In the old days — the kind we imagine taking place in black-and-white, or in stories preserved on yellowing paper — men feared and revered the Big Five. There was a certain heroism to the hunt; after all, these animals were the most dangerous ones in the African wild.
It’s quite a different story today. The African lion, hailed the king of the jungle, and its reluctant friend, the African bush elephant, are classified ‘vulnerable.’ The leopard’s survival is ‘near threatened’. The black rhinoceros is critically endangered, its horn more than just a thorn in its side. Only the African buffalo can be hunted with somewhat less concern, if only because its conservation status has not yet reached the severity of its peers.
As a result, the dynamic between humans and the dethroned sovereigns is an uneasy one. The land has been carved up, roads parceling out territory once the animals’ but have since been signed away to squabbling reserve owners.
Lion prides and buffalo herds move in between these reserves as and when they please, but they’re still refugees in some sense. While they may not be hunted by tourists in their white Land Rovers, everybody still wants to shoot them: with their cameras. I think the intrusion leaves very little power to be felt.
But whatever power they have left is potent. There was one occasion when my over-eager photo-taking, with my scrambling and standing on the vehicle, led to a lioness warily evaluating if she should pounce.
But let me start at the beginning. After our Garden Route road trip, we flew to Hoedspruit airport — part of a military airport carved out for civilians flying into the African wild to see animals up close.
During the peak season, safari stays are snapped up a year in advance. Two months before we left for South Africa, we still hadn’t booked ours. It would have quite sad if we did not secure one since the safari experience was probably the thing we were looking forward to most.
At many safaris the going rates were US$500 per person per night — not something a new entrant to the workforce and a student can easily afford.
Thankfully, we found Africa on Foot (about US$200 pp/pn). The lodge is located in the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve, a wildlife-rich region located in the heart of the Kruger. The Klaserie shares unfenced borders with the Kruger National Park. The biggest difference, of course, is the service and experience a safari guide brings you. Our guides for our three days at AoF were Francois, a relatively junior but attentive ranger, and Enoch, a no-nonsense tracker with such dry wit. He made me crack up a few times with his deadpan responses to my, in hindsight, inane questions. We stayed in simple, clay (?) huts. No air-con, which can be intolerable when the air is still and the sun is beating down on you. Fans can only be turned on after sun-down and even then, last only as long as the solar panels collected enough energy for. In cooler periods, however, I can imagine these would be perfect, given the size of the room!
The day begins just before the crack of dawn, or around 4.30am. I cry whenever I’m assigned 9am work duty, so you can imagine how scared I was that I’d miss our game drives. Either Francois is a very focused waker-upper (a firm rat-a-tat on our door every morning got me up in a jiffy) or we were just excited, because we woke up relatively easy. We were only late once! But by 5 minutes, which is within the limits of acceptable conduct. I ownself say one.
Height-challenged individuals like me will be glad to know that the seats on the 4×4 Land Rover are staggered, ensuring good views all round. I also liked that ours wasn’t obstructed by a giant awning overhead — it minimized the intrusive nature of the safari, and helped make me feel one with the world.
Does anybody remember that scene in Jack Neo’s “I Not Stupid” when two kids ran into the woods to escape from their kidnappers, thinking it was safe because Boon Hock was sure that they would go down the designated path that led out to the main road? He said something along the lines of, “Don’t worry, Singaporeans only know how to follow the road.” Yeah, well, I suppose that includes me.
So imagine my shock when, on our first game drive, Francois said, “Look, elephant!” and proceeded to roll straight into the forest, branches cracking like thunder under the 4×4’s wheels. My face contorted in horror: WE’RE NOT FOLLOWING THE ROAD IS THIS LEGAL???
