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The underrated art of not getting gored
Illustrations by Matt Rota. Source photographs courtesy the author

Illustrations by Matt Rota. Source photographs courtesy the author


Emirates flight to Dubai; passengers predominantly Indian and Arab. Watched some Middle Eastern TV shows just to see what they were like. They were moronic melodramas. Bar and restaurant on plane. Prayer times listed on TV screens in the bar—conflicting message? (Aren’t Muslims not supposed to drink?) White-haired Indian guy sitting behind me who never stopped talking once throughout entire flight (thirteen hours). Realized he was expounding for thirteen hours to his beautiful elderly wife who seemed to find his endless nattering perfectly delightful, as I discovered when from time to time I turned around to observe in disbelief how she could possibly be coping.

Changed planes in Dubai for eight-hour flight to Johannesburg.

Background: It was my husband’s dream to go on an African safari. His dream was deferred twice because of the pandemic. Finally we embarked on his dream safari. Forgot to mention I had just had hip-replacement surgery. My husband wanted me to do it so I’d be okay for his beloved African safari. Twenty-one hours in a plane was hard on the post-op hip. I tried to walk around and do exercises in my seat but eventually gave up.

Forgot to mention other doubts re dream safari. My daughters had political objections. “I don’t want to have a butler in Africa,” said Emmeline. A butler? That it would be luxury while everyone else was starving. Their father argued that the safari business supported the economy. Secretly I knew luxury wouldn’t be the problem, really. How luxurious could it really be, in the middle of an endless desert or swamp or jungle in the middle of nowhere?

The problem would be wild animals. Not sure they’ll want me hanging around.

Landed in Johannesburg. The weather in Johannesburg ecstatic. Like California with the big sky and glittering clear air but warm like New Orleans. I always knew Africa would remind me of New Orleans. And that it would seem familiar for that reason. Like being in the cradle—whether of civilization/humanity, or in the demographic resemblance to my hometown, not sure. My daughters would say I should explore, study, and unlearn certain aspects of these sentiments.


Flew to Zimbabwe: small plane, bumpy ride. A guide picked us up and took us directly to Victoria Falls. I was reading a biography of Livingstone, who supposedly discovered the falls in 1855. It’s one series of endless disasters—marching through swamps and jungles with killer ants devouring them in their tents or swarms of spiders covering them at night and getting malaria, dysentery, cerebral parasites, etc. I can’t describe Victoria Falls—it’s too intense. Mainly you keep picturing those old movies where the people are innocently paddling down a seemingly placid river till they realize they’re about to tip over a ten-thousand-foot waterfall . . .

At the end of the falls there is a bridge that was built in 1905. Purportedly it was constructed in England and installed on the site by a French engineer. When they were putting in the last piece or girder, according to our guide, they found that it didn’t fit. Secretly this was because of the weather, as the material expanded or shrank according to the temperature. But the French engineer did not know that, and in his despair committed suicide by jumping off the bridge. The next morning the girder had shrunk or expanded to fit and the construction of the bridge was concluded. Minus the suicidal engineer.

(A fact-checker from this magazine tells me the installation of the bridge was without incident, and the engineer went on to live a long life. I prefer the guide’s version.)

Afterward our guide took us to our first safari camp, on the Zambezi River. The staff is lined up waving at you when you arrive, like Downton Abbey. Then they told us all the rules. You’re not allowed to walk around the grounds alone and must always be alert/aware. I had the feeling that my days were numbered. What about snakes? In the movies people who have lived in Africa their entire lives and love snakes get bitten by them and if the antidote is not at hand, it’s all over. I asked them if they have the antidote at hand. They don’t.

Immediately they suggested we go on a river cruise. It was five o’clock. They drove us to the river in a jeep. One guide sits on a jump seat that is unfolded far out in front of the vehicle and very high above it. He must be very brave as it does not seem safe. He is the tracker. When you set off he is looking all around intently—like the Indian trackers in James Fenimore Cooper—with eyes that can see great distances like human binoculars.

