I awoke to clamoring sounds on the rowdy bus. It became increasingly evident we were approaching our intended destination, as the scenery was devoid of familiar architecture. We were surrounded by a landscape of barren, brown trees. Despite their appearance, leafless branches arched upward as if attempting to grasp an object beyond their reach. Were the trees capable of budding again? The look was deceiving, though, as it was winter in South Africa.
Honorable mention 2011 Teen Travel Writing Scholarship
Upon disembarking a weathered looking man met us. With a barely perceptible smile and a slight nod toward benches, this imposing figure garnered our attention. We sat, insecure and scared, a group of inexperienced adventurers. His booming voice resonated, “Welcome. There are three rules out here. Do not get too close to the animals, they are wild. Second, always remain in a pack. If an animal attacks, someone will be able to run for help, hopefully before you are killed. Third, always shake out your shoes and sleeping bags. They may contain snakes, scorpions, or spiders.” Our traumatized faces glanced at one another to ascertain if this man was attempting to frighten us. Deep down, we knew he was dead serious. Well, I thought, welcome to the South African Bush.
Tshukudu Game Lodge, nestled on the periphery of Kruger National Park, is a magical, awe inspiring, breathtakingly, beautiful place. While visiting the South African bush I came to fully appreciate the significance of the incredible efforts undertaken at the Game Lodge. Not only was wildlife roaming freely, but phenomenal efforts existed to protect endangered species inhabiting the bush. Breeding projects surrounded the camp. Initially, my traveling companions were skeptical of the projects as wild animals were caged to facilitate reproduction efforts. Animals were enclosed within open air, sturdy metal fencing. The structurally sound enclosures permitted the animals to maintain predatory habits. Once released back into their natural habitats, these magnificent animals would be capable of survival.
Each day brought a new adventure. Interacting with breeding project animals was a memorable life experience. I walked with lion cubs and their “adopted” mother, a yellow Labrador retriever. Walking with lion cubs was exhilarating, a feeling I will be unable to replicate. At any moment the lion could pounce, injuring or killing me. Pure adrenaline kept me engaged, as I watched the cubs play.
Another day, I explored the cheetah breeding project. My hand shook as it trickled down the mother cheetah’s rough, gnarly fur. Instinctively, the protective mother maintained a steady, watchful eye on her young charges. The cheetah’s sharp, life threatening teeth glistened in the sunlight. Who could pass up this unique experience to interact with cheetah cubs? Ironically, as I approached the cubs, they ran, as if afraid of me. This, despite the fact the cheetahs were capable of swiftly attacking and injuring me. Once settled, the cubs played like cats. When the cheetahs sensed danger, they hissed in my face, warning me; I was intruding on their personal territory. The ability to connect with these phenomenal cheetahs was unbelievable.
It is rare for humans to experience such intimate, personal connection with exceptional creatures in their natural bush habitat. I was fortunate to experience these interactions while traveling with Discovery Student Adventures. The trip has drastically altered the lens through which I view my impact on the world. Previously, I did not comprehend the effect humans have on these impressive animals. Never before have I been graced with the sights and sounds that engulfed me in the South African bush – a world seemingly untouched and generally invisible to the majority of the human race.
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