A year ago I visited South Africa, where I retraced my formative years in that country (see Seals and Sharks, Finding Cape Town, Johannesburg Then and Now, Fortress Jo’Burg and The New Jo’burg).
But there was also the grand finale of that trip – “A Safari in Africa” with family and friends. One of those iconic things right at the top of most people’s travel bucket lists. Certainly, it was on mine.
So how was it?
Well, in a word, magical. In three short days we got to see more wildlife, up close and personal, than I ever thought possible. Including my very own “Big Five” – a sighting of each of buffalo, rhino, elephant, lion and leopard – five animals grouped together as being the ultimate quintet of African wildlife, not for their size, but for their danger. Back in the day when killing animals for fun was a thing, these were supposedly the five most difficult animals to hunt on foot. Although nowadays merely spotting the Big Five and snapping a few photos of them has become the Safari Holy Grail.
Here’s how it happened for me.
We landed in a remote bush town an hour’s flight north-east of Johannesburg. It felt like we had arrived in a weird safari-themed amusement park: the airport was a shack on the side of a dusty runway; the air was hot; open-top 4WD vehicles with pictures of lions and elephants on the side were lined up to collect new arrivals; everyone who wasn’t a tourist was wearing a safari suit.
We met our driver and set off on the long drive to the safari camp. We drove for miles through scrubby bush. To our left, running continually besides the road, was a high wire fence. This, our driver explained, formed the boundary of the Kruger National Park, which along with abutting private game reserves forms one of the largest wildlife sanctuaries in Africa, wedged between South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
I stared at the fence as we drove, and thought: how amazing that more than a hundred years ago there were those who had the foresight to fence off an area roughly the size of Israel, for the sole purpose of creating a safe place where animals could roam wild, free of threat from humans.
As if to prove the point, just then we saw a family of giraffes, grazing on treetops on the animal’s side of the fence. Next to them was a herd of buffalo – about twenty in total. Some of the bigger ones were loafing in the shade cast by trees, while others were grazing on the low grass. A couple were lying down in the mud and dust alongside the fence.
We stopped the car. I got out of the jeep and walked towards the animals. They noticed me approaching, but showed absolutely no interest, much less any sign of alarm, and instead just continued their nonchalant chewing. As I trained my camera on the biggest of the buffalos, he lifted his head up and eye-balled me with a fair amount of disdain, as if to say: “who the fuck do you think you are, sonny, waving that thing around in my face? Go ahead, take your photo, but don’t piss me off, or I might make a lunchtime snack out of your head”.
And in the background I could hear our guide saying more or less the same thing: “On this side of the fence is the world you know – roads and houses and people are in charge. But on the other side of the fence, animals rule. There you are in their world. Don’t forget it”.
Elephant & Rhino
An hour later we arrived at the lodge. It was late afternoon, and the rest of our party, who’d arrived earlier, had already headed out – the best times to see wildlife on safari is early morning and dusk. So we were quickly loaded into a 4WD, and sent out to join the group.
Immediately the creature spotting carnival began. Three minutes after leaving the lodge we came across a large herd of impala, grazing under some trees. Their heads all snapped upright in unison as we got near, and our approach must have startled them because within seconds they scattered, bouncing away in the same direction as if guided by an invisible radar signal.
Next our guide pointed out the vultures – half a dozen or so of them – perched on the branches of the trees above us, watching intently lest one of us keel over and inadvertently become dinner. And moments after that we came across a small herd of zebra. They were crossing the vehicle track, so we stopped to let them pass. Again, I was struck by how little concern these animals appeared to show at the presence of a jeep-load of camera-toting homo-sapiens.
“Elephant”, our guide whispered as he pointed into the bush. My eyes immediately tracked to that spot, and where before there had only been branches and leaves, now a shape appeared. A towering bull elephant was coming towards us, all wrinkly and grey, with a pair of giant white tusks protruding out from either side of his swinging trunk. He stopped every few yards to pull some leaves or bark off a tree, to shovel into his mouth. We could hear the fierce tearing sound as he ripped through the foliage, and we could hear the thud and feel the vibrations caused by his massive feet as he slammed them down.
Within a minute he was right in front of us. He was so close I could hear the chewing sound as he ground up the leaves in his mouth; I could see the individual hairs on his eye-lashes. Being so close to this giant I felt really small, and simply sat there in a humbled silence.
Not so my younger brother, however, who had out his video camera and was filming the whole encounter, accompanying his footage with some faux documentary-style commentary of his own invention: “…. and here we have a magnificent beast, an elephant of majestic stature, surveying his kingdom…..”
Perhaps Mr Elephant did not approve of the scripting, because without warning he turned his head to face us directly, made a loud bellowing sound, flapped his ears, and charged three steps towards us. All I can say is that the sight and sound of a giant elephant barrelling through the bush directly at you is downright terrifying. My bro dropped his camera in panic. Everyone else on the jeep gasped.
But our guide, in a calm and measured voice, told us to sit still and do nothing, as this was simply a macho territorial display on the elephant’s part. So we did as we were told (it was not like we had all that many other options). And indeed, when he was almost within arm’s reach the elephant stopped his charge, and fiercely stared at us. Then, after a few seconds of this face-off, he bellowed again, turned his back on us, and lumbered off into the bush.
We had barely started breathing again when the guide’s CB radio crackled to life. One of the other jeeps had spotted some rhinos feeding at a watering hole. So we sped over to that location and sure enough, there they were: two rhinos, massive creatures with single horns rising up distinctly from their snouts. They too barely gazed up as we approached.
