We stayed at the lodge in Hazyview for a week and had several more forays into the Kruger Park. Each experience was different from the last and equally enthralling.
In the evenings we would have a braai- the South African version of a barbecue – with meat and corn cobs bought from the local supermarket.
It wasn’t until a few days in, that we realised the hippos came out of the Sabe river each night under cover of darkness and grazed the grass outside our balcony. We had smelled their awful stench, but had not associated it with Hippopotamuses.
I was quite relieved by this discovery as the ladies were showing an annoying interest in my gut health and were threatening to boil up some Elephant dung.
“It’s all that meat you’ve been eating on the braii,” they would cackle.
Michelle had befriended one of the night guards by filling his flask with tea and a couple of biscuits on the side. In return he agreed to give us a shout when the Hippo were out and about. We found that they were creatures of habit and fairly punctual, so at 8pm we would stare into the darkness from the safety of the balcony.
As we couldn’t quite see all the way to the riverbank and once we had caught a whiff of their distinctive pong, we ventured closer onto the neatly grazed lawn; nearer then nearer again.
First the stench grew stronger, like a whiff of ammonia; then a surprisingly quiet, nimble and dark shape loomed and lumbered into view and we were standing 20 feet from the most dangerous animal in all of Africa; a female hippo and her young calf. Despite their good eyesight, hearing and sense of smell- I’d challenge the latter- they paid us no attention and steadily moved as the mother grazed.
They spend most of their time in the water because they cannot sweat to keep cool, so I’m guessing the stench is from that great gaping mouth.
“Did you forget to brush your teeth?” I asked Michelle, as she whispered her excitement.
The second stage of our trip began with a drive up to Thornybush Nature Reserve, in Limpopo province at the foot of the Klein Drakensberg (little dragon’s) mountains.
KwaMbili Game Lodge, promised us, ‘an authentic safari experience at an affordable price,’ and we were all eager to get there. I volunteered to drive and we were making good progress.
The local constabulary were hot on speeding so I was careful to obey the ever changing speed limits. They also have a reputation for taking tourists down to the station to extort cash for spurious offences and I was keen not to draw their attention.
At one ramshackle stretch of road that one might generously call a town, I checked the speedo and all was well. I had just passed a plain clothes constable operating a speed check via a walkie-talkie (probably from Woolworths) signalling to her uniformed friends further ahead, who had already collared at least one victim.
I was feeling just a little smug when the blighters waved at me to pull over.
“You will need to come to pay a fine: one thousand rand” said the stony faced copper, clearly not in the mood for any preliminary chitchat.
Seeing my jaw drop she continued:
“What did you do along the road back there?”
“I’ve no idea,” I said, bristling a little, “I was driving carefully, within the speed limit, driving with due care and attention, so you’ll have to tell me, I’m afraid.”
“You went straight through the traffic lights,” she declared triumphantly.
“If you mean, the traffic lights that weren’t working, I stopped behind another car at the non-existent line; then when it pulled away I followed slowly behind, seeing that there were no other cars in the junction.”
She looked unsure for the first time, then radioed her colleague.
“You will have to pay a fine as you must stop,” she concluded.
My back-seat passengers, who had hitherto remained quiet chirped up.
“That’s ridiculous. We haven’t got any cash anyway. Anyway, we haven’t done anything wrong.”
“Then you will have to come to the court house,” said the constable, hardening her attitude, as if that were possible.
The prospect of the ‘reasonably priced but idyllic’ KwaMbili game lodge was fading in my mind and I imagined crouching in the urine-stained and sweaty confinement of a backwater jail house, with only cockroaches and murderers for company.
I’ve thrown plenty into police cells in my career and they are not a nice place to be, but I’ve never been so petty as to stitch up a law abiding holidaymaker over such a dubious offence.
The sense of injustice I felt welled up until my face reddened and I began a full interrogation of the act and section that had allegedly been contravened; politely, of course.
I sensed then, that the constable wondered if she hadn’t picked on the wrong car, as the shadow of a doubt passed over her stern features. The fine was reduced to five hundred rand and we sensed victory.
