Outside our tent-style cabin at Zulu Nyala Game Lodge, gentle zebra with shadowed stripes grazed alongside swirly-horned nyala (an antelope native to Southern Africa). Monkeys cavorted between the guest rooms and on our first night gusting winds blasted our canvas roof, making it creak and crack like a ship in high seas. In the brisk breeze of the morning after the storm, we bundled into our fleeces and our open-sided jeep and set off in search of the mother cheetah and her cubs who’d been spotted by another eager safari group.
Jacques, our guide, jumped out of the Landrover and headed off into the bush, his radio tracking device held out in front of him like a dousing stick, his thin bare legs looking vulnerable in the long grass. We didn’t find the cheetah that day, but returning to the same area a few mornings later, we were rewarded by a close-up view of the majestic mother with her four bouncing cubs. They were about six weeks old and still as fluffy as kittens, their fur a golden haze in the sunlight and dappled with the pale brown spots which would darken with age. They had slightly snub faces with cute heart-shaped noses and underneath their eyes they already had the smudged brown tear marks characteristic of the cheetah. We had to restrain ourselves from popping out of the vehicle to pet the adorable babies, until eventually their mother chivvied her offspring out of the clearing and deep into the undergrowth. Her tail swished behind her, brisk with warning; her muscles cascaded smoothly under her glossy coat.
Cheetahs are solitary animals and the males live separately from the females. Able to run at speeds of up to 110 km per hour, they are the world’s fastest land animal and are the only African predator who won’t scavenge food hunted by other animals: they need to hunt their own fresh meat. We were lucky enough to have several sightings of a male cheetah, including one directly after a kill. He’d dragged his unfortunate victim into the leafy green cave of an overhanging tree. The glassy-eyed nyala lay with its bulging stomach exposed and raw as the cheetah delved into its rib cage. His muzzle emerged bloodstained and dripping and we could hear him chewing, sharp teeth grinding against soft flesh.
Our most unusual cheetah sighting was on a night drive, when we saw a male being pestered by a rhino. Irritated, he stalked off into the long grass, the rhino lumbering heavily behind him. We stopped behind to gasp at the vast cavern of the night sky in the brittle cold. Countless stars sparkled in their Southern hemisphere constellations, the sky washed with a porridge of far-off galaxies. It was an awe-inspiring view which set the soul’s core quivering and for once our group – even the voluble and strongly-accented Petersen family from Atlanta, Georgia – was silenced.
Careering around the reserve in pursuit of animal sightings was an exhilarating experience whether or not we saw any big game. Outside the jeep was a vast, open landscape of grass, in places bleached almost white, in others singed orange, with craggy mountains smeared on the horizon like fingerprints. We bounced around, warm winds caressing our faces, lethal thorns clutching at us as our jeep scraped past. Neon blue birds perched high in the trees, flittering away from our noisy approach. Bristle-backed male nyala pranced around each other in a macho stand-off, lethal-looking horns poised. Watchful hippos eyed us from mud-brown pools, their red-rimmed eyes staring, unblinking. And gentle giraffes lolloped between luxuriant green trees.
One of the highlights was the walking safari that my friend Shannon and I took with Jacques after the other guests in our group had left. We were searching for buffalo. We saw wildebeest, snorting as we approached, their strange triangular heads cocked to one side, their compact bodies tensed. We saw vibrantly-patterned zebra; and busybody warthogs dashing around like single-minded commuters in the rush hour. The buffalo proved elusive, but just being out in the bush on foot was liberating, as well as a little frightening. The sun felt fierce on my back through my borrowed safari shirt as I watched the plump-headed grass swaying in the light breeze, wondering if it hid a cheetah. The earlier passage of elephants was marked by trees bent and snapped like breadsticks. The silence was peaceful, yet alert. Getting back into the jeep, we watched another glowing African sunset before returning to the lodge for a cold beer. In the bar, a welcoming fire roared in the grate, the smoke clinging to our hair and clothes with tight fingers. The smell persisted for several days; our memories of the safari will stay for much longer.
If you liked this …
You might like some of my other blog posts on my South Africa trip.