Monday, April 06, 2009

Heaven on Earth and other pleasant things

I'm so sad the weekend's over. I haven't laughed like I've laughed this past week in a long time. Hanging out with our guest brought back huge chunks of my childhood (that I've apparently drunk away, or possibly my brain has finally yielded intellectual control to my sizable posterior that is just not up to the responsibilities), and reminded me of why I once considered our guest my best friend ever. I'm truly glad she is back in my life. Standing ovation to that guy who invented Facebook.  

As I write this, our guest is on her way back to Finland, and the hubby is away, possibly until the end of April. I'm by myself, and feeling like I'd give almost anything to be back in Ivory Tree Game Lodge in Pilanesberg Nature Reserve, from now on referred to as Heaven on Earth, or simply heaven, as that is where I intend to go when I die, and hopefully many times before that. 

Being the snob that ya'll know and tolerate, I've visited quite a few five star establishments, usually liked them, or even loved them, but none of my previous five star experiences (not referring to anything dirty so go ahead and stop giggling) have ever come close to the bliss that was our long weekend away. 

I'd heard good things about Pilanesberg before, but no one we know had ever stayed in the lodge that we chose. i.e. Heaven on Earth. The cost of two nights being a little bit on the expensive side my expectations were high indeed, which usually does not bode well, as I'm an expert at complaining and generally just finding fault with things. Yup, positive is not an adjective many people would use to describe me, apart from the hubby, but we've already explored the depth of his delusions on other occasions. Anyhow, I'm forced to admit that Heaven on Earth actually exceeded my expectations. And that is no easy feat. 

We arrived on Friday just in time for the lovely lunch set in the nice and airy thatched roof dining room. Having most likely started a widespread movement against buffets in my previous life, from the moment I laid eyes on the set up I was expecting to experience some flashbacks, but ended up having to admit that the chicken was tasty and juicy, the couscous delicious, and even the coffee lovely (and delightfully plentiful). As difficult as this is for me to put into writing, the buffet won me over. And the hotel being merrily void of children (bonus!) I couldn't even resort to my sneezing/coughing/sticky-hands-on-the-food argument. Buffet 1, Snobby Finn 0.

After lunch, as we had retired to our respective cottages, and had had plenty of time to utter small shrieks of delight over the huge bathtub, the outdoor shower, the private patio overlooking the park, the luxurious bath products, and the quiet (only interrupted by said shrieks) surroundings, the phone rang. Our ranger Mike introduced himself and wanted to know what we would like to drink on the afternoon game drive. Trying to play normal as well as wondering whether the lions had the same penchant for the liquid as me, and whether they would try to eat me if they smelled the wine habitually coursing through my veins, I did not order wine, that night. I probably entertained some sort of idea about needing to 'stay alert' lest I'd be eaten by a giraffe or something. On the break between the afternoon drive and the night drive, while in a hide in the wild listening to the sounds of the bush, and staring at the clearly visible milky way, I wished I had that glass of wine to toast the perfect moment though. Toasting with water is just not the same.

I, the hubby, and our guest were the only ones on the drive that first night, and as our ranger Mike turned out to be a true fountain of interesting information as well as being the head ranger in the lodge we were blessed with plenty of cool new facts about South African wildlife while it felt like we were the only humans in the bush. We saw kudus, rhinos, hippos, zebras, giraffes, wildebeest, impala, and some tsessebi, alongside plenty of other antelope-type animals, other critters and birds the names of which apparently did not stick in my, albeit at that point not even foggy, brain. As I've said before, observing the animals in their natural surroundings, doing what they do best - being wild (sleeping, and funny enough, farting like mad) - is an experience very different to visiting any zoo. As opposed to the feeling of pity that normally accompanies such a visit, seeing these animals made me feel a surge of healthy respect for, if not slight fear of them instead. And the first day's catch was only one out of the big five.  

For our visitor, who had according to her own words already fallen in love with South Africa, meeting our brown-eyed ranger offered yet more to love about this wonderful country. I don't think this visit will be her last. As my 'crush' days are long gone (luckily, as I seem to have let even basic grooming slip), I'm loving the possibility of vicariously experiencing this long distance crush. I had forgotten how much fun it is to talk about boys, and it used to be my favorite pastime.

After indulging in a bottle of Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir (one of my all time faves) at dinner, the next morning's wake up call at 5:30 in preparation for the 6AM game drive was almost too much. However, after having mine and our guest's cups of coffee's worth of caffeine in my brain, and a warm blanket around me I was ready to see the sun rise over the mountains, while watching the animals either wake up, turn in, or rip a tree from the ground. The drive was amazing. Our surroundings were rife with bird and animal calls, and even as the cold air whipped my face (note to self: It can be cold in Africa, wear a hat), I could definitely see why the Dutch stayed. 

Regardless of the frosty morning, and as so often happens here, as the sun climbed higher and higher the temperature rose exponentially. When we got back from the drive to have breakfast, freshening up in the cottage involved changing into a swimsuit. I had brought Jasper Fforde's 'The Eyre Affair' to read by the pool, but my newly found friendship with our visitor and the pleasure I took in speaking Finnish after such a long time, not to mention the nice bottle of white we consumed, meant that the time sped past and I only read about four pages. Before we knew it it was time for lunch, followed by another game drive. We did manage a dip in the pool, and I am again multiple sunburns richer. Awesome, if potentially skin-cancerous, fun in the sun.   

The evening's drive offered us excitement indeed. After almost crashing into a 6-ton elephant by the name of Half Tusk who did not feel the need to yield to the right, we managed to spot some lions who were after some tasty wildebeest, only to be approached on the other side by a hippo out of water who probably did not understand how close it had gotten to us and quickly fled when our ranger shined the light towards him. Since our guest had a hard time looking away from the ranger's pretty brown eyes, and the hubby was desperately supporting the camera apparatus possibly permanently attached to his face, yours truly was left to shine the light into the bush in search of the hunting lions. Cool as my task was, it should not have been done by the half-blind me, and after the first glimpse of a female running through the grass, and a male (or really only its mane) moving away from us, the lions eluded us. Still, officially I have seen a real live lion. I can tell you that even just the glimpse of the mane, or something moving through the grass at a wild speed really truly demands your respect, as does seeing an elephant 'flex his muscles' in front of a tiny Toyota Yaris whose driver is not backing up quickly enough for him. Points to wild SA.  

The next morning, after the last game drive, and after our guest had contemplated several extreme ideas - from chaining herself to the vanity in her room to quitting her job in Finland on the spot and asking for work at the lodge - we finally left Pilanesberg. I guarantee you, not only our visitor, but all of us are already busy scheming ways of returning, especially to the lodge, and both I and the hubby are all excited about learning what comes out of this crush.

I feel like a sixteen year old again. 

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