After our long drive out to rural northern South Africa, we arrived in Venda yesterday at dinner time. We were staying at an amazing new game lodge, with huge grounds and lots of animals, and really wonderful facilities. As we were coming in the gate, we saw 10 or 15 vervet monkeys watching us. We watched them watching us. And they watched us watching them! Of course, we took a lot of photos (who wouldn't have?).
The drive to Venda took us closer and closer to the Soutpansburg mountain range and the Limpopo River. From miles away, we could see the mountains purple against the horizon. We had to drive through them, on winding roads with spectacular views, to get to Venda. As we drove we saw literally hundreds of baobab trees, perhaps even thousands of them. This is the area with the world's greatest concentration of these giant trees, some of them more than 4000 years old. Baobabs have giant stubby trunks with only a few smaller branches (like hair) coming out their tops. Some of these baobabs have leaves right now, and some don't. The ones without their leaves look almost spooky, dark and strong against the skyline. The older trees have trunks that are 40-50 feet around, if not larger. The bark is shiny and smooth and gray. They are really powerful trees, and seeing so many has been an amazing experience!
After we arrived at our lodge, we immediately went out on a game drive before it got dark. These large game lodges own huge amounts of land, and manage herds of wild animals that live there. (In fact, the reason we had a last minute switch in the lodge where we stayed was because the lodge where we had a reservation just recently changed its policies to cater to large game hunters and had apparently packed the place). The Dongola Ranch, where we ended up staying, was much quieter.
After the game drive, which culminated at a small river dam, we had the chance to walk around and explore a bit out in the bush. We had to be careful not to get too close to the water because of crocodiles (!); thank goodness we didn't see any (or that they didn't see us!). As it got dark, we sat out in the breeze watching the stars and smelling our dinner cooking on a huge grill. We had an amazing meal out there, lit only by stars and fire. They served us typical South African food, lots of meats like lamb and chicken and beef, some great salads and vegetables, wonderful homemade bread and, oddly, some very delicious toasted tomato and cheese sandwiches. They even made some special food for our two vegetarians.
Sitting out under the stars was an incredible experience. We got to watch the stars emerge one by one as it got dusky, and slowly, as it got dark, the sky became carpeted with an amazing number of stars. It was so clear, and there was so little light pollution, that I'm fairly certain I've never been able to see as many stars in the sky as last night. The sky looked like it does in photos from the Hubble Telescope, and we could even get a sense of the Milky Way! We found Orion (he's lying down on his side instead of standing upright down here). And we found the Southern Cross on the opposite side of the sky. Our guide told us how to find out where true South lies using the Southern Cross (and I have to say it's much more complicated than just finding the North Star back home). It was absolutely a wonderful evening last night.
A little after we got back to our rooms, the power went out! South Africa has a serious power shortage, as they have not been able to keep up with increased demand for electricity and the power grid isn't expanding fast enough. Under Apartheid, most people who lived in South Africa didn't have electricity at all. Since 1994, the government has extended electricity to most people, but can't keep up with demand. The lodge came around and gave us all candles, and we had asked everyone to pack flashlights, so we were OK. Some of the students played cards by candlelight, while others read or journaled or just sat and talked. Some of us sat outside in the lovely night breeze, looking at the stars, and just feeling lucky.