South Africa: A walk on the wild side

By Catherine Masters

A hornbill in Sabi Sabi game park, South Africa. Photo / Mark Street
A hornbill in Sabi Sabi game park, South Africa. Photo / Mark Street

We're in the wilds of the magnificent Sabi Sabi Game Reserve in South Africa having a nice glass of wine under the stars ... you know, as you do.

Dangerous creatures are out here. We know that because when it was still light we saw a leopard, a plentiful but notoriously elusive and very dangerous species.

We stalked the leopard, actually. Our truck joined other safari jeeps and had him surrounded as he hid in a bush, to which he responded by settling in for a bit of a sleep.

We left him to it and went off and saw zebra, rhino and an amazingly regal giraffe towering above the trees, silhouetted in the dusk.

Then, after darkness proper had fallen, we did something we'd been told never to do on account of the danger - we all got out of the jeep.

So now we're standing in a circle in the pitch black, supping on our wine while our guide, an Englishman called Will Lawson, tells us a story about a hyena.

Another guide was with a group like ours one night having a drink when suddenly between his legs and the legs of the person next to him a hyena appeared, as if it was joining the circle.

The guests froze and the guide took a moment then said, "Another drink anyone?"

We're laughing at the story when suddenly there's a rustle in the bushes and what comes trotting out bold as brass and right on cue?

Yep, a hyena.

He took a bit of a look at us but didn't seem at all bothered and carried on his way, looking very busy.

Luckily, he didn't attempt to join the circle, or start laughing at us because that's the noise hyenas make when they're alerting their mates they've found some food.

So we carried on, too, and every now and then we'd hear him rustling about and sometimes popping back into view.

Sabi Sabi is a glorious private reserve within the southwestern section of the massive Kruger National Park.

Already during our short stay we've had a whale of a time - if you can have a whale of a time on safari - so perhaps what we've had is a dazzle of a time (the collective noun for zebra).

Will has taken us off-roading in search of animals, leaving the dirt track behind and crashing through undergrowth, carefully avoiding endangered trees but driving over or through anything else.

He occasionally yells out for us to avoid the piercing thorns of the numerous acacia trees, but fails to tell us to avoid the huge multi-coloured and really very pretty orb spiders, which sit in the middle of enormous webs so strong they were once investigated to see if bullet-proof vests could be made from them.

The orb spider can give a nasty bite but is not poisonous so won't kill you, unlike the black mamba, one of the deadliest snakes in Africa.

Earlier we'd driven past a look-out near a water hole which is not being used at the moment because a female black mamba has taken up residence under the floorboards.

A single one of these snakes can kill a group of humans, Will tells us.

They produce 200 to 250mg of venom with one bite and you only need 15mg or so to die - so none of us was too keen on disembarking the safety of the jeep to see the look-out anyway.

We did follow some rhinos down to the water hole, though.

These prehistoric beasts look weirder and weirder the longer you watch them. They spend most of the day chomping on grass and are highly entertaining when going for a drink.

There was a bit of argy-bargy between two young males, one of which would only back his lumbering frame into the water because according to rhino rules you don't take your eye off the other male.

We also hung out next to some zebra for quite a while. Like giraffes, zebra in the wild are incredibly beautiful.

All the animals, in fact, look more vibrant than they do in a zoo, the black and white blacker and whiter and the orange so much more orange.

Zebra can be very dangerous, too - if you're another zebra, or at least a female zebra.

Will says the males have almost canine-like teeth and will try to bite a predator if they are attacked, but are also very aggressive when it comes to getting a female.

The social structure is usually made up of one dominant male and a harem of females, and the way the male accumulates those females is by stealing them from another male.

For the female this is not much fun. A young male will follow behind the group and sample the urine of the females, which is what they're doing when you think they're pulling that grinning face.

They're in fact analysing the estrogen level and if the female is ready, the male will focus his attention on her and when the other male is preoccupied either eating, mating or chasing off other males, the new male will give her hell - bite her, kick her, do anything to force her away from the group.

He'll then isolate her and when she's ready forcibly mate with her.

The guides call this abduction and rape and if the poor old soon-to-be-pregnant female doesn't like her new fella (and you wouldn't, would you?) and tries to return to the previous group where her friends are, she will get there only to find the dominant male will kill her baby because he knows it's not his.

And zebras, Will adds as we watch them peacefully munching away, produce enormous amounts of gas and when they start running they fart the whole time.

Ha! Who knew! Africa is not just stunning but marvellously entertaining too.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand now offers a one-stop service to Johannesburg code-sharing with South African airways from Perth. Ring 0800 737 000 for more information. You can fly from Johannesburg to Sabi Sabi.

Where to stay: Sabi Sabi has four gorgeously luxurious lodges. You can pick how intimately you want to be in the bush, but be warned, it's recommended you don't wander about by yourself at night - because you never know what might be lurking nearby (which, of course, is part of the thrill). Prices range from R4350 ($811) to R16,200 ($3019) a night, inclusive of safaris and meals.

Further information: For more about visiting South Africa see southafrica.net

Catherine Masters travelled to South Africa courtesy of Air New Zealand.

- NZ Herald

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