A trip to a fancy safari lodge was something of a dream come true, but you can’t eat bon bons for dinner every night, can you? Certainly not. Besides, high end safari digs ain’t cheap, even if the meals are included. So we said goodbye to Alicia and Sipu and Sydwell and the rest of the gang. We said goodbye to high end sundowners (oh, and welcome home from the game drive cocktails – I forgot about those), and sunuppers and the gourmet meals and the outdoor shower and the pith helmets (okay, there weren’t any pith helmets), and we drove up the road to a guest house called Kerhula Lodge in the Balule Parsons Reserve, another private reserve that borders Kruger. I picked it because it was cheap and it sounded mellow.
What I didn’t realize was that it was being run temporarily by a couple of Amsterdam cops. Say what?
Yes, the owners of this place, who are from the Netherlands, were on vacation, so they left their home and business in the care of their friends, Marieke and Jovan. He’s on the Amsterdam police force, where among other things, he serves on the soccer hooligan squad. His wife is a Dutch Kyra Sedgewick – she’s the chief of detectives.
Oh, another thing. Unlike Naledi and most other safari lodges, this place has no fences. Anything can, and will, wander right through the front yard. On the day we arrived, an elephant had just passed through. Elephants are really cute and soulful and all that, but they will also kill you. Um, so can lions. And other stuff. Marieke and Jovan seemed unfazed. “Yeah, the animals come through, but it’s okay,” Jovan said, as though he was describing a visit by squirrels.
They must be really good friends. I mean, would you entrust your business, which just happens to feature wild animals that can kill people, to a friend? I admit I was mildly concerned. I was expecting to find a couple who lived out in the wild and were keen to the ways of nature, and the bush, and all that. They could pick up a blade of grass, sniff it, and tell you whether the rhino that peed on it was male or female. You know, stuff like that. On the other hand, if the animals broke the law, Jovan and Marieke were qualified to arrest them.
I put my misgivings aside because they seemed very nice and I got a good vibe from the place, and besides, they were cops. Our room was not fancy, but quite clean and comfortable. It didn’t have an outdoor shower, but it had a nice porch with a view of the same river we had just come from. A resident crocodile named Bruce basked on a spit of sand at the river’s edge. This was no pet, though. A while back, the owners’ dog got too close to the water and Bruce had him for lunch. There was a family of rhinos splashing around across the way. Same nature, only cheaper.
I think the owners’ Dutch-ness had an effect on the clientele, which was like a plenary session at the European Union. There was a Swiss German couple, a Swiss Italian couple, a Dutch couple, another couple from the UK in which the wife spoke with the most enterprising Dutch/Birmingham accent, and another couple from England. I heard the words “nay,” “acch,” and “crikey” a lot.
They were all really great, though, and on the first evening we sat around a long table outside and watched Jovan grill meats on the brai, as the barbeque is called in South Africa, and we exchanged stories of encounters with the South African police, which seems to be the standard icebreaker in these parts. Here we were again, at a dinner party with strangers.
Nothing about this place is particularly formal, which is just fine with me. The bar, such as it is, is the fridge in the kitchen. Take a bottle of wine or a beer and mark it on the little sheet on the wall. Game drives and bush walks are extra, but they’re only twenty bucks. Besides, you feel less guilty for sleeping in. The game drive was every bit as low key as the rest of the joint. One afternoon I asked Jovan if we could go for a drive and he looked slightly disappointed, because I suspect he had other stuff to do. But he was game (har, har) and we climbed into the Range Rover and set off. By contrast to Naledi, which had a driver armed with an elephant gun and a tracker who sat on a special chair bolted to the hood keeping a sharp eye out for animals, it was just Jovan in flip flops, which he tossed aside to drive the jeep. No gun, either. And while Jovan seems to know a lot about animals, one can only hope that the animals act a lot like soccer hooligans, so he can put his day job training to work. I mean, let’s face it, we were driving through lion, leopard, elephant, and rhino country with a barefoot, unarmed, Dutch cop.
At Naledi, the rangers and trackers all keep close tabs on each other with walkie talkies. When someone spots something, the drivers go racing across the reserve, threatening to catapult the unsuspecting guest into the bush if she isn’t careful. We even blew a tire once. Instead, Jovan took us on a zen game drive. Janine and I hopped into the vehicle and he proceeded to meander around the reserve with a peaceful quietude. Of course, within minutes we were spotting animals left and right. Here was a herd of zebras, there a group of giraffes, and kudu, and antelope, and elephants.
At one point, Jovan jumped out of the jeep to inspect a dry river bed where a pride of lions had rested the day before. Janine and I wondered exactly what we would do if he found them, especially on foot. He poked around a bit then returned to the car, reluctant to stray too far. We resumed our drive for another, oh, fifty yards and there they were – a beautiful but terrifying family of lions. They got just a hair too close for comfort at one point and then one of the adolescent cubs darted off into a scamper – he was playing with one of his siblings – which nearly caused us to wet ourselves. Just another afternoon drive in the neighborhood, I guess.
We only had scheduled two days here, but we could have stayed much longer. It’s the kind of vacation I can get behind – sit on a hammock at the water’s edge staring down at a crocodile with a beer in my hand, making sure not to fall out of the hammock or spill my beer. If I stayed here long enough, I might even read a book, or learn Dutch.
But we had to push off because we needed to get into Kruger for a three day wilderness hike. Yes, you heard that correctly – we were off to spend three days on foot in the heart of Kruger National Park. This was going to be rustic and very close to nature. We’re not really the camping and hiking sort, but it sounded too cool to pass up. And really, what could possibly go wrong?