‘A traveler without observation is a bird without wings.’ – Moslih Eddin Saadi
We had driven across the south of Botswana and reached Sun City Resort’s crocodile sanctuary in South Africa by nightfall.
The next morning when we stepped out of our chalet, I realised that we were in the midst of the largest and most spectacular crocodile enclosure I’d ever seen! Full of creeks and trees, and surrounded by banks on which the crocodiles could bask, some of the residents were real giants – Nile crocodiles that had reached almost five metres in length and weighed hundreds of kilograms.
Before exploring the Sanctuary, we had breakfast with Dave and Krystal, who were in charge of operations at Kwena Gardens. In order to eat outdoors at the restaurant, we had to protect our food from a tribe of vervet monkeys who were determined to steal it from us. Vervets have thirty-six distinctive calls, each with a different meaning and used mainly to warn of danger and to communicate the direction of threats. The monkeys were light grey with white stomachs and very long tails, and their faces were black, framed with white hair. The monkeys climbed very fast around the restaurant and one group did their best to distract us while the others tried to make off with items from the table. We managed to eat most of what we ordered and suffered only some small casualties to the monkeys, mostly consisting of salt and pepper shakers and sauces.
Austin and I spent the day in the Sanctuary, observing and photographing the crocodiles, water monitors, meerkats and birds that lived there. Kwena Gardens is open to tourists and the sight of Austin doing what he does best attracted some attention, and I was questioned by tourists as to what we were doing there while Austin got his shots.
One of the residents of the Sanctuary was Footloose, a monstrous male Nile crocodile. Footloose was originally from the Okavango swamps, where he would have ambushed and fed on zebras, antelope, buffalo and also rural people if given the opportunity. Once in captivity, Footloose had lost one of his enormous hind feet in a fight with another male crocodile years ago, but he was doing very well without it. He had grown into the largest crocodile at Kwena Gardens. I stood above him on the rickety old wooden bridge that crossed the main creek, and listened to him growling at other crocodiles that came too close for his comfort.
That first afternoon, we explored the rest of Sun City resort. It was a millionaire’s playground that was created in the middle of the South African bush by a well-known entrepreneur. It consisted of a beautiful hotel reminiscent of the style of ancient Roman architecture, complete with swimming pools and poolside bars, fountains, botanic gardens, casinos, film theatres and more restaurants than I could ever have imagined. We admired the hotel from the outside, and noticed that one of the guests had left their balcony door open. As we stared up at the top storey in amazement, a family of large, dark brown baboons took advantage of the situation, jumping from the rooftop onto the balcony and into the hotel room. Over the next ten minutes, the baboons ransacked the room, tipping mugs, tea and coffee sachets, pillows, clothing and other luggage over the balcony onto the rooftop below. One large male baboon sat on the balcony railing chewing on sugar packets and the mini bar snacks he had retrieved, while the young baboons made a game of swinging through the glass door. When the baboons had taken everything of value to them, they scampered off over the roof again. I wished I could have seen the faces of the hotel guests when they returned to their room!
Sun City also contained an earthquake simulator bridge surrounded by elephant sculptures, and a perfect man-made beach complete with hidden machinery that created waves for the guests to bodysurf on. The towering wooden gates at the end of the elephant bridge leading to the beach were straight out of ‘King Kong,’ and the beach was surrounded by ice cream stalls and bars. The central feature was a castle perched atop a nearby hill that towered over everything else in Sun City. That castle was the closest thing to a palace that I had ever seen, and it was out of reach of everyone except the very wealthy. Sun City was a self-contained universe, completely safeguarded from the crime and overpopulation that was typical of South Africa. After we had a look around and enjoyed a couple of drinks by one of the pools, we caught the shuttle bus back to Kwena Gardens.
Austin and I spent our two days at the Sanctuary watching the young crocodiles being fed, observing the older crocodiles, being regaled with tales of Michael Jackson’s visit, discussing common crocodile ailments and being familiarised with the operations of the place by the staff. Then Dave took us to a mechanic who put our Uno back on the road.
On the way to Pretoria, we stopped at Hartebeespoort Dam Snake and Animal Park. It was my second visit in a couple of months, and I was amazed at how much the lion cubs had grown since I last saw them. We watched a venomous snake being force-fed, which had become necessary due to illness, swapped snake bite stories with the staff, and examined the latest reticulated pythons that the park had acquired.
Before we left, Austin took me to the chimpanzee playground to see Jumbo, the chimp made famous by his first book, ‘Snakes In My Bed.’ Jumbo shared the enclosure with many other chimps, but it was immediately apparent that he was in charge. Jumbo wanted to be allowed into the indoor section of the enclosure, and loudly voiced his displeasure at being kept out while the staff conducted routine maintenance. Jumbo used his massive arms and strong legs to propel himself from door to door, and the walls shook as he hammered on the doors with his enormous fists. One female chimp studiously avoided Jumbo in his rage, and as she came towards us we saw that she carried a tiny baby. She paraded the baby before our eyes as if seeking our acknowledgement, and we clapped our hands a few times in response. This seemed to satisfy her, and she returned to her quiet corner and nursed her baby.
When we got to Pretoria, we stayed in the guest room at Johan’s house. Johan is an architect who had been a good friend of Austin’s for years and we spent the rest of the week coming and going from Johan’s house as we pleased, while enjoying his warm hospitality in the evenings.
Finally, the day of Austin’s interview and medical exam for the Australian Department of Immigration arrived. We were very nervous as we neared the Consulate, knowing that the decision of the interviewer could potentially prevent us from ever living in Australia if we so chose. I had expected that we would both be interviewed about our relationship and reasons for wanting access to Australia, but only Austin was questioned as I waited for him outside the interview room. Austin came out of the interview an hour later believing it had all gone well, but if the interviewer had made any decisions by that stage, she gave nothing away. Later that afternoon, Austin attended his medical exam. The tests included chest x-rays to screen for tuberculosis as well as blood tests conducted by a doctor approved by the Australian Department of Immigration, and the next day we began the drive back to South Africa to ensure we would be home in time for Austin to commence his next film shoot. We drove home exactly the same way we came, across South Africa, through Botswana and back across Namibia, but this time we chose not to sleep and we completed the trip in twenty-four hours straight, crossing South Africa and Botswana during the day and Namibia during the night. We encountered a gorgeous porcupine with his quills up by the side of the road that night, and when we stopped for a short break I hand-fed baked potato to the thirteen goks that converged on our picnic site.
Austin and I had a week at home together after our trip before he left for Swaziland, where he spent three weeks completing the next film in the series that focused on rhinos. I kept myself busy trying to chase up the application for my Namibian temporary residence permit, for which I’d been waiting for six months with no word from Namibian Home Affairs. I knew that the next time I had to leave Namibia, I may not be allowed to re-enter without it.
To be continued in Chapter 33, in which we encounter strangers in our search for desert elephants…