Eyeballing the lions on big game safari in South Africa

Bikya Masr, Sabi Sand, South Africa (dpa) – Just one swipe of the paw, a bite in the neck or a leap forward and my first African big game safari would have been by last. Only a few meters separated me from the lion. Sitting in an open Land Rover I feel like a meal on wheels. Yet it seems the king of the beasts has lost his appetite today. He lies calmly under a bush in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve. More than 60 years ago this park pioneered safari tourism in South Africa. Back then a group of 14 landowners put their faith in photo-safaris. Among the first to take part was sugar baron William Campbell, whose Mala Mala Camp became South Africa’s first private wild animal reservation, the Londolozi family and the Bailes, who owned the chain of Singita Lodges. “When things first got going you had to be grateful for a scruffy bed and mediocre food,” said Singita Director Mark Whitney. It was only in the 1980s that the accommodation improved. Since the 1990s a number of lodges have sprung up. These are not luxury hotels but have the advantage of being located in the middle of the wilderness which makes up most of the Sabi Sand Game Reserve on the south-western edge of the Krueger National Park. It dates back to 1926. From the vantage point of a lodge, visitors can often spot apes, hippos, crocodiles and elephants. Yet to venture farther into the bush without guides like Wade and his tracker Johnson would be to court disaster. With these men at hand the visitor is safer here than on the streets of any European capital city. “Don’t worry. The vultures up there are not waiting for us,” says Wade in a bid to assure the rookies who are about to embark on their first-ever big game safari just after sunrise. Wade carries a gun for emergencies. “Not that anyone from Singita has ever had to shoot an animal,” he says. The guides are skilled at avoiding such confrontation by anticipating the behavior of the wild creatures and by reading the gestures they make. The group of wide-eyed safari guests sets off slowly in the open Land Rover and soon finds itself in the midst of a herd of elephants. They approach a rhinoceros to within a few meters, past by a group of buffalo before fording a river where the hippos are bathing. Even in a zoo you cannot get this close to these creatures. The genuine safari feeling comes from trips through the bush country and rare sightings such as watching a pair of lions mate. “I’ve only ever seen that once myself,” comments Wade. The lions are unfazed by the whirr of the cameras even though we are hardly five meters away. The open car offers no protection against attack but we are justified in feeling secure. “The animals can smell us but when we are in the car they don’t regard us as humans. All they can see is a large box which poses no threat,” he said. When the sun goes down, Wade halts the car in a clearing. Johnson sets up a small table on the Land Rover bonnet and invites us all to a Sundowner. As night falls the air is filled with the sounds which grow in intensity. The apes and birds screech, the elephants bellow and lions roar. We start at the slightest sound in the undergrowth and comfort ourselves with the knowledge that no-one will be left alone in the bush. Since the lodge is not surrounded by a perimeter fence no guest is allowed outside in the dark without an escort. This is purely a precaution since lions or other large animals seldom come by. On the rare occasion, when they do show up, the results are usually spectacular, said Collin, a guide from the Lebombo-Lodge in Krueger National Park on the border with Mozambique. “A zebra fleeing a lion once galloped into the lodge and ended up in the swimming pool,” he recalled. Source: Bikya MasrImage

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