Two minutes after we got in the jeep, a band of marauding elephants came as if to attack. They were bachelors, said the guide, young bachelors. They were bullies. The tracker banged his hand repeatedly against the jeep to make them stop and not maraud the vehicle. A bachelor elephant stormed directly toward the jeep, and the jeep retreated backward. My days were numbered. The bachelor elephant then came around the vehicle to the side where I was sitting and started coming for me personally. This elephant was literally staring straight at me. Should I not be making direct eye contact with this elephant? I wondered. Some anti-poachers in the bush beat on drums to distract him or call him away and eventually he went off in their direction.

Our guide said he had been taking some guests on this river cruise a few days earlier when another tracker called him on the radio to say a lion was killing a baby elephant somewhere nearby. The guests implored him to take them there. Oh Jonathan, they said, we have to see that. So he drove the boat back to land and took them in the jeep to where it was happening. Then while watching it they wept and said, Oh Jonathan why did you take us here . . .

When we got back to camp the staff was lined up again waving at us like Downton Abbey.

At your bedside in the safari camp inside the mosquito net is a type of horn/alarm—the housekeeper says “in case of emergency” euphemistically and does not specify what kind of emergency, but I think we all know what kind of emergency. My days are numbered.


Awoke at 6 am to go on game drive. Monumental mounds of elephant dung on the road. The landscape is so dry you think all the trees are dead. Our guide pointed out a herd of impalas frolicking across the way: “The impalas are celebrating. They’re not sure what they’re celebrating.”

Givemore (the tracker) pointed out hyena tracks.

The bachelor elephants were in a really bad mood yesterday, our guides told us. They had to rescue another car after they dropped us off as the herd was blocking the road. Elephants are emotional, they said. But the other animals are quite philosophical. The night before we set out on the trip, my younger daughter Liza had watched a movie called Beast, starring Idris Elba, who takes his daughters on a safari where they are terrorized by a lion run amok. (Just to prepare for the safari by scaring herself out of her wits.) Poachers killed the lion’s family and that is why he ran amok. But in reality, the guide said, the lions see their children and family members killed all the time and they do not really repine. They know it’s just how it is.

I went to the library and the gym at the camp. I met some other guests. They were funny. They also said the elephants came on their patio last evening and ate their fence. I walked back to my villa, alone and terrified since the elephants like to come down to the river and you can see the evidence of their frequent presence on this path that I was on. I wondered what actually to do if I encountered a belligerent bachelor elephant alone on my walk. Later I asked our guide. He said: Run.

Afternoon game drive; herds of elephants (not bachelors but mothers and children, who are more peaceful). Dinner in the bush with lights strung up at tables among the other guests, who had seen roaring male lions and zebras on their game drive. Our tent manager said if I encountered an angry elephant or other wild animal on the path at night I should remain perfectly still. He encountered a lion on the path one night and knelt down to its eye level while emanating a mystical and somehow supplicating attitude of equality until the lion walked away.


Starting to break down. The old bones, the aging brain, the lions in the path. I knew this trip was not for the faint of heart or the old.

We left Zimbabwe. At the entrance to the airport there were men and boys wearing what appeared to be leopard skins and singing in a gorgeous a cappella some celestial native songs. It sounds touristy so I tried not to be as totally mesmerized by them as I actually was. I kept sneaking back to watch them. Eventually they went on a break and were splayed out in their leopard skins checking their cell phones.

Actual sign at airport: warning: persons making inappropriate comments concerning hijacking, the carriage of weapons or explosives may be prosecuted.

Younger daughter Liza finally slept eight hours, though woke up at 5 am. “So I took a malaria pill and went back to sleep,” she said. I’m not sure that’s the way you’re supposed to take malaria pills. It’s not like you just pop them at random times. Plus on the bottle it says to take them with food.

We learned that the Queen had died. Emmeline’s friend said it was so safari of us for the Queen to die while we were on one. She had become queen while on safari.

When landing in Johannesburg some days earlier I had purchased an issue of Tatler devoted to the Queen’s platinum jubilee, with endless iterations of her biography throughout. I had been trying to read it and kept saying Why did I buy this? and Do I have to keep reading this?, but something had kept me from throwing it away. For which I was now glad.

The hotter it gets, the more turbulence there is, and it was 95 degrees. We were on a tiny propeller plane. We were not allowed to bring regular suitcases, only small duffel bags because the planes are so small. We also had to put our carry-on items in the hold, so I fished out my pillbox and clutched it tightly in my hand, in case the need arose.

