After 12 days of always being cold, Karen and I took a 35-minute plane ride back to Kruger National Park in search of warmth and a game lodge named Hoyo Hoyo. From the beginning Hoyo Hoyo was different. We flew into one of the smallest – and definitely the most charming – airports we’ve ever been to – the Skukuza airport. We see the “Walti” sign and quickly learn its a two hour ride to Hoyo Hoyo. Well, LAX can be two hours from Hollywood on some days, so this shouldn’t be too bad.
Thirty-five minutes into the trip we leave the pavement for a dirt road stretching off into the bush as far as one can see. For the next hour and a half our dirt road goes from pretty nice, to much narrower, to getting bumpy to being an animal trail twisting and turning through the bush. Where is this place?!
Answer: in the middle of nowhere, inside the Kruger National Park, which is South Africa’s largest game reserve. Eventually little huts with thatched roofs appear through the trees and we finally get to Hoyo Hoyo. Stepping out of the van we learn the Golden Rule of Hoyo Hoyo: It’s OK to go back and forth to our bedroom hut during the day, but we need to be escorted during the night. Unlike all the other game lodges we’ve stayed in, Hoyo Hoyo has no electric fences to keep the animals out and the tourists in. Oh boy…
Ten minutes later and we scramble into our Safari Jeep for the afternoon game ride. Twenty minutes in and we come across a small herd of big elephants next to the road. The biggest one, that would be the one with the big tusks, takes one look at us and begins flapping his ears vigorously and making grunting noises. I don’t need a hunting guide to know this isn’t good news. Before I can say “he’s coming” he charges the Jeep. Our guide puts it in reverse with a Formula One quick move, Karen screams and I freeze. The guide slams his hands on the side of the vehicle, yells, and The Big Guy stops in his tracks, looks startled, turns 180 degrees and hauls back into the bush. This is going to be some kind of jungle stay!
Two hours later and I want to die. The sun has gone down, we’ve already stopped for our mid-ride sip of frozen wine, and it’s so cold I’m thinking just shoot me and get the misery over. The two light weight blankets aren’t enough to keep one warm on a fall afternoon, let alone in this arctic night. This is probably our sixth game ride, each one ending in frozen misery, and I’m wondering, why? Are the Big Five worth it? We vow to layer up for the next one with SIX top layers, three bottom ones, a hat and balaclava, and two blankets. We learn to fight the cold to a standstill.
Hoyo Hoyo serves just twelve guests. The main “building” has a living room, dining room, two outside palapas, a pool and fire pit. It sits on a riverbank overlooking the gently sloping bush. It’s small, lovely, authentic and immaculately decorated with African art. The best times are when everyone else is either on a drive or napping so that we have the place to ourselves. Across the river is a small watering hole attracting elephants and lions, among others. I’m writing this early one morning, in front of a fire, overlooking the bush, and hearing only the crackling of the fire and the squawking of a couple of birds. For the first time, I feel that we are in, not next to or close to but in the African bush.
The staff, “Give and Take,” “Easy,” “Herald” and “Just Fine” are always on call for a morning coffee, an evening sip, and whatever meal you’re in the mood for. All meals are “custom” and made when you’re ready.
A daily ritual easily unfolds. Up at 7 am for coffee to see if there’s any animal activity on the riverbank. Around 9:30 we get a 20-minute ride to the next nearest lodge that has wi-fi (the Hoyo Hoyo has no cell phone nor wi-fi). Answer emails, download movies, have a late breakfast or early lunch, then back to Hoyo Hoyo for a mid afternoon nap. At 3:30 we clammer on the Safari Jeep for the three-hour afternoon arctic game drive. Back at 6:30-7pm, totally frozen, we huddle by the fireplaces, have a glass of sherry, eventually have dinner and chat among our fellow explorers. We then get escorted back to our cottage and immediately turn up the heat. We’re out like a light by 9:30pm. .
