This morning we woke up with the knowledge that we’d soon be headed on safari. Awareness and having ideas about events to come is one thing, actually experiencing them is another. We could not imagine what we were going to experience today.
We gathered our ever-expanding luggage, took our malaria pills, and embarked on our fourth flight of the trip. We flew directly from Cape Town to Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport.
We were excited to start the next leg of our trip. We were greeted by our transfer guide who informed us it would be an hour and a half drive to the game reserve. After all the traveling we’d been doing, receiving notice of the forthcoming hour and a half drive was a bit of a bummer initially. As it turned out, the drive to the game reserve was fascinating, educational, and the perfect transition into the bush.
The landscape and views are a sharp contrast to Cape Town. There is no sign of a city in sight and the pace definitely feels slower. The land is lush and green during this time of year, the rainy season. It’s a very different perspective of Africa, a reminder of how large and magnificent this continent is. This is further pronounced considering, thus far, we’ve only been in the southern hemisphere and we’ve already experienced so much diversity.
We drove past several villages. The “electronics store” on the side of the road was showcasing an old Zenith TV alongside a VCR. From our perspective it looked more like an antique store, but here in the bush those items are high-tech. The barber shop consisted of an E-Z UP tent, four plastic lawn chairs, and two men awaiting customers. Children were playing outside. People seemed to be constantly interacting with one another, smiling, and walking along the roads.
All the people I saw popping in and around the various villages were with at least one other person. Community seems to be very important here. It looked and felt as though people were at ease, genuinely enjoying their lives and the company of those they were with. Even people who were working in the heat of the day, transporting goods from town back to the villages in wheelbarrows or atop their heads, were smiling.
We learned there are three tribes in the area, each speaks a distinct language that the others cannot understand. “Everybody knows who’s in which village – where people come from” our guide informed us. It didn’t appear as if there were any street signs in the villages we passed. People are familiar with the dirt roads, their neighbors, and members of nearby villages.
When we pulled up at the entrance to the game lodge, we were stopped for verification – a process which took several minutes. There has been a severe problem with rhino poachers in the area so security is exceptionally strict.
The moment we stepped out of the van, onto the grounds of Lion Sands, I felt extreme peace. The air is spacious and calm. The bush doesn’t just look vast, it feels vast – wide open. The only sounds I heard were birds, a vervet monkey rustling in the trees, and the sound of the Sabie River rushing by.
We were greeted by the wonderful staff of Lion Sands who further reinforced the calm atmosphere, handing us lavender washcloths for our faces.
We were taken through orientation and lodge safety. The staff was quick to point out that there are no fences separating us from the wildlife. The animals are free to roam around the property as well as into and out of the neighboring reserves. There is to be no walking alone after sunset. Somebody will escort us to and from our room following the afternoon game drives and before and after dinner.
We were shown to our rooms and told to meet back in an hour for our first game drive. The room is beautiful. The wall facing the river is made entirely of sliding glass doors, reinforcing the “middle of the wilderness” feeling. We were reminded to ensure the screen doors remain locked. “The monkeys are very clever and if they get into your room, they will do some redecorating,” we were told.
The sunken bathtub, rainforest shower and double-sinks are welcome amenities. There are no shared walls – each room is a free standing bungalow. The individual wooden walkway leading to the front door makes it feel as if you’re arriving home.
We opened the bottle of champagne in the minibar and celebrated our arrival. The curious voices of friends were swimming in my head, “Will you be staying in tents??” they asked before I departed for Africa. The juxtaposition of that question and the spa-like room coincided with our champagne toast.
At four o’clock we met up with our group and were introduced to our guide, Landon. Landon has been a guide for twelve years, working at Lion Sands for nine. Landon introduced us to our tracker, Eddie. Eddie grew up in the area and has extensive practical, as well as intuitive, experience spotting animals. I asked Landon how the past few days of viewing had been. “It’s been a bit quiet” he said, noting the previous rainy days.
There are no guarantees on safari. The land is expansive, there are no fences constraining the animals into any one area. They are free to roam across thousands of hectares . Furthermore, weather conditions can be unpredictable. The bush is particularly thick this time of year due to the rains, making it more difficult to spot wildlife.
We set out in an amazing vehicle, capable of traversing all types of terrain. I was immediately struck by how many species of birds we saw, including birds I’d never heard of nor seen before. We also saw numerous impala, one of the most abundant mammals in the bush. Then, a call came over the radio.