After another five minutes of verbal tennis, supported by the back-seat chorus girls, the constable eventually shrugged her shoulders and with weary resignation sighed, “You can go now.”
It was all part of the rich African experience, we agreed, as we left the jaws of one little dragon to make our way to the feet of another, wild but altogether more welcoming one.
We showed our paperwork to the armed guard and he opened the gates to Thornybush Game Reserve.
The Toyota roller-skate certainly wasn’t made for the hard, dusty and pot-holed roads of the reserve and we were shaken like a cheap cocktail. This was a different world from our previous adventure; it was much more intimate.
We passed a family of warthogs by a waterhole and saw various antelope and even giraffe and after a slight accidental detour, we arrived at KwaMbili game lodge.
There was an electrified wire about eight feet off the ground to deter Elephants but other than that, we were plum in the middle of the wild. The staff met us with hot flannels to wipe the dust from our faces and necks and showed us to our accommodation.
We can move about in the day along the marked paths between buildings and the observation hide, but at night we must be escorted to our rooms, said our host.
Our rooms were in a thatched stone building and inside there was an elegantly draped mosquito net over the large bed, looking out onto a small patio and the bush beyond.
Dinner is served at seven fifteen and we’re up at four-thirty for the first game drive. Our ranger-guide, Brian, will give a knock at the door to make sure we’re up.
The main building is open-sided with a thatched roof and is decorated in colonial style; filled with sumptuous leather lounge chairs, a gramophone record player, chaise longue and the skulls and horns of wild beasts.
A healthy colony of fruit bats hang from the rafters above the dining area and pretty antelope, called Nyala, wander into the camp near to the dining tables. We ate a lovely meal and got an early night in preparation for the morning.
I dreamt of wild beasts and woke with a start at 3am. It was no dream, however, as I listened in the darkness to the sounds of a party of giggling hyenas and the low, resonant roar of a lion.
Had I been under canvass, as others in our little party were, I might have been concerned, but it was the right mix of near danger and relative safety that allowed me to succumb to the lion’s lethal lullaby and return to a dreamful sleep.
Brian banged on the door at 0430 sharp and we we all jumped onto the readied wagon a few minutes later.
There were four rows of tiered seats on this modified Landrover and an extra one welded out in front for our tracker guide, Tshepo, whose name means,’Trust Hope.’ He was a lean man with a wide smile and few words and knew intimately the land and animals about him. Being dangled as he was out front like live bait, I expected him to carry a rifle but he preferred only a thick walking stick with a knotted end that could double as a club.
Brian, squeezed his large, South African number-eight frame into the driver’s seat, knees against the dash, and we set off into the dark of the morning before sun-up.
Tshepo shone a torch left and right, up and down and we occasionally stopped to look at something he had found. We heard the call of the Nightjar and saw a pearl spotted owlet, roosting.
The dawn came quickly as we bumped along rickety paths.
Then suddenly we stopped again as our guide Tshepo spotted a partial paw print in the powder dirt at the side of the track. Brian steered us into thick bush and we were off-piste for the first time, stopping every few yards to prune or saw a branch.
Brian was a kind of cross between a balding Steve Irwin (crocodile hunter) and an extreme version of TV gardener, Alan Titchmarsh.
I could see why the place was named Thornybush, as the twisted branches sprung from every square yard of ground with vicious barbs of three-inch silvery spikes, sticking out to all points of the compass along their length.
That’s what we were promised when we ate the first fruit of human consciousness and the knowledge of good and evil, to be banished from the Garden: Thorns and thistles.
It was a death of separation from our maker and of harmony with the creatures within it. God gave us the first science of taxonomy; to name the animals, but we have failed to care for them.
Penetrating the thorny bush consisted of extreme pruning by one of three means:
Driving straight over a small trees that twanged and thwacked, playing the underside of the Landrover like kettle drums;
using the heavy conventional pruners, kept on the dash for overhanging branches;
or for heavier branches that could withstand the first two options, a mini saw.
Brian fell foul of those armour piercing thorns on more than one occasion, so that when he said “duck,” we all did.
Rolling and jerking, twanging and ducking and pruning into position, we finally bounced to a halt about thirty yards in.
