Meeting the Black Dame

Ngala (which means Lion) Safari Lodge is located within the Ngala Game Reserve which borders Kruger National Park which borders the countries of Zimbabwe to the north and Mozambique to the east. Why does this matter? Because there are few fences in Africa and animals are free to roam across the bush. The Drakensberg and Limpopo mountains are always in the distance and this is important because a safari never ends.

Our game reserve is 36,000 acres. After five days on safari, the names Cheetah Flats, Little Serengeti, Skananaan Road, Big Bend, and the dry riverbed of the Timbavate River all had meaning to us. These are the places where we met the animals of Africa and where we learned about their struggles for survival. It is where we met the Black Dame.

Our lodge is nestled inside a stand of mopane and tamboti trees. Elephants, Cape buffalo, and hippos visit the lodge’s watering hole when they choose, drinking and splashing while guests take pictures and leave their lunches to the monkeys.

 

There are 21 thatched cottages and a family lodge. It is good to know that the ceilings are thatched because centipedes are known to fall directly on you while you are sleeping. It is quite startling when it happens. Our cottage was luxurious with fine linens, a deep tub with a floor to ceiling window, and an outdoor shower in a tall, private courtyard. I was sure if I knocked on the door across the way, Ernest Hemmingway himself may have answered the door. A slow-moving fan rustled above our bed and we slept with sturdy screen doors open to the night. Every door in the lodge was secured tightly against the shrewd and ignoble antics of the baboons. Baboons and monkeys are called bush criminals. Their play is charming, but when they dash up and steal your food, your camera, or your glasses, you let them have them. Baboons are strong enough to injure a person. The lodge has given up trying to scare them away. It is best to live alongside them if not in peace then in vigilance. I shook my finger at a monkey who was directly above my head, and he lunged and swung on the branch. I screamed and jumped into a woman’s lap. I think the monkey laughed.

When we first arrived at Ngala, we were greeted by our butler. Yes, I said butler.

“Paul,” I said to my husband, “I can’t have a butler.” Given was our butler at Ngala.

Given became my best friend at Ngala. Sometimes he held my hand while we were walking through the grounds. We talked to each other without taking a breath, and his smile was broad and sincere, and I couldn’t help but feel love. Yes, love.  He brought us chilled wine after lunch and again after dinner, he folded my clothes, and left a book mark for my reading. He held my scarf for me and insisted I have the warmest blanket for the chilly morning drives.  He pampered me.

 

I asked him if I could visit the kitchen and meet our chef, Duma. Given was overcome with excitement. Thank goodness I had showered and washed my hair after the dust of the morning drive. Given took 24 pictures of me and the staff. He introduced me and handed them my camera so he could be in the picture. He was thrilled as I asked questions and took notes on the task of feeding 75 people five times a day—rusks and coffee early morning, breakfast after our drives, lunch at noon, tea at three, and dinner late in the evening.  Given told me everyone’s name and I tried to write them down. I visited the laundresses and they hugged and patted me because they loved my green African dress. He showed me where the staff ate, where they lived, and the pantry that was triple locked because of the monkeys and the baboons. When we finished our tour, I asked him to sit down and have tea with me. He looked at as if I had asked him to join me on the moon. He said,

“No, I am a butler.”  I was ashamed at my breach of etiquette. I didn’t know what else to say so I asked him where his community was located. He said Hutchinson was 3 ½ hours from Ngala. I then asked him how often he went home to see his family. He smiled at me with genuine compassion. “Mrs. Klenk, I go home when I am not a butler.”

Every morning at 4:45, there would be a tap at our door and a voice would tell us it was time for safari. We were also told that if we did not rouse, another tap would come at our door. “It is important,” he said “to greet the day.” We ate rusks in the morning. Like biscotti, rusks are dunked in coffee and they then turn to mush. Allyn, our guide, and close in age of our oldest son (and that was important because it was the lens by which I saw everything), would greet us, pull out a map, and show us where our journey would take us that morning. It was different every day because we went where the animals went. We always stopped for the sunrise. Always. It looked different every day. Allyn says that every drive begins with a little bit of imagination and a lot of hope.

Paul and I listed all the animals we saw on safari: elephants, lions, hyenas, leopards, warthogs, cape buffalo, kudu, hippos, rhinos, giraffe, zebra, alligator, African wild dog, impalas, wildebeest, gnus, bush bucks, antelope; baboons, monkeys, dikas, mongoose, honey badger; I’ll keep thinking. There are more.

 

I thought I would be impatient with bird watching, but it became a challenge between the birds and me. I found myself looking for the agile lilac-breasted roller, the magpie shriek that kills birds by impaling them on thorns, and the bird whose name escapes me but is known as a cackling old woman. We drove by an eagle’s nest twice each day, and I wanted so wp-1479159652103.jpgbadly to see the eggs hatch before we left. They did not, but the mother and father were diligent parents and I believe the hatchlings are snug in their nest as I write.

