In South Africa’s Kruger National Park, correspondent Peter Frank embarks on a mind-blowing wildlife adventure (sundowners included).
At some point, I just wanted to sit on my deck and let the animals come to me.
Game viewing in South Africa’s Kruger National Park was proving to be more tiring than I’d expected. Granted, bouncing around in a Land Rover and looking for cheetah or giraffe was straining my eyeballs more than any actual muscles. But when the first game drive starts at dawn, followed by lunch (with wine!), an hour-long hike, an hour-long massage, then an evening game drive (with sundowners!) — all on top of the jet lag that comes from flying to the bottom of the world….
Well, at a certain point a body gets tired. And my glass-walled, treehouse-style suite at Singita Lebombo Lodge had a large and inviting terrace overlooking a lazy river, the perfect perch to sit with a glass of chenin blanc and wait for a hippo to swim by, or an elegantly horned kudu to saunter over for a drink of water.
But despite what Timon and Pumbaa would have you believe, real animals tend not to come out and do a song and dance number for your viewing pleasure. No, the point of a safari is to go out and look for them, and Singita happens to employ some of the best trackers and rangers in Africa. So I left behind my terrace, and my gorgeously mosquito-netted daybed, and my Scandinavian-chic furniture and wood-slatted ceilings and outdoor shower, and got back into the Land Rover with Brian and Charles.
These two geniuses were my guides to the many treasures within Singita's 37,000-acre private concession in Kruger National Park. Charles, the tracker, sat in a chair attached to the hood of the vehicle, scanning the horizon for game and the ground for their prints. He could spot a chameleon dangling from a branch in the dark, or a crocodile lazing in the water 30 yards away, camouflaged by foliage. He could make out paw prints in dirt beneath us as we sped by, and tell if a particular animal had been there, and when.
Brian, the ranger, drove and narrated. Formerly a guide trainer in Botswana and a survivalist in the Recces, the South African Special Forces, he was a veritable encyclopedia of the bush, able to expound on the socializing habits of guinea hens, or terrify you with the cytotoxicity of puff adder snakes, or point out nearly every constellation in the sky.
Courtesy of Brian and Charles, the four other guests in our vehicle and I had already had our minds blown several times over. We watched a pride of ten lion stalking a giraffe, and later crept around another pride napping in a giant circle — among them an exceedingly rare white lion, one of only about ten in the wild. Another time, we parked at a watering hole and watched, to our left, three statuesque male lions feed on a recently killed waterbuck, and to our right, a succession of giraffe, elephant and lions drinking and bathing at the water's edge. Once, a protective young male elephant flapped his ears at us and knocked down a tree with his trunk, a warning to stay back from his herd, resting in the trees behind him. Another evening, a leopardess balanced on the branch of a tree, grunting loudly to call her mate, then slunk down and perched at the edge of a ravine, as if posing for us in all her glamorously spotted glory. It never ceased to astonish me how close we got to these magnificent creatures — the leopard was no more than five yards from the vehicle — and how unperturbed they were by our presence, even when other vehicles would roll up. (Of course, we never left the vehicle, lest the animals see us as prey.)
Not that there were many other vehicles around. One huge plus of a private concession like Singita's is that you only share it with a handful of other vehicles. You're never crowding around the animals, jostling for space with your telephoto lens. Another advantage: the guides will customize each drive for your specific desires. One guest on my vehicle was keen to see cheetah. Another had brought a special lens in the hopes of spotting a lilac-breasted roller. (That's a bird, we saw one, and it sure is pretty.)
This being my first safari, my goal was simply to check off the so-called Big Five: lion, leopard, elephant, Cape buffalo and rhinoceros. By my final morning, however, I've only seen the first three. Brian and Charles make my priorities known to the other guides, and as we drive through the plains, past empty miles of scrub and trees, the vehicle's radio crackles with reports of lion tracks here, leopard tracks there, but no sign of any actual animals. (Ominously, Charles also spots the sneaker prints of poachers, who cross from the nearby Mozambican border to kill rhino, saw off their horns, and sell them on the black market.) For hours we drive around, my eyes growing heavy, my lower back starting to ache, the sun beating down. Nothing. Not a creature in sight.
Until finally, something happens. Brian spots a hyena crossing the road, stalking something on the other side. Then another hyena comes, and another. Suddenly there's a group of them, maybe seven, and they've surrounded a small warthog, teasing it, tussling with it. More hyena trot in from every direction, and vultures are circling in the sky, drawn by the action that's about to go down. The hyenas are nipping at the hog's tail and hind legs while it wheels around, jousting with its tusks, looking for an escape. But there is none: he is surrounded. The hog kneels as if for mercy, then lays down as the hyenas go in for the kill. The hyenas grunt and gnash; the warthog starts to squeal and scream. They are digging into its flesh, ripping it to shreds. One hyena trots over to the shade of a tree, a long entrail dangling from its jaw. And still the warthog is squealing: It is literally being eaten alive. By now the vultures — four of them — are on the ground, awaiting their turn, joined by jackals and still more hyenas, lured by the squeals of the warthog and by a new sound: the high-pitched laughing and cackling of their brethren, sinister and excited, thrilled with the pleasure of the hunt and with their now-full bellies.
I could go on about Singita Lebombo's well-stocked wine cellar, its exquisitely plated and delicious food, the infinity pools, the smiling staff who greet you by first name, the chic bar perched over the veld, the spa, the shop. I could even talk about how after the hyena kill, with just an hour left before I had to depart for my flight, Brian and Charles raced us across the concession and managed to locate, just in the nick of time, my missing Cape buffalo and rhino — and even a group of adorable seven-week-old lion cubs. But none of these extraordinary experiences were as mind-searingly memorable as watching, not 20 yards in front of my eyes, that pack of hyenas perform the horrible and beautiful drama of the natural world. This was, in the end, what going on a safari was all about.