Goodness reaches out. She extends her hand in welcome, her handshake soft, tentative, her skin, as lovely, raw and wind-scraped as the land around her.
I like her already. Goodness is her name. She is part of the housekeeping staff at the handsome Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge that tugs at the sleeve of the restless wild edges of Kruger National Park at the Sabi Sands Game Reserve. Sabi means fear, I am told. How odd that a place so peaceful peaceful could be named fear fear.
I am here for an African safari adventure—to watch the animals, take photographs, and see the Southern Cross.
I first meet Goodness just outside the door of my large and lovely private Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge residence. It is not a tent or cabin, nor is it a hut or hotel room, but rather a largish gnome-like house built into the side of a hill, like a little brown rabbit’s burrow shaded from the heat. It features sunny living/dining areas, a spacious bedroom, an enormous bath, a broad porch, an outdoor shower, a serene patio, and even a private plunge pool.
I could stay inside and never leave this room and be happy. My private kingdom hugs the ground, at one with the wild, breathtaking expanse—fields dotted with shrubby brush and Marula trees that drop their fruit and canopies of sweeping shade from Acadia trees that shelter elephant, giraffe, zebra, rhino, and kudu from the noontime heat.
Each day at dawn our little company of friends gathers for coffee in the lodge’s open-air dining rooms, where the cool of the night has settled into the adobe-like finish of the walls of the three-sided space. One of the indoor/outdoor living spaces has plush cushions and pillows that look like a bag of smooth riverbed stones. Antelope and zebra hides drizzled with flecks of gold paint soften the cool stained concrete floors. One dining table stands ankle-deep in a shallow pool, and mod chandeliers made of long, bare branches—sticks painted silver and gold—dangle overhead, sparkling in the morning light.
I’m not a morning person, but once I awake, I revel in being up early enough to sense the edges of the morning at first light in still coolness. Somewhere out there the animals yawn and stir and look for breakfast. I take my coffee and study the savannas, scanning for movement, color.
Our safari guide comes to gather us for the first morning game drive. Richard is in his late 20s and Adonis-like: tan, lean, muscular. He carries a beautiful, smooth, simple wooden rifle for safety. He wears khaki shorts like a UPS driver with tan legs and tall, lace-up, leather hiking boots. He flashes a neat row of pearly whites. If the housekeeper’s name is Goodness, this guy’s name must be Good Looking.
When we get to the vehicle, we meet our tracker who rides on a little seat cantilevered over the front of the Land Rover: a precarious perch, it seems to me, during a bumpy ride. He is a beautiful ebony-skinned man with a laughter-filled smile and a strong handshake. He tells us his name is Goodman, but Richard calls him Goody. Goodman tells me he has a daughter, whose name I cannot pronounce, and a little son named Great.
I’m liking this good-name-thing quite a lot. There is also another tracker for Sabi Sabi named Good Will. “Good Will Hunting!” I say and laugh. The men smile weakly: they’ve heard that one before.
Then we are quiet together as the Land Rover rambles down a sandy road in search of the big five: the lion, the African elephant, the Cape Buffalo, the leopard, and the rhinoceros. I hunt with a Canon.
Goodman is a fine tracker. He carries a long stick to wave the flies away and points at the ground and talks in a low voice with Richard in Afrikaans, a West Germanic language that is like Cape Dutch, French, Maylay, and Portuguese all at once.
Within a half hour, Goody has spotted the footprints of a leopard—tracks we follow. In moments we spy an enormous leopard standing on the limb of a tall tree before us. He looks like a Kipling character from Jungle Book silhouetted against the sky. He jumps down, lean and languid as he moves, and slowly we follow him into the thick of the bush over thorn bushes, small trees, dense thickets, and dry, tall grass.
If our Land Rover had a name, it would be “Good God!”—words I want to exclaim at every bouncy turn as we move deeper into the bush. We fold trees and scraggly, large brush below our wheels and ravish the land with our vehicle. Then, miraculously, the trees pop up again behind us, and we are once more surrounded by the bush and left strangely alone with the leopard. I feel vulnerable and afraid more than once. We can never kid ourselves into thinking this is the zoo or confuse the movements of dangerous elephants with trained circus acts. We are in their territory, and the urgency of such knowledge is sharp, like the fresh pungent scent of a lion’s recent kill—a dead antelope which we pass in bush.
