South Africa’s game parks are a chance to leave urban life behind and get up close to nature, sometimes in bloodied tooth and claw. Watching lions playing with their cubs, or elephants rip a tree into bite-size chucks may make the wild seem like an open zoo. Then a look from a cheetah at your arm left carelessly outside your vehicle reminds you that you are prey too.
“What the wilderness does, is present us with a blueprint of nature as it was after the creation, when all plants, trees and animals came straight from the hands of whatever it was that created them.”
Reading these words by South African writer Laurens Van Der Post for the first time, I was deeply moved. But it is only now, while flying over the nature reserves of Phinda and Mapelane in eastern South Africa in a small plane that I suddenly realize that they really ring true. This is no time for restraint – gliding over a herd of galloping zebras, wallowing hippos and huddling flamingos, looking over wide stretches of savannah, lakes, marshes, sand dunes and the intense blue of the Indian Ocean. The horizon seems further than ever.
A little later we near the wooded sand dunes of Mapelane. These are the most densely forested sand dunes in the world and part of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, which is the largest estuarine system in Africa and listed as a World Heritage Site. In our 4x4, we drive onto the almost deserted beach.This is where in the summer, hundreds of turtles such as the Leatherback species dig their nests and lay their eggs. Now though, it is winter. This means that the sea where hosts of whales, dolphins and sharks swim is just as warm as the air temperature of 22°C. I cannot resist the temptation to go snorkeling between the coral reefs and schools of tropical fish.
It is Monday morning. At home the roads are full of traffic jams, people are drinking their coffee ready to face another week on the job. I got up before sunrise and from my 4x4 was able to follow four leopards on their morning hunt, a rhinoceros mother cuddling her young (their horns interlocked) and from the plane saw – to quote Isak Dinesan: “A glimpse of the earth the way it was originally meant to be.” Now underwater, I take in a completely different world. I feel privileged.
Most animals sleep in full daylight hours
Although actually living here is a different matter, travelling through South Africa means enjoying the good life, or rather, a beautiful life. A fine life where you watch the sun rise and set, where you are in touch with nature, where at any moment you can stand face to face with a wild animal and where people take time to eat and drink. In this life you soon adopt a new verb, that quickly becomes part of your daily vocabulary: gaming. Gaming is nature reserve speak for ‘going on safari.’ Game drives are organized about two times a day: around sunrise and sunset. Most animals sleep in full daylight hours, making a safari in the middle of the day rather pointless.
Getting woken up that first time at 5.30am to find yourself sitting in the dark, in a 4x4 only half an hour later after a quick glass of orange juice, a cup of tea and a muesli biscuit comes as quite a shock. Sleepily, I allow myself to be taken through the hilly savannah landscape of Phinda Private Game Reserve. It doesn’t take long before the sun starts to come up. The sunrise itself happens more quickly and is more spectacular than I have ever seen before. It is like watching a film on fast-forward: the pinkish-red ball shoots to the heavens. Shortly afterwards, the tracker sitting in the front of the 4x4 notices elephant prints in the sand. With our ranger Kevin at the wheel, we keep our eyes peeled for more elephant prints. In an open patch in the bush a short distance away we see a consort of three male elephants trying to rip a tree into bite size chucks with great gusto. I am immediately awake.
We are sitting in an open 4x4 – without windows – and are free to go off the road. Going off-road is fantastic because the animals often simply do not go near the roads. They can easily negotiate the high grasslands and shrubs of the bush. Although there are limits even to what a 4x4 is capable of, generally once a track has been found, it is not hampered by problems of mobility and can follow an animal for quite some time. In our first game drive we track no less than four cheetahs in the space of two hours. In a leisurely tempo, the cheetahs search out their prey.
I become one with the vehicle
Luckily, we do not fall into that category – at least as long as we stay in the vehicle. But, as we are told, the minute we stick so much as a leg outside, it’s a different story. When our ranger gives us a demonstration, the cheetah’s gaze immediately moves to our direction. Human flesh! In no time I become one with the vehicle, knowing that the animal in question will then see me as an object. I am not entirely at ease, but my fears slowly dissolve in the days that follow. I learn that as long as you stick to the rules, nothing bad will happen to you.
Still, the potential danger, no matter how slight, secretly forms part of the attraction of seeing a lion or other hunter at close range. Because make no mistake: seeing a wild animal at this distance, in the wild, is a unique experience. It is incomparable with seeing an animal at the zoo, which automatically has something sad about it. In a nature park you can really get a taste of the animal’s way of life. “I love not man the less, but nature more.” This quote from Lord Byron adorns the welcome note that is posted in our lodge done up in safari style. This is a good description of the experience. It’s not that I have come to like people less – even though at times I can hardly suppress a smile when I look at my fellow passengers, dressed from head to toe in khaki safari gear, vying for the best pictures (even I can’t help joining in this contest). But it does make me respect the natural and animal world more. Moreover, I am really starting to love it.
“If you really want to see Africa the way it has always been, now is the time to go, because in the future, all of this will disappear,” says Rita, a khaki-clad woman in her 50s who manages the small airport in Phinda. We are shocked by her statement; surely this nature reserve is protected? That may be true, she says, but she has little trust in the government, who undoubtedly will bow under economic pressure from large mining corporations to let them extract titanium from the sand dunes of Mapelane. Her gloomy predictions are luckily not shared by any of the rangers we questioned about the situation.
