It was time to get away all together to bond. The team that leads Junction, our church in Johannesburg, needed to get out of the city, be friends and confide in one another, with no other distractions. Of course the wives go, since the ultimate fun is the couple hood we all share...accompanied by the youngest parts of their clan.
The place to get away was Black Rhino, a small private game reserve. South Africa is famous for game reserves, this one is one of the best. The resort we would be staying at was surrounded by fencing that give off a high frequency pitch and electrical current that deter the “Big 5” from entering. They still graze nearby.
The Big 5 - the lion, elephant, Cape Buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros-were originally given that name because they were the 5 animals most difficult to hunt and kill on foot by game hunters of old. Of course game hunting was accompanied with the trophies of heads, skins and tusks that would show the size of the animal. The counterfeit of this was illegal poaching: an inhumane and unfair trapping of herds or groups of animals for money, where only the trophies are collected, orphaning any remaining dependant young. In the 1970’s the South African government permanently declared areas “protected” for maintenance of wildlife, and for tourism purposes. Now, South Africa is home to several parks, open to the public, and tourists commonly take sightseeing safaris. The private game reserves are usually near these areas, but supported by private means, rather than the government. Usually smaller in square Kilometers, it is a little easier to have a sighting of “something big” when you go on a game drive.
Right now it is July, the dead of winter here. Getting away is needed, but almost dreaded. The winter holidays here aren’t like the States, with Central Heating (notice how I capitalize Central Heating?? It is worth capitalizing...and I bow down to it) since the lodge is heated only by space heaters and the Pilansburg (the game area we were going to) has nighttime lows of 0 degrees (Celsius). The night before we left, Mario and I lead a Relationship Conference for singles and couples and we ended up finishing at about 9pm. When we got home, we crashed into bed and woke at 5 to make the two hour drive to Pilansburg, and our friends.
On the way, we chatted about the class last night before. We prayed a lot for Alicia, who has been in discomfort and close to delivery. We began to talk in relaxed, clear sentences we got to finish.
In eight days I will be on a plane bound for California and our baby, who will have her second baby. I will see my parents for the first time in almost a year, my siblings and their kids... and then fly to see Vince (and hopefully see Joe, who I will carry a birthday present for). Before then, I get to have a holiday with my hunky husband who is recovering from a bad bout of bronchitis.
As we arrive, the lodge is waking up, and we see our sleepy eyed friends who greet us and show us to our room (our house) with vaulted grass ceilings and a bed with oodles of pillows and comforters, a bathroom with a tub suitable for bathing two people and a back porch that overlooks the stunning “bush veld” – the surrounding woodland filled with hornbills, Shepherd’s Trees and the Big 5. It’s too much for us, and we giggled as we unpacked.
The reason we need to get away is to really talk – really talk. Black Rhino is notorious for allowing us to really share our hearts with each other. We all have very public lives and we meet twice a week to discuss business and building and ministry...the joys and trials of managing a growing church in a growing city. We usually know what’s going on with each other, but the deepest things we save for our significant others.
This year has been a red-letter year for Mario and me. It has been filled with change and unpredictable hardships back home. Our lives are also filled with the miracles of seeing God move here, and having unbelievable growth personally. Still, being separated from family is felt most when something goes wrong... and so much has gone on back home. When we first moved here, I imagined myself straddling two continents with an ocean (the Atlantic) under my body. Which one am I on? Where is my home? The feeling slowly went away...until the last day of the World Cup in 2010. This is when tragedy struck our family, and shook me to the core. Since then (about a year ago) I have been praying for vision and faith and God’s sustenance that will keep me joyful and sure about our calling to be here right now. Mario struggles much less. Much, much less.
So, being in Black Rhino, I am reminded that (as part of this team) I am transparent and hopeful and surrounded by those who love me and look out for me.
Going back to the main lodge, we are greeted by Craig and Suzanne, our fearless leaders, their daughters, Kezia and Elizabeth, Manny and Terri and their son, Calvin (almost 4 years), and Jim and Karen. After I make quesadillas, we all decide that a game drive would be a good idea before lunch.
The drives are done in vehicles that are like jeeps, but have rows of seats that are elevated above the driver. The only protection (beside the wisdom of the guide) is the cover of canvas and the steel sides. There are no windows. It is freezing this time of year, and so our party wraps in blankets and Jim (who has to work) and Mario (recovering from Bronchitis and sleepy from driving) stay behind. We ended up seeing an incredible outpouring of blessings: giraffe, warthog, elephants watering themselves. It was stunning, and we returned with lots of pictures and conversation. At lunch, we began to talk, and had meats braai’ed on a grill and salads outside by the pool. The sun had begun to warm us up. It was then that Terri, my friend said, “So, Alicia’s been having labor pains all night?” I almost shrieked. She uploaded Alicia’s facebook page on her phone (mine just shows the time) and showed me. I asked if I could post back, and I did.
