GSO Day Ten: Even the Stars are Different

Posted on January 31st, 2012 by

Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight……

The Gustavus Symphony Orchestra, Sun City Amphitheatre, Pilansburg, South Africa

The Gustavus Symphony Orchestra, Sun City Amphitheatre, Pilansburg, South Africa

As the Gustavus Symphony Orchestra returned to Bakgatla Resort on the Pilansburg Game Reserve following its final South African concert on January 30, the stars were brilliant. The resort is, to be polite, a bit removed from the bright city lights of Johannesburg. The moon had already set and there was little artificial lighting in the area to obscure the night sky. The stars were brilliant against the black night. Both students and members of the Companion Tour were sitting around the pool or on the patios near the chalets looking into the night sky.

The Symphony’s day opened with our departure from Johannesburg and the ride north to the Pilansburg Game Reserve. The view along the way was a green savannah, covered with short trees, that we expect all of Africa to be. We could imagine the wildlife hidden in the bush but we couldn’t imagine the afternoon we were soon to experience.

Under a very bright sky with temps in the 90s, we loaded into open, 20-passenger Jeeps for the our safari into the reserve. Covering nearly 220 square miles, the reserve is the site of an ancient volcano and home to nearly every mammal that is indigenous to the African continent, including the Big Five: lions, leopards, elephants, black and white rhino and water buffalo.

As we ventured into the bush, our driver Temba offered an introduction on what we may or may not see and it wasn’t long before we spotted our first impala, followed quickly by zebra and wildebeest. A message on Temba’s radio pointed us toward our first black rhino some distance away from the vehicle but still close enough to see the size of animal and our first elephants — also some distance away and also very large. Over the next hour we spotted giraffe, water buffalo, springbok, warthogs, kudu, and red heart beast as we scanned the heavy brush on both sides of the vehicle. Each time someone pointed to another find, Temba stopped the Jeep and turned off the motor to give everyone a chance to take photos before moving on.

Pilansburg Game Reserve

Pilansburg Game Reserve

At one point we rounded a corner and encountered a very large bull elephant on the narrow road not more than 50 yards in front of us. Temba backed slowly away from the giant mammal and turned the Jeep around as he explained, “That elephant can run faster forward than I can back up and I don’t know if he’s happy to see us.” As we watched in awe, the massive creature turned off the road into bush and walked past our vehicle. He didn’t appear to be too concerned about us as he ripped entire branches off of the short trees and moved further into bush.

Later in our journey, Temba took us to a lake in the middle of the reserve and an area to view hippos. While we stood in the hot sun watching and snapping photos, the hippos were standing, nearly covered, in the water. From the boardwalk we could see a large number of birds in or near the water including egrets, ibis, spoonbills, red bishops and even a masked weaver working on it woven, hanging nest. The reserve’s wildlife seemed to be more active as we turned back to the main road. Herds of impala and zebra were nearly close enough to touch. A pair of white rhinos and giraffe grazed just 50 feet away.

We made our way back to the resort to prepare for the final South African concert at Sun City. Once again the Symphony performed well for a small but enthusiastic audience. A number of young music students from a nearby school were in the audience and enjoyed a conversation with Conductor Ruth Lin as she introduced the four movements of Leroy Anderson’s Alma Mater. Retired music professors (and members of the Companion Tour) Helen & Paul Baumgartner received an ovation from the audience and the Symphony as Dr. Lin acknowledged them on their 57th anniversary and dedicated Edward MacDowell’s “To a Wild Rose” to them. As with each concert, the final chords of John Williams’ Star Wars Suite for Orchestra brought the audience to its feet.

An excerpt from tonight’t performance of “To A Wild Rose.”

After a final load-out of the equipment, the Gusties headed back to Bakgatla Resort, its final concert completed and the South African Tour coming to a close. Tired but happy with the evening’s concert, the members of the Symphony thought back on the past ten days headed into the African bush and the beauty of the African night sky.

It has been a long journey since the Symphony and the Companions left Minnesota and landed in Cape Town. Ten exciting, emotional, exhausting and memorable days. It will take much longer than ten days to absorb all that we have seen and heard. Together we have explored much of the region surrounding Cape Town and Johannesburg. Together we have created memories that will last a lifetime. Together we discovered how much we have in common with the people of South Africa. And together we have made new friends and brought music to those we met along the way. Hopefully we have made a difference in some lives.

Our adventure together will continue as we make our way on to Pretoria for a final day and then home to go our separate ways. Our common adventure has brought us together and introduced us to the people and the land of South Africa. Our common adventure will always connect us to each other and to the people of South Africa.

On a warm night, some summer evening, after the sun and the moon have set, we’ll look up into the darkness of our sky and remember the night sky above the African savannah on a game reserve in northern South Africa.

The stars do look different from this side of the world. But not so different.

The Gustavus Symphony Orchestra, Sun City Amphitheatre, Pilansburg, South Africa

The Gustavus Symphony Orchestra, Sun City Amphitheatre, Pilansburg, South Africa



  1. Olivia's Aunt Devawn says:

    Thank you for the fabulous recounting of your daily adventures. It’s a pleasure to read.

  2. Andrew Evans '11 says:

    Al – I enjoyed reading the GSO blog over the last few days! Sounds like you all had an awesome time! I was brought back to the amazing experience with GWO not so long ago, and I’m sure the students of GSO had an equally powerful experience. I’m proud to be able to call myself a Gustie when I read stories of fellow musicians! Hope everyone returns home safely!

    P.S. – I look forward to seeing all of the photos from the tour — what an extraordinary opportunity for the photographer!!

  3. Mim Kagol says:

    Al, your commentary and pictures (Anders, too) are wonderful. A friend who checked it out told me she was deeply moved by both as well as by the whole GSO travel experience. Thanks for your good work!

  4. Georgina says:

    I agree, the commentary & photographs are excellent!

  5. Kathy, Larry, and Stephanie LaFayette says:

    What an adventure! Thanks for all the updates and the videos – Welcome Home !

  6. Tabbi says:

    Al, thanks to your kindness to share with us all of your really lovely pictures and experiences throughout the entire GSO experience in the so loved by me continent of Africa, we all become commited to your cause of making change in people lives. I am sure that it will take so much more time for you to take in every single imrpession or experienced you gained, while exploring South Africa. Thanks again for your kindness to share it all with us!