I could see nothing at all but golden straw like grass at first, but then, when I looked carefully, saw the pale and full under bellies of five well-fed lions, lying like contented kittens on a sunny path.
Exposed as we were in the truck, and only feet from these apex predators, we were completely safe: The lions had clearly eaten their fill and were sleeping it off.
I had never imagined being so close to these beautiful, wild, big-cats and the moment, like so many others on this trip, was one I will not forget.
After watching awhile, and seeing the lions raise a weary head and twitch an ear here, or a roll over and stretch out a great paw there, we finally moved on, hungry for something new to see.
We didn’t have long to wait. Our silent tracker, Tshepo, spotted more animal tracks on the path and jumped off his perched seat and disappeared into the bush with only a radio and his club-stick.
Brian drove on, following the wide arc of dirt road,
When we stopped again, wondering if at any moment we would hear the roar of another big-cat and the deathly screams of our tracker, we saw instead a huge and powerful male white Rhinoceros moving slowly between the Umbrella Thorn Acacia, the Magic Guarri and the vicious Sickle bushes.
He was massive but due to his grey colour, seemed to vanish and hide shyly behind the smallest of bushes, before reappearing to give us a magnificent and magnified eyeful.
I studied his prehistoric features and was reminded of those dinosaur transfers I used to love as a small boy:
There was a large cardboard landscape with volcanoes, rocky desert and lush, green tropical plants on it. My job was to fill the landscape with dinosaurs by rubbing the back of some greased paper with a pencil to transfer the dinosaur of choice on the other side into the landscape.
Press too hard or at the wrong angle and the pencil would break or pierce the paper; too gently and the animal would break apart as the paper was peeled away. It required careful concentration.
The Triceratops, which looks like a distant, plant-eating relative of the Rhinoceros, would always use his long horns to defeat the sharp teeth and tiny arms of the Tyrannosaurus Rex; at least in my little world it did.
Now I was seeing real dinosaurs and fantastic, giant beasts.
We moved on and saw a family of mongooses and then four endangered Southern Ground Hornbills, patrolling the dry ground, with their sharp, beady eye and their large and bright red and grey coloured beaks.
“If the female doesn’t accept the male, she sometimes kills him,” says Brian, who is currently staying single just in case.
Then, back for a big Brian breakfast at the camp with hanging bats and pretty Nyala for company.
We had time to relax and talk about the morning’s adventure before a light lunch and the afternoon safari, which promised Michelle’s much-looked-forward-to-treat of ‘sundowners.’ What could be better than a Gin and Tonic in the African bush as the sun turns turns the world pink?
Something to appeal to both the naturalist and the hedonist.
We set off again with a change of seating arrangements but the same routine and started to read the tracks and signs for ourselves. There were sightings of giraffe and zebra, then a trip to the water hole, where a large hippo tiptoed from the bush to the water’s edge, before hiding his bulk underneath with just his ears, eyes and nostrils showing above the water. Brian pointed out a big crock on the other side.
Then onto another water hole and four spotted hyenas came down to drink and cool off.
They moved near to the truck and spoke to one another in a low growl. Spotted hyenas kill nearly all the prey they eat, whereas striped hyenas are scavengers. They are mostly nocturnal as attested by the night-time whoops and giggles I had heard.
It’s amazing to think that these exotic creatures once roamed the vast plains now covered by sea along the coast of Devon, England where we live. They originated in the jungles of Miocene Eurasia twenty-two million years ago and since the Dinosaur mass extinction occurred sixty-six million years ago, they could not have inhabited my boyhood transfer scenes.
The paper today says that we’re on the verge of another great extinction of plants and animals; the biggest in sixty-six million years, they say. I sincerely hope we can muster the ingenuity and will to do something to preserve this wonderful diversity of life to which we all belong.
I pondered our role in the world as we all said “cheers!” and sipped Michelle’s favourite sundowners and biltong (dried rump strip) nibbles.
