On a wild streak

Game on!

Bharti Nath goes in search of the prized Big Five in the rolling grasslands of South Africa, a region teeming with wildlife.

The night sounds of the bush. The sizzle from the brai. A hyena rummaging in the nearby bush. In the distance, a call of the lion or the song of a nightjar. Seven exotic days and nights in the South African savannah. It was not a reverie but a reality. What more could a wanderer ask for?

On the invitation of South Africa Tourism and Kingfisher Resorts, we, a bunch of excited journalists assembled at Mumbai’s international airport to board the South African Airways bound for Johannesburg. Having reached our destination at midnight, we found our tiredness being washed away by the bright lights and imposing buildings of the city.

Soon, we were on the dark highway, and as the van sped away, only to be stopped by the highway patrol a couple of times, some of us dozed off.

After a three-hour drive, we reached Mabula Game Lodge at around four in the morning. The staff was up and cheerful to greet us with a welcome drink. But after an arduous journey, we were too groggy to stand straight on our feet and appreciate the hospitality of our hosts. The staff promptly took our luggage in a cart while we walked towards our respective rooms spread over different parts of the property. The nip in the air was enough for us to pull our jackets closer. The harsh African sun was at its peak by the time we stepped out. The warm air added to the aridity of the land — the extremity of the weather caught all of us by surprise. However, we looked forward to our afternoon safari to track the Big Five — lion, leopard, buffalo, rhinoceros and elephant.

A typical day at any of the safari lodges starts early in the morning. After a cup of hot brew, we could venture out for the morning game drive with the knowledgeable ranger.

Post breakfast, we were at leisure to simply relax and absorb the tranquility of the place; listen out to the “blowing of the kudu horn,” calling one to lunch. The kudu or the impala on our plates could have been the ones we spotted during our game drive in the morning, you never know. In the afternoon, it was time for another game drive. Sipping a sundowner, it was great to watch the unmatched glory of African sunset as it disappeared beyond the horizon, allowing nocturnal life to surface again. The rhythmic beats of the drums could be heard from a distance as we were heading back to the lodge for an evening of entertainment by local tribal dancers. The beauty of the African skies at night was unparalleled. Our eyes unknowingly gazed at the big and bright stars above as we soaked in the mild heat from the blazing bonfire.

After spending a day in Mabula, next morning, we had to move to our next destination — the Clifftop Exclusive Safari Hideaway — which was a three-hour drive away. As we sped away on the fenced highway, intermittently interspersed with game lodges, the landscape remained the same — sparse grassland — until we reached Bela-Bela town in the Limpopo Province. Wide roads with big signages, lined with moderate eateries, supermarkets and retail outlets on both sides, Bela-Bela is a small and quiet settlement, but the place has more or less all the facilities that people residing in and around the town need.

As we proceeded towards Clifftop, the ridges of the Waterberg Mountains, which were running in the backdrop throughout the journey, became more defined. By the time we reached the Welgevonden Private Game Reserve, where Clifftop was situated, the terrain had become too steep. The powerful Toyota Land Cruiser was waiting at the gate of the reserve to take us further. It turned out to be a roller-coaster drive to the lodge, literally.

After riding on the hilly terrain for 10 km, we were at an altitude of 1226.5 m, cut off from the world, without even mobile connectivity! The moment we stepped into Clifftop, the bouncy ride was completely forgotten. As we stood on the deck perched on the cliff, the breathtaking view of the vista — the glistening beauty of the escarpment, the lulling water of River Sterkstroom flowing below — made the world outside seem surreal. The property has only eight suites and the warm and friendly staff warned us not to venture out on our own after dark as there could be a lurking animal in the vicinity.

Safari sights

It was safari time again, early next morning. Cosily wrapped in warm clothes, we sat with our hands stuffed in our pockets, only withdrawing them occasionally to click a herd of impala, a shy giraffe or a grazing zebra. All eyes were by now trained to spot the kudus frolicking in the grassland, snorting rhinoceros nuzzling its little one, or a rare lion. Upon hearing a mere rustle, the ranger stopped the vehicle and we actually saw the majestic African elephant at an arm’s length!

Even after two hours of following animal excrement and pug marks, the search for the lion proved futile. However, we were lucky enough to spot a collared lioness during the afternoon safari, that too from a close range — we were only separated by a trench in between.

The final destination in our itinerary was the Hoyo-Hoyo Tsonga Lodge in the western region of the world famous Kruger National Park. We flew from Johannesburg to Hoedspruit, the nearest airport, and then drove to this flagship park which draws about a million visitors a year. Based on Tsongo-Shangaan theme, Hoyo-Hoyo Tsonga Lodge combines the ancient tradition and culture of an African settlement with modern day luxuries of a safari lodge.

Located on the banks of Mluwati river, each one of the spacious suites is furnished in an earthy style and privately nestled amongst giant old fig and leadwood trees. With no form of communication, except for a wireless set, one has to be adventurous enough to stay here alone, especially with animals roaming just outside one’s suite at night.

In the unspoilt wilderness of Kruger, we sighted a lioness and her four cubs. Finally, we even saw a lion loafing under the shade of a tree. Of the Big Five, we had spotted all, except for the elusive leopard. And that’s enough reason to come back to the bushveld, some of us promised ourselves.

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