It arose immediately. I was sitting next to a lady from San Diego. My party had met hers at check-in and kept telling me how glamorous they were. I chatted with her desperately throughout the flight (which was severely frightening). I told her about my recent hip replacement. She marveled at my being on this trip so soon after and was incredibly supportive. I told her this was not a trip for the old, and told her how old I am. She professed shock that I was so old. Needless to say, I adored her.

When we landed I experienced huge amounts of relief and disembarked, ecstatic. Then I found out that we had to get back in the same plane and go somewhere else for an hour, plus drop people off and then get back in to go farther after that. The supportive lady had gone off somewhere else on her glamorous trip. I took another tranquilizer but was kind of weeping quietly during the next flight, occasionally looking down (from way too high up) on the monotonous bleak landscape while bouncing around. Like there’s nothing out there. I did notice one man looking at me with a kind expression so that helped.

“Where’s the pilot?” I asked when we got back on the plane. He had to go to another job. So the co-pilot flew the plane for the second leg.

A lady from Chicago told us about her safari. We hear this kind of story a lot: they keep asking their guide to take them to a kill and then when they get there and see it they are sobbing. This lady saw a leopard killing an impala; then a hyena kicked out the leopard and ate what it had killed. Chicago lady quietly sobbing. Four leopards hissing at hyena but hyena wins out in the hierarchy. Guide asks sobbing lady if she’d like him to move on. No, I’ll just sob quietly and look away.

After dropping off some more people we started on the last leg. The last two stops at single landing strips in the middle of nowhere.

Finally we achieved our destination and then I was in ecstasy. It was so pure. The Okavango Delta of Botswana is like the Garden of Eden. It’s like the Dawn of Time.

So today went from despair to ecstasy.

Even the warthogs in Botswana are incredibly charming. Everything is very distinct and pure. The Okavango Delta is an alluvial plain, sort of like a Louisiana swamp but with incredibly non-humid clear air. Especially compared to the camp on the Zambezi River, which was foreboding, with elephants constantly crushing the dry gnarled branches.

The elephants are in a great mood in Botswana. Because they’re in the Garden of Eden. You drive out in a Land Cruiser that can go on any kind of terrain, including water. I had wondered how the game drives in this place could be done with all the water everywhere. You just constantly plunge into water and drive through.

In the evening we saw the most entrancing lioness and her cubs. The lioness was so dignified and elegant; her mischievous and adorable cubs frolicked nearby. She was plainly exhausted, relaxing on the Edenic plain, but also alert and watchful of them in a resigned and noble way through her exhaustion. The lioness not only looks after the cubs but also hunts the food. So she is doubly exhausted. The head of the pride is one lion who has five wives. He has one sidekick who is a weaker smaller lion who shares his wives and helps him patrol his territory. But that seems less difficult than what the female has to do. Plus the lions sleep all day. We saw the two males sleeping soundly in the marsh. Like they had been out on a binge all night. I don’t know why they deserve to be the king of the jungle. They don’t help with the children, they don’t hunt. All they do is make sure other lions don’t try any funny business with their wives.


Awakened by crashes on roof of tent, then saw cascade of baboons gamboling down the tent poles and across the porch. They’re not carnivorous so it’s okay.

A baboon decided to join us for tea. He came cajoling into the tent and crashed into the tea things. He was going for the sugar, which he began shoveling into his mouth.

Maybe it’s not okay, about the baboons cascading all over the tent.

In 2017 a guest was gored by a buffalo here while walking along the path between the tents at night. He was gored in the collarbone. The girls asked if he was helicoptered out to a hospital. No, “first aid” was administered and then he was helicoptered out in the morning.

This safari camp, located on a private reserve, is owned by a couple called the Jouberts. The Jouberts wrote a book called Relentless Enemies (about how lions hunt). I was reading it. The lion pride used to be bigger here. A mentally disturbed lioness ate all the cubs. That reduced its size. Some said it was because she had no children of her own. But the Jouberts wrote about it in their book and said they could tell from her anatomical details that she had just been nursing when they saw her eat some cubs. So I’m unclear on it.

newsflash: The people who got gored by the buffalo were not some random guests; it was the Jouberts, the owners, specifically Beverly Joubert. This seems ironic. They were walking from Tent 2 to the main lodge for dinner after 7 pm—so it was dark, and maybe it was raining. She was gored not only in the collarbone but also the arm and one other place. They thought she’d died three times (but she survived); her heart stopped. There was so much blood the staff could hardly handle it but took care of her all night until the helicopter came in the morning. Beverly Joubert was in her sixties when this happened. Her reaction to this horrific event was to try to make things better—for the buffaloes. In other words, she’s insane.

