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An African safari is one of life’s great travel experiences, promising adventure, vast landscapes, and the exhilaration of getting up close to the wildlife - but please, pack a camera, not a rifle
30.12.15 - 20:08 -
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Fair game
Expert trackers take guests on games drives to catch a glimpse of some of Africa’s most iconic and striking wildlife. :: A. F.
As night fell, there was a distinct chill in the air as the Land Rover pushed though the South African Bush back towards the lodge. It was almost the end of a long afternoon’s game drive taking in memorable sights including grazing zebra, agile impala, elephants, nonchalant giraffe, and even a couple of sleepy lion cubs. Just as my thoughts started to turn to a hot shower and dinner, the 4x4 suddenly stopped. The guide cut the engine, and our tracker directed his torch out towards a dry river bed.
The stillness was marked by sounds like air being let out of a balloon; the gently exhaling of rhinos vocalising to each other. In front of us were a pair of southern white rhinoceros. Nestled between them, almost tucking itself under the belly of the mother, was a young calf. Like my fellow guests in the vehicle, I was mesmerised; it was like nothing I’d seen before. The tenderness and protective nature of the parents towards their offspring was compelling.
Game drive
It was my first wildlife drive at Motswari Private Game Reserve, a stylish, family-owned lodge within the Timbavati Nature Reserve, and already our knowledgeable guide and expert tracker had brought us to some of Africa’s most iconic and striking wildlife.
South Africa is home to one of the continent’s largest conservation areas, the Kruger National Park and over recent decades it has grown even larger as the private game reserves like Motswari that surround it, have taken down their fences, allowing Africa’s alluring wildlife to roam more freely.
Trains and automobiles
A few days earlier I had boarded the iconic Blue Train, which gently meandered north over 27 hours in decadent style. One started the journey with a morning mimosa cocktail, and an indulgent brunch before returning to a luxury cabin, carefully prepared by a butler. It’s magical to watch the African scenery pass by, from the striking mountains of the Western Cape, to the vastness of the Karoo and the central plateau before the train arrives in Pretoria, the country’s capital. It’s a perfect way to combine indulgent pampering with the wild adventure of an African safari.
Instead of flying or taking the train further east, I rented a car and drove towards the wildlife reserves. During the day it soon became clear that it’s not just hunting and poaching that is threatening the survival of Africa’s wildlife; it is the destruction of its habitat. Historically big game covered much of Africa, but now all too often it is concentrated in national parks and private game reserves.
At one point on the drive, I had to close the car windows and recirculate the air, as thick smoke from illegal land-clearing blanketed the ground and drastically reduced visibility. Almost right up against the reserves and parks are farmland and huge monoculture, eucalyptus timber plantations. The rich biodiversity of many African grasslands have been destroyed so we can have cheap paper.
Nkomazi Game Reserve
Yet there is good news too, as some of Africa’s natural habitat is being restored. I took the spectacular Genesis Route, renowned for its unique geology and landscape. Here the Nkomazi Game Reserve has reclaimed farmland to create a compelling game experience. Admittedly it is a contrived resort, something that safari purists sometimes criticise South Africa for, since the animals are shipped in and held within a gated estate. Yet for me it’s heartening to know that this is contributing to thousands of hectares of habitat being restored to its natural state and many indigenous species being reintroduced. It also offers an impressive game viewing experience - we got truly up close to a pride of lions, including a spectacular mature male, as well as seeing cheetah, zebra, and elephants. We even walked (down-wind) to within tens of metres of white rhino for an exhilarating close encounter. Accommodation is in tented suites that echo the controversial golden age of safari, and make you feel like you’ve just set up camp; but the reality is that there is a plush king-size bed, air conditioning, and a well-equipped bathroom.
Motswari Game Reserve
After a few days getting into the safari state of mind at Nkomazi, I then continued my journey east and within a few hours’ drive I reached the vast perimeter fence of the Timbavati Private Reserve, and the beginning of the extraordinary Greater Kruger National Park. The contrast in the landscape is significant. Once past the armed security gate, one enters a vibrant place; indigenous trees continue to the horizon, impala graze by the verge, giraffes’ necks tower over tree tops, and one catches glimpses of elephants in the evening light.
At Motswari one quickly feels immersed in the bush. The sights and sounds around one’s guest suite are uniquely African; the grunts and snorts of warthogs wallowing in mud close-by; the loud wheeze of a hippopotamus in the waterhole in front of the terrace; even sometimes a trumpet-blast from a moody elephant; or the gentle munching of a kudu as it tears thorny leaves from the trees outside the bathroom window.
The game drives, although inspiring, can also be tiring, so the delicious, homemade food at the lodge, together with the luxury of one’s room are very welcome. The large four poster bed in my private cottage, covered with a full mosquito net certainly sets the tone for the safari inspired décor, accented with twisted kudu horns on the wall, and zebra skins on the floor. At first it may not seem politically correct to have animal trophies as decoration these days, but during one’s stay guests begin to understand the difference between the sustainable hunting, for example, of kudu for food and the totally unsustainable poaching of southern white rhino which at present levels look set to wipe out the animals within a few generations.
Walking safari
There is much more to a safari that ticking off sightings of the Big Five from the comfort of a 4x4. To experience the richness of life in the African wilderness means going on foot, so I went out one morning with Godfrey Mathebula, Head Field Guide and Assistant Manager at Motswari. As the son of a Motswari staff member, his education was sponsored and he is now a highly experienced guide and a passionate naturalist. He certainly looked the part, carrying a rifle, but the truth is his expertise and knowledge of the area and its animals, together with my cooperation with his instructions were always the best protection. He eloquently explained the intricacies of the local ecosystem, pointed out colourful birdlife, explained more about the flora and also how they track game.
Memories of safari
It was a powerful travel experience; authentic and meaningful. One of the many safari moments that I will always remember; just as I will never forget seeing that family of rhino in the moonlight. I recall that as we watched the animals walk off into the bush, slowly being cloaked by the darkness, they looked so powerful, yet at the same time so vulnerable. Our guide wished them luck - these young parents are considered fair game by Africa’s poachers.