Wild Animals in Africa
What’s the use of coming to Africa if one doesn’t go see animals in the wild? Thinking like that, we arranged with locals to have my teenaged granddaughter and I visit a wild animal reserve. Altogether four women and three girls (aged 7, 12, and 14) set off on our journey of over an hour with some homemade sandwiches, uniced cupcakes, and juice. I chanted softly on my beads, “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.” (mystic meditation)
Arriving at Dinokeng Reserve, we received a map of the reserve, as well as detailed directions from one of the rangers. Our spacious van quickly came to a decision point–the way marked for the self-drive route also had a “road closed” sign, whereas the other dirt road clearly said it was not for the self-drive route. So, much to the chagrin of my granddaughter, we took the road that was marked as closed and needing repairs. On that road, we were able to follow our progress with reference to the map. There were muddy spots (which we figured were the reason for the “closed road” sign) and lots of variety of deer. Spring bucks, impala, and deer-type animals with some sort of “mane” on their backs stopped and stared at us, or bounded in the woods and across the road.
At the end of the roads marked on the map, we came to another decision point, one that was not at all clear from the map, nor seemed to correspond to the directions we’d received. But, dauntlessly following the self-drive route signs, we made decisions at crossing after crossing. “Which way?” our driver would ask me.
I would randomly say, “Turn right!” or “Turn left!” Often we turned around rather than make a choice at a crossing of many unmarked roads. Soon, we became aware that none of the roads we were on were marked on the map. At all. There would be no way of retracing our steps, or finding the way forward, on roads neither labeled on the road itself nor shown on the map.
We saw herds of wildebeests, and more deer variety, and kept our eyes peeled in hope of seeing lion or elephant–any of the “big 5 animals” which are the draw of the reserve. There were zebras in the distance and we were excited. But we never came to the landmarks the rangers had told us about, and, indeed, we felt certain that we were still on the outskirts of the reserve itself.
A Map That’s Not a Map
Finally, we came back in a circle to the juncture with the closed road sign, without ever having entered any of the roads indicated on the map as being in the reserve proper! What to do? Laughing and praying, we again entered the same road, thinking we could make a different decision at the next major choice point. But, alas, there was no different way to take that did not risk an unmarked and un-mapped road, so, we doubled back on the closed road for yet a third time. (third time’s the charm?)
Well, this time we got stuck in the mud. Totally stuck. I gave the driver advice that (sometimes) works to get out of snow (being a somewhat experienced driver-in-snow myself), but stuck we were. I got out of the van to inspect the situation, which drew terrified cries of alarm from my granddaughter and the other occupants. “You’ll be eaten by lions!” they objected, though there were no lions in sight. Figuring if it was my time to go, it was my time to go, I walked around the van and decided that there was no way we could get out without help. We couldn’t even all push the van out unless we had thigh high boots with great gripping soles.
One of the ladies called the number posted on the map for getting help from a ranger. The youngest child was crying in fear, and I said, “Let’s have lunch!” which calmed everyone down and got us busy in something besides our predicament. Our driver had cooked amazing cheese and paneer sandwiches, which she had offered to Krishna with love (prasadam). When eating such food, one meditates on how the Lord sustains not only our body, but also gives us spiritual nourishment. Somehow we saw no animals at all while stuck…
In less than 20 minutes, a very friendly ranger came, and, speaking with a heavy Afrikaans (what is Afrikaans) accent, pulled us out with his four-wheel drive. He admonished us for driving on a road clearly marked as closed. (“I told you so,” said my granddaughter). When we explained our difficulty with finding a way to enter the reserve, he kept saying that the method was to go by the “tar road.” After much pleading, he agreed to lead us there in his vehicle.
Ah, the “tar road”! We had seen it previously, but thought it was a main highway which would take us away from our desired objective. Almost as soon as we were on this road, we saw…. giraffes!! It’s hard to describe the thrill of seeing large animals in a wild setting. As we progressed, I though often of the transcendent spiritual world, filled with all variety of fully-conscious animals and plants, in six seasonal forests (forests in the spiritual world from Anandavrndavanacampu).
Off the Map
We tried to find the entrance into the reserve from the tar road, but to no avail. We did, indeed, turn into dirt road after dirt road, at each juncture having the driver ask, “Which way?” answered by my reply of, “Turn right,” or “Straight ahead” without the slightest idea where we were going. Our map was useless. Many roads were not marked either on the road or on the map, and those marked on the road were not on the map. Where were we? We really had no idea at all. There were sometimes signs for the self-drive route, but those signs pointed as often in several directions at once (even opposite ones) as well as in just one direction. But we were spotting animals, like herds of zebras, and a creature that looked like it had the body of a horse with the neck and head of a deer. Herds of wildebeests crossed the road, and various members of the deer family stared at the moving human zoo exhibit in our van.
