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Wild but safe travels on South Africa safari – The San Diego Union

Loudly wailing and gasping for breath, a Zulu witch doctor with a clay-smeared face convulsively rocks and pumps a ceremonial club while the spirits of dead ancestors inhabit her body. I kid you not, booming thunder suddenly rattles the tiny rural hut. Known as a “sangoma,” this possessed, traditionally garbed woman and another fortuneteller soon frenetically sing and dance to thumping drums, the tied cut tops of soda cans noisily jangling around their bare ankles. When the exhaustive ritual ends, the sangoma solemnly advises me through a translator: “You must travel safe.”

Wise words, since I’m in the throes of a South African safari trip. Before my Zulu village visit, I’ve spent the last few days within a hair of razor-fanged lions and cunning leopards as they nonchalantly slink alongside our open-air Land Cruiser, taking my own breath away. I’ve been the luckiest safari junkie on Earth to observe a pair of tremendously rare white lion cubs — they are believed to be two of only three documented white lions roaming free in the wild in the world. In another first, I sip wine with a scavenger hyena. And I’ll track endangered multi-ton rhinos on foot (and shaky legs!). More on these escapades later.

This is all part of an extraordinary adventure put together by andBeyond, an eco-focused upscale travel company and admirable do-gooder. AndBeyond owns 29 safari lodges and camps throughout Africa and helps fund anti-poaching efforts, schools including special ne classrooms, medical clinics, job training and clean water for locals. I stay on two of their private game reserves in South Africa — at Ngala Safari Lodge in Kruger National Park, and then, after two bumpity-bump Airlink flights in a 12-person Cessna, at Phinda Mountain Lodge. Over five spellbinding days, I repeatedly see the iconic Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, Cape buffalo). But there’s so much more to this wildly entrancing journey.

Bewitched by Zulus

Phinda is located in KwaZulu-Natal, a province populated by the Zulu people, once fearless tribal warriors and now the largest ethnic group in South Africa. Fortunately, andBeyond has a terrific Zulu tour guide, Sipho, who drives me 45 minutes from my hilltop lodge to the community of Mduku while filling me in on various customs, such as how he paid 11 cows to his future in-laws so he could marry his wife. Sipho also preps me on how to appropriately greet my host when we arrive at her family homestead.

As I step onto the small grassy plot — which is dotted with clucking chickens and circular “beehive” huts — I clap three times and holler “Sikhulekile ekhaya!” to no one in particular. Basically, in the native language I’m asking permission to be here. A chorus of “Yebo!” shouts back from all around. That’s “Yes.” And then, 88-year-old widow Nomthandazo appears cloaked in her handmade wares — a bead-embellished long black dress, a multicolored, beaded apron, thick white beaded anklets, and a Zulu grass-woven bucket-like “isicholo” hat with beaded headband. She shyly smiles as we shake hands Zulu-style, interlocking our right fingers three different ways three times, much like a jock grip.

Sipho translates while Nomthandazo tells of giving birth to 15 children, although not all survived, and of being a great-grandmother to 50 or so. Eventually, we remove our shoes and enter a sacred round thatched hut used for spiritual occasions. Heritage-rich clothes hang above pots of fermenting maize beer. Sipho explains and models male Zulu attire, including a furry waist apron made from stillborn calves.

I ask Nomthandazo what tradition is most meaningful to her. “According to Zulu, everyone is the same — you like everyone, you respect everyone. You respect the culture,” she firmly states. Her name, aptly, means “Prayer.”

Skies darken and rain pelts our next stop, the Gumede homestead. Three sangomas with dyed bright red dreadlocks sit on reed mats atop the cracked cement floor of a hut hazily lit by one window. Fabric imprinted with photos of Zulu kings adorn walls. I do what Sipho has instructed me — take my shoes off outside, slightly bow in the doorway, clap my hands twice and utter “Thokoza.” That means, “Be happy.”

Sangomas are highly revered healers in the culture, consulted to cure illness, arguments and evil spirits. The somber 77-year-old veteran in this trio holds her great-grandson in her lap and oversees two novices, both draped in shawls of traditional sangoma colors of black, red and white with illustrations of lions. As three men beat goatskin ingungu drums, the kneeling younger sangomas hunch over, mix a foaming potion, and soon erupt in a boisterous supernatural trance; they grimace, yell, chant, snap their fingers, and finally stand to stompingly dance.

Afterward, every time I want to address them (Sipho again translates) I must first clap twice and say the be-happy “Thokoza.” Although I press, these sangomas won’t tell non-Zulus their fortunes because a guest once got upset. I’m just told to travel safe but wait, do they know something?

Rhino tracking

Back at Phinda Mountain Lodge, I squeak by strapping spiral-horned nyala antelopes who nibble foliage on my cottage’s path and don’t budge. (“Excuse me,” I inanely mumble.) From inside my spacious suite, I notice a burly baboon guzzling from my plunge pool. His hooligan pal swings from a branch and drops with a thud on my terrace. Vervet monkeys join ranks in case I’m dumb enough to open my sliding door (evidently they’ll dash straight to the mini-bar).

