Monday 19th - Thursday 22nd
On Monday morning I did not want to leave. The weekend had been so peaceful and lovely that I did not want to go back to Mahlahla, because I knew that I had to go back to pack ready to go home. Eventually though we checked out and said goodbye to the wonderful couple that had been so nice to us all weekend and wished them well. It was hard to leave and say goodbye to that lovely cottage and the cute dogs that had been our shadows all weekend because I finally knew that it was almost time to leave and go home, and now I wasn't so sure if I wanted to leave South Africa.
It was a quiet ride home, but Ben dropped me back at the campus and then he went back to Karrongwe ready for the afternoon's game drive. I spent the rest of the day doing washing and started packing up various bits. There were so many books that I knew my luggage would be over the limit, so I put together a box to post off to Knysna and filled it with all my text books and things I would need when I got back to South Africa. I then left my sleeping bag and such in a bag for Ben because there was just not much point taking these things home with me. So after a busy afternoon of organizing and with the spare bed laden down with open, half filled suitcases I decided to have dinner, watch a movie and finish making Mum and Dad's present. Then it was early to bed, because I had a busy couple days ahead of me!
Tuesday I was up early cleaning the kitchen and finishing my washing. Ben came over after his morning drive and was kind enough to pick me up and drop me off into town so that I could pick up my hire car to take to the airport. I was glad to get the car because I felt bad that Ben had to keep driving me around. Just before heading back though I treated us to some lunch and then he went off back to Karrongwe, while I drove to Garonga to pick up a couple bits I had forgotten and to say good bye to Odette.
When I got to the reserve it was really strange, I know I had only been gone a week but I already felt like I had not been there for months and that it was already a distant memory. But driving through and seeing the baby impala and wildebeest I soon settled back into the familiar. I picked up my bits and then went to see Odette. She had just finished a shift at the lodge so we sat and had a drink in the garden by the farmhouse and chatted while I looked out on the reserve. Finally though it was time for me to get back and finish packing because I had to head over to Karrongwe that evening. So I said a sad farewell to Odette and after I passed the gate out of the reserve and a tear or two appeared when I realised this was the last time I would be here. With all that had happened over the last five months, good and bad, I could not deny that I was going to miss this place. I drove slowly, savouring every last moment but eventually I was on the main road and headed back to Mahlahla.
That afternoon I finished packing my bags and loaded them into the car, then had a shower, ate some dinner and said goodbye to Diana who had come back to visit for a few days with her family. I made my way to Karrongwe and arrived at the GVI gate at around 9pm. Ben drove down a couple of minutes later and I followed as he drove to the GVI base. It was weird being back there, but after a cup of tea and a sit down on the verandah I was feeling perfectly at home with all the sounds of a reserve permeating the silence of the night.
I think that I must have been wishing for some proper animal sounds too much, because at around 3am there was the loudest hyena whooping I had ever heard! It sounded like it was in the house, and apparently it wouldn't have been the first time either, what with there being no fences around the camp! So when 4am rolled around and it was time to get up for the game drive, I was just a little dubious to head off to the bathroom in fear that there may be a hyena curled up in the bath tub! There was not though, and I could not tell if one had come in and had a nose on the verandah during the night, I could not think on it too much though because Dhavi, Ben and I were heading out early on a game drive to see if we could find some leopards that they had spotted yesterday.
The drive was a little chilly on the back of the car, and after a few weeks of no early morning game drives I forgot how cold it was! But the sun soon started to rise and the bush began to warm and wake up…as did I! We drove for a while, passing some hippo at a dam, and stopping periodically for Ben to use the telemetary set and try to pin point the focus animals, until finally we came to the place where the leopards had last been seen. We looked for a couple mintues but saw nothing. Then out of the bush on the other side of a high dry riverbed ambled a hyena.
