To say that Glen Afric Resort defied expectations would be an understatement.
What I pictured: some standard-looking resort tucked away in the highly mountainous Magaliesburg Mountain Region.
What I got: something a million times better.
For being called “the Magaliesburg Mountains” on the itinerary, this area is not very mountainous (it’s more hilly, really). The resort itself, though, is unbelievably cool—in a unique, hodge-podge kind of way.
Tons of animals roam freely on the resort grounds—giraffe, zebra, ostrich, antelope—while others (predators like lions, hyena, and even tigers) pace back and forth in enclosures on the far side of the resort, near the “chalets.” An elephant barn is visible just behind the road that takes us to our lodgments, and a horse-riding ring sits right across from the main resort building, where we’ll eat breakfast tomorrow. Looking around, we think it can’t get any cooler, but then we see where we’re sleeping.
The boys’ house (that’s right, house) is so big that when we walk in, we assume all of us are sharing. But no. Three of the boys (Nick, Kenny, and Jake) have the “Lakeview Chalet”—a cottage overlooking a hippo pond (casual)—and three of the girls (Sonia, Kaye, and I) have our own eclectic little cottage next door with a porch that overlooks the resort owner’s yard (and by yard I mean sprawling green acreage filled with horse pastures and wandering exotic animals).
Sonia, Kaye, and I settle into what will be our new home for the next few days and then race over to the boys’ cottage again to see the hippos. There’s a whole family: a big, territorial father, a mother, a youngster, and a brand new baby. They float around together, blowing bubbles and steam from their enormous nostrils. Dad grunts and throws his head around every once in a while, showing off for his new visitors. When we’ve taken enough pictures to start a coffee-table book, we head back to our chalet to get changed for dinner.
We’re waiting for the jeep that will take us up to the main building for dinner (the wandering wild animals make it necessary to be driven to and from anywhere that’s not next door) when a couple of people who work with the resort owner invite us over to see the resort owner’s baby tigers.
That’s right—baby tigers.
We, of course, accept the invitation and follow them over to a small side garden supposedly attached to the house’s foyer. There, two little cubs—covered in mud from wrestling in their water troughs—pace back and forth and tumble over each other in play.
They’re absolutely adorable, and they watch us curiously with big bright eyes as we crouch down in front of them. Chuffing, they rub up against the rubber chain link-fence like house-cats, begging for love and affection. Since we were never explicitly permitted to provide said love and affection, we force ourselves to keep our hands at our sides, watching the cubs in awe and chuffing back at them excitedly. The cubs are rescues, raised in captivity, so while I struggle with the idea of tiger cubs kept in a side garden, I can’t deny that they are incredibly well taken care of. The ladies who brought us over beam at their little ones proudly, and the tigers look up at them eagerly, chuffing with affection.
Too soon, we have to head back to our chalet so we don’t miss our transport to dinner, so we say goodbye to the cubs and profusely thank the cubs’ caretakers for making our entire day. As we make our way back to our house, we continue to gush about the cubs, grinning as we realize how jealous the rest of the gang is going to be.
We arrive at dinner and start milling around with everyone, introducing ourselves to the volunteers from the human development project who’ll be joining us for the Adventure Tour. After a rather long orientation with Graeme (our Adventure Tour leader) and the other volunteers, we eat a delicious dinner of Braii and then head back to our “chalet” to shower and hit the sack. With real water pressure and consistently hot water, I’ve got to say—that shower was like a religious experience. Before long, though, we collapse into bed, eager for tomorrow’s elephant encounter but too exhausted to hold our eyes open any longer.
Waking up the next morning is a piece of cake compared to our 6am wake-up calls at Masebe. We eat a quick breakfast up in the main resort area and then all load up in jeeps to head out to “the bush” (really just a clear area with a sprinkling of trees—still on the resort property) for our morning with the elephants.
We arrive in the little clearing and the rules are clear: don’t run around, stand at the elephants’ shoulders to touch them, don’t stand behind the elephants, and don’t stand in front of them either—they will hit you with their trunks. We’re told there will be a mom and two babies, and internally I know we all squeal excitedly at the prospect of being hit with little baby elephants’ trunks.
That is, until we see them.
Big Mama (as Jake affectionately names her) is about ten feet tall at the withers—about what one might expect of a full-grown mother elephant. The so-called babies, though? They’re seven feet at the withers (at least), with heads the size of cafe tables.
Enormity aside, all three elephants are absolutely incredible. We watch them interact together, sauntering around calmly and ripping down huge leafy branches to munch on. Apart from the rules they set out, we’re allowed to interact freely with the elephants, and we each take turns stroking their sides, their ears, their trunks. They’re so incredibly peaceful, yet with each rumbling breath you can hear the power resonating from deep in their chests.
Standing there, up next to these enormous animals—it’s unreal. Every inch of the animals is covered in stiff, wiry hairs, with each deep wrinkle like a chasm in their thick skin. Hands move across leathery ears and wrinkled shoulders, as each of us try to memorize this experience before the elephants pad away, calm but unyielding, in search of better leaves.
There’s nothing in the world like the feeling of an elephant’s trunk: the interlocking muscles contracting and stretching with each movement, the rough skin wrinkled so deeply it almost seems cracked, the power just barely evident beneath each gentle movement. The prehensile end of the trunk is like a little hand—gripping at our shoes, sniffing and feeling and memorizing. The keepers tell us each of these elephants will now remember us for eight years—eight years, after just moments together.
As the end of our interaction draws near, something suddenly catches the attention of one of the baby girls—a giraffe, looking onto our activities curiously. The not-so-baby elephant charges at our spectator, trumpeting and kicking up dust and flapping her ears protectively. She mock charges again and again, trampling trees and bushes as the giraffe runs away a little at a time. Once the giraffe has sufficiently backed off, the baby elephant comes thundering back proudly to rejoin her mother, who sniffs her all over, checking for injuries. Content in her good health, the mother returns to the leaves and her babies join her as we—sadly—load back up in the jeeps to head back to the main resort area. Our elephant encounter has come to an end and though we’re sad to go, none of us can stop smiling at the morning we’ve just had.