The Big Five

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Buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion, rhino. Together these comprise The Big Five, the animals every safari tourist wants to tick off their list – and ideally to capture them in a killer photo as well. These days we hunt with a camera rather than a gun. Through a combination of good luck and the expertise of our guides, my friend Shannon and I saw all five in one day while on holiday in South Africa.

Tracker Joy was perched in his spotter’s seat, which was fixed to the front of our Landrover like a bush version of a ships’ crow’s nest, when, minutes into our early morning game drive in Phinda game reserve, he leapt out and jumped rapidly into the seat beside me. Padding down the sandy path towards us was a glorious male leopard. We drew our collective breath in fascination seasoned with terror as he sauntered silently alongside. His coat was like velvet, the dappled fur rippling and shifting colour from brown to tawny gold in the pale sunlight and with the smooth movement of the muscles along his shoulders and back.

Before we’d recovered from this unexpected encounter – leopards are nocturnal and rarely seen during the day – Sebu, our guide and driver, wrenched the wheel round and bounced us off through thorn trees and parched scrub. Tucked in behind an overhanging tree was a small pride of lions feasting on a nyala (Southern African antelope) kill. We could hear them tearing off chunks of flesh and crunching on bone. A butcher’s shop smell of cloying blood hung in the air and kicked at the back of our throats. The big cubs scrapped and gambolled around their meal as their mother watched us with wary amber eyes, snapping at her offspring every now and again to keep them in check. Further into the undergrowth a shaggy-maned male with one blind blue eye and another female lay prone and sleepy after gorging themselves. Close enough to the female to watch her rib cage rise and fall as she snoozed, we tourists were wound tight with excitement, while Joy and Sebu tucked casually into yoghurts and muffins from our packed breakfast.

Back on the path, a female elephant appeared suddenly from the forest as we drove. Her ears, each weighing maybe 60kg, flapped as she grazed noisily. Behind us a young male arrived, then another, who barged in and shoved him roughly to his knees. The two began scrapping in a confusion of trumpeting, dust clouds, and the sound of massive elephant feet crushing and snapping vegetation. The female began pounding her way across to the testosterone-fuelled tussle. We were parked directly in her way, but Sebu was quick off the mark and we reversed out of harm’s way at speed. Sunlight slanted through the thicket onto a melee of heaving grey bulk as we left them to their fight and returned to the luxurious Zulu Nyala lodge to reflect on the morning’s highlights on our sunny verandah.

Our greed for Big Five sightings still unsated, we took an afternoon game drive with Jacques, our guide for the week, to Hluhluwe reserve, established in 1895, making it Africa’s oldest game park. As we cruised in, two lionesses basked in the shade of a tree in the middle distance, their teddy bear ears blinking at us. Spoiled by our close encounter with the feeding pride that morning, we hastened on to find a herd of buffalo grazing on the sun-scorched grass. They looked like dark chocolate brown cows with curly horns, but these beasts can be extremely aggressive and dangerous, and when one seemed to look directly at me with an unblinking gaze, I was glad that they were a little distance away and that we were in the safety of our jeep.

Driving around the park, we savoured the contrast in landscapes. Lush green areas resembled English summer countryside, other parts were more like American prairies, with acres of seared golden grass flecked occasionally with scrub and stunted angular trees. Swathes of land were blackened, pockmarked with ash-grey trees still alight and glowing red with burning embers. Jacques explained that almost half the park’s total area of 960 square kilomteres is burned each year to control the fire risk presented by unchecked growth. As the sun began to plummet and the sky flushed a subdued grey-blue, we had a simultaneously amazing and terrifying close encounter with three rhinos. Munching greedily on the grass at the roadside, growling throatily as they ate, the family group was about a metre from our Landrover. Rapt and edgy, we marvelled at their tough grey hides, tattered with scars and folded neatly over at the tops of their legs like a well-made bed. Their long rectangular faces with tubular ears like Shrek give them an ugly, prehistoric appearance and if it weren’t for the threat of their lethal horns, they would be comical. As we drove off, the male lunged after us in a brief show of power, before they went back to grazing undisturbed.

It had been an amazing day, with the animals presenting themselves for our viewing delight as if in a carefully rehearsed and choreographed performance. On other days we drove for hours with scarcely a living thing visible, the landscape offering its own starkly empty beauty. But Big Five day was unforgettable, the sort of safari experience you dream of – and the source of much envy in the lodge bar as we boasted of our game adventures to other guests!

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