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[Full communication with the safari crew is still spotty --but email is working! While we await further news from the field, here's more on that first day from Robbi DeVries]
I feel my hands grip the armrest a bit tighter and my senses becoming more alert as they always do just before a landing. We have just spent the better part of the day watching the changing patterns of the “ground art” as we have come to call the beautifully intricate and seemingly random colorful patterns of the terrain passing below us. On this leg, we are the lead plane in a flight of 3 and are traversing the Kalahari Dessert (most of us for the first time) from Capetown to our first destination on the Great African Air Safari. I am sitting behind Anne Simpson (acting co-pilot) and my husband, Doug DeVries (pilot), with Anne’s husband Charlie on my left. He has a chart in hand and continually looks from chart to terrain and back trying to correlate the two. Ann is rustling another chart and straining forward looking out the windscreen. “Can you see it? The GPS says it is right here”, queries Doug. “Not yet”, replies Anne. I feel my heart rate increase by a few beats per minute, as Charlie and I keep sitting “taller” in our seats trying to locate the illusive runway…
Maybe 10 seconds go by and it is quiet in the cockpit, as all eyes are trained on the ground. And then…there it is! …this huge paved runway obscured until now by a low rise in an otherwise flat terrain. We make a low pass to frighten off any four-legged interlopers from the runway and a few minutes later we are climbing from our trusty Beavers being greeted by the guides from Tswalu, our home for the next two nights. “Tswalu”, which means “new beginning”, is the perfect “beginning” for the first stop on our safari. As we have arrived a couple hours later than originally planned (late start, long fuel stop), we are given a quick snack and drink, then loaded into the safari vehicles for the evening game drive.
On Safari – Tswalu game preserve
As we jostle along, Richard, our guide, explains some of the history of Tswalu. After the untimely death of Stephen Boler, who originally created this 225,000 acre preserve, the Oppenheimers, who were offered the parcel at his behest, purchased the preserve and have redoubled his efforts and dedication to returning the Kalahari to “itself”. All existing farms were bought, structures torn down, and the entire property was fenced and cross-fenced allowing certain species to thrive without the threat of predators. As we approach the PREDATOR ZONE, our vehicle stops and the tracker, Ben, dismounts his perch on the front of the Land Rover to unlock and re- lock the gates.
Suddenly the radio crackles-Cheetahs have been spotted and we are on the hunt…
African trackers are tribesmen who have been taught by their fathers and grandfathers, and because of the safari industry, are in high demand. Their skills border on the mystical to us as they signal the guide to turn this way or that, speed up or slow down Just when you think there has been some mistake, Richard stops the vehicle and Ben leaves his perch and joins us INSIDE the vehicle.
Cheetah on the Kalahari
The Land Rover slows to a crawl, everyone speaks in whispers and the cameras come into position. Within a few seconds…there they are! 20 feet away, looking straight at us are two 120+ pound magnificent cheetahs! There is just enough sunlight left to accentuate their dramatic black marking and chiseled profiles. I take a deep breath and savor the moment. I am here… in Africa… in the presence of these wild amazing creatures. Doug clicks away with his D-800, and while I know these will be fantastic photographs, I know nothing can replace this moment. I am here. I saw them…