But also inspiring. The Jouberts are major-league conservationists, so for her it’s all about making the environment better for the animals, though it already seems pretty good. It’s basically the Garden of Eden. I don’t know how it could get any better.

The traumatic story weighed on my mind. I read more about her. She wanted to make things better for the women of Africa too, after getting gored, and plainly the Jouberts are completely altruistic people.

Not only did Beverly Joubert survive but she’s totally good as new, the staff said. You couldn’t tell that anything traumatic had happened to her—except the scar. Maybe scars plural. In the lodge there was a gallery down a side hall lined by many old black-and-white photographs of the Jouberts. My husband had studied these photos when we first arrived and remarked that the Jouberts looked like movie stars. I went to inspect them and thought, Wait, those are movie stars, aren’t they? But no, they’re the Jouberts.


Yesterday we tracked a lioness who was walking slowly through the bush. The safari vehicles have been around here for decades and the animals know they are not to be feared. Still it’s a little weird to be following five feet behind a lioness who doesn’t seem to care about the large motorized caravan trailing so close behind her. She walked and walked. We followed, our dear guide Mots driving over bushes in our way. Finally she came to some random bush and made a noise. Two cubs came tumbling out overjoyed to see her, madly jumping all over her while she submitted to their adorable embraces. Mots said she was exhausted. As far as I can tell, all lionesses are exhausted, as they do all the work.

Probably trying to impress my millennial daughter Emmeline I said it was so typical of the patriarchy even in the animal kingdom for the lions to take the moniker king of the jungle when they don’t seem to deserve it. Mom, they don’t speak English, she said, they’re not the ones who came up with that.

Mots assumed the lioness was hungry. She had been out hunting all day and had told the cubs to stay in this one place till she got back. Whether she was hungry or not the cubs were hungry, and started nursing. We were still about five feet away, parked in the jeep. I did feel it was a private moment that we were so voyeuristically intruding on. Mots notified his colleague of the scene, and soon another jeep with two guests in it came and parked nearby to watch also. But one advantage of Botswana, Mots told me later, is that in Kenya there’ll be six or eight jeeps parked around a scene of interest, whereas at least here it’s only two.

Our guide Mots is ultra-professional but not only that. He has charisma and I have a giant crush on him. It’s weird when you have a crush on people and you’re old enough to be their mother. But that’s how it is now, making it yet more embarrassing.

At night back in the camp you definitely have to secure all the doors and massive barricades that cover the screens and stay inside. Sometimes I get tangled up in the mosquito net thrashing about. In the morning my husband asked me if I knew what kind of animal had made a certain really big sound in the night. “Was it the grunting?” I asked. “No, I think it was the moaning.” Or maybe the growling. The girls also heard some serious roaring and crying at 5 am that went on for a while, traumatizing them.

Mots came over and we had a long talk about it with Teddy, the manager of our tent.

The Jouberts have a lot of style. It’s strictly an old-world style from the Roaring Twenties—oriental rugs and mahogany floors and massive wood furniture in the tents. You expect to see a Victrola.


Last evening my feelings toward the male lions changed dramatically. We came upon the two male leaders of the pride—Mots calls them “the boys”—the big leader and his weaker sidekick. They were resting as usual but Mots could see that they were badly injured. The two lions of this pride are brothers and their wives are five sisters. The bigger lion, the main leader, was more badly injured—on the mouth, which was still bleeding, and the leg. The weaker sidekick had scratches on his face. PS The weaker sidekick doesn’t seem that weak.

Mots pieced together what had happened. They went out to another concession to try to expand their pride. Before my change of attitude, I would have said they just wanted to look for new women to have sex with—but that shows my lack of understanding. So then I reasoned that if they got a new woman they could bring her back with them to become one of their wives, who would have babies, and thus increase the pride that way.

But they were defeated out there.

Defeat is more interesting than victory. The ancient Greeks preferred to write heroic legends of defeat, which stirred men’s hearts more than tales of victory. These two defeated lions stirred mine.

