South Africa: Savannah-struck on safari

By Paul Rush

Wildlife viewing in an open vehicle on a private African game reserve is an emotional experience, writes Paul Rush.

Stopping for a drink is a delicate balancing act for giraffes. Photo / Paul Rush
Stopping for a drink is a delicate balancing act for giraffes. Photo / Paul Rush

Dawn in South Africa is both sudden and spectacular. The transition from a pitch black void into a panorama of burnt sienna bushveld and golden savannah grasslands backlit by the pink glow of the morning sun, happens in the blink of an eye.

By the time the bright orb of the sun is climbing over the straggly acacia sweet thorn thickets our game drive is well underway. The dawn chorus of birdsong is exquisite and the air is cool and fresh.

Our dark green Landcruiser is rolling along a dusty track in search of wild game in Sanbona Wildlife Reserve in South Africa's Eastern Cape Province.

At the wheel is ranger and guide, Jannie Swanabole, a sturdy, red-headed, Africans speaker who lives in a nearby town. He alludes to the Pocket Guide of South African Mammals when he says, "I'm a greater spotted homo sapien sapien. Like the white lion I have less melamine in me so get a good picture, I'm a dying breed.

A native of the Orange Free State, Jannie has been guiding at Sanbona for three years, working a three weeks on and one week off routine.

"After three years I'm borderline getting it right," he says. "I know the difference between a lion and a cheetah now."

His briefing for the game drive is short and sweet.

"Sanbona at 54,000 hectares is bigger than Singapore, so we have some driving to do. Keep your ears, eyes and nostrils open as we head down the river line. Distant rocks can turn into animals."

When we explain that we are Kiwis, he says "Well, I won't talk about rugby. When you put Aussies, Kiwis and Springboks together around a campfire we all get along well. But when it comes to sport things are different eh?"

Our first encounter is with a herd of plains zebra. Jannie explains how aggressive these mild-mannered, pony-like quadrupeds can be in the face of a lion attack. He once witnessed a female kick a lioness six times in the face and five times in the stomach with her hind legs. The blows didn't faze the lion at all.

"Lions are incredibly strong," he tells us.

"Usually one pins a zebra down while a second crushes its throat. I've got a huge respect for those big cats. By the way, how do you distinguish a male zebra from a female? The male is black with white stripes and the female is white with black stripes. No, I'm just kidding. We're going to learn a lot on this trip."

As we drive on the country opens up to vast areas where sparse vegetation pokes up through swathes of grainy soils and dry dustbowls of straggling fynbos (shrubland) vegetation, desperate for rain. The reserve is a rollercoaster landscape of plains, hills and river line cliffs that support a diversity of wildlife.

Our presence on the sun baked bushveld seems of little consequence. The reserve just gets on with the business of being seriously wild.

We hear the constant chirping of cicadas, the eerie cries of stalking fish-eagles and goshawks and the distant deep-throated roar of lions. This is the Africa that I have always imagined and dreamed of - vast, untamed and inhabited by the wildest animals on earth.

We soon sight a herd of kudu with big soft eyes and a graceful elegance as they move in unison over the land.

A flighty ostrich crosses our path, uncertain of which way to run. Two black-backed jackals scurry away from us. Then a massed herd of gorgeous, white-bellied springbok dash first one way then another, 'pronking' high in the air to demonstrate their agility in order to deter any watching lions from thinking about pursuit.

Without warning, a journey of giraffes pops into view. Liquid eyes peer down at us from a height of five metres, while their fly-whisk tails slap audibly against their flanks. As they cross the track in front of our Land Cruiser, the sunlight catches the detail of their patchwork brown and white chest markings. It's a truly breathtaking sight.

Giraffes are always on the game park 'must-see' list. They don't do anything dramatic, just look absolutely magnificent. Standing motionless for inordinate periods of time, they stare with intense curiosity, perhaps seeing humans as an enigma - a primate that places no value on its four good legs, preferring instead to move about in strange metal boxes that rumble annoyingly.

To be fair, if nature required us to wrap a long tongue around thorn-spiked acacia bushes to get a feed, we wouldn't rush about either.

Later we see the giraffes drinking at a pool, splaying their legs wide apart and craning their necks to reach the water. I'm struck by the extra long eyelashes that protect their dark eyes. For a moment I wonder if they're thinking to themselves, 'Let's see how long we can make these puny primates sit and stare at us.'

After climbing a rocky promontory to spot a crash of rhinos, Jannie leads us on foot into dense thickets of acacia sweet thorn to track them down.

There are a few anxious moments as we shuffle forward in a crouched position to represent an animal form and not spook the huge mammals. At a whispered word from our leader, I step into a gap in the foliage and see three rhino at close quarters. Their ears are curiously twitching and their massive grey hides look like great boulders.

There's an abrupt movement and a swirl of dust as a baby rhino swings his head round and looks directly at me. Then a ponderous adult head rises up to face us.

Jannie gives the signal to retreat. It's time to make a dignified exit.

Photos: Sanbona Wildlife Reserve

Back at the vehicle he explains that rhino herds on game reserves are kept under 24-hour surveillance as wholesale poaching to meet the insatiable Asian demand for medicinal horn powder is threatening the species with extinction by 2018.

Throughout Africa 100 rhinos a month are dying in the poaching epidemic.

This is an appalling revelation and shocks us to the core. The fact is that rhino horn is made of keratin like human hair and fingernails with no medicinal value whatsoever.

Jannie's comment is that "humans should have spent more time trying to understand animals better and protecting them, but we are too impatient and greedy".

These sobering thoughts about the rhino weigh heavily on our minds as we drive back to the five-star comforts of the Gondwana Lodge. As the majestic thatched-roof profile of the homestead comes into view an eagle soars high overhead intent on his search for ground rodents.

Janie draws our attention to the magnificent bird in a dramatic way.

"If I could be reincarnated, I'd like to be an eagle. Do you know that they can pick up UV reflections of the urine trails of rats and mice because they have four colour receptors and we have three. They have a wingspan of 1.5 metres and can exert over a tonne of pressure with each talon. Oh man! They're awesome."

This is my first experience of Africa and I can understand how one can soon feel the desire to be part of this world. Being out on the savannah feels natural, as if this is where we are meant to be, intimately connected with all the other animal life on our lonely blue planet.

It gives me an understanding of how author Karen Blixen felt as she wrote Out of Africa and how intense was Beryl Markham's attachment when she penned West with the Night.

Sitting on the glorious Gondwana Lodge terrace with a gin and tonic, the traditional sundowner of generations of wildlife safaris, it's easy to relate to the age-old rhythm of the bush.

Africa, the crucible of human civilisation, has a profound effect on the traveller. It can give you a lifelong passion for the bush.

IF YOU GO

Getting there: Singapore Airlines flies from Auckland to Cape Town via Changi Airport, Singapore.

Getting around: Adventure World organises small group tours around South Africa in modern vehicles with local guides at each city to show you the sightseeing highlights. Carry a supply of lower denomination currency as tipping is practiced in South Africa.

Sanbona Wildlife Reserve: Nestled at the foot of the Warmwaterberg Mountains, on the popular Garden Route from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth, Sanbona has 54,000 hectares of wildlife reserve with indigenous flora and fauna including the free-roaming Big Five.

Accommodation: There are four options within the confines of the wildlife park - Gondwana Lodge, Tilney Manor, Dwyka Tented Lodge and an Explorer Camp.

Paul Rush travelled to South Africa with assistance from Singapore Airlines and Adventure World.

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