The fact that Phinda is home to these creatures plus the exquisite menagerie I see on game drives — including giraffes, zebras, hippos, wildebeest and two ravenous cheetahs ripping apart their just-caught impala — is an amazing feat in itself. AndBeyond initially started in Africa in 1991 by buying derelict farmland long devoid of wildlife and turning it into what is now the 70,560-acre andBeyond Phinda Private Game Reserve. With involvement of local communities, the natural habitat was restored and mammals reintroduced from other reserves. Currently there are six distinct andBeyond lodges spread over the vast property, including my classy Zulu-accented haven with panoramic views of the emerald valley.

Phinda’s rhino conservation program also earns top marks. Rhino poaching in South Africa is horrendous — since 2008, over 7,800 rhinos have been killed for their horns, a rate of more than two daily. So far, andBeyond has partnered with organizations to airlift and relocate 87 rhinos from the country to safer Botswana. On Phinda’s reserve, endangered rhinos have been humanely de-horned to deter poachers and are vigilantly monitored. During a game drive, we encounter a group of 11 white rhinos drinking and mud-bathing at a water hole, an astonishing sight.

Another afternoon, I bravely (hah!) set out on foot to find rhinos. With me are no-nonsense rifle-toting ranger of 28 years, Sibu, and astute stick-wielding tracker Siphiwe. “We can meet up with anything, we can meet up with lions,” Sibu sternly warns. “Freeze if I do this.” He thrusts his fist in the air.

Mind you, these aren’t wide-open plains. There are towering thick, scary bushes, like the kind where the day before I saw a pride of six lions underneath gutting a zebra for lunch.

It is also intensely windy, and Sibu holds aloft a black sock filled with ashes to determine which way the cinders blow. “We don’t want to be downwind from animals so they can smell us.”

The three of us walk single file, first Siphiwe, then Sibu, then me who feels toddler-sized. “Male lion,” Sibu whispers, pointing to a five-toed print in the dirt.

Within 10 minutes, we round a tangled thicket. Suddenly, Siphiwe briskly turns on his heels and motions with his hands to back up. In front of us is an enormous bull elephant.

Lion? A tusked pachyderm with possibly raging hormones? Let me get my heart out of my mouth.

My expert reassuring guides alter our route. A half-hour later, I’m camouflaged behind an acacia tree and overwhelmed by the grandeur of a female white rhino and her precious 3-year-old baby, who graze without spying us. They look humongous and more wondrously prehistoric at my level. Being on the ground with this vulnerable poached species — and feeling vulnerable myself — is a thrilling, primal and incomparably stirring experience.

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White lions

Before visiting Phinda, I stay at Ngala Safari Lodge, which has a charming Old World vibe and staffers who are instant family. My animal-mind-reader ranger Marcus is another inspiring story. A gentle soul, the 33-year-old father of three girls grew up with nine siblings in a nearby village. His wife is a housekeeper at the lodge. Marcus started at Ngala by doing maintenance, then became a butler-waiter for 12 years, and finally signed up for andBeyond’s grueling ranger training program.

Today is his first official day on the job. And what a start!

Soon we’re in the savanna grasslands just feet from two incredibly rare and strikingly beautiful white lion cubs, both snoozing among 12 other lazy members of their pride. Marcus explains that the cubs, one about 16 months old, the other about 10 months, are the result of recessive mutant genes in both tawny-toned parents and from different mothers. Although there are numerous white lions bred in captivity, andBeyond says these cubs and another in Kruger are the only three documented white lions in the wild. Everyone at Ngala seems emotionally attached to the snowy duo, particularly because their noticeable color makes it even harder to survive. Only about half of young lions reach adulthood, often slain by leopards or competing male lions.

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After driving on, we hop outside our vehicle for “sundowner” cocktails and snacks. Marcus heats up chicken wings, and there’s a rustle in the brush — say hello to a doglike carnivore with bone-crushing teeth. Until darkness falls, I sip Sauvignon blanc while surreally watching a prone spotted hyena watch us from 50 feet away. (Marcus says not to worry; the “Lion King” villains got a bad rap.) When we re-board the jeep, the hyena trots over and sniffs around for crumbs.

Miles later, I’m back at the lodge, hovering over the al-fresco table of dinner appetizers as an employee recounts that two months ago he glanced up and shockingly saw a hyena, paws on this very table with its head in a bowl of french fries. “Well, look who it is,” he interrupts, and as if on cue, a large hyena ambles in for a try at tonight’s marinated mushrooms. When staffers shout and clap, the scared party-crasher bolts.

“Ngala,” by the way, means “lion” in the native language. So how perfect that during my final afternoon game drive, we again locate the white-furred celebrities with their pride, eight miles from our last sighting. For a long time, we’re mesmerized by an awwww-evoking scene of lion bonding — a white, hazel-eyed cub rolls around with, licks and snuggles a tawny, amber-eyed sibling.

What was that sangoma’s term? “Be happy.” I’m overflowing on this trip.

If you go

AndBeyond will arrange your entire safari vacation, from international flights to getting you between any of its various African lodges. Check www.andBeyond.com for ideas, including a stay at the isolated new four-level Ngala Treehouse, where a romantic couple can stylishly sleep under stars.

Meyer is a freelance travel writer.