By Illana Strauss DillonIt is raining today. In an area, which has for some time now been stricken with a severe drought, this rain is grace from God. Driving along the N2 between Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown late afternoon. I'm watching the rain fall on the ground and I imagine the intense relief washing over the earth and the savannah bushveld, taking in every last drop of moisture. I smile with nature, happy for her, and I'm excited. The girls are asleep in the back of the car and we are almost there.Six five kilometres after Port Elizabeth, we take the turn-off towards Paterson on the R342 and travel 7km up the gravel road. We arrive at the first gate, destined for Riverdene Lodge. The gatekeeper comes running out in the pouring rain with a friendly "Welcome to Shamwari!" He points us to the direction of Riverdene and wishes us a pleasant stay.We take the leisurely drive a few kilometres along the dirt road to the lodge. Before we even come to a stop, we are welcomed at our vehicle with umbrellas and gigantic smiles, assisted with our luggage and escorted into the warm and cosy reception lounge, where a delicious fair for the customary high tea awaits us.After tea, we are shown to our room, a beautiful colonial style and spacious retreat, with two cots for the girls bearing welcome gifts of complimentary fleecy blankets and a cuddly rhino each to keep them company for sleepy time. From our patio, it's a few steps over the lawn to the outside dining area and its beautiful rim flow pool. The surrounding bushveld stretches out wide and distant.I try to be still for a moment, to just take it all in, to listen to the sounds of the bush. I am briskly whisked away from my thoughts. My daughter Hannah had heard about a special place for kids on the reserve and is tugging my arm, "Mommy, can we pleeease go to the kids room now?" So off we go to explore the Lodge.The supervised playroom is a godsend. My husband Carl and I are eager to embark on our first game drive and have a little time on our own. We are, after all, not merely parents to these budding little explorers of ours. We leave the kids, happily engrossed in their crafty activities, and set off to meet our ranger. His name is Sipho and he has been assigned to our family for the duration of our stay.He is kind and friendly with a good natured character. He has great stories to tell and is eager to escort us on our adventure, to show us the countless wild animals roaming the reserve. We drive off into the bushveld and once again the clouds come floating in. No longer to bear rain, but to add colour to the sunset sky.Sipho's knowledge and enthusiasm are clear and infectious as he tells us about Shamwari. Steeped in pioneer history, and dating back to the time when a multitude of game roamed wild and free, the 25 000 hectare reserve is home to Africa's Big 5 (elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard). Sipho asks what we would like to see and, of course, nothing is left off the list. We want to experience it all.Tonight, it is late, it is getting dark swiftly and we are missing the kids. So we cut the drive a bit short, yet Sipho manages to show us several animals, including elephant, rhino, giraffe, wildebeest, blesbok, waterbuck, kudu and a hippo - running on land (which is unusual and exciting to see).At Riverdene we are treated like royalty. We fetch the kids from the playroom (they didn't even seem to notice we were gone), and make our way to the dining room, where the superbly laid table is accompanied by a dinner service for kids. The food is delicious and the children's menu perfectly designed for young palates. The waiting staff, as all the staff, is exceptionally courteous. We enjoy our dessert and sherry in the lounge and then take the kids to bed. I can't wait for tomorrow.The morning game drive typically starts off at 6am. We are so excited about the activities planned for the day so getting up early is easy. It's chilly and we are all adorned in warm jackets, beanies and scarves. Sipho has arranged for our coffee and some snacks to get us energised and ready to go. The drive is terrific. Sipho, though cautious of our safety (and in particular that of the children), skilfully manages to find us all we wanted to see and more, including a leopard with her cub. If we had seen nothing else here, we would be content to have had a moment in the presence of such a rare and precious sight.Unperturbed by our insistent desire to see more, Sipho's passion for the animals and the work done here at Shamwari is equalled by his ability in tracking them down. After the leopard and her cub, we have the blissful experience of seeing lion, elephant, white and black rhinos, hippos, giraffe, wildebeest, a variety of antelope and more. The girls are enthralled. Wide eyed and alert, they scour the bush for an opportunity to come across another sighting. I watch them and unwittingly the words from the theme song to The Lion King come into my head:From the day we arrive on the planet And blinking, step into the sun There's more to see than can ever be seen More to do than can ever be done There's far too much to take in