Updated: Jan 26, 2019
Relief. After 16 hours of inhaling re-circulated oxygen, fighting restless leg syndrome, and ingesting one too many melatonin, it was finally time to disembark the flight. I had hopped over the Atlantic and landed in Johannesburg, South Africa – in plain terms, the city was both under and overwhelming. Car pollution and litter caked the crowded sidewalks with a greyish layer that I imagined even the strongest pressure washer couldn’t flake off. I opted out of exploring the city in favor of a night in spent recovering from the day's travels. By morning, I was grateful to escape the city and head to the reserve.
The grey van – driven by a man with skin colored so deep that it is no longer brown, but purple – accompanied me to Kapama, my first safari destination. Clouds of dust kicked up behind us, leaving a trail that I imagined God could follow from the sky. After a jarring ride, I couldn’t be happier to hear Clement say, in his rich South African accent, “We have arrived.”
I emerged from the van, inhaling the warm air into the deepest corners of my lungs. I was surrounded by a 360-degree view of flat, open land, obstructed only by scattered trees painted with tones of burnt orange and yellowy green. I imagined the mighty animals that lie beyond, spying on me through the slivers between the leaves. Their hidden gazes burned a hole in my back.
I received a quick tour of the reserve grounds: a wooden platform deck topped with elegant, carved tables for meals, a gleaning turquoise swimming pool, and my lodging – simple canvas walls propped in the middle of the African bush. It fit in perfectly with the landscape.
Dusk approached, and the dusty air clung to my skin as if it had decided to settle down for the night with me. I decided, with a little bit of courage, to venture to the outdoor shower. My thoughts danced between a zen, ‘I am one with nature’ and a not so zen, ‘I pray that an elephant doesn’t stumble across my bare-self right now.’
That night, I dozed off to the sound of heavy footsteps crushing fallen tree branches around my tent.
The morning sunrise seeped through the cracks in my curtains like fingers of light itching to awaken me. I dressed, covered head to toe in shades of tan so that I might equally fit into the landscape.
Breakfast was not a meal, but an experience. An enormous wooden table spilled over with local fruits, soft bread, and the bitter smell of coffee. I was instantly grateful for the elastic waistband that I was wearing.
That evening, after a four-hour game drive, we parked our jeep and watched the reddish sun melt into the skyline. Nighttime arrived, and the absence of light pollution allowed the darkness to seep into every corner of the bush, painting the dusty ground, barren tree limbs, and tall grass with shades of grey and black. The silence of the night was broken only by lions in the distance, singing songs so deep they vibrated in your core.
I turned my gaze upwards, examining the flecks of white light that sprinkled the sky. My eyes searched for Orion and landed on the milky way. Reddish clouds of spatial gas melted together, as if watching an explosion in a slow-motion film. In that moment, I remember feeling small. I paused, becoming aware once again of the dust that had settled on my skin for the night.