Although in most respects South Africa is just as modern a country as the United States or Europe, with all the industries, factories, gold and diamond mines, suburbs, cities, towns, shopping malls, interstate highways, railways, airports, and other amenities (and headaches) which modern civilized society offers, and although I there met many wonderful and selfless people, who (unasked) helped me in many ways, it was not so much these aspects that proved to be significantly life-changing for me. Rather, it was my several excursions into the wild “bushveld” (or wilderness) that proved to impact me the most.
Africa is arguably one of the most ancient, primitive and starkly beautiful landscapes on earth, and South Africa in particular does indeed have many wilderness parks and game preserves in which to observe much of that natural beauty—some of them quite large.
(above) A spectacular view of the Drakensberg Mountains.
Together with two friends, I visited several of the bigger game preserves--including South Africa's famous Kruger National Park, and the privately-owned Timbavati Game Preserve next to it. I will describe these two momentarily. First, I want to mention Mountain Sanctuary Park, which was one of the grandest and most beautiful of the wilderness parks I saw. This place even has a website, at http://www.mountain-sanctuary.co.za/ . I would recommend looking into their site, as it contains many beautiful and representative photographs of the place.
We were lucky enough to visit Mountain Sanctuary Park on two separate occasions. This park has a lengthy mountain ridge which runs through most of it--part of the vast Magaliesberg mountain range, which stretches on literally for miles and miles. On the side of this mountain there were no trees of any significance, scattered troops of baboons which dined on small citrus-type fruits, and herds of tiny deer-like gazelles, and the mountain ridge was cut by numerous ravines, gorges, and gullies--some of which were quite large and hundreds of meters deep.
Eventually, we slowly clambered back down the mountainside, and at one point came upon one of those many gorges that cut through the ridge. From the top, it looked far too deep to climb down into, but my friend Abe (a native of the place) insisted there was indeed a way down into it.
One of my American companions sitting on the edge of the gorge, before we began our precipitous descent. This gorge was actually much deeper than is apparent here: the bottom is not even visible in this photo.
Here, a completely different world existed. The top of the ravine (the side of the mountain) was barren, dry, and wind-swept; here, all was tree-shaded, dripping with small waterfalls and mosses hanging down the sides of the cliffs,
At the bottom of the ravine, looking back up at a small dripping waterfall, cascading slowly over moss-shrouded rock walls.
every now and then a raging torrent of a small river, or small series of waterfalls,
After letting us worry about our predicament for a few minutes, Abe then told us (laughingly, again) that there was, in fact, a way around the dreaded pool and jump. This other way involved tip-toeing on a tiny ledge along the cliff-wall, literally hugging the cliff-wall itself, as one slowly stepped past the boulder and deep pool, one tiny, fearful step at a time (and about 30 feet above the pool). If one of us had sneezed, we probably would have fallen down into the pool below. I assure you, that ledge we were walking along was only about four inches wide, and there was very little in the way of rock edges to grasp, so as to keep from falling backward. It was harrowing.
We were never so relieved as when we finally had made it down past the boulder and pool, and were finally able to relax, take our shoes and socks off, and wade into the shallow end of the deep pool. And boy, was that water ever frigid, even in the hot African Summer! I was very glad then that we hadn't attempted the jump into the pool after all.
Timbavati Game Preserve, which I mentioned earlier, is where, a few years ago, a minor strain of naturally "white" lions (previously only legendary) made their appearance (see the website http://www.responsibletravel.com/Copy/Copy101740.htm), and the Kruger National Park is the largest game preserve in South Africa (and one of the largest in the world). There are several websites mentioning the Kruger National Park.
The Kruger National Park is so big that you can literally drive around in it all day long and never see a single sign of human life (other than the dirt track in front of you and behind you). It is about the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island together. It was like being trapped in an episode of Discovery Channel, or National Geographic. I saw plenty of gazelle, giraffe, wildebeest, hippos, lions, elephants, zebras, antelope and springbuck, plus baboons, tree monkeys, wild dogs, hyenas, etc.
That huge diversity of God's creatures there, plus the deafening silence constantly surrounding us, and the incredible sense of desolate isolation, left me overwhelmed with emotion, and thinking that I had at last found the fabled "Garden of Eden" itself. Such a sense of peace and tranquility exists out there! I honestly did not want to return to the States--to my own home, and family! What sort of experience is it that can produce an effect like that?
That sensation of utter and profound isolation is what so significantly changed my life. I was only there in that game park for one day, but that one day, and the raw experiences it contained, was sufficient to forever alter the course of my life and my thinking.
You who have always lived in a house, in a city or suburb, and have never spent more than an hour or two literally a hundred miles from the nearest other human beings (or even sign of human life), have no idea how overwhelming it can be, to experience isolation like that. Persons shipwrecked on a desert island, like Robinson Crusoe, lonely explorers in the vast Sahara, or perhaps scientists in Antarctica, or oil-drillers in Siberia, will have had such an experience; but not many people normally have experiences like that. This is why, when they do occur, they are life-changing experiences.
I grasp at words, trying to describe what is was like for me, standing there that day on the hot, dusty African plain, with nothing for literally a hundred miles around, except my two friends, one automobile, one dry, dusty dirt road, and endless miles of grass, bushes, scattered thorn-trees, occasional wild animals, and endless blue sky and puffy white clouds. I struggle, and cannot seem to find the right words to convey just how awesome an experience it was, and how reverently and profoundly moved by it I was. Such overwhelming peace, and tranquility! One could literally sit there all day long, and never hear another sound besides the breeze occasionally rustling through the tall grasses! It is absolutely impossible to imagine what this actually feels like, if one has never experienced it. I felt like we were literally the only people alive and walking on the entire planet—so far away did all other life seem. This gives one a completely new perspective on life, believe me!
Needless to say, after having had such a profound experience as that, and coming back to everyday ‘civilization,’ even seeing New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, and just about every other sight and experience that America has to offer, I still have felt somewhat cheated—because I was always conscious that something greater still lay elsewhere, and I knew that I had been there, and experienced it firsthand. I suppose the astronauts who walked on the moon must have felt similarly, after they had returned to their usual, routine lives in “suburbia,” commuting to their ‘jobs’ every morning, and I do not wonder when I recall that several of them are said to have experienced severe psychological problems of ‘readjustment’ upon their return. Only those who have had similarly profound, life-altering experiences can know what I mean here. Had I the time, and my listeners the patience, I think I could probably write a whole book about what I saw and experienced there. Hopefully, this brief essay will suffice for the moment.