August 22, 2013

A Lifetime Adventure: South African Safari. ~ Tina Wild

Three warthogs grazed at the side of the runway as we landed in Hoespruit, a long strip cut into the midst of the African bush, in Kruger National Park.

I knew then it was going to be a memorable trip. To my surprise there were no buildings, no trace of the human hand, apart from the small airport thatched hut. The landscape was a vast plain of scorched straw.

We stayed at a private game lodge in the Klaserie reserve called Gomo Gomo, meaning little hill, though it’s not really hilly at all, apart from the crevices where the water has dried up in riverbeds. Comfortable brick and thatched huts encircled a rustic communal lounge and dining area. The defining feature was an expansive deck with a pool and reclining chairs that overlooked a watering hole, where elephants, impala and hog wart drank and frolicked and the resident crocodile slept on the sandy bank. Apparently the croc got washed up in a flood so he’s stuck here alone.

It’s a peaceful place to be stranded.

One of the reasons we chose Gomo Gomo, apart from the price—modest for a private game reserve—and the personal recommendation, was it was one of the only safari lodges who offered bush walks. Yes on foot, walking among the predators. I was extremely skeptical but ever ready for adventure and challenge.

How could I refuse?

On the first game drive in the afternoon we saw three of the Big Five within an hour and had two near-death encounters.

The first of the Big Five was buffalo. Hundreds of them; lumbering across the savanna, just a stone’s throw away.

In a herd, they’re not so dangerous, but a solitary, elderly bull that can’t keep up with the rest is extremely vulnerable to lion attack, therefore, easily harassed and prone to charging.

It was slightly unnerving being so close to such a large group of wild animals in an open four wheel drive vehicle, but I was comforted by my naivety and their close resemblance to lovable cows.

We proceeded in our driving gang; consisting of myself, my husband and a Belgian family; Kristl, Jürgen and two daughters; Romy and Thaïs. The ranger, Bernard and tracker, Caswell—who perched precariously on the front of the open jeep, unprotected and exposed to all predators—were our trusted guides.

Caswell, an indigenous hunter-gatherer, had grown up in the bush and learned from his father, the tricks of survival for cohabiting with this savage nature. The tracker is like the ranger’s second pair of eyes; guiding the truck and looking for animal tracks and, of course, animals. Though, often it was Phil, otherwise known as “the spy” or “MI5” who spotted the animals.

MI5 spotted the elephants next. We got up so close to a group of them I could feel the wind from their trumpeting trunks. The sound reverberated right through me and echoed across the plain. The herd kept multiplying. We had gone down a narrow track and realized they were in front of us and to the right with several calves.

Approaching to the left was the herd of buffalo we had just encountered. The trumpeting protestation grew louder. They waved their trunks, stamped their feet and flapped their ears, clearly agitated. At this point we were about three meters away from one bull that confronted us head on. Bernard reassured us they were more distressed by the buffalo than us—they were warning off the buffalo because they had several calves.

By this point the two girls in front of us were crying to the point of hysteria. I was frozen rigid to the core, only my hands functioned, patting Romy’s shoulder trying to reassure her it was OK, fighting to keep my voice level, whilst seeing my life flash before me. Bernard explained the necessity to stand ground with elephants and resist intimidation. A hasty retreat would likely cause them to charge.

We did reverse pretty quickly though, bouncing around the truck, while those elephants watched us and continued to bellow.

We had just about recovered from the elephant encounter, when we stopped at dusk in an open plain and got out of the truck for a glass of wine; sun downers. How civilized. I was nervous about getting out of the relative protection of the truck but it was good practice for the bush walk. We shared a much needed large glass of South African Shiraz and nibbles as the sun retreated to a perfect semi-circle orange segment, perched on the horizon, casting the marula trees in black silhouettes.

The African bush is similar to the Australian bush in that during the winter it is parched and brown dotted with gnarled twisted trees, many torn down by elephants thundering through the savanna, wreaking havoc. During the summer it is lush green and brimming with wildflowers but the winter-time provides the best opportunities for animal viewing.

We continued driving in the dark, cocooned in our layers of scarves, beanies and blankets, admiring the crescent moon and mass of brilliant white stars against an ink sky.

Next stop were the lions; the Ross pride we’d seen earlier. This time we got even closer, the pride was larger with two males and four females. One of the males mated vigorously with one of the females and after his performance the whole pride roared in earth shattering unison. To be near lions mating was the most dangerous situation.

The engine turned over. Nothing. Flat battery.

The second male mounted another female even closer to our right side. Luckily there was a second truck close by that waited with us. The rangers were talking—partly in Afrikaans—about the escape strategy and I was terrified we were going to have to jump across to the second truck.