They were at the same time pathetic and majestic, diminished by their wounds. The weaker sidekick rolled over on his back and slept that way. The leader lay in the MGM pose looking sadly/nobly into the distance.

I asked Mots would the women come and comfort them. Not really, they’re too busy. Plus they seem kind of mad, like maybe the way you’d be mad if your husband had five wives, etc. But now I was no longer mad at them. They were too weak to hunt. Would the women bring them food, I asked Mots, or bring the cubs to see them. Not likely.

After a while the weaker one who was less injured hauled himself up and slowly started walking away across the grass to somewhere. When he had gone about twenty feet he roared weakly for his brother to come along, then went on walking slowly onward. Eventually he stopped to wait for his injured brother, who was then seen limping stoically across the grass. They were a heartbreaking pair.

Of course Emmeline kept saying that I’m even more sympathetic to the patriarchy when it’s hurt. That I try to learn but then the patriarchy reels me back in when the males are wounded. She says they’ve been wounded by their own toxic masculinity.

We stopped for drinks on the Edenic plain to watch the sunset. Liza asked Mots what the other guests were like. In actuality she was fishing for compliments, the subtext of her question being kind of like: Are we his favorite guests. Mots is far too professional to take the bait, maintaining the same hearty strength at whatever happens. But he did say, with some visible shock, that we were the only guests who ever skipped one of the game drives.

It’s because the park is reached by driving out across a death-defying series of narrow bridges and plowing directly into various bodies of water, a fascinating but somehow arduous process—that’s one reason. Also you need time to think and write and read. As the unexamined life is not worth living. Also it’s kind of like when you’re in Egypt and they keep showing you mummies and you feel like how many mummies can you really see without getting the point. Like you already do get the point.

But unlike mummies, lions do fascinate. Each has a starkly individual drama. What is really the source of their dominance? My husband explained it later.

Night had fallen. There was a full moon. We followed the injured lions for a while as they slowly walked across the plain. We plowed directly through rolling swaths of water and across perilous narrow bridges in a daring night drive through the bayous, arriving back at the tents at 8 pm.

The next morning the girls were traumatized because at 3 am they thought they heard a kill going on—roaring and crying and “the death call” Mots had described. It went on for hours. Our tent manager said it might have been hippos mating. Which sounds like buffaloes suffocating.

Mots came over and we had a long talk about it in the tent.

My attitude to the lions changed again. I asked Mots: To make sure I have this right, the lion didn’t just want to go have sex with someone new, he wanted to bring a new girl home to increase his pride. Right?


The lion is not going to bring a new woman home because if he tried to do that his other wives would get really mad and definitely kick her out. So in a way the lion’s quest is doomed. While scoping out the neighboring pride he may attack or be attacked by its leader, who is out protecting his own territory. “A male lion is ever restless; his is an endless quest for expansion, for new females with whom to mate . . . ”

So I asked Mots: But in the lion’s mind, does he just want to have sex or is it more that he is nobly seeking to increase his pride.

Which is a pretty ridiculous question. Or could you ask the same question about humans? Naturally Mots looks askance sometimes instead of answering my questions. He’s not a lion-mind reader. Meanwhile I’m trying to stifle my giant crush on him so it won’t be embarrassing.

My husband pointed out the source of the lions’ dominance when, after their defeat, one was on his back sleeping heavily, oblivious to threat, despite the proof that they were not immune to it. In fact the lions’ level of security and confidence is so genetically complete. Sprawled out in the grass unafraid and unrepentant—as every other animal sleeps nervously, with one eye open—lions are the only animals that are not insecure, including humans. If humans had the confidence of the lion—put it this way: when you’re insecure, you have problems.

It was our last day. You drive in suffocating heat to the tiny airstrip ten minutes away in the jeep with all your bags. Mots makes sure the tiny airstrip is clear of animals. The tiny propeller plane is there. It is 93 degrees. All farewells are emotional. You feel incredibly emotional about the people like Mots.

Liza has had “anticipatory nostalgia” about the inherently gorgeous Botswana landscape since yesterday.

I wasn’t scared this time in the tiny prop plane, though it made four stops before our destination (being kind of like a bus). I pretended I was flying over Africa with Denys Finch Hatton. Also I just wasn’t scared anymore, I get it, this is how you do it.

