After a stay of two days in the beautiful South African city of Cape Town, with the picturesque Table Mountain dominating its landscape, we take a two and a half hour flight to the north-east. Our group of six consists of three generations of two members each: me and my husband, our son and daughter-in-law (who has planned, researched and organised this entire holiday trip) and our two granddaughters, aged twelve and ten. Our destination is the Southern Camp of the Kapama Private Game Reserve, which is situated inside the larger Kruger National Park.
The Reserve is conveniently located close to the Eastgate Airport in Hopruit, from where we are picked by a shuttle. While being driven to the Camp, we are delighted to see groups of impalas, baboons and Vervet monkeys (the Vervets resemble the black-faced langurs found in our part of the world), as well as a variety of birds. It is said that over 300 bird species are found here.
As soon as our vehicle enters the lodge, we are received by a tall and elegant African lady dressed in white, who welcomes us by providing hot face-towels and then briefs us about the Camp’s salient features: its lunch timings in the dining area and dinner at the traditional boma around a fire, as well as other house-keeping stuff. But most importantly, about the two daily safaris, we will be undertaking. Each safari is to be three-hours long. We will be woken up every day at 5.30 am, and we are not to carry any foodstuff with us. Every day, the timings for the second safari are from 4.00 pm to 7.00 pm. Since it is going to be quite cold after sunset, and during the early morning hours, we are advised to wear warm but layered clothing. We are here for three nights and four days.
My architect husband and the rest of us appreciate the organic architecture of all the buildings of the Camp, constructed in wood and stone with high ceilings and thatched roofs. They blend in beautifully with the surrounding bush landscape. The plain-looking exterior of the lodges is quite deceptive as they are pretty luxurious inside; with all the amenities one would hope to find. Nyalas and Kudus wandering around add beauty to the tranquil setting. Both these are spiral-horned antelopes native to southern Africa and have minor differences in their appearance.
One of the safaris is going to take place the same afternoon at 4.00 pm. We are extremely excited by the anticipation of seeing the Big 5 – elephant, leopard, rhinoceros, African buffalo, and of course the lion! The girls are ecstatic and decide to take the back-seat of the large ten-seater vehicle, which is the highest perch in it and is exclusively occupied by our family of six. My husband and I sit on the lowest seat, right behind our guide cum driver Muxe, while our son and daughter-in-law sit behind us on a slightly raised seat. Animal tracker Henry sits on the bonnet of the vehicle to trace fresh footprints. I must add that the vehicle is open from all sides. No glass, no grills, nothing. This definitely adds to the thrill of the safari.
Winter is also the dry season and perhaps the best time for wildlife viewing. Muxe tells us that animals see the vehicle as a single entity and do not attack it, or the humans sitting in it, as they don’t see us as a threat. The safari car is perhaps just another animal for them. However, we must not stand up or shriek or they will get scared.
Muxe has over eighteen years of experience of the bush, and he is extremely knowledgeable. A few minutes later, he stops the vehicle to pick up a large piece of dung along the road. Breaking it into two, he quizzes us as to which animal we think it belongs to. The excrement is evidence of the animals that have passed through everywhere we go. It is, therefore, an important skill for all wildlife guides and trackers to interpret: which animal, how long ago was it in the area and what was its last meal?
We also stop to survey a tall termite mound as we can see hundr of them scattered all over the shrub. Muxe explains this engineering feat: the chimneys provide ventilation and keep the temperature regulated at around 30 degrees Celsius, which is necessary for the termites to live. If the mound gets over-heated, the workers open more vents, and likewise, if it gets too cold, they close the vents.
Besides listening to the nasal calls of the smoky-grey Go-away birds (this bird actually sounds like it is saying “go away!” – giving it the English name), and seeing an abundance of chattering monkeys, graceful impalas, dexterous elephants, solitary rhinos, robust buffaloes, distinctive zebras, wacky giraffes, lazy hippos, hefty gnus (popularly known as wildebeest), menacing warthogs and handsome leopards, it is the lions and lionesses that take our breath away!
Our first encounter with a lion happens after Muxe gets word on his walkie-talkie about a Bamba – a catch or a kill. It is during the night safari. Without disclosing anything to us, he sets off in the direction to where he is being directed by another guide, while Henry holds a big torch in his hand to light the path. When we reach there, we see a lion feasting on a giraffe. Already there are people sitting in half a dozen other vehicles watching in complete amazement. Muxe stops on the side where the drama is taking place.
After having his fill, the lion lets out a huge roar. That roaring lion reminds me of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer movie studio’s logo/video, and I quickly record this exciting moment. But lo and behold, the lion is now coming towards me!
After having his fill, the lion lets out a huge roar. That roaring lion reminds me of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer movie studio’s logo/video, and I quickly record this exciting moment. But lo and behold, the lion is now coming towards me! He passes by just inches away from me, while I hold my breath. My son and I feel like ruffling his mane. “Yes, you can,” says Muxe calmly. “But that’ll be the first and last time.” We laugh nervously.
The next morning we have another close encounter with a few lionesses and the King of the Savannah who leisurely walks behind his pride while they plan, spread out and wait patiently, not too far from their intended victims – a herd of impalas.
We learn so much from animals, and it isn’t easy to say goodbye to them. The real Africa lies in its rich wildlife, sublime landscapes, ancient and colourful cultures, and the super friendly people of South Africa, which is a piece of the continent away from time…
The author is an illustrator and educator. She can be reached at [email protected]