© Anita Draycott
Picture this: a large, luxurious villa, a private game reserve and your own wildlife guide — at an affordable price
Three lion cubs have just crawled out of the rib cage of a recently killed buffalo. Their noses are smudged in blood and they are so stuffed they can barely walk. Nearby a vulture waits its turn on a tree branch.
If you have never witnessed the majesty of wild animals on their own turf, it’s difficult to explain why a safari can be a life changing experience. Most of us are so accustomed to living in our manufactured concrete jungles that being exposed to nature in its rawest state in an environment that we don’t control reminds us that we are part of a much bigger picture.
My recent South African safari was indeed life changing. It was also a bargain. Fodor’s: The Complete African Safari Planner estimates that the cost per person per night in a luxury lodge can range from $500 to $2200. Our group of five recently returned from a week in a five-bedroom house located in the Mjejane Game Reserve (mjejanelifestyle.co.za) bordering on Kruger Park in northeast South Africa and it cost approximately $600 per person for a week or a little over $70 a night each. (see Safari Smarts sidebar).
Ideally located on the Crocodile River, our abode, called Lion Rock, had all the comforts of home and more. Each bedroom had both an indoor and outdoor shower, fine linens and modern fixtures. The kitchen was outfitted with stainless appliances, granite counters and more pots, pans and dishes than a professional chef could want. Outside, the huge deck and plunge pool overlooked the river where wildlife sightings were in constant supply. Our package included daily housekeeping, a gardener and our own game ranger who took us on two drives per day at times of our convenience.
The difference between Lion Rock and a luxury safari lodge is that it is a self-catering property, meaning we had to supply and cook our food. This was actually preferable for my group as we were able to prepare what and eat when we wanted. Every morning Santa, the cheery maid, took care of our dirty dishes and cleaned the house thoroughly. She even offered to wash and iron our clothes.
But we really came to see the animals and we were never disappointed. South Africa is literally teeming with wildlife and boasts a staggering 870 bird species, approximately 160 species of mammal, 115 species of snake, and some 5000 spider and scorpion species.
Mjejane, on the river adjacent to Kruger Park, is also home to the Big Five and because it’s a private game reserve, the sightings are much more intimate than at its more famous neighbour. There are fewer people and rangers limit the number of vehicles so as not to disturb the animals. Rangers also communicate amongst themselves via radios to share their sighting information.
The true credit for our memorable experiences with the animal kingdom goes to Johan Rademeyer, the game ranger who works exclusively for the Lion Rock owners. The man was not only a veritable font of information with eyes like a hawk, but his passion and respect for nature and wildlife were genuine and infectious.
On our first evening drive, we spotted all of the Big Five: Cape buffalo, lion, leopard, rhino, elephant. Johan regaled us with all sorts of trivia and facts. Did we know that Big Five was originally a hunting term for the animals that posed the greatest risk to hunters on foot? Had we heard that giraffes are born two metres tall? Or that there are 100,000 muscles in an elephant’s trunk?
Rhinos are near-sighted, which makes them vulnerable prey for poachers whose key market is Vietnam. Powder from the rhino horn has been used in traditional Chinese medicine and more recently some believe it can cure cancer and hangovers. Each zebra has a unique stripe pattern on its shoulder. When a baby is born, its mother turns it around clockwise and anti-clockwise to teach it her pattern. Dainty impalas have “M” markings on their rumps hence they are known as the McDonald’s “fast food” of the bush.
Some peculiar collective nouns include: a bloat of hippos, a zeal or dazzle of zebras, a crash of rhinos. The Cape buffalo is considered to be the most dangerous of the Big Five due to its unpredictability and speed. Old buffalo bulls that the herd has deserted are called dagha boys because they love to wallow in mud (dagha means mud in Zulu). They may be old, but you don’t want to mess with them.
A day at Lion Rock
For all seven days, our routine went something like this:
5:00: Up and under the outdoor shower where I watched the hippos and waterbucks perform their morning ablutions in the Crocodile River.
5:30: Load the cooler with a thermos of hot water, French press coffee pot, coffee and Amarula (an African liquor made of marula fruit and considered the “Baileys” of the bush).
6:00: Off in the Toyota Land Cruiser with Johan for morning game watch.
8:00: Coffee break while watching frolicking hippos.
9:30: Return to Lion Rock. Download photos. Work out in the small gym. Take a dip in the plunge pool.
Noon: Lunch on the deck, binoculars at the ready.
14:30: Siesta time.
16:00: Prepare cooler for sundowners and off with Johan for more surprise sightings.
17:30: Sundowners in the bush.
19:00: Return to Lion Rock for dinner.
21:00: Bonfire under a sky studded with stars.
Unforgettable aha moments
Actually, there was never a “typical” day on safari at Mjejane. One afternoon we came very close to some flirting rhinos and Johan explained how the feisty female lays down the rules for this dating game. Another day, we got so close to an elephant I could almost reach out of the Toyota and touch its trunk. I learned that giraffes have to contort their long legs into a tripod base in order to bend and drink from the river. Perhaps most dramatic was that pride of lions that took down a buffalo. For three days afterwards, we watched mom and the cubs devour the carcass.
Johan pointed out creatures great and small, including all sorts of beautiful birds, tiny crabs and chameleons, and plants used for medicinal purposes. He explained some of the multi-faceted aspects contributing to the balance of nature in the bush from the hunting rituals of lions to the secrets one can learn from a dung beetle’s dung.
There were a few startling encounters. One night while we were out at a barbecue on the deck, a tree frog jumped into my wine glass. I came face to face with a hedgehog outside my bedroom door one morning and remembered Johan’s comment that the electric fence was to keep we humans in rather than the animals out. We had to shoo some frisky monkeys away from the pool. My group did not encounter any black mambas or scorpions, but those are two good reasons to keep the doors shut at all times.
Never was there a dull moment at Lion Rock. When we weren’t out on game drives, we had a never ending parade of elephants, giraffes, various antelope and more coming to the Crocodile River for a drink or a bath. A particularly handsome kudu bull with spiraled horns enjoyed nibbling on bushes right beside our pool.
Acclaimed writer and big game hunter Ernest Hemingway is usually credited with introducing the term “safari,” a Swahili word meaning journey, into the English language after his adventures in Africa in the 1930s. Hemingway’s guns notwithstanding, once you’ve nce you’ve been on safari, you realize that the “journey” of understanding the balance of nature has just begun.
Consider this African proverb:
Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning a lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death. It doesn’t matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle. When the sun comes up, you better start running.
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