At one point I decided to try GPS. “Ok, Google,” I said to my phone, looking at the printed map and noting a landmark called Safari Mall, “Give me directions to Safari Mall.” Google obliged with directions to a Safari Mall in Qatar, which we were informed would take us eight days of driving to reach. Pinpointing our location on Google’s map, I tried to zoom in in order to see the local reserve roads. But, alas, such dirt roads are not part of any GPS system.
Abandoning both a GPS attempt and the official reserve map (as none of the roads we went on were on it!) we drove with abandon, meditating on the Lord and His glorious creation.
As we turned a corner, there was a “pop” and a “whoosh.”
“Was that our tire blowing out?” I asked.
“I think it was a sprinkler turning on,” one of the ladies said, though I couldn’t remember seeing any sprinklers anywhere and wondered why just that one would turn on even if there were some.
Various passengers offered ideas, but finally our driver said she felt it difficult to drive. “Let me go out of the van to see,” I volunteered, bringing, again, protests in high-pitched voices that I would surely get eaten by the (invisible) lions by exiting the van. But, out of the van I went, joking about having my bodily end consist of being lion food. I said that if my death came because of being the victim of a lion attack in an African reserve, at least my critics would rejoice, and thus I would bring happiness to someone.
A flat tire it was, indeed.
We turned off the van to save fuel and it was hot. We would need to call the ranger, again, but where were we? Our road was nowhere on the map, a map which seemed to be describing an entirely different reserve, perhaps in a parallel universe. But we would need to tell the ranger where to find us. The only option was for someone to get out of the van and walk to the nearest road marker so as to be able to identify our location. Amid squeals of her becoming lion food, one of the ladies found the number of our road and we called the ranger.
Our youngest passenger cried in fear, and we joked about all dying in the jaws of lions. I reminded my granddaughter that the American tourist who had make the news for becoming a lion’s meal in an African wild animal reserve, was trying to take a photo of a lion which was immediately outside her window. She had opened the window for a better shot. In our case, nary a lion (or any other animal for that matter) was to be seen at all. I taught my “mantra” to everyone: “In the end, everything will be ok; so if it’s not ok, it’s not the end.”
Learning my “mantra” seemed to improve the mood, and the kids even ventured out of the van for a moment to take a photo of themselves. I opened the two front van doors so I wouldn’t cook alive (a much more immediate threat than being lion dinner). We talked a lot about dealing with fear, and Krishna’s protection. Really, our fears come from identifying with our body, a very fragile temporary vehicle for the eternal and never-can-be-harmed soul. Our fear also comes from not having firm faith in the fact that our very best friend, Krishna, is also the supreme controller. Whatever He engineers or sanctions is always in our highest interest. Peace and joy are not a matter of repression of fear, or aversion to fear, or denial of fear, but of the courage to face our fear and see its “naked form.” (naked form of material desires) When we perceive fear for what it really is, we do not take it seriously or act upon it, though it may be present in the body and mind.
While waiting in the sweltering heat, I messaged the organizers at the temple that I might not be back in time to teach my seminar on Manah siksa (Sri Manah Siksa seminar). We started to wonder about running out of water, running out of phone battery, and spending the night in the reserve.
The ranger took longer to come this time–the same gentleman who had helped us out of the mud. Thankfully we had a spare tire and equipment, though the driver was on the phone to her husband to figure out how to work everything, as there was no manual in the vehicle. The ranger insisted we stay in the van as it was jacked up, so as to protect us from wild animals (something that is not the protocol for fixing flat tires, as it makes the vehicle heavier, and any movement of the humans inside can shift the weight).
After putting on the new tire, the ranger’s hands were black with grease, but he happily took a few of our cupcakes and a container of juice. “Krishna!” I called to him as he got back in his vehicle.
Finally on our way again, we saw more giraffes, and more zebras, and more varieties of deer, but, alas, no lions, no elephants, no leopards. We did see one huge buffalo. I don’t think we ever went more than superficially into the reserve–we seem to have stayed entirely on the access roads.
Maps, Wild Animals, and Life
That evening, after the seminar, when I was recounting the day’s events to one of the residents of ISKCON Sandton, SA, we were particularly speaking about the map. “I’ve never seen an official map which was, at best, only 5% accurate,” I said.
“Isn’t that like life itself?” she ventured. “We don’t really get a map to life, and make decisions without knowing where they will take us.”
“Ah, indeed,” I replied. Our security and happiness come not from external certainty, but from knowing that our supreme friend, Krishna, is planning the adventure.
And what an adventure it is.
photos of the adventure are here