We were wide-eyed and excited while cruising down the six-lane highway in our newly-rented 4x4 safari-rigged Land Rover on our way out of Johannesburg, South Africa. Stocked up and overflowing with camping equipment, luggage and all that other stuff that seems to come along on trips, we were taking in the sights, trying to navigate, fiddling with the darn GPS, estimating sunset time and pinching ourselves about being in Africa. Our car rental guy told us it would be an easy 2 1/2 hours to Matamba, but two hours later we still had many kilometers to go.
Sunset was upon us when we found the small sign that pointed down a dirt road to Matamba Bush Camp. Eventually, we pulled up to a tall chain link gate in the pitch black. Luckily it was unlocked, and soon we were following a rustic wood signpost toward a camping site.
To our complete surprise and delight, the owners, Alan and Sue, were out in their car watching for us. They led the way to our camp spot and offered cold beers and ice, showed us the water tap and bathroom facilities, and told us about their walking trails. They bid us goodnight, but not before mentioning that it was highly likely we would be surrounded by gemsboks, elands, impalas, or giraffes in the morning.
Giraffes! Oh how I’d love to wake up at first light and see giraffes outside the tent.
It was a balmy evening, and the quiet stillness of the African bush, which was punctuated only by insect noises, quickly lulled us to sleep.
The next morning, a few eland grazed nearby, but no giraffes.
Sue offered to walk us around her game reserve. She was a gracious hostess, and full of information about game animals and farm management. As we walked, we learned about the couple’s recent move to the bush from Joberg, what was involved in managing game, how good the market for game meats is and a plethora of other bush and animal tidbits. She showed us spots where the hyenas like to bed down, and we came across a newly-dug hole in the road compliments of their resident aardvarks. Sue had installed an infrared camera trap and was anxious to catch the digging action and see what their aardvark looked like. We peered through binoculars at the large twisted horns of kudu, and the gorgeous black and white markings on gemsboks.
We also stopped to observe dung beetles rolling large perfectly round balls of poop along the trail. Taking the course of least resistance, these insects are frequently seen rolling their loads on roads — so much faster than trying roll them through grass and bushes. My daughter had recently watched a TED Talk about dung beetles that revealed they navigate by looking at the sky and polarized light. They climb on top of their dung ball, take a directional reading to determine which way to go. Being curious tourists, we tested it out. We moved the ball of poop and disoriented the dung beetle. Sure enough, the beetle climbed on top again, scanned the horizon, took his reading, and started to roll his ball in the same direction. From then on we avoided running over the many hardworking dung beetles we drove by on the road.
Well all this was interesting, but I wanted to find those giraffes. After more than an hour of walking in the hot sun, we were almost back at camp, but we still hadn’t found them. Sue veered off the trail to bush whack through the thigh high savanna, and quickly spotted the male giraffe’s beautiful reticulated coat through the leaves.
I was still trying to make it out when it lifted its head. Oh yeah, there it was.
The author of my “Safari Companion” book writes that giraffes aren’t that interesting because they just eat and stare.
He’s right, they eat and stare.
Curiosity gets the better of them and they crane their heads and just watch you watch them. They held that stance for longer than I could stand still without swatting a fly or scratching a bug bite. We stood staring at each other for sometime until the need to graze moved them along. Sue explained the interesting phenomena about acacia trees that giraffes love to eat. When leaves and branches are eaten the trees emit pheromones, which act as a warning mechanism to nearby acacia trees. The surrounding trees then emit tannins that are toxic to the giraffe, causing the giraffes to move further through the bush for their next snack, thus ensuring the trees won’t be stripped in one meal.
We talked more about giraffes, the buying and selling of wild game, and how giraffes are transported to auction. Curiously, I asked how much a giraffe is worth. Sue said it depends on sex and age, but on average they net around $1,500-$2,000. Wow. For $1,500 I could own a giraffe. Seemed cheap. Imagine owning a giraffe. I can’t help it, but when I travel I do that — imagine what it would be like to live, work, and play wherever I’m visiting.
Stared out by the giraffes, we moved on. But those curious giraffes accompanied us at a distance. Being day one of our safari, we needed to hit the road. Our Matamba stay was a great introduction to wild game and the African bush, and needless to say, I never tired of staring at giraffes staring at me.
• Susan Sloss is a Juneau resident.