Heading North into the early morning sun, the Pace Academy group from Atlanta huddled in the back of the van, positioning themselves for a snooze as we moved steadily towards the Pontdrift Border Post. Just beyond the border lies the magnificent Mashatu Game Reserve – and our final destination. Seven hours later, totally psyched for our adventure, we crossed the border and scrambled into the two safari vehicle waiting for us on the Botswana side and headed towards our unfenced, remote eco-safari camp.
Greeted by the smiling staff, we immediately familiarized ourselves with the layout of camp and the positioning of the accommodation – a cluster of two man tents pegged to the ground under the huge Nyala Berry trees. Dumping our backpacks we gathered at the main area for a “rules and regulations” session, and some bush volleyball. Not at all what the inquisitive little monkeys high up in the trees expected! Springing excitedly from branch to branch they sent out a bush telegraph, letting everyone know that we had arrived.
The grunting of hyena and snapping sound of branches being broken by nearby elephant penetrated our dreams that night as we synced our hearts with the rhythm of the African bush.
Day 2. greeted us at 5:00 with a ferociously cold nip in the air, and Alecks, Abby and Chloe doing the kitchen shuffle, making sure that hot steaming hot coffee, fruit and snacks were served before the group split up for a bush walk and bush drive. All this by 6:30 in the morning. Impressed? You should be!
By 9:30 everybody was back in camp and ready for a hearty breakfast relaxing around the camp fire or sinking into one of the bright hammocks strung between the giant trees. Two o’clock saw us all gathered back in the main area for a lecture on the conflict between man and beast – interrupted by the sighting of a warthog family in camp and elephant in the riverbed – before a delicious lunch and preparations for our afternoon outing. And oh, what a time we had!
Climbing the steep hill to the top of Mamagwa, where Cecil John Rhodes carved his name into the big baobab tree that sits proudly on top of the hill, we sipped on sodas and watched the majestic sun setting over the distant hills. As the darkness enveloped us we headed back to camp . With Jack Jacoby in the tracker seat on the vehicle, we spotted Honey Badgers, Hyena, Elephants and Wild Cat. Arriving back at camp later than expected, dinner was served, communal ablutions performed, and we were off to bed.
On Day 3 we were awoken by the sound of the beating drum – thanks to Sophie, Paige and Justice – and the deep throated sound of mating lions close to camp. Hugely excited and with a sense of anticipation, we set out to locate them before sitting down to a hearty fully cooked brunch and a riveting lecture by Adrian on the challenges and seemingly insurmountable obstacles regarding poaching. But life goes on and, watched by a troupe of Baboons, the midday Pace Bush Volleyball game continued to heat up as teams became more competitive, fully embracing nature’s law that only the fittest survive.
The afternoon saw us preparing for an adventure of a lifetime - sleeping out in the wild under the endless African sky. The instructions were simple … wear warm clothes, bring your flashlight, sleeping bag and maybe your toothbrush. That’s it. The camp staff packed food, water, a table, cutlery, cups and plates – and their rifles. And off we headed into the wilderness for an unforgettable night, sleeping on the orange hued rocks overlooking the vast, open bush veld. And so it is that this rocky area in the bushveld became our home for the night.
Moving everything from the jeep to the rocks, we picked out a spot for the night, located the nearest "bathroom bush" and settled in while a herd of buffalo and their zebra companions galloped off in disgust. The kids were assigned a two-team night watch duty throughout the night. The idea was that they’d patrol the border of the rocks and watch for approaching animals or any dangerous situation so that their companions could sleep safely. Needless to say the only people who really slept were the staff and those of us worrying about what lack of sleep does to ones face.
As the sun released her gentle morning rays on Day 4. we packed up and headed back to camp for breakfast. But oh what a surprise we had in store. The pride of lion we’d be looking for lay sleepily in the morning sun – about half an hour from where we’d set up camp for the night. What a magnificent sight! We got back to camp to find that a herd of 30 elephant had been sauntering through, eating the leaves above our tents and leaving large deposits to prove their presence.
Lunch was enthusiastically served by the lads, Jack J, Jack T, Evan,and Marc, before we readied ourselves for an afternoon outing to the Mothabaneng Village where our guide, Roger, met us to take us to see the ancient rock paintings which represent the cultural heritage of the country and depicts human and animal figures carved during the early settler period. Fascinating stuff.
It’s hard to describe the emotions we all felt as we sat at the lamp lit tables under the big old camp tree on our last night. Camp rules are that guests – starting with the ladies - serve themselves before the staff but tonight Pace Academy students, in a gesture of love and gratitude, insisted that the staff serve themselves first. A tender, heartwarming moment and testament to what outstanding youngsters these students are. It truly is astonishing what unplugging and living in the moment can do. With no electricity and and absolutely no communication with the outside world, we engaged deeply with each other and opened up to different ideas and perspectives. Evenings always brought conversation around the fire and the sharing of measured thoughts and deep feelings. And in all of this, I got a new name (Miss Elaineous), laughed until I was weak, created beautiful new friendships, and made memories that will stay with me forever. I remain so incredibly blessed to have shared this experience with these smart, curious and delightful Pace Academy students.