Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Ginger Greene: Sunday in the park with Palma

You may not know that St. Paul's currently has a Peace Corps volunteer in South Africa, our own Ginger Greene. She is teaching school in Rustenburg, and is due back in Charlottesville in about a month. She has been sending delightful accounts of her experience, and below, with her permission, I am posting her last "adventure" from this past weekend. The photos are hers, and by the way, the rhinos next to her are made of plaster and is in a shop. The rhinos outside the passenger door are  real. Enjoy:


Palma picks me up after church in Rustenburg. I've just gone to the Anglican Church and she to the Afrikaan Protestant Church, and we're both ready for an adventure.

Which park shall it be this time? There's very little debate, because we both like Pilanesburg best, but there are others that we occasionally go to. Today, though, we agree on the Pilanesburg Game Preserve. It's about an hour's drive from Rustenburg.

It's a little cloudy—we're in the rainy season, and it can really pour down sometimes—but it's not going to rain for a while. It's pleasantly cool.
We get to the gate, a handsome thatched open-air building surrounded by craftspersons selling carved animals, masks, things like that. I would love to buy some but I know they will all break in my overstuffed suitcase when I go home, especially their little legs. So I look the other way. One of us checks out the map posted outside the ticket office; there are coloured pins (different colours for different animals) showing the latest reported elephant, lion etc. sightings; but we don't pay much attention because the animals are usually moving around and unlikely to be found in the same place twice.

Off we go, down a potholed but paved road that rapidly degenerates into a heavily potholed, dirt road with lots of gullies and big rocks. Palma nonchalantly steers her car, a big Mercedes, through and around the obstacles. She has been coming to this place for many many years and probably knows it better than most of the rangers. She has her favorite places for looking for hippos; she knows where the baboons lurk; she knows where the buffalo are supposed to be, although they seldom are—she's seen lots of buffalo, but for some reason never any in this park, so we're always on the lookout.

I should say SHE is on the lookout. Palma has eyes that are considerably sharper than the average eagle's. She can steer casually along the road, weaving around the potholes, all the time watching closely for animals on both sides; by contrast, I am squinting out of my window, trying to decide which little black shape is a bush and which is an impala. She always tells me to say "stop!" if I think I see something; I often do, but most of the time it turns out to be a shrub just pretending to be a gnu, or something like that. By contrast, she can spot anything four-legged about a half mile away, and decide instantly whether it's a roibok, a kudu, or one of the other many antelope-type animals here, or perhaps an elephant. And she's seldom wrong. I almost never recognize anything before she's already got it in sight.

"There! Look over there!" I will hear, as she brakes and pulls over, and I obediently squint out of her side of the car. Nothing but a lot of bushes and trees. "It's two elands! Just to the left of that clump of rocks!" I'm usually looking in the wrong direction and can't even find the clump of rocks, let alone the brownish-black shapes or the big horns of the elands. But Palma is very patient, and has had a lot of practice in giving directions. She points out a tree close to the road; look to the right of that tree for a dead tree; look straight between the two, there, over near the river…….Eventually I see them. Usually with my binoculars, once I can get them focused and pointed between the two trees. But Palma's patience is measureless, and she waits until I have had a good look. Then we drive on.

This scenario is repeated over and over. Sometimes the critter is right by the road, sometimes 100 meters away, sometimes much further. But I almost always end up getting a good look, and frequently a good picture too. (I can usually see the ones right next to the road all by myself.) Elephants, being pretty good-sized, should be fairly easy to spot; but they blend in with the background so well that I can't always pick them out unless they're waving their ears. 
One happy day, though, we were slowed down by traffic driving very slowly in front of us; and, looking ahead, we could see an elephant moving briskly down the road, heading past all the cars and coming in our direction. There was a lot of fast backing up; everybody wanted to get out of its way—elephants can do a lot of damage even if they're not in a bad mood, and when they get annoyed (as by people blowing the horn or throwing things) they can be extremely destructive. So we all scattered, as best we could, to get out of the way. Eventually it turned off into the bush and started across a field, and we all breathed a sigh of relief and got back on the road. I probably should have been worried but I thought it was rather entertaining.

On another memorable day we were again alerted by slow driving ahead of us. When the road curved we could see two male lions, strolling down the middle of the road in the same direction that we were going. They made me think of two elderly gentlemen walking home from church, in no hurry at all. Once again, everyone was very respectful, no horn blowing or driving past them, and soon they too turned off into a field and we continued on.

Sometimes we get really lucky and find ourselves moving through a really big herd of zebras, often with a lot of wildebeests mixed in. Zebras stay closer to the road than most animals, or maybe it's just that there are lots more of them; we have often driven along, seeing zebras on each side close enough to touch. Probably hundreds of them. They're not at all afraid of cars but I notice that, obedient to the rules, nobody ever gets out of the car to offer one of them a carrot. (I would like to but Palma won't let me.)

Giraffes are another treat. I can sometimes actually spot them on my own; those heads, weaving far above most of the bushes, are fairly easy to see. They often stalk nonchalantly across the road right in front of us, not even turning their heads to stare. One day recently we saw about a dozen of them, all slowly traveling together through the bush. Did you know that the collective noun for giraffes is "tower"? Very appropriate.

On one of our first trips we had been driving for 15 or 20 minutes when Palma braked and said Look! Right there by the road! And, omigod, there were two rhinos, grazing peacefully in the field to our left and almost close enough to touch. It was fascinating, but scary. I knew they were big, but up close (and with no fence to protect us) they are HUGE. But they didn't even look up, just kept on grazing. Fortunately these were the white variety, which are quite placid; the park also has some black ones, which are very dangerous on account of being both near-sighted and evil-tempered. They will charge at anything they see moving, and they don't bother to ask questions. (Those colours have nothing to do with their actual colour—all rhinos are a sort of medium gray. I'm not sure what those designators refer to.)

After a while the need to rest, and find a bathroom, becomes necessary. There are several "hides" in the park: little open-sided, thatchroofed huts with the necessary plumbing, benches inside to sit on, and fences that discourage most of the beasts from getting too close. Palma has as usual brought a well-stocked picnic basket, and we settle down to coffee, fruit (I had my first lichi fruit with her), and whispered conversation so as not to scare off any animals. The walls often have helpful posters showing birds and animals. Her (and now my) favourite hide is on a little lake where there are usually a few submerged hippos waiting to be admired. We always watch for a crocodile there but I have yet to see one. We notice a good many assorted birds around the lake as well—egrets, for example, and last week we saw two very large storks and a little one. It makes for a pleasant break.

Back on the road. This time we see several bunches of impala and springbok. They're so much fun to watch, bouncing gracefully over the ditches and speeding away. Often we have seen herds of 50 or more. An occasional elephant looms up in the distance. We rarely see elephants up close—at least, not during any of my trips—except for one memorable day when we saw a youngster chasing a group of impala, shaking his head and flapping his ears at them. Soon another, larger elephant came up to him and they had a head-to-head conversation. Apparently the bigger one, very likely a matriarch, was telling the boy that it's bad manners to frighten the impala, they haven't done anything to him. He stood there with his head down, suitably chastened.

We're getting near the gate now—the road has improved. And we're about ready for lunch. So we drive back into Rustenburg, and I edit my pictures in the camera over a glass of wine with Palma. It's been another memorable Sunday In The Park With Palma.

love to all,

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