Finally we arrive at Maun, an airport in Botswana where we transfer to a regular plane for Cape Town. Then there are forms, customs, checkpoints, long lines, and it keeps getting hotter and the whole trip seems pretty hard on the old bones and I try to tell various random people how it’s all kind of rugged for someone my age. “Interesting strategy, Mom,” said Emmeline. “What exactly do you hope to gain by your eccentric effusions of despair to strangers?”

Probably the sympathy I’m not getting from Emmeline.

At breakfast we had found that other staff members were also shocked that we had skipped one of the game drives. We analyzed this again among ourselves. “They need to know we need to read and write and think,” I said. “Yes, it’s important to raise awareness about rich people and what they can do,” Liza satirized me.

But also seriously, it must go without saying how the heart feels sometimes and is in awe of the people here such as Mots. Though I see I said it many times.


I miss Mots. And I can still think only of the lions.

Cape Town is a bit of a conundrum. The Emirates redid the Waterfront so it’s practically like Dubai. Or just anywhere, more like. I hated it at first. But everyone is so happy about what a huge success it is—the transformation of the waterfront/port—that I’m glad for them and would not dare object. The vibe in that area is super well-heeled, with things like Ferrari dealerships everywhere. No idea why or who shops there. Asked Tim, our guide. He said: Foreigners.

Tim said he was taking a Nigerian king on a tour some years ago. The king asked him, Why is it that the Europeans are the only ones who do things here? I guess that was before the Emirates put their hand in.

Downtown a banner on a church read: they acted shamefully yet they were not ashamed . . . therefore they shall fall. During apartheid, South Africa had categories for everyone—not just “white” and “black” but “coloured,” and made people live in certain places according to their race. Our guide Tim would have been considered “coloured.” This does not have the connotation it does in the United States. It means a mixed race of European, African, and/or Asian. Tim is from Johannesburg. His father told him, My boy, go to Cape Town. He started out as a theology student. He loves dancing. His wife hates it. He doesn’t always make sense. He’s very enthusiastic. He keeps saying that everything is “next level.”

I’m always getting yelled at by the girls for being from the previous level, and the only way I finally got them to stop was one night in Cape Town when they were toting up the aspects of my obsolescence and destroying the remaining shreds of the obsolete viewpoints they believe I possess, I left the dinner table to go sit in a chair somewhere else with my glass of wine and watch the world go by. When I came back they seemed to feel some compunction that I was offended or hurt by their remarks and I said, No I was just bored by them. You’re teaching me and I do learn, I said, but sometimes it’s just boring.

But I do know they’re next level and I’m previous level.

At the Mount Nelson Hotel there was a memorial for the Queen. Our guide said you would not find any special liking for the Queen anywhere else in this town and that everyone in the Commonwealth would likely now withdraw—after a suitable interval to show a modicum of respect or propriety in mourning the Queen. I don’t know how that will go for Charles’s already plummeting self-esteem.

We had a guide who took us through the only modern art museum I have ever liked. It had a gigantic installation made of black silk paper hanging in six parts representing “the continents of all our desires.” It was accompanied by a soundtrack of the artist saying what sounded to me as, “What am I going to make for this commission and/or how am I going to meet the deadline?” Adding droll honesty to his brilliant creation. The next artist elaborated with a weird videodepicting an imagined kingdom he called Azania, where zebras and other shapes that were amorphous advanced in a slow procession while the artist intoned his explanation of the imagined empire.

Then our art museum tour went on too long, we had to see too much, and as my father always said, the best way to see an art museum is to look at two things only, so as not to clutter your mind. Exactly after those first two items I lost focus and my mind was doomed to being cluttered.

I sat on a bench at the edge of the world and framed my mind for the Cape of Good Hope, which I wanted to see. I had always read how treacherous it was for ships to navigate in old British novels; it seemed a wonder of the world. We hiked up a giant hill, gazing at its sublime beauty in rapture until reaching a lighthouse with an exhibit about its history that I could not take in because the mind is recalcitrant to absorb certain kinds of information after being focused on wild animals. Also there were some abnormal baboons on the rocks traumatizing Liza.

