Searching for the Big Five and Getting Four in South Africa’s Kapama River Lodge
By Michael Kompanik
Africa has always beckoned travelers like my wife Noreen and I.
Long on our list of places to experience, wild Africa seemed to forever elude us in our travels plans.
After a few surprising twists and turns, my wife and I found ourselves in the heart of South Africa, on an exciting quest for the legendary “Big Five.”
The “Big Five” of Africa — elephant, rhinoceros, lion, cape buffalo, and leopard, are so-named by big game hunters as the most dangerous of Africa’s animals to hunt.
We were on a hunt alright, but not armed with scopes and rifles, but rather with cameras and lenses of all sizes. Our shots are a different, more benign and lasting type.
Within the Kapama Private Game Reserve near Kruger National Park, we stayed at the impressive and luxurious Kapama River Lodge.
Here we were wined and dined with authentic South African flair – that exotic blend of native African, Dutch, and Indian cuisine, spicy and wonderfully unique.
But the real purpose for being here is the twice-daily game drives within a five-day stretch to capture the natural beauty of wild Africa in all its glory. Our group of 25 safari guests are parceled out to eight Toyota Land Cruisers each with a guide and tracker.
Three tiered rows of seats, each elevated above the one in front for better viewing provide ample seating for the four guests accompanying us.
Our driver is a seasoned tourist guide, well-versed in animal behavior with a photographic memory of the network of trails the animals frequent on our 13,000-acre game reserve.
We can’t even imagine being in a more crowded paved National Park packed with tourists. Our lodge and game reserve are remote and wild.
Perched high on an open seat over the left front fender is our native South African guide, an experienced game tracker who can read the animal signs and expertly lead us to opportunities for the best photos and close encounters.
I just hope for his sake, that the encounters do not put him in danger, given his exposed position and the fact that he, along with our guide were unarmed.
We’re here our final game drive. The last of eight here at Kapama. We had our first the afternoon of our arrival and two each following day.
Morning game drives began around 8 am. Afternoon game drives commenced at 4:30 and lasted through dark.
It is winter here and darkness arrives around 7 pm with part of the final hour of the afternoon drive done in total darkness with a spot light.
But, first, let’s return to the beginning of my travel diary.
First Game Drive- Day of Arrival
Game sighting became instantly promising from the get-go on our half-hour journey from the Hoedspruit Eastgate Airport to Kapama where we arrived by private jet.
A mere five minutes into the game preserve, we were treated to sights of giraffes, zebras, wildebeest, and scores of antelope.
To say we were thrilled is a gross understatement. Our first night’s evening game drive included more of the same with a few other wildlife spotting added in, such as Greater Kudu and the smaller, more secretive antelope such as the Duiker.
Complete Day 1 of the Game Drive
We were delighted to see a couple of White Rhinoceros in the distance sunbathing along the shores of a large watering hole.
We were also introduced to several more large, colorful hornbill birds, affectionately referred to as Zazu in Disney’s Lion King classic.
But the highlight of the evening was our close encounters with the majestic Kings of Kapama, the African Bush elephants.
They moved through the brush alongside our Land Cruiser slowly and methodically tearing up branches and delivering coarse leafy loads to their mouths via those incredible articulating trunks.
These gentle giants were well aware of our presence, but chose to ignore us as harmless bystanders bearing witness to their evening meal.
We were also delighted to catch a glimpse of a pair of marauding African porcupines ambling across our path as well as several families of the tiny dwarf mongoose fleeing into the grass alongside the dirt trail.
Day 2- More Adventure Abounds
We woke up each morning of our safari refreshed and ready for a new adventure. The Kapama Game Preserve teemed with life and photo opportunities were everywhere. We had several sightings of fleeing warthogs before we finally found a few that were willing to pose albeit at a distance.
Gnus also known as wildebeest were also spotted, along with several medium-sized herds of cape buffalo complete with calves. This was the day we got to see the King of the Jungle in all his glory.
A small pride of lions relaxed alongside a watering hole, sunbathing, sleeping and just enjoying the day. Like most cats, they do most of their real hunting at dusk and dawn and rest, especially at midday.
There were a couple of nearly mature males but the real king was spotted by our eagle-eyed game tracker a half hour later, lounging in the grass about a mile away.
This regal, dark-maned lord was the dominant male, and he looked the part, ruling over two female prides in his turf.
The second delight of the day was coming across more elephants including several quite small youngsters who the herd shepherded along as they foraged for food.
The big excitement was when a large male exited from the brush alongside our Land Cruiser and walked across our front so close, our game tracker could have reached out and touched him from his front fender seat.
