Just Lion Around South Africa

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The trip started in a frenzy. It was always going to be jam-packed, we were heading to South Africa for five days for a wedding and fulfil a bucket list dream to go on safari. Just as we were about to start boarding our plane the fire alarm went off in the terminal  and we were asked to evacuate the airport – instead, with a very laid back attitude, SAA encouraged us to board the plane where surely we would be safe enough. The unorthodox start to the flight was followed by the Captain’s safety announcement, ‘please keep your seat belt on at all times and no sleeping on the floor in the aisles.’

We first stayed at Eco Thaba, located on top of a hill on the outskirts of Johannesburg. The resort was beautiful, surrounded by parkland with ostrich and zebra – none of which we saw due to the rain clouds that stretched over us for the first couple of days. Despite this, the countryside that we looked over, even in the winter filled with browns and oranges was magnificent. Conjuring up sunlit plains of Africa, we had not prepared ourselves for quite how cold Johannesburg can be in winter – combined with a feeling of slight dizziness as we adjusted to the altitude. The sprawling, and rather unattractive city sits at just under 6000ft above sea level.

It is part of life in Johannesburg to consider your safety when out and about and here for a wedding, we had a full itinerary – so it was a little unnerving that our first activity was learning how to shoot semi automatics and shotguns on a firing range. A rule of thumb I learnt whilst in Johannesburg was not to stop at traffic lights or stop signs if you can help it, again whilst driving through the town to make sure that all valuables in the car were hidden, even shopping malls were very heavily armored with iron gates – as were all of the houses. This didn’t sour the taste of the trip though – if anything, it gave the holiday and true sense of being far away from home.

On our fourth morning, we made our way north. We were racing against the clock to get up to Pilanesberg National Park as one of our hired cars had not arrived on time and Jo’burg’s notoriously bad traffic meant that we were going to have to hit the metal in order to get there in time for the safari.

On the outskirts of Jo’burg, we passed townships and bush fires, the plains, farm land and bush were a spectrum of oranges, yellows, dusty browns and faded greens but as we headed north past the dam by Sun City, the colours became richer greens with rolling hills.

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Bakubung means ‘Place of the hippo.’

We had organised a private game drive on the evening of our arrival at Bakubung Bush Lodge. Our guide, Zachi, informed us that all of the big five were in Pilanesburg National Park – but as expected, you could never predict what you were going to see – you might not see anything at all. With this in mind, setting off at 4.30pm, we were astounded to see so many animals so quickly. Almost immediately having entered the game park we came across a herd of elephant, the mothers protecting their calves and at times flapping their ears at us warning us to stay away. The giants surrounded our car as they plodded along the path and into the bush. We also came across giraffe, their elegant stance as they clipped the leaves off the branches of trees with their black tongues, an awesome to see so close up followed by sights of rhino, impala, gnu (the second ugliest animal in the park, according to Zachi), a glimpse of some zebra and plenty of guinea fowl. We stopped at a watering hole after a few hours driving for a beer at sundown and word came that there had been a kill not too far off. Zachi was determined that we would see one of the big cats and so we raced off just as night began to fall. As we came up to a bend in the road, there by torch light we could see a lioness, lazily sitting on the ground, guarding her prey whilst her three cubs played about, sneaking up and pouncing on each other. These three month-old cubs were delighted with the audience and seemed perfectly at ease to let us watch them, never straying too far away from their mother. Having been determined to capture so much of the wildlife on camera, in this light there was no chance of it and so in silence, we were able to give these lions our full attention.

By the time we set off again, it was pretty much pitch black and not a chance that we would see anything unless it strolled into our direct path.

 

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We awoke the next morning for our second drive, which was a little later than we had hoped for. As most of the large predators hunt at dawn or dusk, we were quite sure that we would only see grazing animals. Setting off at 8am, it was a very different experience to the night before. We scoured the bush, eyes peeled for movement or pattern but only just catching glimpses of elephant far off up on the hills or giraffe in the cover of the trees but as the sun warmed up the day we finally came across zebra, or as our new guide described them ‘donkeys in pyjamas.’ Our fortune had changed and it seemed that all the wildlife had decided to come out for the show: giraffe, elephant, warthog scampering about in the grass, birds and across one of the lakes, hippo standing on the banks. Hippo are the most dangerous animal in the park and to get in between them and the water would be a certain death sentence. It was also the time of year when the male elephant were on heat and there were a couple of close incidents when we had to reverse quite quickly to avoid being charged down. Again, another radio call came in, cheetah had been spotted. Snapping into action we raced to the coordinates to search for these magnificent creatures. There, sitting under the shaded cover of trees about 200 metres away, we saw the black outline of two cheetah prowling underneath, their ears pricked. We watched them for about 10 minutes before they headed off into the bush, easily camouflaged. The safari was coming to a close now, and we were due to return back to Johannesburg.

Short but definitely sweet, the moments we captured were enough to give us the safari bug. We will certainly be back for more.

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