I could not believe that there was a hyena walking around, I had rarely seen hyena on the Makalali reserve and was so excited to see one, that it took me a few seconds to realise it had stopped under a tree and was looking up. I followed her gaze and blow me down there was a leopard sitting in the tree! If I was already excited there were no words to describe my elation now. I watched as the leopard withdrew away from the hyena, then quick as a flash it leaped down the tree right at the hyena which was so startled it ran as quick as it could back into the bush from where it came. Dhavi called in the sighting, but nobody responded and so we were able to just sit and watch this beautiful sighting completely undisturbed. It was bliss.
The leopard was a sub adult male, and we watched him as he walked about, calling his mother and climbed back up the tree. After about forty five minutes of watching him, he jumped back down the tree a second time and finally sauntered off into the bush. We then continued the drive and went to find the cheetah. It took ages to locate them and the signal kept coming and going, then eventually we came across them in the river bed and got to go for a walk down in the riverbed to see what they were doing. They were drinking from a pool in one of the bends of the river. The two boys then walked off around the corner and we got back in the 4x4 to follow them. It was a lot of fun tracking them, but once the lodge vehicles arrived we passed the sighting over to them and went back to the camp out of one of the gates and down the main road back to the GVI base.
After we returned to base I had a quick shower, then the three of us sat on the verandah and had some breakfast. Eventually though 11am rolled around and it was time for me to leave and head off to the airport. Ben was heading into town, so he guided me out the reserve and we said goodbye at the gate. It was so much harder to say goodbye this time for there were to be no more visits or adventures, I was going home, and finally it sunk in. I was ready to go home and see my family, but at the same time I did not want to go. Not only was I saying goodbye to Ben, I was saying goodbye to Bushwise, Hoedspruit and South Africa - a place which has now become such an important and amazing part of my life, that I don't really want to be anywhere else.
I think for me, coming to South Africa and being able to live so close to nature made me appreciate what beauty we have on this earth, and I would love nothing more than help conserve it so that everyone gets to feel the same excitement and awe that I experience every day from being presented with a glimpse into the natural world and all its complexities. I was really going to miss this place. However, I could not stall any longer and so after one last tearful goodbye I was on the road.
The first half an hour was subdued and I had to try hard not to get upset. All I could think about was what I was leaving behind, and my mid was giving into overdrive, so I put on some music to try and cheer my mood. The next few hours whizzed by as I finally let all my thoughts go and sang along to my music! Then finally when I started to see signs to Johannesburg I got my first buzz on anticipation. By the time I got to the airport and had dropped the car off I was half running into the airport to check in…even if I was five hours early! I was getting excited about going home.
It was busy at 5pm and check in took forever, first there was a big issue with my hand baggage being too heavy (I tried to put all my text books in it) and I also nearly got arrested at passport control! Apparently according to the computer I had outstayed my welcome by about three months, and so I was immediately surrounded by three huge men who must have thought I was some kind of criminal. I said it was wrong and showed my visa in my passport, but even then it took about five minutes of convincing before they would realise that the computer was wrong. To top it all off they didn't bother to change it because of the queue behind me, so I walked off a little concerned that I may not be able to get back in the country after Christmas… Well by that time I had just about had enough for one day so found somewhere quiet and rang my mum for a nice chat to calm down. By the time out conversation finished I could not wait to be home so that I could give my mum and dad a big hug, see my family, friends and of course little Grace… not to mention three weeks of calm, quiet relaxation.
The rest of the evening was a little dull, I sat in a café with a croissant and some juice while I read my book until it was time to go to the boarding gate. I rang Ben and until it was time to go, and with one last farewell I got on the plane.
Finally, I was going home.
Thursday morning I landed at Gatwick airport, picked up my bags and headed out to arrivals where I saw my mum, and she ran at me engulfing me in a huge hug in the middle of the walk way. A few minutes later we were outside, and dad turned up with Nathan, who had just landed from America and was also coming home for Christmas. It was so surreal, I had prepared myself for not seeing my family for a whole year, and had done well not to get homesick or anything, but as soon as I hugged them, all my worries seemed to be taken from me and I had really missed them more than I realised. I could not wait to get back, and when we pulled into the driveway and let grace out the kitchen, I was so happy to have all my family around me for the first time in ages. It was going to be a wonderful Christmas.