At dinner that evening, everyone was talking about their own personal status of “The Big Five,” especially since one fortunate team had stumbled across a leopard hunting in some broken brushland along one of the backroads.
We had already checked off the elephant the day before along with the rhino, cape buffalo, and lion earlier today. All we were lacking was that darn, elusive leopard.
Day 3- The Quest Continues
You really know you are in the wilds of Africa when you wake up to the deep chuffing sound of a lion announcing his presence.
I was told their deep sound travels far, but I swear it sounded like he was no more than 30 feet from our patio door which I quickly closed and double-locked.
Day three included many more giraffe, bachelor and female herds of impala and a somewhat secretive antelope known as a Nyala. One group was lucky enough to spot a ratel, better known as the honey badger as he fearlessly searched for his evening meal. These bad boys fear nothing, not even lions.
It seemed like each day had one or more big event. Todays was our close encounters with rhinos. Previously we’d seen them only from a distance and were thankful to have our binoculars and powerful camera lenses. On this day however, we came across a pair of brothers who were up close and personal with us.
And we even got to experience how they mark their territory by flinging their impressive scat along the trail. It’s something you don’t soon forget. We’ve had four of the Big Five under our belts since early in the trip but no leopard yet for our team.
Our guide reported there are probably six leopards in the preserve at any one time, but they are extremely stealthy and difficult to spot.
Other Safari Delights
Between and after our daily game drive events, we were wined and dined like royalty at the resort. We enjoyed several musical performances complete with drums and wildly gyrating African dancers in fabulously colored native attire.
Another major highlight was a spectacular outdoor safari Bush Braai dinner. Well-appointed linen covered tables were arrayed like pinwheels around a roaring bonfire.
Twinkling overhead lights, table lanterns, wine, and good company added to the magical and unforgettable ambiance. And the meal? It was a magnificent and exotic feast of African food utterly delicious and completely unlike any typical outdoor barbeque fare.
We set aside one afternoon for a couple’s spa treatment at the Kapama Lodge Spa. Here expert masseurs used specific African gourd-like devices to work out all the aches and stress of weary travelers.
Is this for Real?
And what a delight afterwards to exit the massage rooms and relax with health-restoring beverages in the spa pool courtyard and watch unfenced giraffes, antelope, and cape buffalo grazing contentedly on the resort grounds.
We asked ourselves “is this for real?”
Our game drives themselves were not without refreshments and entertainment. Breaks during the morning drives featured an array of delectable South African continental-style breakfast goodies accompanied by hot coffee, tea, or hot chocolate.
Evening drives likewise served liquid refreshments including beer and wine, along with opportunities for stunning sunset photos and game watching at various water holes.
One notable refreshment stop was rather rudely interrupted with a small group of three cape buffalo wandering into our more intimate gathering uninvited. Our lead guide immediately ordered us to “get back into the vehicles —NOW!” He explained afterwards that the cape buffalo is the most unpredictable of the Big Five.
And while they feel more secure and unthreatened when in a large herd, smaller groups are far more wary and apt to charge without warning when confronted. I guess their mantra is the best defense is a swift and powerful offense.
Our Last Game Drive
We are making one final effort to complete our collection of “The Big Five.” The night before we were so close. Our driver headed out to the area our leopard had been previously spotted.
We came across the usual cape buffalo, giraffe, scores of antelope (favorite leopard food), and some wary zebra and warthogs. Suddenly, our driver/guide excitedly pointed out a hyena moving through the brushland in the opposite direction.
As we turned and followed him, our guide informed us that hyena often follow leopards and try to confiscate their kill. We saw him and several others through the brush as we journeyed alongside on the dirt road. I even managed to get a few good photos. But in the end, we came up empty. No leopard.
Now we are on our final drive and our guide, wanting desperately for us to fill our “Big Five” card, is driving us quite deep into the reserve in areas we had yet to experience. The scenery here is spectacular especially in the ravines and along the river.
The game appears rather scarce although we did see some bushbuck. But despite extending our game drive well beyond its allotted time, we fail to find our elusive leopard.
Final Thoughts on Finding the “Big Five”
Despite our fervent desire, we did not fill our dance card with photos of all of Africa’s Legendary “Big Five.” We got four of them, but just like our cuddly pet often does back home, we were thwarted by a cat. Not just any cat — that powerful and ever elusive spotted beauty – the leopard.
Strangely though, it all seems fitting.My wife and I fell in love with the beauty of wild Africa. So obviously, this safari adventure was never intended to be a “one and done.”
And now, that magnificent cat has given us ample reason to return. And return we will.
Mike Kompanik is a retired navy officer who is now a travel writer, he lives in San Diego California.