Goodman knows not to take chances. He knows the difference, the fine line, between beauty and danger and is careful not to cross it. One morning a lioness tears at the flesh of a kudu as her five cubs pounce and play only feet from my seat on the side of the open-air Land Rover. Sensing my fear, Richard whispers, “It’s OK. Sit still. Take the photo. She isn’t interested in you.” Sometimes it’s not about me—most times it’s not. The wild, the good, the beautiful remind me.
The days pass quickly here with a simple routine: drive, eat, rest, repeat.
One evening the chef has set up tables with white tablecloths on the airstrip. Beneath the hazy white Milky Way, we dine surrounded by torches and Land Rovers that encircle us like a train of covered wagons, and we drink wine by the light of a full harvest moon. Each afternoon on safari, a guide will spread a napkin over the hood of the Land Rover and lay out snacks like biltong (dried meat), almonds, and dried fruit. Then, as the last sliver of light edges the horizon, we toast the sunset.
Another evening we’re treated to a surprise. We come upon tables set up in the bush with white tablecloths, where before us is spread a delightful feast that Sabi Sabi Executive Chef Ryan Weakley prepares in the wild: grilled prawns skewered and served with sweet chili sauce and a cilantro foam; seared beef bruschetta rounds with caramelized onions, oven-roasted cherry tomatoes, basil pesto and mustard-cress; and colorful melon balls and fruit skewered on sticks.
Our last evening, after a massage at the serene Earth Lodge Spa, we sit down to a four-course dinner and exquisite South African wines from the Stellenbosch region. Good things just keep coming until I am full—of food, wine, and gratitude for this experience.
On the final morning of my Sabi Sabi stay, I am up at dawn. My bag is packed and set by the door, but it isn’t until I walk the path from my Earth Lodge den toward the light that I notice Goodness. She has been standing there, perhaps a long time, hoping to enter to do the daily housekeeping. I apologize for having kept her waiting. I hadn’t known she was there.
Goodness smiles sweetly in the baby-fresh early light that glows golden, like a halo around the head of the day.
“It is nothing. I have been here for you,” she tells me.
For me? I am thinking, that it is not nothing.
Goodness, quiet and patient, stood waiting outside my door—there all along. Goodman has guided me through dangerous beauty, a place of fear fear, pointing a stick to go this way and that, tracking the beautiful, sharply mindful of the danger, always perched before me, watching for signs, prints—leading me, protecting me through the thickest, hardest parts. Beauty sits beside me and drives me on. Somewhere out there Good Will serves us well. And Great? He sleeps in a little house in the bush next to a baby sister.
Some folks I know remain stuck in their houses, locked inside their pretty rooms, content to stay behind. Or they travel, trembling, through the thick, thorny parts of a wild world—sleepwalking or simply sleeping in and missing the best parts, afraid or tired or simply oblivious to all that is good waiting outside their doors “… here for you.”
I want to shake such people and say, “Wake up! Wake up!” In a world of fear fear, peacefulness, beauty, and goodness wait to come in.
IF YOU GO:
• Fly in comfort and style on South African Airways with direct, non-stop flights from JFK to Johannesburg or from Washington’s Dulles International Airport. You’ll experience great food, fine South African wines, and attentive English-speaking service on a smooth flight with good in-flight entertainment options.
• Take a South African side-trip after your safari:
~ Explore Cape Town while staying at the Taj Hotel.
~ Enjoy the Wine Lands on the Cape at the five-star Steenberg Hotel, Winery and Golf Resort.
~ Stay in style in Johannesburg at a fabulous luxury boutique hotel, the Saxon.
Janis Turk is an award-winning guidebook author and travel writer whose work has appeared in a variety of newspapers and magazines. She splits her time between Seguin, Texas, and New Orleans.