A traveler in South Africa arrives with hope, excitement, and fear. As she becomes accustomed to the country, she learns that some of her fears may have been unfounded, but that doesn’t mean she won’t have to overcome a few unexpected challenges…
It was my first time in Africa, and I was scared. Scared of the people, the politics, the weather, the water, using local transport, eating the food, being killed by a hippo, diseases – oh, don’t forget the mosquito bites – my hair going dry in the dusty climate, and all the horror stories my family kept finding on the internet and later retelling in great detail.
It was early September when I landed at Hoedspruit Airport and began the two-hour drive to The Greater Kruger Area where I would be completing a wildlife photography internship. The area is less touristy than Kruger National Park as it consists of private, unfenced game reserves that are used for conservation and ecotourism purposes. When I arrived, Greater Kruger had not yet spawned into summer, but winter was on its way out: the bush was brittle and neutral-colored. The biscuity landscape felt parched, making activity appear lazy and lifeless; the reality was the opposite.
Each day interns were taken out on two game drives: one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Once a week there was a night drive. The mornings were crisp and early, a 5 a.m. start. I was driven through the bush in search of birds and animals as the neon red sun bulged over the horizon. The afternoon game drives were blue-skied and warm. We returned to base as the sun set.
One week into the internship, I was preparing myself for the afternoon drive. It was a Monday, and on Mondays interns were taken on a gin drive (just a normal game drive, but with gin involved. Everything is better with gin involved. Even lions). I climbed into the back row of the game viewer, ready for the compulsory health and safety briefing.
The guide, Sam, stood on the driver’s seat and turned to perch on the steering wheel, an unusual twinkle in his eye. He took turns looking at all nine interns, staring into each pair of eyes like he was analyzing strengths, weaknesses, traumas, destinies.
“Right, folks,” said Sam, “it’s time for gin drive! Woo!” He pumped his hand in the air to encourage the excitement, but we remained silent. “Jesus, don’t act too excited.”
Sam was trying to control the smile tugging at the corners of his lips, causing my eyes to narrow and my brow to furrow. I waited, suspicious.
“As you all know,” the guide continued, “keep your hands, feet, arms, and legs inside the game viewer at all times. Do not shout and scream if yah catch a sighting. Quietly let me know, and I will try to get the best view possible. Don’t bring any food into the game viewer, make sure your camera flashes are off, and as always, guys, remember to have fun. Woo!”
He sat down and started the engine, took off his wide-brimmed hat, and ran a hand through his ginger hair before placing it back on his head.
The guide glanced over his shoulder. “Oh, and folks? Today is the newbies’ initiation.”
The game viewer raced through the sandy-colored African bush, past the mopane trees and prickly pear plants, the frantic antelopes and the hooded vultures, flying over mounds of dirt and throwing passengers into the air like the seats were on springs. The vehicle skated through the land like there was a tsunami on its trace, the world whizzing by in a blurry assortment of beige.
Sam was eager to get somewhere that none of us were sure where; he barely stopped when a lion was spotted resting in the shade. The lion watched us leave with an air of nonchalance, sprawled out under his tree with the sense of security that only a lion could have in such an environment: he was king of the African bush, and he bloody knew it.
The game viewer swerved onto a flat area of open space, an excessive cloud of dust trailing its rear like the train of a royal wedding dress. Sam hopped out of the front seat and patrolled the scene, searching for signs of danger while we sat tight. He investigated the distance, looked up at the trees, studied the tracks, listened.
“You can hop out now, folks,” he said, clapping his hands together. “Okay, who wants pink gin and who wants normal?”
Sam placed the drinks cooler on the game viewer’s bonnet and poured fizzy gin and tonics into metal mugs. A herd of impala scattered the outskirts of the flat, open space. An African fish eagle shrieked as it flew over the bank towards us, landing in a treetop nearby. The warm air smudged into my pores.
Sam encouraged us to gather around as he crouched down and inspected the dusty ground. On the dawn drive that morning, he had found hyena tracks, explaining the distinctions, sizing, and how he could tell that they were fresh. I hurried over.
I watched, frozen, as he picked up a ball of antelope dung and showcased it on his palm like a proposal ring. With a face full of child-like watch this attitude, he laid the dung on the flat of his tongue and began to churn it around his mouth, jaw circling outwards like a chewing goat. The twinkle in his eyes grew sparklier and sparklier.
“Now, the trick to this is to really get some moisture into it first,” he explained through a mouthful of poo, “then it’ll shoot off faster when yah spit it out.”
The alarmed interns watched on. I tried to keep my composure as Sam massaged saliva into his ammunition, drawing a line in the dust with his foot and standing behind it. He leant his body back before thrusting forward, spitting the dung high into the air and whooping as it fell to the ground fifteen feet away. “Tough one to beat!” he said, grinning like everything that had happened within the last three minutes was the most normal thing in the world.
Sam bent down and picked up a second brown ball. The interns recoiled as he approached, but he grabbed his target in time. Sam unclenched my fist and forced over the dung. “Initiation time!” he said, pumping his fist like a frat boy spectating a chugging competition. “You’re lucky because that one’s fresh. Gonna have more moisture in it.” He winked in response to my look of horror.
I stood behind the starting line and acknowledged how every one of my life decisions had led me to this moment. I held the brown ball at arms-length, not wanting to smell the dung in case I dry heaved in front of everyone.
It’s only antelope dung. All antelopes do all day is eat grass. Their dung is only grass. It can’t taste that bad. It’s natural. Sustainable. Hey, practically healthy!
Sam interrupted my hesitance. “If ya don’t want to give it any moisture with yah tongue, you could swirl it around in your gin for a bit first.”
I actually considered that suggestion.
“Come on!” said Sam after several seconds of inaction. “Are you really gonna leave South Africa without having participated in our sacred traditions?” He chuckled, cracking open a second can of tonic.
I inhaled, then exhaled. Practicing my new mantra—it’s only grass, it’s only grass—I tucked my hair behind my ears, tried not to look at the small brown ball balancing between the tips of my fingernails, then, pink gin in hand, popped the shit into my mouth.
It barely touched the sides before I spat it out, a half-scream half-belch leaving my mouth along with it. The dung dropped to the ground less than one foot away, causing the giggles and uproar that had floated around the flat open space to fall silent. A bird cried in the distance. Water splashed as a herd of elephants disembarked the river bank. Someone coughed.
I wiped my mouth on my t-shirt, downed my gin, and immediately helped myself another, not wanting a piece of poo to be the last thing that touched my lips. Seeing such a substandard performance seemed to spark an eager competitiveness among the interns, and the group began to line up behind the starting line. Everybody managed to spit their shit further than me, yet, somehow, I slept just fine with that knowledge.
The sun was setting as I climbed back aboard the game viewer. Animals were hidden in the declining light, and it was not long before the nocturnal wildlife would come out to play. I sat back as the wind whipped my cheeks, a newly initiated intern of the South African bush, but not sure I was feeling any the better for it.
As the game viewer skidded to base and Sam switched off the engine, a cloud of dust enveloped the vehicle, causing me to splutter. As I swiped at the sandy air in front of me, I realized that only one of my great African fears was destined to come true: the dusty climate was bound to make my hair dry.