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Elephant in front of 4x4 on a game drive in national park, South Africa

The Real Circle of Life

By Jenny McLarney

Last updated: 27th December 2011

‘Ok don’t be alarmed, stay still, the herd of elephants are just coming up right behind us.’

An elephant walking aside a vehicle

We breathe in and I cast a caution-filled glance to the left hand side of the safari vehicle. Justine, our guide and mentor didn’t seem too worried, but as a sign of respect we were generally meant to be behind the herd and not in front and because we are in such a big vehicle is could be seen as a challenge. At least she had pulled over off the road to allow them to pass. As I breathed in this huge mammal jauntily plodded past us followed by several other adults and a couple of mud-covered children.  After they had all parted off into several bushes to graze, one of the baby elephants turned round to lift its trunk up at us, a sign of defiance apparently. Justine said the babies are the most aggressive but absolutely harmless as they quickly run away to cutely cower behind their parents.  Clearly they are safe in the knowledge that their parents could fight their corner if need be.

Reserve animals

The Big 5 Game project places you right in the heart of a 4000 acre game reserve….and when I say in the heart I literally mean there is a fence around the volunteer house and then any of the animals are free to play on your doorstep. You can hear the lions roar at night, catch an elephant ripping down a tree branch a couple of metres away and hear monkeys jumping on the roof. It’s certainly an experience waking up in the morning to see warthogs bathing in their favourite watering hole just outside your window.

During the week days Justine takes you out around the reserve to complete several of the tasks that are given to the volunteers. But because the game reserve is so vast it does take quite a while to get from place to place therefore you do get to see A LOT of the park.  And because of this you are pretty much guaranteed to sit in on game rides for the majority of your day…what an absolute shame.  When it comes down to the nitty gritty you do have to battle against the fierce African sun to fulfil such chores as chopping down alien trees whose roots are choking the native plants.  Black wattle was our main Australian enemy in these parts and by gum there are a lot of them; however there is a great satisfaction of hearing the CRACK as the tree finally snaps. Conquering these pesky plants is one of the more labour intensive tasks.

A group of giraffes

Others included monitoring the different elephants and changing the batteries in all of the seven cameras strewn across the park. These are situated to catch any slight glimpse of those illusive leopards.  This meant delving into the deepest depths of the park and even travelling into the adjacent game reserve that is not open to tourists.  Therefore armed with Justine’s ‘spider stick’ we launched into the unknown taking down any webs in our path.

After travelling down these rather rickety paths that go down through the valley and up the other side we pull out into one of the huge wide grassy savannas. What an awesome sight. From one end to the next we saw such an eclectic mix of animals stretched across this huge grassy plain.  I have to say ‘The circle of life’ did instantly spring to mind as we slowly passed this assortment of breeds simply and beautifully co inhabiting the landscape.   Groups of giraffes turned to stare, their knobbly legs striding past us with their children in tow.  Zebras cross our path, lightning fast as they flit from one end of the valley to the next. The wildebeest may have kept their distance but we caught a glimpse of their shiny black fur and their powerful stature.  Impala, kudus, water buck, spring buck bounded behind the static giraffes creating a flurry of life that was quite a spectacular sight.

Rain days mean we were unable to go out on safari but it did mean we could experience what the main lodge had to offer at a hugely cut price. Now I’d never had a massage before but I was assured I’d never get it anywhere cheaper so I headed along with the rest of the group.  At first I was so ticklish I was jerking about like a freshly caught fish on a chopping board, but after a while I relaxed, fell asleep and dribbled on the floor. Hakuna matata!

A traditional Braai at night

Braai time (BBQ) in the evening was great we were treated to as much as you can eat, a variety of meats, beans, salads, the cooks even came out in full kitchen attire (hairnets included) and gave us several rousing African songs and dances to entertain us beside the fire. A braailliant end to a fascinating week.

I headed back to Port Elizabeth before flying to Kruger. One quick tip for all those nicknamed Larney, or have a Larney somewhere in their names: in South African slang it apparently means a posh person who thinks they are so above everyone else.  A fact I greeted with joy as it was shouted across the bar when they found out my surname was McLarney….’eh everyone look we’ve got a Larney here…hahaha look she’s such a Larney…’ Fantastic.

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