I guess one of the first things which spring to mind when you think about Africa is the wildlife. It’s all about safari and seeing the Big Five (and in case you’re wondering – because we had many a discussion about this – that includes: the black rhino, Cape buffalo, elephant, leopard and lion).
My safari experience got off to a brilliant start on the morning of our friends’ wedding when all of the guests piled into jeeps and set off on a safari drive on the reserve where the ceremony would be held later that day.
It’s a strange feeling when you go on your first safari; it honestly is like stepping into one of those nature documentaries you’ve spent countless Sunday afternoons watching.
I was almost waiting for the David Attenborough voice-over to kick in as we watched two giraffes knocking their necks against one another in a play fight. After an amazing morning seeing buffalo, rhino, giraffe, ostrich, warthog, zebra and impala, I personally think that every wedding day should begin with a safari drive.
Following on from my safari taster we headed to Pilanesberg Game Reserve on the first stop of our South African roadtrip. On the way the safari old timers had been warning me not to get my hopes up about the day ahead as they explained that on a self drive it’s all a game of luck, sometimes you can see loads of animals but other days you may see nothing. To be honest though, that was one of the things that I loved about it: that nothing is guaranteed. It must be one of the few ‘tourist attractions’ where you ‘see what you see’ and that can be the most amazing thing ever or, equally, it could be nothing.
We were at the gates as soon as they opened at 6am and from the instant our drive began it felt like we were going to have a lucky day. As we strained our eyes through the gloom we saw a mother and baby elephant on one side of our van and when we turned to look out of the window on the other side, spotted another one there too. I know this is a stupid thing to say, especially after encountering elephants in Thailand, but you always forget just how big they are. We were so close that we could see its wrinkly layers of skin and the crinkles of its face. Luckily for us, despite its proximity, the elephant showed absolutely no interest in us and instead casually crossed the road in front of the van; it’s steady lumbering pace clearly demonstrating who was boss around there.
Next up was a huge bunch of nosy baboons who came running from the trees, their tiny babies clinging to their backs. It would have been impossible to deny the human resemblance as they walked around our van, stopping to have a scratch in the middle of the road or grabbing some food from a bush they were passing.
The great thing about being in a van with eight people meant that they were eight pairs of eyes constantly scouring the landscape, pointing out zebras, giraffes and impalas as we passed them. As we approached an area called Leopard Hill we all had our “spot on” as we searched the rocky terrain for one of the elusive creatures.
As there are only 30 leopards on the whole reserve we knew that we would have to be very lucky to see one, but it turned out that our luck really was in as I spotted a white flicker out of the corner of my eye. The flicker it turned out was the tip of a leopard’s tail and, as this dawned on me, I screamed so loudly that I scared the life out of my friends. (Fortunately all of the windows were closed.) We watched in complete awe as it sprang effortlessly up the steep rocky face of the mountain and into the coolness of a cave.
Every time we turned a corner there was something new to see: hippos’ eyes lurking out of watering holes, a shy nyala sheltering from the sun under a tree and a huge rhino blinking in through our window. But it was when we saw a number of cars stopped in the distance that we knew something special was happening. As we inched our way forward the first “lion” call went up in the van and we saw a male on our left hand side. He stood blinking lazily at the tourists staring opened mouthed at him and after a shake of his shaggy mane, ambled across the road in front of us. We were on such a high that we almost didn’t spot the pack of female lions creeping through the grass on our other side, where a jittery giraffe was keeping a watchful eye on them.
That’s not to say our spots were always successful – we did also spend 20 minutes staring and taking photographs of a “cheetah” only to finally realise that it was actually a bush!
As the sun became hotter all of the animals had the same idea as us and disappeared to the shade. We headed back to base but decided that we would go on an organised game drive that night (cars aren’t allowed into the park after 6pm).
There was something strange about driving around the reserve in the dark, knowing that there could be an animal just meters away from us, inches away from the driver’s light. We saw more hippos in the water and came across a group of elephants eating branches which were so close to the road that it was quite intimidating to be that near to them; but our driver kept commenting on what a quiet night it was.
To be honest I didn’t really mind though as I felt that for my first safari I had seen more than enough and would probably be disappointed the next time I went on one, having been so spoilt this time.
However, just as we were thinking it would probably soon be time to head back, our driver spotted something. He parked up and as we waited for our eyes to focus in on the beam of torch light we realised it was a male lion eating a wildebeest.
It was absolutely incredible, especially when we realised that there was also a female lion and her one month old cubs nearby. Male lions always eat first and as he enjoyed his supper the lion threw back his head and roared to the female, who returned the roar. It literally sent shivers down my spine. It truly was the perfect end to the perfect day.