I’ve been thinking today – I know, I should have stopped myself before I the rubber inside my head started burning – that it has been 10 years since I’ve been in the Middle East. But more to that point, it got me thinking back to my first few weeks in Saudi Arabia, where I knew absolutely no one and I was put up in a hotel owned by my company until they found me other accommodation to live in. I lived in that hotel for about a month, or until the end of August. I was one of only 5 people staying in the hotel, and only a few people who lived in the massive villas on the same compound actually ventured into the restaurants there, so I pretty much had any seat I wanted in the restaurants when I was spending my per diem.
I arrived in Saudi only weeks from my 36th birthday, and here I sit today, only weeks from my 46th birthday. I would have put all of my life savings (which probably would have bought you a nice bicycle at a yard sale) on me returning home before my 38th birthday. I would have lost that bet and the chance to buy that sweet sweet bicycle. Man, such a shame too cause I can see it now – a dusty grey colour with adjustable but uncomfortable seat. It would have 21 speeds but I’d never put it out of 9th gear for some reason. Heavier than the really nice bikes, but it would be mine, and I would ride it all the time, or twice, because that’s just how I do things. So, after 10 years here, I have lost the bet and the bike.
I spent my 36th birthday having dinner by myself in the seafood restaurant in the hotel. It was their buffet night, and this boy can put back a lot of food – especially seafood. I got Pong, the waiter, to put a sparkler on my dessert for me at the end of my meal. Then he and a couple of the other waiters sung happy birthday for me. I won’t lie, it was weird, but oddly very nice as well. I had a Diet Pepsi as well, because on this compound you couldn’t even find the home brew beverages that expats in Saudi are famous for. But I didn’t mind. It was just one of those things. And if I can boast for a minute, the sushi was really good. Seriously, you all missed out on that one.
My birthday falls on a Tuesday this year, and unlike 10 years ago, it is one I’m looking forward to. I don’t normally get excited about birthdays. Okay, last year for my 45th I did manage to get a bunch of people together for drinks and I wore a t-shirt of me wearing a t-shirt of me (yes you read that correctly), but birthdays are usually just another day. I’m averse to accepting presents as well, although there are several people in my life who wantonly disregard that aversion. But who am I to tell them not to get me anything if that is something they want to do? I’m pretty much the same at Christmas as well. However, if anyone was to feel like splurging and buying me that sweet sweet bicycle, I would probably sport a smile for an hour or two afterwards. You know, I’m just throwing it out into the blogosphere and seeing what happens.
Tuesday 15 August, while nearly 2 billion people of Indian heritage are rejoicing for my birthday (or their independence, whichever celebration story you believe), I will be waking up early (although funnily enough, later than I would in Dubai if you factor in the time difference), to go on my last game drive at nThambo Tree Camp in the Klaserie Reserve. While most of the people surrounding me will be strangers, I will also be with a great friend and fellow safari nut Kim, one of those people who feels like they have to buy presents. It’s who she is. This will be the last of our eight drives on this reserve. Hopefully by then we’ll have seen the massive herd of elephants we want to, but it wouldn’t be the end of the birthday if we didn’t.
Upon returning to the lodge for breakfast, we’ll have just enough time to pack up our gear, say some farewells to other guests, before shuttling off about 40 miles through the African bush to another reserve, the Timbavati, famous for being the only place in the world where white lions are found in the wild. It is rumoured that all white lions in the world, even the ones in captivity, can trace their ancestry back to the wilds of the Timbavati. I’ve heard conflicting reports about how many white lions are left – anywhere from one to nine, so I’m not holding my breath or anything. Another guide once said that “leopards fall out of trees in the Timbavati”, and since I’ve never seen a tiger in the wild, I will soak up all of the graceful beauty that this gorgeous cat has to offer. Without doubt, the leopard is by far the most beautiful animal I have seen in the wild. And I once met Angelina Jolie … insert your own comments here.
When we arrive at Shindzela Bush Camp we’ll have four nights and eight drives to look forward to, including a night drive on my birthday. I love the night drive when out in the bush. You start off in the afternoon, the sun still bright but dipping quickly. Even in the winter months, as it is now, the animals are considerably more active at this time. Although funnily enough, of all the leopards I have seen on safari, none of them have been on the night drive. Hmmm!? As the sun sinks, the guide and tracker will find a spot, sometimes near a large waterhole, sometimes on a plateau overlooking the bush around you, and they’ll set up a table and put some snacks out as you all enjoy a beverage you’ve ordered from the bar earlier on. You stand there, perhaps talking to each other, perhaps just watching the sun, or if you’re lucky, watching as a herd of buffalo come down to the water to drink. Whatever it is, getting to do a sundowner on my birthday is pretty damn cool.
As the last of the gear is packed away, you climb back into the jeep and head off again, the tracker (if there is one), sitting on a seat on the hood of the jeep, a spotlight scanning the trees and bushes for anything. The first sight of eye shine peering back is exhilarating. And when they spot the “glow” of a chameleon as you quickly pass by, you wonder how they do it. And if you get lucky and you find a leopard with his dinner, well then, congratulations, you’ve done something I haven’t done yet.
So that’ll be my 46th birthday. Way better than my 36th. I can’t remember my 26th, but I’m betting it was nothing as epic as my 46th promises to be. And even though it isn’t my place to say, Kim celebrates her birthday on the safari as well. I’m sure there will be a story to tell on return.