Discover what makes the African bush so unique this month as we highlight its riches in a series of blog posts, beginning with An African Safari: The Thrill of the Hunt while on a game drive. Written by Haley Beham
There is nothing that quite compares to the thrill of being on safari. It’s exhilarating to set out in the crisp morning air in the back of an open vehicle, armed with a camera and, depending on the season, a warm blanket. Whether it is your first time on safari or your seventeenth, the anticipation is always there. What will I see today?
After being away from the bush for nine years, I couldn’t wait to return to a place that feels just as familiar to me as my own home. My South African itinerary began with stops at Tintswalo Atlantic, Birkenhead House, and La Residence, all bucket list properties for me, before I headed out into the bush. La Residence was recently voted the best small hotel in the world by Conde Nast readers, and the award is well deserved. It is easily one of the most incredible properties in the world, set in the picturesque Franschhoek Valley among vineyards of the winelands.
After several days traveling around South Africa, I finally headed into the bush for stays at Royal Malewane, Tintswalo Safari Lodge, and Londolozi Varty Camp. Stepping off of the prop plane in the Thornybush Game Reserve within the greater Krueger area, the feelings of excitement came rushing over me. The bush has a certain smell to it – crisp air, mixed with dust and the smell of wildlife. It’s a smell that stays with you forever and I knew it immediately with my first step onto the dry ground.
The game drives at each of the properties were unique but each offered the opportunity to see an abundance of game – from zebra, giraffe, and elephants, to lions and their cubs playing at night and a herd of 400-500 buffalo. There’s something special about the big cats of Africa though. We look at lions and know they are king with their mighty roars and big paws, but it’s easy to forget when you see a set of cubs playing with each other, rolling around in the grass, and biting their mother’s ear. I saw leopard at each property as well, but they were always on the move. By the time I reached Londolozi, I had seen just about everything except for the cheetah. It was high on my list.
Londolozi Private Game Reserve sits within Sabi Sand Game Reserve and the guides are in regular contact with each other about where certain game is located. The afternoon I arrived at Londolozi, my guide asked what I wanted to see. Without hesitation, I replied, “Cheetah.” Ever the pleaser, the guide intended to find some, but later told me that he was nervous about our prospects. There are four of them in the area and they hadn’t been spotted for days. We set out on our drive and stopped briefly at a herd of elephant, some rhino, and a group of warthogs before continuing our quest. And then, as if out of nowhere, we saw a mom and her two adolescent cubs resting in the shade of a tree.
A feeling of awe rushed over me and for a minute, I forget that I even had a camera. All I could do was watch them laying so peacefully in the shade. After a while, the male cub stood up to stretch his legs and practice his hunting skills on some plains game in the distance. He was unsuccessful, but it was a real treat to see him test his skills. After a while we moved on for sundowners, but I was content. I had finally seen the elegant cheetah.
I was scheduled to fly out the next afternoon, but due to weather, would have to drive to Kruger Mpumalanga Airport (a drive of about two hours), instead of taking a short light aircraft flight. This meant that my departure from Londolozi would be pushed up by a few hours, which left me with the question of whether or not to go on a morning game drive. I had seen cheetah the previous day. I was happy. But I also knew that I would regret leaving Africa without one final drive, even if it would be cut short. I’m so glad I decided to go because it proved to be one of the most exciting drives of the trip.
My guide told me there were leopard cubs in the area and we were going to find them. Perfect, I thought. I’ve never seen leopard cubs. Instead of stopping at the various other animals we passed, we stuck to our mission to find the cubs. But things started looking grim after an hour of tracking and driving without any luck. My guide and tracker set out on foot in a dry riverbed to look for prints, while I stayed in the vehicle, growing more anxious as the minutes ticked by. I knew if we didn’t find them soon, we’d have to leave to head back to camp and my last drive would have been very unfruitful. That is not how I wanted to leave Africa.
After my guide and tracker returned from looking for tracks, we decided to call it a morning. I would have to get back to pack and tour the properties of Londolozi before my driver collected me to head home. As we were driving back to camp, I kept my eyes open, constantly and quickly scanning the area as I had been taught, to pick up on anything that looked slightly out of place. Just then, I spotted something to my left – a pattern that looked unfamiliar in the wild. I tapped my driver and told him to stop. I thought I had seen something. He threw the car in reverse and slowly backed up.
There, sitting on a fallen tree trunk, was one of the leopard cubs. He was starting right at us and his sister was nearby. I was congratulated with high fives and praise for my great spot. We watched the cub walk down into the riverbed and climb into a tree, which is where we unfortunately had to leave him so we could hurry back to camp. It was one of the most rewarding games drives I’ve been on and one I’ll never forget.
While all game drives are unique and special, there’s nothing more thrilling than the hunt for that elusive animal. The experience will stick with you forever. But that’s the way of the bush – it penetrates deep into your soul and leaves you changed. A piece of my heart will always be in Africa among the animals of the bush.
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