Going on a big cat safari

The private game reserves adjacent to South Africa’s Kruger National Park provide superb game-drive country. The woodland savannah teems with a diverse array of wildlife, especially big cats, many of which are comfortable in the presence of vehicles. Climb aboard an open 4×4 and venture into this luxury big cat safari wonderland, where predator and prey still roam the African wilderness.

One of the things we most wanted to see during our luxury South African safari was Greater Kruger’s big cats. The reserves bordering Kruger National Park have some of the finest lodges in Africa. Best of all, if you want to get close and personal with big cats such as lion and leopard, this is where you need to go.

The first game drive was our most memorable. After a sumptuous afternoon tea, we set off from our luxurious lodge, perched on a koppie. We had an open-top safari vehicle, with a dedicated game guide, George, and a Shangaan spotter, Tiyani. With such a vehicle were able to go where our whims took us.

Our guides knew the creatures intimately: the way animals (especially cats) interacted with the lowveld environment, the stages of the creatures’ lifecycles and the flora that sustained it all. These two men were the keys that unlocked the experience for us.

We traversed a magnificent savannah-woodland landscape, very different to the wide-open plains of East Africa. Despite the relatively thick bush, the game viewing was simply remarkable: not the great herds of the plains, but an incredible diversity.

‘Ngala, lion,’ called out our tracker, holding up his hand. We turned off road into the bush and slowly approached three supine cats. There was a magnificent male and two sleek females, lying in the shade of an acacia. Even though I knew we were safe in the open vehicle, I could feel my heart thumping in my chest. It was thrilling to be so close to big cats.

I must say, no one can doubt which animal is king of the beasts after seeing a mature, male lion in the wild! The three cats looked so powerful, so regal. The well-muscled fellow was scarred from years of battles over dominance and risky hunts. The lionesses were very pretty, with beautiful golden coats, cute white eyeliner and plate-sized paws.

One of the great things about such sightings is the privacy. Unlike some game parks, where there’s often a scrum of cars around an animal, the private reserves adjoining Kruger only allow two or three vehicles at a sighting at any one time.

After getting some fine portrait photos of the lazy cats, we moved on. As the sun dipped towards the horizon and turned scarlet, we drew to a halt beside a large termite mound. The group climbed down to stretch legs and enjoy delicious nibbles and G&Ts. We toasted our remarkable sightings. Little did we know that the best was yet to come.

As we sipped our drinks, George told us a bit about the history of the Kruger National Park and the adjoining private reserves. ‘Some of the families are now third- and fourth-generation owners. It’s an incredible legacy.’

We set off into the dusk. As darkness fell, our tracker began scanning the bush with a powerful spotlight. He snagged an array of elusive nocturnal creatures in his beam: civet, genet and a delightful chameleon, glowing luminous green on the tip of a branch. ‘This is the time when most predators come out to hunt, so evening game drives can potentially be the most exciting of all,’ said George.

And how right he was. The climax of the drive came just as we were turning for home. The female leopard lay draped on the branch of a leadwood tree, as though posing just for us.

‘This lady is one of our most beautiful cats,’ whispered George. ‘She’s six years old. I’ve watched her grow up. Like many of the leopard hereabouts, she’s been extensively documented. With a territory that’s centred around our camp, she’s an almost constant presence in the riverine bush and bush-willow-covered hillsides around here. As you can see, her relaxed demeanour means she’s totally comfortable in the presence of vehicles.’

The leopard leapt down from her perch and slunk through the undergrowth, right past the front of the vehicle. What a graceful thing of spots and power: princess of the night. George started the engine and we followed at a discreet distance. Then she disappeared into the underbrush. The chatter of monkey and cough of a bushbuck were the only evidence of her passing.

Suddenly there was a flash of streaking colour, a grunt and a puff of dust. Drawing closer, we saw the limp duiker clamped in her jaws, the life being squeezed from its throat. The leopard gave us one fiery glance, then dragged her prey into the bushes and was gone. Darkness closed in. Everyone was silent … stunned to have seen a kill just metres away from where we sat in the open vehicle, with nothing between us and the big cat. We drove back to camp filled with awe and feeling privileged at such an intimate, affecting encounter with the wild.

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