All thoughts of rule-breaking were forgotten, however, as soon as I saw these hungry not-so-little creatures. Here they are stripping the tree of its bark, the red xylem a great source of tannins (wine for elephants!). Elephants are destructive feeders, leaving a wake of chaos wherever they go (and they spend 16 hours a day eating, so that’s a lot of chaos). In the few minutes we were there, this small herd had pierced through and stripped this tree of its bark: If a full circumference of bark is removed, the tree won’t get nutrients transported from its roots. It’ll eventually wither and die, but in the circle of life (ooh, Lion King reference!) the tree will return to the soil as fertilizer for the next round of growth. So while they are technically called destructive feeders, elephants also handle crowd control for African fauna. The elephant was the most commonly seen member of the Big Five while we were there — pretty interesting, since a family that arrived a day after us had to wait till their last day to finally see them. A lot of this depends on luck and timing, and I like to see it as the animals’ way of preserving their independence, or whatever is left of it. Another common animal was the impala, a medium-sized African antelope. Their legs, though thin, are capable of high, graceful leaps — we saw and marveled them in action. A smaller relative is the steenbok, which I thought looked rather coquettish. On the other end of the spectrum, you have the kudu, the second largest antelope in the world after the eland. These are handsome creatures (especially the males) with their impressive horns and dignified expressions. We also saw zebras and giraffes (they always seemed to be hanging around each other). I found the case of this zebra particularly tragic. He’s actually behind a fence — the plot of land he’s on is currently a hunting reserve. It’s quite sad, since he didn’t choose to be on that plot of land when the fence went up. The good news is that the landowner is taking down the fence by the end of the year and it’ll cease to be a reserve… soon. On one of our game drives, Francois drove around in circles on some patch. The trees and bushes were in full growth, and we couldn’t figure out for the life of us what he was trying to show us. He’d drive over some leaves and the fragrance of mint would waft by; finally, he gave up and moved on and that’s when we saw: A hyena pup!
Turns out a pack had killed a wildebeest and we were trying to find its carcass. The minty smell was apparently its rotting, liquefied remains — what’s wrong with my nose??
We were given sundowners in the middle of our evening game drives, and our drinks (alcoholic if you wish) were often accompanied by biscuits, crackers and biltong (South African bakkwa / jerky).
During these breaks, we’d talk with our fellow safari-goers. Towards the tail-end of the trip we were joined by the most adorable seven-year-old in the world (well, until I have my own #shameless). Jordan was the cutest, and her commentary on our drives was the best. Fighting hippos and elephants that came too close would all be chided by her. “You notty (naughty),” she’d say in her Dutch accent. “You notty hippo!” And of course, the sunsets were always lovely. One thing that impressed me greatly was how Francois and Enoch could track the animals so easily. We’d be traveling on open roads and before we knew it, we were driving deep into the bush. As a result, we managed to see all the Big Five. I still remember how we managed to see the buffalo, the second animal off our Big Five checklist. We were having sundowners near a cheetah runway (where the fastest cats in the world apparently love to hangout) when one of our safari-goers thought she saw movement in the back.
Francois got everyone onto the 4×4 and with Enoch on the animal’s scent, we were off to look for buffalo. But where was it? Suddenly Enoch waved his giant branch in a general forward direction. Francois drove deep into the bushes. And then we saw him:
It really feels damn shiok when you see such a great animal up close. So many feelings at once. Excitement of course, a sense of achievement is another.
But I think the greatest undercurrent of all is gratitude, that these majestic creatures would deign us with their presence. In another time I would have probably been gored to death, but I live in an era where we’re on somewhat more equal terms now. And yet they still go by their own rules: we have to look for them, not the other way around.
In another game drive we got to see another buffalo. The buffalo we saw on this trip are affectionally called “dugga boys,” the term given to old Cape buffalo who have grown tired of herd life. Apparently the solitary life makes them cantankerous old men, upping the aggression factor. This one totally didn’t give a banana about us and proceeded to take a five-minute pee in front of a trigger-happy audience. The next of the Big Five was the rhino, which was again tracked by Enoch. At the end of our trip we realized that our Africa on Foot rangers were the first to spot all these animals, and Francois would relay our sightings to his ranger friends from other safaris after we reached the place. Pretty good network I think, and I’m glad we picked AoF. We pretty much had first dibs on space and photographing opportunities, including these rhinos. On the same day that we got to see the rhino, Francois got word that an ingwe, Zulu for leopard, was near our camp.
We drove out to an open plain as we waited for Enoch and Francois to do their thing, pulling up to another 4×4 and conversing with the other guides.
Suddenly an Asian guy in the other Land Rover asked, “Excuse me, are you guys Singaporean?” The world is small — of all the places to meet Mabel and Jon, it was in the middle of the South African savannah. Now I go to church with them!
But back to the ingwe/leopard. Our Land Rover forged ahead, breaking branches as we drove onto uncharted roads. Suddenly Enoch hushed us all, took a torchlight and shone it straight into the tree. I could not see anything at first. But after some urgent whispers of “there” and lots of pointing, we saw this: The leopard is a very sultry animal. This one turned out to be injured (Francois said probably from a fight) but it retained a quiet knowledge of its beauty and power. On our last evening drive we managed to see lionesses, after driving quite a fair distance away from our camp. There’s apparently an ongoing struggle for territory between two lion prides — the Ross and the Giraffe — which emerged after the borders between the Klaserie and Timbavati came down.
