Leaving Johannesburg behind, I fly to the village of Skukuza – the headquarters of the Kruger National Park, where the airport is located.
Kruger is one of the largest wildlife sanctuaries in Africa, with some of the densest animal population.
I will be staying in one of the lodges found inside the Sabi Sands game reserve – the Lion Sands River Lodge, a peaceful, luxurious retreat in the middle of the wild.
The Sabi River flows just outside the bungalows, attracting a lot of wildlife to come into view.
This seamless blending between the wilderness outside and the comforts inside the lodge continues throughout the property.
Of course, the main attraction for staying in a place like Lion Sands is doing the game drives.
That afternoon, I met up with Mike who will be accompanying me on our game drives for the rest of our stay. He introduces me to Patrick who will be our tracker.
We leave the comforts of the lodge behind and venture into the bush.
“Patrick is our tracker, he is basically my partner, what we are going to do is we are going to work together to try and find you guys some animals, how we do that is Patrick is basically going to sit on this chair and he is going to look for footprints of the animals while we drive along the roads,” Mike tells me as Pat sits in front of the vehicle, his feet dangling out of the truck.
Despite the area’s massive size, Mike and Pat were able to point out and share some very interesting facts about the abundant wildlife.
He points at some zebras grazing peacefully. “If you want to know if they are healthy or not, you look at their mane if it’s shiny and if you look at the crest on their head, if it flops over then they generally have something wrong with them. If it is erect and straight then they are healthy.”
Sometimes you think you know all there is to know about animals, but Mike is all about dishing out interesting factoids.
“Crazy cool things about giraffes. They have a very big heart, which is around the size of a football or a soccer ball. When it brings its head down to drink for example to pick up a bone or to chew, all that blood pressure suddenly instead of going against gravity suddenly goes with gravity, putting them at high risk for a stroke every time they bend their necks down,” he tells me.
Mike then points out a beautiful orange, white and black bird on a tree. “That’s an African hoopoe. It is one of Africa’s smelliest birds. It has a chemical defense like a skunk. Now this guy has an overactive gland so which makes a very smelly substance and he wipes that on his feathers, and that is what creates the smell.”
It was great to have a knowledgeable guide who can help you appreciate the things you see.
Out from the bushes, comes a young elephant eager to feed on the woody shrubs.
“The brain of an elephant is extremely similar to the brain of a human in many, many ways – their problem solving ability, their emotional scale, their communication levels –they are really very cognitively gifted.”
As we prepared to leave him to his meal, we chanced upon the rest of the herd – along with some cape buffalos. That’s two of the Big Five right in this spot!
The Cape Buffalo is the largest of the African bovine species. They can be unpredictable and are known to be one of the most dangerous animals here. They are ferocious enough to even kill lions.
We continued to proceed, but one of the elephant herd’s females did not seem keen on letting us pass through. Mike tries to sweet talk his way, but she wouldn’t budge! If she chooses to charge, this Land Rover can be a flattened tin!
“When they’re coming at you. No movement, as silent as humanly possible just so they can decide what to do. It’s the one animal that can flip the car so,” Mike speaks just above a whisper.
He continues to direct his charms towards the female elephant.
“Hello darling, sorry to ask you…I know, I know I’m sorry, but I’m just gonna go past you…”
Until she finally gives in.
“Thank you so much, we really appreciate it,” Mike tells her as we drive away.
“They understand these things, they really are like people,” he says and I believe him.
Finally, we can relax a little bit as we approached a spot where he promised some sundowners.
It was an amazing spread, with a panoramic view of the river. I savored my wine as I watched nature put on an incredible show.
As we kicked back and let the day wind down, we suddenly see something at the edge of the water – it was a leopard coming down for a drink!
We scrambled out of our seats to get back on the truck. The day isn’t done after all!
It isn’t very often that a leopard walks into your field of view, and we wanted to follow and observe it up close.
“This is a female leopard and you can tell because of the size of her head, the fact that she has a very slender neck and also her body size, she is relatively small,” Mike says as we get up close to her.
She was stealthy and graceful, and can disappear into her surroundings at will. She can then pounce on her unsuspecting prey. She is currently hunting and has set her sights on a duiker at a distance.
We started losing daylight, and as we followed her closely, we can tell that she seemed uneasy.
Apparently, there were two hyenas tailing her too. She decides to disappear into a tree.
“Generally what they are doing is that they are following her so that if she kills they are right there and they can take it from her, and she doesn’t want that,” Mike explains.
Trying to shake them off, she stays put on her perch.
Sensing that they are waiting in vain, the hyenas scurried off. Finally, she can come down to hunt in peace, in the cover of the night. What an encounter!
In the dark, we navigated our way back to our lodge. I just hope no wild animals jump out and make dinner of us!