While on safari you do not stay on roads. You rocket into the brush, spin around tangled grass, knock down noxious thorn bushes, and drag branches in your wake. But you do not run over mopane trees. Mopane is a Zulu word that means butterfly because the leaves look like butterfly wings. Mopane trees became the symbol of my happiness while on safari. We rode in three seats, climbing one after another. The safari vehicle was open to the sky. I cannot call it a jeep, but it wasn’t a car. It was something all its own because it can cross deep puddles, tilt dangerously sideways against a ravine side, and bump over the tops of rocks higher than I could jump.

There was a ritual you follow when you find an animal or animals. First, Allyn cuts the motor and we glide to a stop. Second, there is always a hush. You talk in a whisper. It is like seeing animals as you have not seen them before. For example, watching giraffes, you notice they glide. You see them anew only because you have a tracker.

 

Jimmy was our tracker. He raised his finger slightly to signal Allyn when he saw an animal. He rode out on a chair that juts out beyond the end of the safari vehicle.  When looking for lions, Jimmy left the vehicle and entered the bush. If you turned your head and then looked back, he was gone, blended into the trees and tall grasses. He did not carry a gun. He could look through the brush and thorns and see animals without revealing his presence. He found African Wild Dogs and lions for us by following their prints, their scent, and the path they left behind. I asked him if he was ever afraid and he shook his head and gave me a small smile.

“No, if I was I would not go.”

Allyn told me that to become a tracker of Jimmy’s caliber you must be able to see the imprint of a moth’s feet and wings as it took off in flight from a bed of sand.

I admired Allyn’s knowledge; I worshipped Jimmy’s courage. A tracker is always listening while the guide is always talking. Allyn would laugh if he knew I said that. It’s the tracker’s job to find the animals and the guide’s job to open your eyes to what it is like be that animal. Did you know that a giraffe is voiceless? Or that the white underside of impala’s tail is meant to confuse a predator while the black top of the tail is meant to help it blend into the bush? Did you know that you could drink snake venom and be fine—it is only when it enters the blood stream that it kills? Did you know that a leopard does not have spots, but instead rosettes? When you are close enough to the Black Dame you can see how her coat is scattered with roses.

We leave for late-day safari after afternoon tea. Again, we plan our four-hour drive. The sun begins to set at 6:00, and we stop to watch the sky creep with pink and then orange.

 

Before dusk arrives, Allyn and Jimmy set up a table, settle a fluttering table cloth on it, and put out snacks and drinks. I discovered the snacks were corn nuts and jerky. Impala jerky. That would have been nice to know.  With the wind quiets you get to know your companions better. The Norwegians, Christian and Nina, our young ones, were beautiful, tall, and blinked their sky-blue eyes like giraffe. They didn’t talk much, but they loved riding in the third seat. We called it the Disneyland seat because of its propensity to cause flight to those sitting in it during a particularly thrilling chase.  Paul and Andre were classic middle children, laid-back and willing to go along with the group. Erica and I were first born children with definite opinions and a passion to see as much as we could as fast as we could. Here’s what’s interesting: When we returned to the lodge, we all stuck together. We were a tribe. There is something about peeing with other women behind a termite hill while the men all stood peeing in a row and looking at the landscape that bonded us. That and maybe the giraffe poop story.

Allyn convinced us that he and his friends had giraffe and impala poop spitting contests when he was a young boy. I should have listened more carefully. He grew up in Pretoria, the capitol of South Africa. I am pretty sure there weren’t giraffes or impalas grazing in suburban back yards.  He gave each of us a handful of dried poop pellets collected from a nearby desiccated pile.

“They taste just like grass,” he said. There was a grin tugging at his cheeks and his chocolate-colored eyes were dancing. He makes his mother ride in a different safari vehicle when she comes to visit. If she is with her son, she will tap on the back of his head like a woodpecker and tell him to slow down and quit driving so fast. I love her, of course.

Sundowning is also about your first cocktail of the day, and after a few hours of spinning in the dust, chasing the flash of a tail, and hurtling down the road to be the first vehicle at a new carcass, you are ready for a drink. The lodge thoughtfully packs everything—gin, tonic, several kinds of wine, whiskey, and vodka.

The spitting contest commenced. Paul and Erica were pros. I think Andre abstained, but Christian and Nina were game to try, so I put a poop pellet in my mouth. But then I couldn’t do it. I gagged, bent over and let it slide out of my mouth. It looked less like grass and exactly like fresh poop when it hit the ground. I had additional glasses of wine after that. I prayed for wine’s antiseptic qualities. Music is not allowed in the Ngala Reserve, but that didn’t stop us from singing songs we remembered from our youth; or, in my case, a borrowed youth.

“Hey,” Allyn called as I made my hands stiff and swooped them out in front of me. “You’re dancing like the Backstreet Boys.”

“I am not.” I laughed from the belly that had clenched as if punched. I lied. I had indeed danced to their music seventeen years ago when my son was eight and discovering boy bands. Allyn’s innocent recollection of an experience we shared while continents apart stung; it was a reminder that my son’s childhood was now just a memory. “I bet you wore your hair like theirs too,” I dared.