The next day she was felled by headache and other ailments. I hovered maternally about and ran her a bath spiked with a healing bouquet of herbs and flowers from the Cape Winelands. Tomorrow we go back into the bush for the last safari. Worried for Liza in that respect. I don’t think there are doctors nearby in the safari camps.


Tim took us to the airport, Liza still under par. Despite the healing herbs and flowers. Tim told us the safari camp we were going to was next level, but he thinks everything is next level.

I thought I knew what fear was. But I didn’t. I didn’t know what fear was until I saw the plane we were taking to Kruger National Park, in northeastern South Africa. The pilot met us at the quiet airport in the countryside and brought us to his tiny plane. It was so tiny that you felt it could be blown away by the slightest breeze. It was a four-seater. Emmeline sat up front with the pilot (who kept checking his Instagram), Liza and I sat in the two middle seats, and my husband was in a kind of jump seat in the back. The flight was ultra-turbulent. It was 96 degrees and raining. Buffeted around in the tiny vehicle. I wished we could have stayed at a low altitude, as I always feel better if I can see the ground so I know what I’ll be plowing into if it all goes wrong. I tried to keep looking at the ground but it was like looking into a deep bowl and Liza’s side seemed less gorge-like so I looked out of hers. I gripped my seat tightly and tried to read my beloved book about the lions.

The airstrip where we landed had an adorable thatch waiting room open to the air. Our new guide and tracker picked us up. The usual instructions to beware when walking from your tent to the lodge—but much more intense, I thought. You might step on something. You might see something. Alert the staff.

I couldn’t make out exactly what the extra threat was. We’ll have to worm it out of them. They did mention that three lionesses were seen by the path recently. I also saw a little card in the bedroom saying that there is a unique abundance of leopards here.

If you see something, say something. Like leopards.

It was 99 degrees. The game drive started at 3:30 pm. Secretly I wished it could start at 5:30 when it might be cooler.

I waited at the lodge sitting on the deck. Looking at a snake. Coiled around a tree. It was starting to unwrap itself from the tree and inch toward me. I edged back to my room.

The landscape was much more like Zimbabwe—close dead dry gnarled branches everywhere along narrow paths. We saw a hyena and the wild dogs everyone keeps talking about which have mottled coats of yellow and black and purple. Stopped in narrow path for drinks. You’d think I’d need a drink. But I don’t drink. It’s all part of the anhedonia.

After dinner the porter accompanied us to our tent, where my husband insisted on getting a cigar to bring back to the lodge to smoke while having more drinks. I had to beg the porter to look out for him on his way back in a possible drunken stupor, staggering through the leopard-laden night.


Awoke at 5:18 am for game drive. Decided to get up and just do stuff till 6:30 am departure. Stuff like take a shower, which I was scared to do last night while husband was up at the lodge smoking his cigar. This place really puts the fear of God into you. It may be the architecture. The architecture is a brutalist modern style that makes me nervous mentally. Then there’s the hype: this is the newest lodge around here and everyone keeps talking about how amazing it is. Also I think I’m getting a disease.

Our guide Sipho met us at the lodge carrying a gigantic gun. Your guide always carries a gigantic gun. I’m starting to think it’s just to make the customers feel safe; I asked Sipho if he had ever had occasion to use his gun, and he hemmed and hawed, finally admitting he would never use it. I have no idea if it makes me feel safe, though.

Sipho went off-road to track a leopard he saw, mowing over large dry gnarled trees crashing through the brambles. The leopard was pregnant so she was skittish and we did not find her. We saw the wild dogs on the prowl. Followed by three scary hyenas lumbering along.

The warthogs have way more personality in Botswana. They’re so distinct and sharply drawn there, dark black against the green alluvial plain. Speaking of the green alluvial plain, I pine for it constantly. But later we stopped at Castleton, the oldest lodge here, which was more old-fashioned, with verandas seemingly graced by breeze and shade, situated on a plain with a water hole. There we saw a dazzle of zebras which was strikingly exquisite. And a mammoth elephant drinking beside them.

I asked the manager to escort me to my tent when we got back and tried to worm some information out of him about what untoward drama had happened here. He claimed it was just normal stuff that happens in the bush. As a last resort I asked him if he knew of the Jouberts. He did. He said that Beverly Joubert had been gored again. I found this hard to believe. Surely this altruistic woman couldn’t just go from place to place trying to help the buffaloes and getting gored by them.

