My ranger dropped me at the Madikwe airfield and I was flown back through to Johannesburg at then on to the landing strip at Ngala Safari Lodge. This safari lodge rests on its own private 17,000 hectare (about 50,000 acres) property abutting the border of Kruger National Park. The land was given to the World Wildlife Fund who in turn allows CC Africa to operate its Ngala operation from 3 camps (Safari Lodge, Tented Camp and Walking Safaris).
Safari Lodge is a large property encompassing 20 rooms and 1 suite. My hosts were kind enough to put me up in the Safari Suite. The Suite included 2 fireplaces, a large bedroom, large den, outdoor and indoor showers, claw foot bathtub and private pool. I was not expecting this treatment, but I was not one to turn it down either. The manager, Pietro, and her husband, Alistair, had been with CC Africa lodges for over 10 years. They met while working at one of the lodges and had since gotten married, moved to Tanzania to manage its Tanzania Under Canvas operation for 3 years, had their first child and moved back to South Africa to operate Ngala Safari Lodge. CC Africa is a large operator of lodges and wants its employees to stay on despite their personal lives changing. One would think that working in the safari business would preclude being married with children but that is not the case within CC Africa.
I was met by my personal butler, Patrick, and shown to a room that was beyond my needs and what I deserved. After a short tour, I was introduced to Elliot, my ranger, Steve and the others on my safari vehicle. The group of 4 awaiting me all hailed from Australia. I enjoy most everyone I meet along the way during these trips but It is hard to beat the hospitality of the Australians. Despite being on a business trip and knowing one another for years, Paul, his fiancé Michelle, Tim and Kevin greeted me as one of their own and we headed out for what I hoped would be exceptional animal viewing in world class safari areas.
The game viewing was to be anticipated after the Aussies told me that they had seen a leopard, the night prior, and her cub feeding on a bushbuck the mother had taken just a short while earlier. Leopards are known to drag their kill up a tree to keep other predators from feeding on the carcass. Lions are poor tree climbers and hyena and cheetah cannot climb at all so once a leopard can get its prey in a tree it can feel safe that the animal will be able to be fed upon for a few days. Leopards enjoy the river areas so we headed back to the sight of the kill. Sure enough, there was the female and her cub, sitting at dusk. The cub was about 6 months old and was busy chewing on the leg of the bushbuck. I cannot begin to put into words the beauty of a leopard as seen in the wild. Her spots are so colorful and her coat gleaning in the soft sunlight such that she looked too pristine, too majestic to be a part of this tough and challenging world in which she fought for daily existence. Seeing her cub, as well, was an unpredicted bonus to what I had hoped would be a chance for me to see this elusive feline in South Africa. The leopards in this part of South Africa are so comfortable with the game viewing vehicle we were able to get within 6 feet of this female and her cub. 6 feet is very close; close enough to count her whiskers; close enough to the markings on her neck that enable her to be identified and close enough to know what it felt like to be a victim of her basic killing instinct once she locked eyes with mine. It was at this point that I realized she was sizing me up but as long as I was to stay in the vehicle she would not view me as a threat.
We wheeled away to the delight of us all and took the turns and bumps of the dirt road down to out next unpredictable sighting. 15 minutes passed and we were having a few greet and meet comments when our tracker, Steve, motioned for Elliott to stop. He spoke to Elliott in Shangan, his native language. We backed up the vehicle and drove straight into a field of tall, dry grass. After 50 yards, there in front of us was a female lion and her cub. I cannot explain how Steve would have been able to see these two lions. Their color and that of the grass were one in the same. We had been traveling at 25-30 mph and Steve had been looking right and left. He picked up the sighting when not one of us could see the animals even after the vehicle stopped and we were shown where to look.
The lioness was about 11 years old and her cub was about a year old. Elliott told me that she had given birth to 3 cubs but 2 had been killed by an adult male not the father of this litter. He went on to tell me that she had given birth to about 15 cubs, he thought, and none of them were still alive. All had been killed by rival males when the father refused to return periodically and defend the family. In addition, the mother had signs of tuberculosis. She had a large lump on the left elbow that must have been painful as she walked with a limp. Elliott told us that she and her cub were resigned to eat the kill of other predators as she could not hunt. During our time with the two, the cub came and rubbed her mother with his head and body repeatedly, almost reassuring her that everything would be OK. The scene was tragic as Elliott believes neither the mother nor the cub will be alive too much longer without the support of the male lion who sired the cub.
We headed off and took our regular break as the sun set over a marula tree. The colors were fantastic and we tore into some beef biltong (jekey) and a cold Windhoek Lager. Tim and I took some time chatting. He was a stereotypical Aussie; quick with a laugh; fast with a joke and an attractive self effacing sense of humor. He went on to tell me that he has a real admiration for the farmer types in South Africa; those men who have similar characteristics of Australians such as a love of the outdoors and a comfort with life’s simple pleasures. He and I were on the same page as I believe the Afrikaners; the Boers; are a people just as he described. He concurred with my assessment and just as we were about to take our second handful of biltong, a roar came from behind us; an unmistakable sound but one I had never heard in such close proximity. We all knew it was the call of a male lion and we knew it was very close. Calls this close are not just heard but they are felt. As it was now just past sunset, we packed up the drinks and hopped in the vehicle.
Sure enough, we took but a drive of 50 yards and there on a small termite mound sat our friend, the male lion. Lions are more active at night and he was getting ready to head out and hunt. He looked around and slowly walked off the termite mound. He walked right past our vehicle and as he reached a point of about 10 yards, he began his slow wailing call to let others know this was his backyard. This call is not a roar, but perhaps more intimidating as it continues for about a minute and includes a series of bellowing howls from his stomach that are intense and connote a felling of danger even if you have never heard it and did not know where it came from. We followed the big fellow for about another 100 yards and then watched him walk into the thick underbrush to begin his night of stalking prey. We could only hope that he was the father of the lioness and nearby cub and would see them to provide security in the coming days.
We headed back to the lodge where I was met by a bathtub full of hot water. I am not a bathtub guy but I plunged into this one without considering other options. The full size claw foot tub did wonders for me and I then took off for a dinner of Kudu steak with my new friends.