“You mean like this?” He used his fingers to rustle through hair to make it stick straight up above his forehead.

“Yes,” I said and held my glass out for more wine.  I thought of his mother. Did she too work the comb and the hairspray carefully in the morning until it met his approval? It was a long time ago and I wondered why I couldn’t let go of my boy who now is a man. Perhaps I hope that my son, like Allyn, lives fully, with joy, and aware of the fragility of life. I know my time with Allyn was a mere five days while my relationship with my son is 25 years, but I am convinced that Allyn opened windows for us that are closed to me with my son. My heart hurts about that.

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The sun was dropping behind us melting the branches of a tree. Halcyon moments are rare, but this counted as one.

Although it happens every night, I am never prepared for dusk. It is stealthy. It does not have color when it arrives and, for a moment, you panic. On safari, the darkness  hides the animals and you are afraid they might be gone. But, they aren’t it. You must put your trust in your guide and your tracker day and night. They know the way.

Allyn began talking about the Black Dame. Jimmy wandered back. He did not drink and usually left our party to look for prints in the sand. This is what Allyn said:

“We’ll probably find her tomorrow. She made a kill today—an impala—and another group saw it in a tree. It was fresh. The Black Dame is an 8-year old leopard. Her son still comes to see her. Her eyes are surrounded with thick black fur that makes her look like Cleopatra. It’s as if she knows that she is a queen. She suns herself, climbs trees, and eats impalas close to the safari vehicles. She removes the fur before eating. We don’t know why, but she doesn’t like the taste of fur.”

 

We learned the Black Dame is at ease with the safari vehicles having grown up with them. She yanks the fur from the body of her kill with delicate, swift pulls of her front teeth. She grinds its bones with her back molars until it sounds like  garden tools scraping across cement. She is known for glancing at a vehicle filled with picture-snapping guests and leaping into the branches of a tree from where she had been standing.

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We met the Black Dame four times while at Ngala. Once she had her back turned and did not acknowledge us. Another time she was in a tree sunning herself. We also saw her on a non-sanctioned trip into the reserve. (You can read about it in the blog post, “Elijah’s Leopard”) She saved the best for last. She was sleeping on the ground at first sight. Hearing us, she woke, stretched, yawned, and walked to the tree. She leaped, the roses scattered across her fur blooming as she left the ground. My heart was in my throat and my pulse was pounding. She does that to you. 20161003_211934

When we arrived back at the lodge at night, we were often sleepy, cold, and stiff. Security guards met us and walked us back to our cottages with flash lights. Without any fences, the animals of Ngala could wander into our place as well. Which they did while we were there.

“Mrs. Klenk, you must come to the boma tonight,” Given said squeezing my hand. Although I was tired, I agreed. There was a tall gate behind the open-air thatched lodge where we ate breakfast and lunch. Tonight, the gate was open. The boma is open to the night with sand for a floor and an enormous bonfire that sends sparks into the blackness. I sank into my chair and our group members settled too. Given and the other butlers poured wine, and Allyn entertained all of us with stories from his time as a safari guide.

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“There was a guest,” Allyn started, “who asked how often the windsock on the runway was filled with food for the giraffes. I didn’t laugh,” Allyn promised. The rest of us snickered. “Okay,” he said warming to the stories. “Another guest inquired how long it takes for the wildebeest to grown into its zebra stripes. I’m not kidding, it really happened.” he smirked as we began to laugh and shake our heads. I breathed deeply of the smoke’s spicy scent.

“Fine,” he said, giving up. “I did laugh one time. I couldn’t help it, because I would have suffered an aneurysm if I hadn’t. There was a guest who was impatient and hard to please. Finally we were headed back to the lodge. He…he was a big guy. He had taken his belt off to loosen his pants on the way back. When I  pulled up to the lodge, he forgot about his pants and stood up.  He fell face first to the ground.”

We didn’t just laugh; we snorted, harrumphed, and cried. Allyn’s young face beamed and I was reminded again of my son. He too could tell a story with aplomb.

Inside the boma, hundreds of sparkling lanterns whisper and greet you. They flicker and glow on the tables and from the top of the wall. They hang from the branches of the enormous weeping boere bean tree and swing slightly in the draft of the fire. We tried again and again, but the camera could not capture the dancing light. It was meant for the moment and no more.

So now we are home in our own little beautiful corner on earth. I know people say they leave a bit of themselves behind when they depart a place that has special meaning to them. I believe it. I don’t know if I can return to Ngala. Without my tribe, without Allyn and Jimmy, that little piece of me would be lost to the wind. I want our time there to be like a spider web in autumn— unexpected in its beauty, undone with a touch, and discovered by few. I now understand why the safari guides are reluctant to name the animals that live in the bush. I want the Black Dame to stay exactly where she is—in the tree where we saw her last.

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