Lions and Tigers and Rhinos in South Africa

Face to muddy face with a water buffalo in South Africa. photo Kent E. St. John A South African Photo Safari: Lions and Tigers and Rhinos, Oh MY!

By Kent E St. John
GoNOMAD Senior Travel Editor

The Big Five may sound like a sporting event in the in the U.S. but in South Africa it is all about game, live game. Big strange looking game! The team includes lions, leopards, elephant, rhino and the mighty buffalo.

The Big Five scorecard originated from the days when hunters listed the five most dangerous kills. I wasn’t about to leave out gentle giraffes and fleet zebra on my quest. Armed with camera, lenses and video cam and more film than I’ve ever bought before, I departed Jo’Burg. I stayed at four different lodges; two actually reserves.

Small Gentle and High

Before flying to the further game reserves I headed just one hour outside of Jo’Burg to the Mount Grace in the Magaliesberg region. It seemed fitting that I began where it is said the human race did. I really doubt the human race had as fine a start.

On the way to the lodge you pass the “Cradle of Humankind.” Since 1947 remains of pre-humans have been found there, some dating back 3.3 million years. In fact the world’s most perfect pre-human skull affectionately called Mrs. Ples was found here. There are 12 explored sites within the area.

The Mount Grace (sidebar) is tranquil, relaxed and family owned. It is also a fine observation point for winged creatures.

It is a little known fact that I have a fetish for the Transvall Kooboo-Berry and Southern Bou Bou Shrike. In fact just reading the lodge’s provided bird list made me ditch the guidebooks. Feathers everywhere, even in the fine pillows on my spacious bed.

Lest I sound like a nomad gone bad, I can assure you that the hiking, mountain biking and fishing kept me on track. A shrieking baboon from the hillside was a great reminder of my safari mission. No big five, but the rolling hills have vervet monkeys, antelope and leopard.

While not exactly safari material the hotel offers great amenities. Hilltop at the lodge is a beautiful Spa and rock pools as well as an enclosed heated brine pool. Not even the Dead Sea provides New Age music under the surface. What a way to end the day.

Flying Coach to the Coach House

Back to Jo’burg to board a prop plane north to Limpopo or the Northern Province. I wanted to find away to prove my commitment to responsible travel. Following the advice from a wonderful woman from the South African Tourist Board named Sindle; I ended up at the Coach House (sidebar) in Agatha, South Africa. Imagine, finding value, elegance and a property that supports growth in one of the poorest provinces in South Africa. The hotel was started as staging post in 1888 for the Zeederberg Coach Company.

A giraffe peeks out at the author in Kruger National Park. photo: Kent E. St. John. Since April Fools Day 1983, Guy and Jane Matthews have built the old coach stop up to one of the most unique stays anywhere. The hotel opened with a staff of 40, over half of who still work there, to a staff of 105. They have helped fund and build 51 school classrooms and 2 creches. They also employ 60 people on the surrounding farming estate and 40 more at the Cheviot Nut Processing Plant that sends coffee and macadamia nuts worldwide.

Coach House Nougut Company also is on the property and also benefits the village. With my GoNomad conscience sated I must confess, the price and property and enjoyment worked well to my benefit.

All 45 rooms are spacious and more like cottages. Sitting on my balcony looking at the gnarled Drakensburg Mountain Range, past the Coach House’s Farms was striking. I again fell asleep with hotel brochures covering trees, birds and special activities. The fireplace crackled and I dreamt of meeting a Sangoma (traditional healer) that solved the world’s current problems.

Face to Face with the Big Five

It was time to put the malaria pills to the test and head deep into the bush. I wanted to see something big and deadly. The Royal Malewane was just where I wanted to be, right near the greater Kruger National Park.

Better yet it is its own private reserve, as in no crowd. After entering the main lodge I recalled that the brochure recommends a minimum two-night stay. I wanted to hit lotto and stay forever, and that was within the first five minutes. Open walled and hatch roofed and oozing with colonial splendor, The Royal Malewane accommodates only sixteen guests and the rooms are reached via elevated walkways.