From then, my thoughts were divided. Alicia had told us that she didn’t think Alannah, the daughter in her womb, would wait until I got there. She had comforted us with the truth of her heart: she would rather have my help after the baby was born than have me there for the birth. Part of me wondered if she was saying this, knowing that I couldn’t change my ticket this late in the game. I agreed, though, knowing that my heart would be to see her and the babies and help around the house while Brian was at work, maybe even offer to babysit if the two of them wanted alone time...? I knew that her family there (Brian’s family) would be a good support system for her until I got there. I had been absent for a year, who was I kidding?
Jim and Karen left after our poolside chat, and I talked to a lady on the phone from our church who was in crisis. A little before dinner, Terri found out her Doctor’s appointment was moved to earlier in the day following, so she and Mannie were even contemplating going home tonight. My heart sank, knowing that our soul sharing time would be cut off if they did. They decided to stay till the next morning, but were determined to go straight to bed after dinner.
Before they did, I asked if we could have heart-sharing time, and we did. It was really MY heart-sharing time, but my friends were there to hear me out. All that was inside of me: the grief, the family pain back home, the questions, the separation anxiety, my need for God to clarify everything...all came out. In the end, Craig and Suzanne shared too, mainly comforting us and assuring us that we were valuable to them. Manny and Terri were silent, but full of unspoken love and support.
We all went to bed, and I determined to read (since it was so early) to fall asleep. Mario and I chatted, and as we fell asleep Mario said quietly “You know, you think you want to go back sometimes, but it would be very hard to leave this place.” I agreed, knowing that we had been planted, and moving back to the States would mean being uprooted, torn from the incredible soil that was our destiny. I thought of Portia and the boys, of Joy and my prayer group. I thought of the busy-ness of our days and the great need for God that caused the presence of God to appear under the South African sky, like no other place we had ever been. Sleep came before I could open the book, and when I woke up, I was under a mound of covers and the sun was streaming in the window.
Mannie and Terri had already gone, and we had breakfast and vitamins and watched the Flintstones. We laughed aand were lazy, until Craig came into the room and said, “Game drive from 9 to 10, then we’ll leave.” to Suzanne. Mario and I looked at each other.
“Can we come?” we asked.
“Oh yeah!” Craig said, quickly. “ I meant all of us!” Mario raised his eyebrows. Yesterday he hadn’t ridden, so he was more up for it this morning. Game drives, although nice and cool, were not really our thing, so even if we hadn’t gone, he wouldn’t have been grief stricken.
In the jeep, Mario bundled, and looked like a little boy. I was next to him, and as we headed out of the driveway, I was really glad we got to go.
It was then that we saw him: Lesedi. At the end of the road, he was poised, as if listening for the oncoming car (Rhino’s eyesight is so bad that they rely on smell and hearing).
“Is that a white Rhino, or a black one?” Suzanne asked from the back.
“White,” I answered. “I saw his square jaw.”
The white Rhino ( a ground grass-eating vegetarian) is called “White” because the Afrikaans word "wijd", which means "wide" was used to describe his wide lip, or square jaw. Both Rhinos are indistinguishable by color – they are both kind of grey – but whites are definitely more popular in the wild, numbering about 20,000 in the wild. Blacks, by comparison number just under 5,000 in the wild – poached for their horn almost to extinction up until the 1990’s.
The driver, Ian, inched forward, and I could see by his face that he was in shock. It was only then I knew I was wrong.
“That’s a black rhino,” I heard Craig say from the back. We all sat in silence, even the girls.
Ian, a ranger and conservationist, lifted his binoculars and smiled.
“It is black,” he said. “That’s Lesedi, the black Rhino that was shot last year.” He told us that poachers had scaled the fences and tried to kill the rhino, unsuccessfully. They later found Lesedi wounded and bleeding and were able to find the bullet and remove it. It had cost him his ear, which had been mangled from the shooting. Talking about poachers made Ian get a vengeful look in his eye.
We inched forward, and saw the rhino feed (grabbing branches from bushes) and then amble into the awaiting bush for cover. Not before snapping several photos with my Kodak, while the ranger shot with his long-lensed Nikon, like a pro.
As the bush covered him, we all breathed again.
“That’s it,” Craig said. “That’s what it’s like here. It’s only for a moment that we see, and then it’s over.”
Some of the blessings we are given are only for a moment and can be sustained for a lifetime.