That afternoon we finally saw a pride of lions. But no one in this region is interested in the lions; guides, trackers, staff—all they care about is leopards. Our tracker had a book in the vehicle with photographs of all the leopards in the area, and capsule biographies of them. He showed it to us page by page describing each one. Do you have a book about the lions? I asked. No. Why not? I asked. They all look alike, he said dismissively. Which Emmeline said was racist. I guess I liked it when there was a clear-cut hierarchy (or patriarchy?) of which the lions were the undisputed king, so I guess I am the dingbat patriarchy upholder as usual.

The lions were being very social—two males, two females, and two cubs—all together in a thicket. We were watching two cubs madly nursing at one of the females. The other female’s cubs had been killed. When a lioness loses her cubs in that manner, she immediately goes into heat, so the lioness who had lost her cubs was pregnant.

Emmeline skipped the next evening’s game drive and was sitting on the balcony at the lodge. Someone called Sipho to tell him that there was a hyena and some wild dogs eating an impala from that viewpoint. Those remaining at the lodge amounted to Emmeline and the staff. So she must have seen the famous kill that everyone wants to see. We asked her if she did. She said she tried to block it out.

A porter came to escort us down the paths to dinner. Like most of the staff, he’s from around here. Trying to make conversation, I said, So you’re human and you live constantly among wild animals who are dangerous and that’s how it is and you’re used to it and you observe it and you know how to do it and you like it and . . . I rambled on, eventually concluding my statement, and he said: Yes!


Some inane person, which I think was me, suggested that we take a game walk instead of the game drive on our last evening. Coming upon a small dry plain that looked sort of like the British countryside if there was a violently serious drought, we disembarked and Sipho loaded his gigantic gun. We marveled at his gun and asked him a lot of questions about it. He said we must walk single file so that if a snake came it would get him first. Or at least he would see it first, then set forth on a highly unpleasant walk over parched thickets clotted with elephant and antelope dung, the dry brush crackling under every step.

Whose idea was this? I wondered. Oh yeah, mine.

After about a mile I remarked that I saw the road and Sipho politely led us back to it. Soon the tracker showed up with the back of the vehicle set up for a sundowner, pouring champagne. Liza asked her usual question about were the other guests obnoxious. A surprising recital of the sad and obnoxious behavior of other guests ensued. They sit in the far back of the vehicle checking their cell phones and not talking to him and it’s very trying and the three days he spends with them seem like a sad eternity. Are they American? I asked. Sipho tactfully claimed that they were not. The obnoxious guests were Mexican, Chinese, or European. Meanwhile Liza’s questions got more and more far-fetched. Has anyone ever broken up or gotten divorced while you’re taking them on a game drive? she asked. A seemingly ridiculous question. But the answer was yes. And it seemed believable because of how Sipho described it. Liza piped up, So they’re fighting in the back and you’re like: Um, there’s a leopard on the right?

I did see some obnoxious Americans at the lodge demanding that they see a cheetah and that they see it kill something. Why is everyone so bloodthirsty? I wondered. Plus it’s the law of the jungle, you can’t demand it at your whim.

The end was near. I had been fighting off a disease since helping Liza with her vivid headache and congestion in Cape Town. I tried to stay calm on the two horrendous endless Emirates flights home, but it turned out to be COVID. A plane is not a good place to be for twenty-two hours when your throat feels like it has razor blades in it.

I tried to focus only on the lions, having read more about their behavior. Maybe it has to do with my misbegotten embrace of the patriarchy, my misbegotten understanding of the world in the effort to adapt. “Deep down I suspect,” wrote the author of my beloved book about lions, “it is not scientifically proven but I believe it to be true—every male lion who loses a pride and a territory and even one who has never ruled a pride, still, until his dying day, yearns for power.”

The drama escalates. If you’re looking for drama you don’t need the ancient Greeks. You don’t need Shakespeare. All you need is lions.

“Males will usually team up with brothers or cousins to form a coalition. Occasionally, unrelated males will join together. But for two blood enemies to turn around and become partners” (as in one pride described) “is almost unheard of,” the author wrote. “It was just very weird that they joined together after being archenemies,” said the safari guide who observed them. And after one of them was killed, the other “roamed the forest for nights roaring, calling for his friend.”

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