It wasn’t until I heard the guttural cry of an old lion that I truly felt I was in Africa. We had just finished our Sundowner cocktail when our safari ranger got word that a lion was nearby. As the fiery sun sank behind the golden savanna bushland, our ranger veered off the rutted road and ploughed the Land Rover through November’s dry crackling brush. We positioned ourselves not four metres from this king of predators.
The lion was lying on his side, his large scraggly mane and tawny fur blending into the dying yellow grass. It was impossible to tell that this slumbering cat was about 1.2 m to the shoulder and 3m long.
As dusk descended into darkness, one of the other two encircling vehicles flipped on a giant spotlight, and the lion lifted his head and began to call softly. The deep-throated growl lasted more than 45 seconds before fading into short grunts. The lion’s sound, which can be projected eight kms, vibrated through the clear night air and rippled through every cell in my body.
When he gathered his 500 lb. body to stand, I lowered my camera to better see what would happen next. It was time to hunt. In the dark, his eyesight is five times better than mine, and he can smell prey a mile away. He looked around then padded directly towards me. We were told not to lean out of the open-air 4x4vehicle. No problem; I was frozen in my seat behind the driver as this king of beasts sauntered past my side into the bush. I don’t remember exhaling.
Raw and Beautiful South Africa
This was raw and beautiful South Africa at its most exhilarating. We are on a five-day safari in the kingdom of the wild, surrounded by hundreds of big and medium-sized game animals that must kill or be killed. We are witnessing the primal circle of life and we are experiencing it with our senses heightened.
Leopard Hills Private Game Reserve is located in Sabi Sands, a 10,000-hectare private game reserve next to the renowned Kruger National Park in northeast South Africa. Kruger Park has more species of large mammals – including the rare black rhino – than any African reserve. There is no fenced border between Sabi Sands and Kruger’s two million-hectare wildlife sanctuary so animals can move freely across the grasslands and woodlands.
Unlike Kruger Park, where visitors must stay on the roads in search of wildlife unless they hire a private guide, the rangers at smaller private game reserves can drive off road through the tangled brush to get their guests as close as safely possible to the wildlife. Our ranger, like many, is an excellent photographer and always finds us the best spot for a picture, whether we’re shooting a mammal, bird, tree or sunset.
Many of the big tribal animals living in the 800-hectare Leopard Hills are known to the lodge rangers and the trackers who accompany them on drives. Both are trained in animal and bird habitat and behaviour. Drivers also have to learn to navigate the network of roads around and between the connecting private reserves without a map.
Our ranger recognized this ageing lion. Driving back to our lodge, under a starry sky, he explained the male had been cast out of his pride because he was too old to travel with the other males.
“What was he saying?” I asked. “He didn’t sound threatened by our vehicles or angry about being in the glare of the spotlight.”
“He was calling out to see if any of his mates were nearby.” We learned lions typically communicate at sunrise or sunset when the pride is on the move. This call went unanswered.
Leopard Hills Private Game Reserve
Our resort has eight luxury suites built on stilts along an outcrop providing an expansive view of the plains below. Each air-conditioned suite has a private sun deck with plunge pool and outdoor shower.
It’s early November and the weather remains warm and drought-dry, making it easier to spot wildlife through bare bushes. Our ranger says they are waiting for the rains, but as our luck would have it, there was only a sprinkle one evening.
Sunrise and sunset are the best times to see animals in search of food and water. So our days start with a five a.m. wake up knock on the door, and after a light breakfast, the three-hour morning game drive begins After a relaxing lunch and afternoon, guests gather for tea at the main lodge at 4 p.m. before heading out on the afternoon drive.
Leopard Hills’ safari vehicles are customized by Land Rover. They have three tiered rows of seats behind the driver, but each row has two bucket seats instead of three. There’s no middle person to get in the way of your perfect shot. The middle seat is converted into a wide armrest and storage compartment for camera cases, water bottles, and lined ponchos for use on cool or wet days.
At dusk, our ranger finds another scenic water spot to set up a portable bar and serve a selection of Sundowner drinks to watch the day’s setting sun. Tonight the clouds reflect the sun in sheets of orange and purple. We return to our room to freshen up for cocktails and dinner with our ranger at the main lodge. Wild animals roam the area at night and we are always escorted back to our suite by a security guard.
The Big Five
The highlight of any African safari is to see the Big Five (elephant, lion, rhino, leopard and Cape buffalo) in the wild. These safari favourites are the most dangerous and hardest to hunt on foot. We have three days to spot the other four.
We were told that close encounters with the Big Five, including the more elusive leopard, is the specialty of Leopard Hills. The next day we are thrilled to be radioed the whereabouts of a pair of mating leopards. We bounce over deep dry ruts to get to the location. Sturdy branches snap like twigs as we inch forward into position. Leopards are nocturnal but during the day can be seen snoozing on the limbs of shady trees. Seeing wild leopards mating was another stroke of luck.
It takes me a few minutes to see the head and shoulders of this male cat resting behind a bush. Like the tawny lion, the leopard’s spotted body makes an excellent camouflage. The female is resting nearby and the male waits. These five-year-old leopards will mate every 15 minutes for the next three days, says our ranger, adding this female had recently mated with three other leopards. She does this so the males won’t kill her cubs for risk of killing their own.
The male yawns. The female slinks down the mound and rubs up against the male. Within seconds he mounts her, and just before he dismounts he clamps his jaws on the top of her neck. He growls. She snarls back.
“What is he doing?” I whisper, thinking this isn’t going well at all. A leopard can kill its prey by breaking its neck with one bite.
“He’s biting her to stimulate her hormones and to protect himself from being swatted by her when he jumps off.” On cue, she rolls over and swipes at him. They settle down a meter apart and rest again.
The next morning, we encounter a mother and two baby elephants eating along both sides of the road. The baby crosses in front of us to stand behind her mother. The African elephant is the world’s largest land animal and has an appetite to match. While the African lion sleeps 20 hours a day, the elephant grazes 18 hours a day to consume the required 300 kg of vegetation.
They use their trunk to tear at tree limbs and I am astonished to watch this mother demolish this tree, ripping the trunk out of the earth. The elephant’s trunk weighs as much as a female lion. They also use their trunk to communicate over miles through ground vibrations. I have no doubt the rest of this matriarch-led group knew we were coming long before we did.
On our final two days, we see the last of the Big Five – the two most dangerous and sought-after trophy-animals – the one-ton Cape buffalo, which will attack a vehicle if provoked, and the endangered two-horned rhino.
Returning to the lodge, our ranger tells us more about the threatened white and rare black rhinos, whose horns sell in Vietnam for up to $100,000 per kg. He drives us along the open Kruger Park border and stops to speak in Afrikaans with two armed guards patrolling for illegal hunters.
While some African countries have dehorned their rhinos to discourage poaching, our ranger says Kruger National Park and Sabi Sands does not, believing poachers will still kill rhinos for the horn stub.
I pack my checklist, which had grown to include the rare wild dogs, hyenas, sable antelope, baboons, wildebeest, reedbuck, kudu, Zebra, impalas, gazelles, giraffes and hippos.
After seven hours of game drives for five days with an expert ranger, I leave more aware of this incredibly diverse plant and animal ecosystem. Watching these animals, whose life and death keeps nature in balance, teaches me once again that today is the only day that matters.