I’ve always been a fan of the bush.
From my early days as a rookie travel reporter covering stories in private reserves up north to my honeymoon years later, traversing the sandy tracks of the Kruger singing along at the top of my voice to Johnny Clegg (think Jock of the Bushveld…yeah, I’m nostalgic like that), the bush is in my blood.
Fast forward 10 years, three kids and a move to the Garden Route later, and I’ve been experiencing serious bush withdrawal symptoms.
Like, I-hear-Spirit-of-the-Great-Heart-and-I-want-to-cry withdrawal symptoms.
This has been made even worse by the fact that in South Africa, so many private game reserves don’t accommodate children under the age of 12 or if they do, don’t allow them on game drives.
Now, I’m all for taking a break from my brat pack, but when it comes to the bush, that’s one thing I’d always hoped to share with them.
I wanted to instil in them a deep-seated respect for our natural heritage; nurture a passion for South Africa’s wildlife; and allow them to enjoy that warm and fuzzy feeling you get from spotting your first elusive leopard snoozing in a tree or the twitch of a lion’s ear from between the veld grass.
I wanted them to feel the rush of the cold morning air hitting their faces as an open Landy bumps its way deep into the bush in search of night owls still on the prowl, or those early risers already up with birds and going about their business.
I wanted them to fall head over heels for late afternoon game drives that end with sundowners in the bush, where the joy of watching the sun melt into the horizon is matched only by the thrill of knowing you’re sharing the same ground, right there and then, with Africa’s most majestic animals.
Finally, my boys would get their bush baptism and follow in their mother’s footsteps, hand on their heart, head held high as they embraced the richness of the African safari experience.
Well, let me just say right now, it was more like a baptism of fire. For me.
Maybe when The Middle Child is finally out of his you-know-what-fours and has learnt the meaning of ‘whisper’ and ‘put your feet back in the vehicle’, and the 13-month-old can be successfully ordered to stop eating rocks and elephant dung, can I attempt to expose them to the wonders of the bush again.
My vision of two glowing boys revelling in the joy of seeing their first lion, and getting down and dirty with some serious bushwhacking was shattered with, ‘hmmm, it’s a zebra, nice mom’ (the 4-year-old) and ‘when do we eat?’ (the 10-year-old).
To be fair, the eldest was a champ. He handled the bone-shaking Landy ride like a boss (even when a rather large bump relocated him in one fell swoop to the neighbouring seat, luckily it was vacant); he spotted camouflaged game that even escaped the ranger; and he managed to tick off 3 of the Big 5 in his Gondwana Junior Rangers book.
He learnt tons about this very different kind of ‘bush’ – it is fynbos, not your traditional bushveld, after all – and was even able to identify a bird or two by the time we left two days later.
And to give him his credit, the 4-year-old wasn’t allowed on the main game drive with the Big Five (for which I was ultimately very thankful; his non-stop prattling would have summoned curious but uninvited guests to the Landy – something I wasn’t really up for after he’d emptied his entire hot chocolate onto the breakfast table that morning, drawing curious and uninvited stares from the two-legged guests).
And the 13-month old…well, what else can he do except call everything ‘baba’, look cute, and shove all kinds of crap into his mouth?
No, on the final night I decided the whole thing hadn’t quite matched my expectation of my boys’ first bush experience. Not one ‘look of amazement and wonder’ to be had. And certainly none of the, ‘wow, this is amazing, mom!’ I was expecting.
But then the eldest returned from an early morning game drive with dad, his cheeks rosy from being blasted with chilly dawn air and eyes bright with excitement from his latest sightings. And he begged to stay another night because ‘this place is just so cool’.
And then the 4-year-old got wind we were leaving and, tugging on my pants, declared he never wanted to go home again because he loved his ‘new house and all the animals too much’.
I smiled at the big kid with the excited eyes, and the grubby little kid with the dirty face, and realised their first bush experience had been just perfect.
Because it wasn’t about meeting my expectations.
It was about meeting theirs.
And judging from the sad, backwards glances out the window as we headed home, it had done just that.