Savour a safari

July 5th, 2010 in African travel by Terry Lee 1
Yes, the rhino is bigger than a saloon car

If you’re in South Africa for the World Cup then you’ll clearly have football on your mind. But with its wild landscape within reach it would be a pity not to take in a safari.

One of the things indelibly etched on my memory is the country’s wildlife and in particular my first ever safari. From Bushwillow, a lodge set in a reserve near Hluhluwe Umfolozi in KwaZulu Natal, we had daily encounters with wildlife around our accommodation. On our first morning we were greeted by three giraffes eating leaves from a tree just a metre from our window. They could see us and didn’t mind our intense, fascinated stares until we tried too hard to capture a great photo and they bolted.

For the next few hours we sat in near silence as a variety of deer, monkeys and exotic birds passed our panoramic windows and for a moment we felt we were living in the wild – a return to a simple life, despite our fine accommodation.

Later that afternoon a jeep arrived to take us into Hluhluwe Game Reserve and we were greeted by Martin who’s knowledge of the park and it’s animals could only have been matched by the vastness of the African plain.

As we entered the park we had cameras, video cameras and binoculars at the ready which was just as well as the animals were sighted thick and fast. No sooner were we in the park than warthogs, giraffes, water buffalo, nyalas, wildebeest and zebra were springing from the dense long grass leaving us unsure where to look next. Thankfully Martin’s expert spotting skills meant we didn’t miss any action.

Less than 10 minutes after we arrived he got a call on the radio to say lions were staking out a hunt nearby. Telling us it was rare to catch a hunting pride we sped off to witness it. We found two lionesses stealthily stalking a group of clueless zebra. The lions disappeared behind the tall grass then came back into view moving ever closer to their prey as we watched in stunned silence. Suddenly the pair launched their attack. The zebra herd broke into a panic. Tearing off in all directions.

Having seen animals hunting on TV I was aware of the fundamentals of what may happen, however what struck me was the utter chaos that broke out. As the lions flew towards the zebra and they scattered in an attempt to escape, the savannah exploded with a cacophony of noise as birds and animals were startled into action. There were wildebeest darting off to my left, a warthog dashed in front of me tail arrow-straight in the air and a lone water buffalo moved slowly away aware that two lions were not enough to threaten him. Monkeys and birds high in the trees bellowed their warnings as the dust of the stampede choked the air.

As quickly as it started it was over and the two thin lions walked slowly past our Jeep, painfully aware their attack had failed. As one came within a few metres of our truck, the other stopped further away and from the undergrowth two young cubs emerged to join their mother. It was clear all four were in need of a good meal. Martin explained that he catches lions hunting perhaps once a year so we were very fortunate to have witnessed what we had.

After the excitement of the hunt we continued our safari at a more sedate pace with Martin pointing out animals camouflaged against the background, which would have gone unnoticed without his expert eye.

We spotted huge rhino – the size of my car back home, I noted, as the exact model drove in line with one of them. I was transfixed, feeling really vulnerable for the first time. Then a hyena crossed in front of us without a second glance and a troop of baboons some 20 or 30 strong appeared beside us. A woman in our Jeep tapped me on the shoulder to show me two of them getting, um… er… lets just say getting better acquainted.

As fascinating as this all was – it was the like of which I’d only ever seen on Wildlife on One – late on in the safari we came upon the animal I’d most wanted to see, a leopard. For a couple of seconds it stopped holding our gaze, then turned, and showing a casual contempt slowly sauntered ahead until seconds later it went deep into the tall grass. I was speechless. I’ve travelled to so many brilliant countries and seen some of the world’s most wondrous sights yet in just two hours we had witnessed scores of wild animals including four of the so called Big Five – lion, leopard, rhino and water buffalo, only the elephant evading our view.

Witnessing the size of the park and knowing how many animals were there – many of whom so powerful they could rip us to shreds if they wished – made me feel rather insignificant. But as we drove away I knew I wanted, no, needed to return.

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