As the twilight fell upon us like a hungry hyena, Brian found a young Leopard lying behind a low mound of earth. It was a thrilling sighting and cameras clicked and snapped. Pete, having failed to see one on previous trips, was now tripping over these handsomely clothed big-cats. They are beautiful indeed.
Back at KwaMbili our evening continued with a braai in the boma.
Brian told us that boma is an acronym for British Officers Mess Area but I have since learned this is a myth. The word has its roots in Bantu or Persian and consists of a circular Kraal or enclosure, used to contain livestock or as an area for community decision making.
I decided to eat another curly boerwors sausage- “lekker!” (I knew my smattering of Dutch language would come in handy).
A couple more G&T’s and it was time for bed. Brian doubled as our barman and it’s another full day tomorrow.
It was the final afternoon of our stay that gave us the very best sightings. Giving up my higher perch seat to give others a turn, I grabbed the remaining place next to Brian in the front.
Nearing a water hole in the heat of the afternoon, we saw a fully grown male leopard quenching his thirst. As he wandered back across the road in front of us I fumbled for my phone camera and promptly dropped it down the back of the seat.
The best opportunity I would get to photograph this magnificent beast and I blew it. I was torn between desperate disappointment and awe at the privilege of seeing him so near in broad daylight.
As the cameras machine-gunned behind me, I had to remain still and couldn’t retrieve it.
Instead I watched his great paws and powerful shoulders pad and sway from side to side. He had a kind of arrogant swagger about him and paid us no attention whatsoever as he vanished into the bushy scrubland.
Brian had an idea where the Leopard was heading and we drove in a wide circuit to see if we could find him again. I gripped my retrieved phone, annoyed that I hadn’t captured him but still hopeful.
We waited in a clearing shaded by trees and sure enough the big male leopard appeared in the distance after a few minutes of waiting. Then he moved nearer and nearer. It was as if he felt my disappointment and wanted to give me another shot. Twenty feet, then ten and he was still moving towards my passenger seat. My pulse raced and I unconsciously tucked in my bare arm. Then as he nearly reached me, he turned across the front of the land rover and paced over to a large tree to leave his scent, before leaving us.
But even then, the best was yet to come:
On a long track we had not taken before, we came upon a den of the endangered and fascinating African wild dogs or painted hunting dogs. The latter is a better description of their tawny brown and black bristle fur coats, splattered with white paint like a decorator’s overalls.
They were an adult pair with nine pups, perhaps six or seven weeks old.
At first we saw a couple of pups emerging from the earthy den at the foot of a tree root. Then, both parents came out of the tree cover with blooded faces from a recent kill which they promptly regurgitated to feed the family.
The pups yelped and ate quickly before doing their ablutions; then it was time for play.
Mum relaxed a few yards from us as we watched the pups pouncing on one another, boisterously honing their hunting skills. It was pure magic.
In fact, the painted dog has a prominent role in the mythology of different African peoples. For the Southern African San people, the dog is directly linked to the origin of death: After the hare rebuffed the moon’s promise to allow rebirth after death, it was cursed to be forever hunted by the dogs.
The San of Botswana see the dogs as the ultimate hunter and traditionally believe that shamans and medicine men can transform themselves into these animals.
The South African Ndebele tell a fable explaining why the dogs hunt in packs, involving a hare, an impala and a zebra:
The impala, entrusted by hare to deliver life-saving medicine to wild dog’s wife, was scared by the scent of a leopard and turned back, spilling the medicine. A zebra then went to hare who gave him the same medicine, warning him not to turn back. Zebra was scared by a black mamba and also turned back, dropping and breaking the gourd of medicine. The failure of their rescue mission was bad news for all impala and zebra from that day on. It says to me, never turn back in fear when you’re doing the right thing to help someone in need- you’ll lose that which can help them.
Thornybush nature reserve exceeded expectations in every sense and we were all sad to leave. It was the adventure of a lifetime that I had hoped for and a place to which I would return to in a heartbeat.
We said our farewells and drove up and over the back of the little dragon’s picturesque mountains, all the way back to Johannesburg and there parted company with our friends, Pete and Sue.
They left for home as Michelle and I headed for the southernmost of South Africa’s three capital cities, Cape Town.
But that’s another story..