As I climbed out of the charcoal grey Land Rover Defender and stepped into the simmering heat of the African sun, I was struck by a sudden realization. My training as a professional South African field guide was no longer a vague idea or fantastical concept in the background of my mind. It was a sudden reality and one in which I had no idea what to expect. I grabbed my bags out of the back of the vehicle, suddenly at a loss for words. Up until this point there had been another leg of my trip that had perpetually lay before my me. Not anymore. I had arrived at the Loskop Dam Reserve in the Limpopo Region of South Africa, and I could barely believe the time had come.
My journey began with the short and familiar forty five minute drive to Logan Airport. A twelve hour flight on a 757 via Emirates Airlines would take me to a twenty two hour layover in Dubai. After a brief exploration of the famed Dubai Mall that was accompanied by a view of the tallest tower in the world, I was onwards to Africa. Nine hours later, I had arrived in Johannesburg. I was determined to spend these precious few days in the city exploring the shrouded history of Apartheid. I arrived at my hotel and contracted a driver who would accompany me to Nelson Mandela’s house, the Regina Mundi Catholic Church, the Hector Pieterson and Apartheid Museums, and the famous township of Soweto. Soweto, or the “South Western Township”, had arisen from the dark period of Apartheid and was a constant reminder of the country’s dark past. Each of these destinations carried a specific and different message, but they were all tied to racial turbulence that still plagues the country to this day. Before I knew it, it was Sunday. The grey Defender was pulling into my hotel and my brief stay in Jozy had come to an end.
My ride was graciously offered by two of my fellow students who lived a mere ten minute drive from my hotel. They were professional photographers whom had recently moved from Italy to Southern Africa in order to build their own safari company. Thank god for their kindness, because my only alternative would have been to catch a ride on one of the notoriously perilous minivans. Half of these crowded micro-buses were captained by unlicensed drivers and were frequently driven at high speeds without any regards for their fellow drivers. Not my idea of an ideal ride. We arrived at our meeting spot after a two and a half hour ride through open plains and poverty ridden townships. Upon arrival, I no longer had any idea of what was to come next. My experience at the Limpopo Field Guiding Academy was about to begin.
It was impossibly easy to distinguish the students that were entering the second phase of their course. The Phase 2’s greeted each other like relatives at a reunion, while we, the new students, merely shuffled our feet and wondered if we had ended up at the wrong destination. Fortunately, a parade of dusty vehicles swung into the parking lot. One of them stood out, a forest green Land Rover Defener tdi 90, emblazoned with the familiar “Limpopo Field Guide Academy” logo across the back door. Our instructors stepped out of these grime covered 4X4’s and welcomed the returning students like old friends. They made their rounds and made quick introductions to the new students, and then called everyone together to relay the plan for the day.
We were instructed to load our bags into the back of a rusty silver pickup and then follow their caravan down the road to the dam. From there, half of our group would be ferried across in the 17 foot speedboat. It was covered in thick patches of algae and scum alongside the base of the hull, hardly what one would call seaworthy. A few of us, including myself, volunteered to help load the luggage into the boat and then unload our gear at our campsite on the other side of the dam. We were pushed off from the shore and our laden down skiff began to make its way across the water.
We made small talk over the roar of the Mercury before it began to cough and sputter, eventually yielding to the sweet silence of a dead engine. Our driver muttered and cursed at whomever had forgotten to fill the tank prior to our departure. He grabbed a rusty can of gasoline, a plastic Coke bottle to serve as a funnel, and began to refuel our motionless skiff. It was at this point that our driver chose to mention the hippopotamus and countless crocodiles who roamed the very waters we were floating aimlessly. And with that, I was properly introduced to the veritable unknown and natural wonders that lay before me.