after some sun-downers. Aby got a cake made for me and all the staff sang “Happy Birthday” in Xhosa, it was the most beautiful birthday till date.
Business lunches, talks, game drives and a lovely dinner followed the next day till my Dad and brother had to leave. After some shopping at Green Acres, bye bye daddy it was. I was alone and a bit scared.
I drove back to Shamwari as the rain came down. Glen Vena aka Mr. Man from Born Free arrived. He was great fun, as we joked and fed the big cats at the Born Free Rescue Centre.
Yes, master! Feeding the white lions
As Saturday morning came, Johan told me some fellow called Bruce was to look after me when I was done feeding the baby animals. We made the rhino milk, fed the little lions and then waited for Bruce, wondering who or how he might be. This is how our first conversation went:
“Bruce — Hey there, Bruce, how’s it?
Pooja — Hi I am Pooja…Fine thanks…
Bruce — How do you spell that?”
And after this first exchange, we spoke about possibly everything under the sun. As if we were friends forever. I realised South African’s are on my top five list of favourite people of the world.
The rest of the three weeks I spent in SA were adventurous to say the least. I wish I could document them all but those will be a book one day. I met a lot of great people and here goes a little about friends I know I have made for life and memories for even longer.
I was on the Shamwari Game Reserve which sits on the Eastern Cape of South Africa. A private game reserve, it is home to the big five cats, countless other species, an amazing wildlife rehab centre and also the Born Free rescue centre.
On these 25,000 hectares of pristine wild land, I spent a month, working with the wildlife team. Everyday I met new people, had new experiences which brought me closer to nature and real joy.
Anja, they told me, was a short Afrikaans girl who did not ‘talk much’ but was good at heart so “I should not mind it!” But we had a great time. Tracking Ingwe’s (Leopard in Xhosa) and Slosi’s (Cheetah in Xhosa), looking out for Makumbe (Rhino in Xhosa). Kevin — another local — and I laughed about actors in India, mapped bore holes, tracked elephants.
His missus Karen was a sweetheart. Together, we enjoyed the concert at Sidbury on Sunday and there I met my little blue-eyed sweetheart, Mark, all of five years old.
Nelis, the ace shooter — what a first meeting it was with him! Guns, two dead impalas and two adorable little daughters, Nelis was on the anti-poaching unit. A great sleep out under the stars, lots of bumpy rides in the crane truck hauling rhinos, rain storms and long working hours eventually made us get along with each other.
Moody Murray and I went to Kwandwe to release some cheetahs that had to be relocated and although the drugs took some time we eventually managed to get the them out and about. Camera shy, lanky and a great vet, Murray and I had quite a shock when one of the cheetahs decided to wake up in the middle of taking a blood sample!
Notes to Remember
The awesome dinner at Joubert’s, the cold beer at Ronnies Shop, the breakfast in Bedford, drilling rhino horns for micro-chips, the drunk night at Sidbury, the chopper ride tracking buffalo — all of it will stay with me for life.
To watch those guys work is inspiring. They did everything with so much of passion! They all made my dream a reality, gave me strength to carry on working for this challenge of conservation and I guess I don’t fear hypodermic needles as much anymore!
— As told to Mrunmayi Ainapure