Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Family fun in the African wilderness

Sunset in the bush: Our camp on the banks of the Timbavati.

Our family group is sitting comfortably in the game drive Landcruiser watching a kudu cow and female calf browsing quietly within a few metres of us. It is a lovely scene, the two animals looking so soft and feminine, so contented, their big eyes staring at us, unblinking. Suddenly there is a bolt from the blue as a leopard charges past so fast that most of us don’t even see it. The calf disappears into the bush, the mother charges away, barking loudly in alarm, and the female leopard has made off again, without the food she had hoped for, for herself and her cubs.

This is one of those moments in the bush that one never forgets, this time in Ngala private game reserve in the Timbavati region west of the Kruger National Park. And this time we are not pampered guests in the five-star lodge. We are accommodated in the “trail camp” on the banks of the Timbavati River in a remote part of the reserve. The occasion is the 60th birthdays of my wife Estelle and my brother Philip, and this is our favourite way to celebrate – eight members of the family together in the bush.

Family outing: Fanny and Dylan lead the way.
Our ranger Dylan and tracker Fanny go into action following the “strike” by the leopard, Fanny moving from the tracker’s seat on the front left-hand mudguard of the vehicle to take his place next to Dylan – standard procedure when you’re onto a predator. In that flash of high action Dylan has noticed that the predator is a female leopard he last saw when she was heavily pregnant, and that she is now lactating.

For half an hour we search for the leopard in thick bush. The brand new diesel Landcruiser is put through its paces, pushing through the long grass, bushes and small trees, crunching and snapping, but barely straining its powerful motor in low range. Fanny indicates right, and indicates left, and indicates right again, guiding Dylan through the bush, but the leopard is gone, and we make for the dry riverbed for a coffee break.

The previous day we had witnessed another encounter between a young leopard and some impala. The leopard was lying among some trees on high ground, with just its head showing. We held our breath as a string of impala passed by calmly, directly below the leopard, sure that at any moment it would pounce on the easy prey; but its obvious immaturity and lack of experience caused it to hesitate as the opportunity slipped by.

Accessing the reserve from the west and bypassing the SA Wildlife College on the southern boundary, we assembled at Ngala Tented Camp. This camp offers luxury tented accommodation and everything you expect from a first class lodge, but we were headed for something a little more rustic. At the Tented Camp we met our designated ranger Dylan Davies and veteran tracker Fanny. My son Alex, who was among us, and the motivator of the whole expedition, had once been head ranger at Ngala and knew Fanny from the old days. They shared jokes in Shangaan and regaled us with some of their experiences.

Tented camp: each tent accommodated two people.
The trail camp has four tents, accommodating two people each. They are quite widely spread out along the (at this time dry) river and reaching them at night requires a torch or paraffin lamp. Unlike at the luxury lodges, there is no escort at night, so due vigilance is required. In each tent there is a whistle, so that if a hyena is trying to get into your tent in the middle of night, you can whistle for help!

Generally, help comes in the form of two young casual workers whose attention and dedication is unwavering. Water for each tent’s flush toilet and shower has to be brought in every day and the “geyser” is a large inverted bag which empties just enough warm water for a shower or two. Inside the tent are two very comfortable beds and a table with Hemingway-style wash basin and metal jug, illuminated by your paraffin lamp when it’s dark.

Our safari outings were divided between game drives in the morning and late afternoon walks with Dylan (armed) and Fanny. The walks were easy-going affairs with particular attention paid to tracks and birds. While walking in the bush one has the time and inclination to observe the wilderness more attentively, to use binoculars and take more carefully composed pictures. Walking provides a relaxed opportunity to discuss nature with the experts and with other members of the group.

On the game drives we encountered three species of the Big Five close-up. In perfect morning light we were able to watch as a huge elephant bull tugged and chomped at thorny branches, seemingly unaffected by our presence or the sharpness of the thorns. Sitting in silence we were awed by the gentleness of this powerful animal and his quiet thoroughness in going about feeding his enormous body.

Game drive: A bull elephant tugs at twigs.
A young pair of rhino males came next, staring at us with as much interest as we stared at them. Looking at these magnificent animals in their natural environment made me realise fully what a terribly destructive crime poaching is, feeding the lust and greed of ignorant, indiscriminate and unscrupulous traders and consumers of rhino horn.

Then came the buffalo, hundreds of them, moving along lazily, clouds of dust rising from the dry earth disturbed by their hooves. Dylan realised they were making their way to the water in a large dam nearby and took us to a site where we could intercept them and view their arrival. The leaders plunged into the water to drink, among them bulls, cows and few young calves. Determined though leisurely, they kept arriving for some time as we watched.

Camp fires are of course legendary for story-telling, sometimes hilarious banter and sometimes serious conversation among family and friends. And as the setting sun gave way to a blazing fire, the full moon rose, casting mysterious shadows throughout the bush.

The moonlight helped us find our way back to our tents for a relaxed night under the dreamy African sky.

Awakened by calls from our young helpers the next morning, the new day begins.

Inquisitive: A pair of rhinos check us out.

This story appeared in Diversions leisure magazine.