“The chance that that will happen is minimal,” says our ranger, Kevin Oxley.. “At a governmental level, every South African is very aware of the importance of nature conservation and animal protection, although this also ultimately stems from economic interests albeit in another form: tourism… now one of our most important sources of income. That says something about our level of ecological awareness.” Phinda is a member of the renowned ecotourism organization &Beyond, that owns and operates almost 50 game reserves. This video from CBS news shows how the local community is involved in conservation.
This would give poachers more of a chance
The present reality is that more and more nature reserves are being set up. In this vein, there is even a plan to fuse different nature reserves in South Africa with nature parks in Botswana and Mozambique. This means removing all perimeter fences to achieve one huge nature park. The realization of this plan is obstructed by a few tricky practical problems. The people native to these areas would have to move – which they are not prepared to do. Furthermore, this would give poachers more of a chance. This is of course, not the idea.
In a few days I see a lot of wild animals: elephants, rhinos, cheetahs, zebras, giraffes, buffalo, leopards, crocodiles, monkeys, flamingos, hyenas, impalas, nyalas (a type of antelope), warthogs, and all sorts of native birdlife. The most impressive wildlife experience is when we chance upon three lions. First we find them in the bushes, eating their freshly caught prey, which already is no longer recognizable. When they saunter off, we try to follow, but the trees are too dense. Kevin thinks that they must either be on their way to the waterhole for a drink, or that they are off to the cubs that one of the lionesses has given birth to about ten weeks ago. The lions have given the nearby waterhole a miss and once again we lose them for we are in a wooded area. We drive on, but Kevin doesn’t give up. Further on, he leaves the road at a random spot and drives into the bushes. We cannot believe our luck when the three lions we saw earlier are basking in the sun with the lioness… and her three cubs.
From five meters away we watch the playful tumbles of the lion cubs, as they take turns trying to climb a tree (and keep falling down in the process) and to sit on the lion’s head. The lion in turn, keeps pushing them off with a sweep of his paw. The cute factor is high: many people have to suppress the urge to leave the 4x4 and go and give them a cuddle. They are just like kittens. I am surprised that we can watch them from so close; they appear totally unperturbed by our presence. Eventually the mother has decided to do something about us and takes her cubs into the forest, where her entire family can sleep like kings. They won’t wake for a while; lions sleep a royal 18 hours a day.
African and colonial elements
For those romantically inclined, like myself, a trip to a private game reserve like Phinda in the south-east and Ngala, in the north-east of South Africa exudes the colonial Kenya atmosphere of books like Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen and I Dreamed of Africa by Kuki Gallmann. The lodges are wonderfully furnished in a style that combines African and colonial elements, with a lot of cane, wood, wrought iron, rattan, slate, linen and raw cotton. Every evening dinner is served in a different place, and is always beautifully presented.
We get the perfect Out of Africa vibe when dinner is served in the typical African boma, or kraal: an open space surrounded by a wall of branches and tree stumps to keep the wild animals out, located near the lodges. In the light of many candles, the warmth of the crackling wood fire and in the company of the ranger with whom we spent the day, we eat such delicacies as white walnut and celery soup served with peppered sour cream, lamb shanks stewed in apple cider with baby onions and Indian spices, tuna steak with sesame, soya, spring onions and chilli, spicy potato cakes, sautéed spinach with onion, tomato, garlic and for desert, macadamia nut cake with earl grey custard pudding. It goes without saying that the whole was accompanied with South African wines, like Beyerskloof pinotage or Vergelegen chardonnay (our favourite).
Nothing is more fun when camping out in the bush than telling real-life horror stories. In Ngala, the only private game park in the Kruger National Park, our dinner companion is Carmen. When I comment that I think I hear a lion roaring in the not all too distant distance, she agrees, telling us that the lions are indeed quite near and that we had better not return to our lodge alone.
The lions turned to attack him
“About a decade ago, a South African tourist went back to her lodge during a boma meal to get a sweater,” Carmen begins. “When after quite some time, she had still not returned, her husband decided to see what was taking so long. Right beside the place where everyone was relaxing and having a good time, he was shocked to see his wife at the edge of the pool, being eaten by three lions. He screamed, and the lions turned to attack him. His screams attracted the attention of the security guards, who shot the lions dead. The woman was already dead, but her husband managed to survive.”
Walking around in the dark alone is not only dangerous because you can’t see the animals coming, it is also life-threatening because this is when most animals are at their most active. For this reason, in most private game reserves you are not allowed to walk around the park on your own after sundown. If for example, you want to go to the restaurant from your lodge, you have to call reception, which then sends a security guard armed with a huge flashlight to come and escort you.
But, what if you should bump into a wild animal accidentally? “If you are confronted with a large wild animal, the best thing to do is to stay calm,” says Carmen, “Don’t make any noise and don’t move. Stand still on the same spot until the animal has gone. Don’t run or scream. Walk as calmly as you can to a safe place. Running or screaming will always prove fatal.”