By now the sun was below the horizon, and as the daylight faded the sounds of insects and birds intensified, and the shadows cast on the surface of the water stretched out into lengthy shimmery shapes. All the while the rhinos continued their waterfront dinner, visible now only as two solid silhouettes. I never thought I would say this in connection with a pair of feeding rhinos, but it was actually pretty romantic, and we sat there transfixed until it was completely dark and we couldn’t see the rhinos anymore. Then we headed back to camp.
Playing chicken with a charging bull elephant; watching the sunset on a pair of rhinos in love at a watering hole; seeing three of the Big Five in one afternoon. Been there, done that.
Of the Big Five, the leopard is supposedly the hardest to come across. During the daytime leopards tend to hang out up a tree, and at the best of times they are solitary creatures. Plus they’re incredibly wary of humans, thanks to us having destroyed much of their natural habitat, not to mention having hunted them to near extinction. So we pretty much expected that we wouldn’t get to see one.
But then, on the second afternoon, while watching some hippos wallow in a muddy lake, our guide got a call on the CB. A leopard had been spotted, not too far away. Five minutes of high-speed bush driving later and we arrived at a vast open plain of tall grass. The leopard was apparently slowly making its way across the plain.
Except we were not exactly alone.
You see, the prospect of a date with this leopard had brought about ten other jeeps hurtling through the bush as well. So now there was a veritable traffic jam. The drivers of the various jeeps were barking at each other on their radios, partly to keep an eye on the leopard, but mainly to ensure that leopard-viewing privileges were being fairly shared. So we sat there idling for about 25 minutes, while each jeep in the queue ahead of us got a few minutes of leopard time. It felt not so much like an African safari, and a lot more like being on a busy airplane runway, waiting for take-off.
But then our turn came, the driver inched the jeep forward, and in an instant, everything else was forgotten. Because there in the long grass, fifteen feet or so away from us, was the leopard, her yellow and black spots almost perfectly camouflaging her into the surroundings. She was moving parallel to the vehicle track, so for a few minutes we were able to roll alongside her as she walked.
Although “walk” is the wrong word, because leopards in their natural habitat do not look like they are walking. Rather, it looks a lot like they are floating through the grass. They have this incredibly smooth, gliding motion, that seems so effortless you’d barely notice anything if it wasn’t being pointed out. Apart from maybe a slight rustling of the grass, like a breath of wind passing through.
It was all so beautiful to see, and just when it seemed like it couldn’t get any better, the leopard turned toward us. Then she lifted her head up and like a big old pussycat opened her mouth into a big, lazy yawn.
A dozen cameras immediately fired in unison, capturing the magic of that moment forever. But Madam Leopard didn’t seem to notice or care, and with a swish of her tail she slunk back into the grass, and continued her afternoon stroll under the big blue African sky.
In the late afternoon of our last day on safari, as we were making our way back to the lodge, our guide got a call on the radio. A pride of lions was on the move. He turned and asked if we could be bothered trying to see them, as it would be a half hour (and extremely bumpy) drive to where the lions were, by which time it would be completely dark, and the lions may have moved on anyway.
Of course we said yes. So after a seriously harrowing drive in pitch black, we came to an unpaved dirt track, where two other jeeps were already parked. Their headlights were on, creating a crescent of light, and in which a family of lions was basking like seals in the sun. There was a big male with a huge shaggy mane, four lithe females, and a dozen or so little lion cubs rolling about in the dirt, playing and fighting. It was quite the scene, and I couldn’t help thinking that the only things missing were Zazu, Timon and Pumba.
It got better. After about ten minutes of watching “the human show”, the lions evidently got bored. The females got up, stretched lazily, and then simply sauntered off down the dark bush track. The cubs all quickly followed suit, and eventually big Daddy lion got up and followed along as well. We followed too, so that for the next few minutes we formed a lion-human convoy, the light from the jeep illuminating the pride of lions ahead of us. The cubs toddled along, entirely indifferent to our presence. They looked cute and adorable beyond belief. Their mums kept guard, occasionally letting out a low, grumbly roar.
After a while someone noticed that the big male lion had disappeared. “He has probably gone off into the bush, hunting”, our guide explained. “Sometimes the males like to circle back through the bush and sneak up on the jeep!” he added with a wicked smile on his face. Clearly, he was teasing us, but everyone in the jeep, myself included, turned around to look behind us. Of course there was nothing there, apart from the dust being kicked up into the inky black darkness.
Still, for good measure my uncle turned on his torch and swung it behind us. And with the benefit of light we could see that right there – and I mean literally right there, so close any of us could have reached out and stroked his mane – was the male lion. As as the torch lit up his face, he opened his mouth wide and let out an almighty, ear-splitting roar.
Now on television, I am sure this incredible moment would have been described as “powerful”, “awe-inspiring”, or “regal”. But let me tell you that having a wild lion roar at full volume not three feet away from your head is kind of scary. I for one almost pee-ed myself.
I guess it was I guess a pretty fitting ending to our Big Five quest though, and we returned to camp that night dusty, tired, but incredibly happy. Although it did take a few hours before my legs stopped shaking.
There are lots of times in life where reality fails to live up to expectation, but an African Safari is not one of them. No matter how many hundreds of nature books you’ve read since childhood, no matter how many zoo visits you’ve made, no matter how many hours of National Geographic Channel you’ve racked up – nothing will ever prepare you for the experience of seeing African animals in their natural habitat.
It is uplifting, and inspirational, and guaranteed to take your breath away. Especially if you are lucky enough to get charged by a macho bull elephant. Or snuck up on in the dark by a lion.
(Special thanks to my cousin, David Miller, for the amazing photos).