here More to find than can ever be found But the sun rolling high Through the sapphire sky Keeps great and small on the endless round...Just before we left this morning, Hannah received a "Kids on safari" backpack, given to children four years and up when they come to Shamwari. Amongst other things, the bag contains a field book with pockets to collect things, and there Sipho and Hannah are - discussing elephant and rhino dung, the leaves from the Acacia and Spekboom trees, what a giraffe eats, the elephants' favourite food. Already she can't wait to share her newfound knowledge with her friends and teachers from her playschool. Sipho has gained in her a true friend and devoted fan.After a delicious breakfast, while Carl and Georgia enjoy some down time at the lodge, Sipho takes Hannah and I to visit the Shamwari Wildlife Hospital. Here, different types of wild animals or raptors are being cared for under special supervision by the Shamwari veterinarian team, for release back into the wild. We meet Kuma, a striking leopard rescued from West Africa. He stares at us with piercing eyes that seem to gaze right into your soul.Recovering from a broken femur, he is patiently waiting to return to the Born Free Foundation, now his home. Along with the other kids, Hannah gets a chance to bottle-feed the baby zebra, called Zoey. In her element, I believe she will never forget this experience. At the Shamwari Film Studio, the kids are given a preview of the Shamwari - a wild life series. It gives viewers the chance to "live the African dream" as they follow the amazing work of a very special groupof people who call Shamwari both work and home.Their office is 45,000 acres of pristine wilderness, teeming with the world's most incredible animals. Their houses are surrounded by electric fences - it's the only way to keep the lions and elephants out. Caught in the middle of elephant stand-offs, rhino sandwiches, stampeding wildebeest, leaping leopards and high flying lions, it's a job where just one mistake can cost them their life, but that's all in a days work for the team at Shamwari. On the drive back to the lodge, Hannah rests her head on my arm while inattentively playing with her new bracelet that Sipho made from the bark of the Acacia tree. One more gift to cherish.The four of us unite again for lunch - it's a gorgeous day, so our meals are served by the pool - and afterward we're off again, this time to visit the world famous Born Free Foundation. A joint venture between Shamwari Game Reserve and The Born Free Foundation, UK, the Animal Rescue and Education Centre provides long term care for rescued African cats that have been subjected to inhumane conditions, and provides an education resource for visitors, school children and students. Thanks to the generosity of the family and friends of young naturalist, Julie Ward, tragically killed in Kenya, an education centre was built here in her memory.This allows children to learn about their wildlife and about the suffering wildlife can endure in captivity. From small beginnings, the Born Free Foundation has grown into a global force for wildlife. Described by The Times as 'Big enough to make a difference, but small enough to care,' Born Free is not a big anonymous organisation, but a family of like-minded people who share the same goals. Their work to prevent individual animal suffering, protect threatened species and keep wildlife in the wild sets them apart from the rest.From small beginnings, the Born Free Foundation has grown into a global force for wildlife. Described by The Times as 'Big enough to make a difference, but small enough to care,' Born Free is not a big anonymous organisation, but a family of like-minded people who share the same goals. Their work to prevent individual animal suffering, protect threatened species and keep wildlife in the wild sets them apart from the rest. Born Free never forgets the individual. Every animal counts.Their emergency teams rescue vulnerable animals from appalling lives of misery in tiny cages and give them lifetime care at spacious sanctuaries. The bush enclosures at Shamwari give the lions and leopards the space and privacy they so desperately need.Visitors are confined to one viewing platform at each camp and the cats now have the choice whether they can be seen or not. We are lucky. In the stillness of the bush, only a few hushed whispers to be heard, the leopard approaches us. We stare at him in sudden silence. He doesn't seem to care about our presence, or our desire to be near him. He is oblivious to our need to stay there for as long as possible, just to gaze upon his being. He is now free to live and we are captivated by him.Sadly, the morning of our departure arrives. With heavy hearts, we pack our things and plan the long route back home. As we leave the front door, Hannah suddenly drops her backpack and runs outside, "Sipho! It's Sipho!" As she reaches him, she leaps up and he catches her, the two of them clinched in a bear hug. She gives him a big kiss and says goodbye and as we wave at him I think of what he has meant to us. He is Shamwari, our friend...
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