Animals and the Hoyo Hoyo coexist, each without noticing the other. Lions, elephants, herds of impalas, monkeys and lots of birds all pass by without a glance. The Hoyo Hoyo staff go about their business despite a lion being a dozen yards away, or elephants bathing themselves right there. In this place, the world seems in balance, in harmony. There’s no “Breaking News” or foreign invasion or congressional committees to worry about. No place seems farther removed than here. Who needs CNN or Fox? Nothing seems less important to this world.
We make very temporary friends among the other guests that cycle in and out during our stay. The young Canadian woman taking four months to see South Africa who tries to give us hints on how to stay warm. The German family of 8 that swarm the dining room each night, cheeks all red from the evening’s game drive, and talking excitedly about whatever they saw. The single Australian woman who looks like she’s lost all her friends (and probably doesn’t care) wouldn’t crack a smile even if it was warm enough to allow for one. The father and son duo from Munich visiting South Africa for maybe the tenth time. Dad is German handsome, hale and hearty, and walks around in one lightweight layer of clothing as KR and I have three layers of fleece and a hat – and we’re sitting by the fire! Like the wind blowing, guests keep flowing in and out. We’ll be just like them in another day or so.
Kruger is different from Pilanesberg and the Black Rhino. It’s much much larger and it seems rougher, wilder. The roads aren’t laid out in a nice grid, rather they meander, sometimes roughly and rarely smoothly. The bush is taller, with a greater number of trees. It’s difficult to see far; our imagination sees wild beasts behind every bush or crouched in the grass. It’s just our imagination of course. Then we almost run over a pride of lions laying in the grass just beside the road. There are animals behind every tree! We cross two or three rivers on each of our game drives. They’re dry this time of year but serve as superhighways with lots of tracks – some of them huge – crisscrossing the sand. The dry riverbed in front of the Hoyo Hoyo is frequented by a herd of elephants on most mornings and late afternoons.
I can’t imagine what it would have been like a hundred years ago, when the park was formally set aside, or decades before that as first the Dutch, then English, then Portuguese and English again tried to traverse what is now known as Kruger. For hundreds of years there were few successful treks through the bush, most perishing from the beasts or various diseases carried by flies and mosquitos. Even now there is just no way I would trek through this area without an army of riflemen. Reading about those times in books scattered on the coffee tables tells of expeditions that learned the hard way that you don’t make camp without fortifying its perimeter with thorn branches to keep the lions out. And yet, here I sit just a few feet away from these beasts now, completely at ease visiting their home. Yesterday morning we awoke to a crew of elephants just outside our window munching on the trees. Last night on the escort back to our cabin we crossed paths with two hyenas scampering off into the trees.
Over these past four days we’ve seen great and small animals in their daily lives. A pride of lions sleeping in the grass all day. An elephant taking a shower. A water buffalo getting an early morning sip of water. Impalas, zebras, blue wildebeests, kudus and water buck casually grazing. Baboons, monkeys and birds bursting into screams and frantic jumping and climbing trees as some enemy has been spotted. Driving down one of the paths at sunset we follow a hyena as it trots down the road, head down, oblivious to the gaggle of tourists in the jeep behind clicking on their iPhones. Vultures and eagles sitting way atop their nests surveying their domain. Off in the distance we see a herd of giraffes as they saunter along, stopping by each tree to have a late afternoon salad.
There is of course violence here as well, but it is the natural way of life. No gun shots ring out in the distance. Predators hunt for their next meal, or two males fight to be The Boss of their crew. Lions don’t mess with elephants, cheetahs don’t mess with lions, and no one messes with rhinos. Baboons, hyenas, jackals and vultures await their turn at the dinner table. We’re told one zebra will last a lion for two days before getting hungry again. The weak and small need to be fleet of foot and always on the outlook for trouble in order to avoid being the main course.
Few places we’ve been to feel less connected to — or affected by –the modern world. This is a world unto itself, with its own rhythms and rules and inhabitants. I feel extraordinary lucky to have visited.