The guides and spotters speak a hybrid language, appropriately called “bush language”. They understand each other completely. To us, it sounds like code. Following the call over the radio, we started tracking a mysterious animal. Landon and Eddie kept it a secret at first, so that we wouldn’t be disappointed if we didn’t see the animal. Eventually, they let us in on the secret so that we could help them spot it. “We’re looking for a leopard in this area,” Landon said. “It’s very rare to spot them,” he added.
After our search proved futile, we decided to move on. We headed somewhere else, clear to the guides, unknown to us. As we made our way to the next destination, we came upon an old male giraffe, scratching his back and neck on a tree. He was stunning, leaving us speechless and in awe. There is nothing like seeing these animals, in their natural habitat.
I was mesmerized by the giraffe, more than I could have expected. Perhaps it’s the way he looked against the backdrop of the bush, his body extending from the earth, through the lush green trees, and up into the open blue skies. The giraffe seemed peaceful and content. I watched the giraffe as I removed the long lens from my camera. I smiled at the discovery that we were too close to use a long lens. We watched the giraffe’s behavior for several minutes, laughing as he walked in circles around the tree, to relieve his itchy skin.
“Something else is happening and I want to try to make our way over while the light is still good,” Landon said. We bid farewell to the giraffe and set out again. “Elephants!” someone shouted. “The elephants are just a bonus,” Landon replied with a smile. We looked to our right and saw two young male lions, with a large female. They were resting, weary after a large meal and the heat of the day. I put my long lens away entirely – it clearly wouldn’t be needed.
Landon explained that these are the only surviving members of the Charleston pride. The young males’ mother was killed, so her sister – the female lion we were watching – took them under her care. The other pride in the area is the Southern Pride, 18 lions strong. Landon said the guides have been paying close attention to the Charleston pride. This pride is significantly outnumbered and their long-term survival is questionable.
Landon’s words, as we marveled at the lions, were an important reminder. We are not in a zoo, we are not in control of the outcome, humans don’t interfere. We are truly witnessing natural order, survival of the fittest, the wild kingdom in action. This is life, unfolding before us.
The lions are magnificent. With each movement came sighs of “awwwww” from the vehicle. The elephants remained in clear view, although at a greater distance, while we observed the lions.
We left the lions lounging and sought out to find some more animals. Beneath a beautiful fig tree we spotted four rhino. It was wonderful to see them, with even greater appreciation, given the recent assault on their species.
Darkness came quickly as we scurried through the bush. “Leopard!” Eddie exclaimed, pointing toward the trees. We drove further to get a closer look and sure enough, we saw a gorgeous leopard in the tree.
With each animal sighting, we counted our blessings and gave thanks. We know this is not something to take for granted. We’ve heard stories of people being here for three or four days, never spotting lions nor a leopard. Within an hour and a half, during our first game drive, we saw four of the big five.
We continued on our way, traveling at a much slower pace. Suddenly, Landon turned off the lights and shut down the engine. “There’s another leopard. This one is stalking its prey” Landon said, pointing to the leopard in the grass.
The leopard was strategically placed downwind of the impala so they were unaware of its presence. We observed as the leopard laid low in the grass, patiently awaiting his opportunity.
Landon explained that leopards are very patient and will wait hours for a kill. He said they have a very high average success rate of 60%, compared to the approximate 40% success rate of lions. We pulled away before the leopard made his kill, ironically to get back to the lodge for our dinner. We later heard from another group that the leopard was indeed successful, capturing and killing a young impala.
Somewhere along the way – earlier in the afternoon – we saw a wildebeest It’s hard to keep track of the series of events on such an active and exciting afternoon and evening of viewing.
We headed back to the lodge well after dark and returned our cameras to our room. “We’re ready for drinks!” I said, telephoning the staff so they could escort us to the bar. After enjoying a couple glasses of wine, we sat down to dinner. It was nearing 9:00pm and I wasn’t all that hungry. I decided to eat “light” and order the salmon. Soon, the largest piece of salmon I’ve ever eaten was before me. The food at Lion Sands is outstanding – from salads through main courses and dessert – delicious.
After dinner, we took showers, and are going to bed relatively early (11:00 pm) tonight, in anticipation of our 5:00 am wake up call tomorrow.