I knew from our initial instructions that any movements would endanger us and make the animals attack. If we kept still the animals saw the truck as one large unit but the moment anyone stood up, yelled or made sudden gestures, the single unit was broken and we would become prey.

We waited for a third truck to bring jump leads. They arrived in seven minutes, which felt like an eternity.

The following morning there was a pungent smell of dwarf sage; like marijuana, mixed with dung, fire and clean air—an intoxicating blend of Africa. We kept wondering how the animals could exceed their dramatic performance from last night; close shave with agitated elephants and a flat battery in the dark within spitting distance of mating lions.

What else?

Cut to the sun ushering in a new day, infusing the landscape with its pink and orange hues. At the intersection between Klaserie and Timbavati game reserves we heard the deafening sound of hooves, their vibration shook the ground like an earthquake. A herd of buffalo stampeded towards us from the Klaseire territory with lions in pursuit, almost trampling their cubs in the chase. We reversed hastily out of the way as the lions headed for the side of the truck.

I could see the hunger and concentration in their eyes.

The lionesses caught an old bull at the back of the herd and encircled her, trying to bring her down without success. The large male of the pride emerged and mounted the buffalo’s from the rear, on hind legs swiping him with his powerful front paws and jaws, dragging him down with ease.

The bellowing of the buffalo was heartbreaking, we watched in anguish as he was savaged and slowly suffocated. The sound of the lions roaring with satiated hunger and relish was amplified. They tore into him in a frenzy, ripping out inner organs with a sickening squelching and chomping noise. That would feed the whole pride of 12 for several days. We could see the buffalo’s face clearly though the binocular; mouth open, eyes wide, legs kicking desperately in the air. Bernard said he would be in deep shock and would not be feeling a lot. I was not sure if he was just saying that to comfort us in our grief.

That was the second lion kill Bernard had seen in his time as a ranger and told us that was a pretty unusual sighting—only around 1 in 200 saw that. Bernard, the tracker, Phil, the Belgians and I seemed bound together in a magical combination of rare luck and dramatic experiences. When we were separated on different game drives the spell was broken, the experience was not so intense and we did not see as much. Though the kids did not speak English we connected through gestures, mum’s constant translations and I taught Romy some yoga postures on our morning tea break.

The sun was sneeringly hot by 10 o’clock a.m. despite it being winter.

I walked behind Bernard into the bush, reassured by his rifle. He was my human shield, though he explained that actually back of the group was safer as danger would come from the front. I reassured myself we would not be doing this if people got killed.

Every sense was on alert.

We were much more vulnerable on foot. Every birdsong was crystal clear, the breeze rustling the trees and twigs snapping beneath my feet rattled me. My heart was hammering. The pulse in my head was wild with panic. Wild cotton blew in the gentle breeze. I could smell the sweetness of wild basil. We scrunched the leaves of the apple leaf tree. I loved learning about the trees, flowers and animal tracks of the wild dogs, hyena, buffalo and elephants in the vicinity. The tactile proximity was exciting but I was terrified of encountering a predator on foot. Would I resist natural instinct to run? No. When we saw the elephants I remained obediently still, despite almost losing control of bodily functions at the wall of elephants, trumpeting and flapping their ears. Although enormous size, they are surprisingly quiet, which is why it’s easy to literally stumble upon them. We made it back unscathed to the camp.

Every game drive I felt a little more comfortable, trusting our ranger’s skill and knowledge. But the unpredictability of the bush taught me not to become complacent.

I never lost my fear or respect for the incredible work of nature’s art and its inhabitants.

Bernard explained the personal space zones for each animal. These differed for each animal. We were allowed to get much closer to the predators; lions, rhino, buffalo and elephant. Whereas the giraffe and impala were more skittish and would not let us near.

The lion cubs on the last morning were the sweet nectar. We’d had the drama, the fear and the adrenalin. We watched the sweet pair of fluffy babies delightfully bounding around, playing, tumbling, jumping on mum’s back and annoying grandma. They appeared so innocent. Just like puppies, wobbling along gracelessly. We’d witnessed the full range of lions’ daily activities: sleeping, mating, killing, eating, drinking and cubs playing.

As we left the camp for the airport the animals put on a final Doctor Dolittle show for us at the watering hole. A huge herd of around thirty elephants appeared, like they’d gathered together to take a final curtain bow, drinking, bathing and squirting one another with water.

The crocodile that had been motionless on the bank since we’d arrived stealthily dived into the water and swan across in front of us. At the other end of the watering hole monkeys came down to the water’s edge to play. Once the elephants had disappeared the impala arrived to bid us farewell.

Bon Voyage, beautiful South Africa and the peaceful bush.

We were blessed with so many extraordinary experiences. But the leopard, hyena and zebra eluded us; so, we will be back.

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Assistant Ed: Gabriela Magana/Ed: Sara Crolick

{photos: via Tina Wild}

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