“The views were immensely wide. Everything that you saw made for greatness and freedom, and unequalled nobility.”
― Karen Blixen, Out of Africa
Tracker Joy was perched in his spotter’s seat, fixed to the front of our LandRover like the bush version of a ship’s crow’s nest. Just minutes into our early morning game drive in Phinda game reserve, he leapt out and jumped into the seat beside me. Padding down the sandy path towards us was a glorious male leopard. We drew our collective breath as he sauntered silently alongside. His coat was like velvet, the dappled fur rippling and shifting from brown to tawny gold in the pale sunlight.
Buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion, rhino. Together these comprise The Big Five, the animals every safari tourist wants to tick off their sightings list – and ideally to capture in a killer photo. 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 memorable day on a trip to South Africa several years ago, on a safari trip generously donated by her father. That early morning leopard was the first.
Before we’d recovered from this unexpected encounter – leopards are nocturnal and rarely seen during the day – Sebu, our driver, wrenched the wheel of the jeep 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 (a horned African antelope). 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 lay a shaggy-maned male with one blind blue eye and another female, both prone and sleepy after gorging themselves. Close enough to watch the female’s 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. Her ears, each weighing maybe 60kg, flapped as she grazed noisily. Behind us a young male arrived, then another, who barged in and shoved the first 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 path, but Sebu was quick off the mark and we reversed at speed out of harm’s way. 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 afternoon game drive was 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 felt myself shudder slightly.
As the sun began to plummet and the sky flushed a subdued grey-blue, we had an 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 just 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.
In addition to the Big Five, a few days earlier, we’d been lucky enough to spot a majestic mother cheetah with her four bouncing cubs. They were six weeks old and as fluffy as kittens, their fur golden in the hay sunlight and dappled with pale brown spots. They had slightly snub faces with heart-shaped noses and underneath their eyes the smudged brown tear marks characteristic of the cheetah. We had to restrain ourselves from popping out of the vehicle to pet these adorable babies, until eventually their mother chivvied her cubs out of the clearing and deep into the undergrowth. Her tail swished majestically, her muscles cascaded smoothly under her glossy coat. We also had 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, his sharp teeth grinding against soft flesh. Our most unusual 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 constellations, the sky a porridge of far-off galaxies.
Careering around the reserve each day in pursuit of animal sightings was an exhilarating experience whether or not we saw any big game. The vast, open landscape of grass was bleached almost white in some places, 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 macho stand-offs, lethal-looking horns poised. Watchful hippos eyed us from mud-brown pools, their red-rimmed eyes staring, unblinking. Compact zebra with shadowed stripes grazed unperturbed alongside and gentle giraffes lolloped between luxuriant green trees. At the end of each day, 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 this spectacular safari will stay for much longer.
If you liked this, you might also enjoy…
- My ‘Around the world in 100 countries’ overview
- Out in the bush: Cheetahs and other animals
- The Big Five
- In the ostrich capital of the world
- Soweto: City of contrasts
- A million miles from Cape Town: Robben Island
- Travel blogger Sabrina Iovino’s informative and beautifully illustrated guide to going on safari in South Africa’s Kruger National Park
- My friend Anna Faherty’s evocative peek into her time in Kruger National Park
Natural highlights – the animals! The bush landscape, the beautiful coastlines, Table Mountain … South Africa is a beautiful country
Food & drink highlights – South African wine is fantastic and visiting some of the vineyards and tasting some samples is a fantastic experience. For meat-lovers, there’s no end of high quality, tasty delights to enjoy, from huge juicy steaks to lean ostrich meat. There are amazing restaurants in Cape Town and elsewhere: we loved our visit to Michelin-starred The Tasting Room in Franschoek.