The Ross pride, which is often seen in the Klaserie, are a group of white lions. Sadly, we didn’t get to see any of the rare white lions, but we caught two lionesses who had just finished a very heavy meal of zebra.
BE WARNED: the following picture will upset people who cannot stand gore or animal carcasses. (I’ll get round to doing rollover images sometime in June but until then, I’m sorry, a gif is the next best alternative!) The sight of the dead zebra upset both Jordan and her grandmother (an amazingly feisty and fit 84-year-old). But I was enthralled.
For the longest time my perception of animals have been rather Madagascar-ish: cartoon figures, tame, domestic. Blame it on the zoo and the suspension of belief a city girl inevitably invokes watching NatGeo and its otherworldly landscapes. And yet here I was in the Kruger, in the presence of beasts that uphold the maxim “only the fittest survive.” The lionesses were rather wary of us, what with the loud hum of the Land Rover. One stayed hidden in the bushveld while the other circled and guarded the remainder of their food; this was as close as we got to them.
I’ll save the male lions for last, but let’s take a look at the rest of the sights we saw.
We went on a morning bush walk, which didn’t turn out too great. A few people wrote online that they managed to come within range of a rhino or zebra before, but mostly we saw plants and frog eggs. On our last drive we were woken up slightly earlier: apparently Enoch had heard some lions calling to each other. They have a range of roars to communicate with each other, and the sound can travel for some 30-40km or more.
When we got out to the area where they supposedly were, we heard it: a guttural, throbbing roar that packed power without being deafening. This is the closest example I could find.
It was a beautiful sound. At this point we had not yet come face-to-face with the lion who made the call, so we just soaked in its conversation.
After a while, we rounded a dirt path, and lying in the middle of the road (he is the king of the jungle, he can do whatever he wants) was one of the leaders of the Timbavati pride, The Bad. Francois was so animated he kept taking photographers, and turning to Enoch to say, “I’m so happy, I’m so happy.”
Apparently The Bad (and his brother) had not been seen in months, leading the rangers to think they may have passed away.
As it turns out The Bad was very much alive, although he had sustained a leg injury which was unlikely to heal anytime soon, since he would probably strain it everytime he hunted for food or patrolled his territory. Anyway, The Bad was calling to meet up with fellow pride leader, The Good. We followed The Bad into the thick of the jungle as he scanned the area for his brother.
Lying regally in the center of the field was The Good. When we saw him, it was quite clear why the rangers gave each brother the names they did. The Good looks stately and bright-eyed, or in Francois’ words, “he’s a pretty boy.” Next to him, The Bad looked positively weather-beaten— like something a (much larger) cat dragged in. We sat there as The Good tacitly acknowledged his brother’s presence, then got up and journeyed into some deeper part of the savannah. The Bad limped behind, two brothers ruling whatever’s left of their world. It was amazing three days that we spent in the safari. I came up close to the Big Five — an experience no zoo can ever remotely mimic — and saw a giant herd of buffalo migrating from a distance. I saw a lone elephant in musk cooling itself off with mud, and watched a colony of vultures circle ominously overheard.
At the same time there was a lot of poignancy in the experience. The safari felt like an artificial paradise, pumped alive by tourists and their dollars. Some are genuine animal lovers, while others (like me and the bulk of visitors, I suspect) are simply crossing things off their bucket list.
There’s a feeling of impotence that beyond the Klaserie or the Kruger, there’s not much you can do to preserve whatever home these animals have.
The upside of this is that I’ve come away with a renewed interest in all things living and breathing. Though I have yet to figure out what I could do to prevent the extinction of rhinos, I hope I carry the lessons and appreciation from the safari experience through life, applying in small, baby steps. If I can’t change the world, I hope at least that I don’t screw it up even more. Africa on Foot comes highly recommended. We paid about US$200 per person per night for an en-suite room, and amazing meals served three times a day. No more than 10 guests on a trip, and for the most trips we had both Francois and Enoch guiding us. They were knowledgable and funny — my favourite combination.
Catch up on the rest of our South African adventures!
Part 1: Cape Town
Part 2: Stellenbosch
Part 3: Robben Island & Kirstenbosch Gardens
Part 4: Cape Peninsula
Part 5: Table Mountain
Part 6: Garden Route (Part 1)
Part 7: Garden Route (Part 2)
Part 8: Safari in the Kruger
Part 9: Johannesburg