The freestanding accommodations are set within indigenous vegetation and have their own terrace with dip pool. After entering suite four and passing the four poster bed near fireplace, I settled in.

That very afternoon I climbed aboard a Range Rover, open topped for better viewing. Our ranger Boots went over safari dos and don’ts to better observe and avoid becoming beefsteak for the beasts.

Slowly crossing sandy roads with eyes peeled we crossed the reserve. At the first watering hole we came upon a herd of buffalo, mud covered and wallowing. I still think the alpha male stared at me a little too long. Those kinds of thoughts end once you realize that to the animals, your Rover is just a big stinking creature passing through.

The rest of the drive featured various sightings of Warthogs, Kudu and several hundred other species. As the sun sank and the sky vibrated with crayon colors, Boots set up a tablecloth table and laid out a cocktail setup equal to a movie set. It was a lack of Lion but not libation on this drive.

Morning drive was my bonanza, two kings of the jungle laid out ass to ass. Like a circling of the wagons in a western movie. My family still laughs at the video I shot as one got up and came within two feet of me. The camera pans into my neighbor’s crotch and “oh sheet” is whispered.

Hemingway would have smacked me. Fortunately he might have forgiven me if he saw me handle an elegant meal and Merlot served under African stars. Soon it was time for my gunned guardian to escort me to suite four, required after dark this deep in the bush veld.

Saddle up my Elephant

Early the next morning I headed to my last safari stop, the Kapama Reserve. In many ways I had learned a lot about the animals in the wilds, but my last stop was taking the lesson even farther. The reserve is much more than safari trips. It is all about research and preservation of the animals.

The Kapama Lodge is elegant and its setting superb. Twenty rooms for forty guests situated on a manmade lake. Wooden decks under thatched roofs, library with fireplace and game room certainly provide an extremely comfortable safari experience. But to me the wonderful array of safari possibilities set Kapama apart.

Gas him up

Elephant safari is one of the best experiences I have ever had, despite my elephant Joey’s flatulence. Gas powered to be sure! Understandable, considering Joey consumes up to 450 pounds of vegetation daily. Just as entertaining was Joey’s handler, a native Zimbabwe chap, Joey’s home country.

All of the elephants are orphaned as a result of poaching and culling and all hail from Zimbabwe. It is very hard to explain riding a living bulldozer, rolling through bush. The best part was the privileged insight you get into their minds and behavior. They are truly elegant and intelligent creatures.

Sitting one story high as we lumbered across rivers and trail is heady and I have to hold back Tarzan type yells. At this point I am king of the world, not Leo De Caprio. The real royalty at Kapama is a wonderful woman named Lente Roode. This lady and her staff deserve thanks from Nomads worldwide.

It’s all about the Animals

Mrs. Roode has several very worthy projects that should be explored. Foremost is the Hoedspruit Research and Breeding Center for Endangered Species. The name says it all. What started as a Cheetah Rescue Station has evolved into a center for all of South Africa’s endangered wildlife. Tours are available and educational as well as fun.

Breakfast time at the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Center in South Africa. Stop by even if not staying at Kapama. The latest news from Kapama was the opening of Camp Jabulani. Luxury tents right on the Elephant reserve. At the camp you will experience daily activity with the elephants. It promises to be a once in a lifetime dream come true.

The Urban Jungle

It was time to pack up the khaki and pull out the beach clothes and head to Capetown. Capetown is a vibrant city with a long history. Also included in part 3 of my South African visit are stops in the Cape wine region and the beach town of Clifton. As my SAA jet took off I gazed at the veld below, a fleeting chance to catch sight of a leopard, the only big five missed. No luck, I’ll just have to go back!

A sugar bird in Nevis Visit ourKent E. St. John Page with links to all his stories.

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