“The most exciting thing that ever happened to me,” our guide relates as we sit on a wooden terrace enjoying what’s termed as a ‘light African snack,’ “was having a rhino charge at our truck at full speed and smash up against the front dash.”
It is a warm, breezy morning in Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and Mike and I have signed up (and paid extra) for a 3-hour VIP tour of this newest of Disney attractions. The Wild African Trek has had us up before dawn and in what can only be called battle gear by nine o’clock. Since then we have climbed forested paths, looked over cliffsides to watch a pod of hippos snacking, and crossed a swaying, gap-floored rope bridge over a half dozen (very) large crocodiles lying open-jawed in the sun.
“It was raining like mad,” our guide is saying, “and I guess the rhino thought we were poaching on his preserves.” What happened? We asked. “He stopped, we stopped, and he just walked off,” he grins. “If you are ever chased by a rhino, just stop. He figures what to do next by what YOU do. If he thinks you are not a threat, he will lose interest.”
When we first told our friends that we were going to visit Disney World without our grandchildren, their reaction was to stare at us. “You’re kidding,” our friends exclaimed. “Disney has to be seen through a kid’s eyes.”
For many of the theme parks, this is true. Yesterday we wandered through the MagicKingdom and boarded a fast track pass to the Pirates Of the Caribbean whilst listening to the squeals of happy toddlers. Later, in an unseasonable cold evening, we ate at a restaurant where Pooh Bear and Eyore (my favorite character) came up to hug us and take photos with us. It was fun—but nostalgic fun, harkening back to days when we brought our own sons to Mouseland some thirty five years ago. Even when we caught our breath to see Cinderella’s Castle glowing against the dark sky in winter silver and palest mauve, we were still caught up in yesteryear’s dream.
But the Animal Kingdom, though its rides and thrills are for youngsters, has an aura of its own. Today we have watched animals great and small both in their native habitats and free in those habitats. Giraffes, elegant and poised with their so-long necks and gentle faces, walk across the road without harm or hindrance; cheetahs lie carelessly asleep in the sun by the roadside, and a trio of rhinos feed peacefully in another corner of the vast savannah. And of course there were zebras as well.
“Do you know,” says our guide, “that zebra mothers, when they are about to give birth, will make sure that all other zebras stay at least half a mile away? Then, when the baby comes, she will look deeply into the eyes of her newborn. That way, she imprints on it. Zebras look very much alike, you see.”
We have heard a wealth of information today, and we have seen species that are being lost as we speak in the wild. We have watched beautiful animals that have been poached or hunted until nearly extinct. We have heard about cheetahs being saved by dogs. Cheetahs, our guide tells us, were considered predators by African farmers because they fed on their herds. To counter this, Andalusian Shepherd dogs were imported to watch and round up flocks. The big dogs scared away the cheetahs and so– “It was a win-win situation and dogs saved cats from being killed off!”
We have finished our gourmet African snacks and spend a few more minutes watching a baby giraffe playing in the sun. Then we are off again, on a truck this time, to watch elephants grazing. Elephants, we are told, are sometimes destructive because of their size. They are discouraged from marauding by—of all things—bees! “Elephants are really scared of bees. Maybe it’s because of their ears or trunks. Bee hives help farmers by giving honey, too,” our guide remarks as the big elephant tosses dust over its great gray flank.
By the time we are finished with our morning’s adventure, we are tired and happy and wiser than we were before. For though this enormous expanse is given to fun and pleasure, it is also a place for thought and contemplation of the environment, of the richness of our planet, and of our place in that vast and forever turning circle of life.
“We don’t say goodbye, in Swahili,” we are told as we thank our guides. “We say kwaheri, which means, ‘go well.’”