Big cats and wild dogs on a spectacular safari in Kruger National Park | Travel
Jhere are two things you can pretty much guarantee about a safari guide. First, they will have a selection of stories that will blow your mind. Second, you will have to do anything but take advantage of these stories.
Taciturn, cautious, conditioned to receive information rather than to transmit it, these are the characteristics of the best guides. Frankly, I would be terrible at that.
So that’s true with Julius. I work on the 46-year-old Zulu for two full days before he cracks. Then, in a melodious voice barely audible over the roar of the Land Cruiser, he begins to distribute the nuggets of his illustrious 25-year career.
An encounter with a tiger on the open plains of the Eastern Cape (the world’s greatest golfer, on the trip in which he became engaged to poor Elin); driving Brad Pitt around the bush; chaperoning the Thatchers on safari (“I made sure to pack a second bottle of gin on the sunset records for Denis”). And, most telling of all, the big game encounters.
Julius has been a safari guide for 25 years
Like the day he came face to face with an adult male lion pounding dust 15 feet away. Sitting in the out-of-reach bakkie (four-wheel-drive vehicle) were his gun – and a group of patrons who suddenly found themselves at ringside in a type of match not seen since the Colosseum was in its splendor .
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Or the time he accidentally came between an adult female elephant and her offspring. She flipped the Game Observation Vehicle upside down as if it were a tray of drinks, sending the occupants up the hill toward the nearest tree’s illusory refuge. Warning shots were fired but the furious four-ton beast kept coming. “I was out of options,” Julius said softly.
Both near-misses, for the record, happened years before and some distance from the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve, the exuberant strip of Greater Kruger that I explore in the infinitely capable hands of Julius.
Lions inhabit the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve
The “biggest” here is quantitative rather than qualitative – referring to the super-park created when the fences of the 695 square miles of private reserve west of Kruger National Park came down in the early 1990s, swelling a nature sanctuary to about the same size as Wales.
But in safari terms, experiencing these exclusive slices is indeed a step up. Strict limits on the number of lodges and vehicles; no day trippers; no demoralized guides in stagnant coaches passing distant silhouettes for big five sightings like on my previous Kruger trip.
The Klaserie is rather the bush of a thousand fantasies à la Out of Africa: golden grass stirred by warm and fragrant breezes; elegant flat-topped acacia trees; more space than you can imagine; and extraordinary biodiversity.
Five hundred species of birds inhabit the Kruger alone, nearly two-thirds of South Africa’s total. There are over 150 different mammals.
The stylish Camp George lobby
In such a context, our greedy and greedy obsession with ticking boxes for the big five may seem childish.
Fixate on sightings of lions, elephants, buffaloes, rhinos and leopards and you will have no eyes for the martial eagle perched atop the rigor-mortis-rigid fingers of a tree of dead lead. The dazzling (by far the best of collective nouns) of rugged zebras hurtling like a psychedelic rugby team. Or the herd of impala, as beautiful and temperamental as mannequins, springing through the bush as hyenas stalk the shadows behind.
Disproportionate, bushy-coated, and heroically ugly, hyenas stare at you with the dead-eyed indifference of creatures with few food scruples and a set of jaws that exert phenomenal pressure per square inch.
“They’ll break your legs like pretzels,” I lean into the vehicle and say to the kids, a little overexcited perhaps. The two are silent.
You’ll probably also miss the kudu, with its chicken-like gait; the chameleon in the acacia, glowing lime green in the torchlight before fading, almost apologetically, to black; the golden orb spider, its fist-like size and dazzling colors entice tiny, insignificant males to try to mate with it for the dubious pleasure of being eaten alive after coitus. A-list divorce court in arachnid form.
And you might not take the time to properly observe the hippopotamus, its comical dimensions at odds with its status as Africa’s second biggest killer after mosquitoes. “Ahhh look, it’s yawning,” says my youngest, as a bull bares its teeth in a Kim Jong-style show of force as we watch from a safe distance from the watering hole.
“No, it’s not,” Julius said quietly.
One morning, we leave the camp, huddled in ponchos against a pre-dawn cold that will soon seem miraculous to us. The scent of wild basil drifts through the rapidly warming bush. The inky silhouette of the Drakensberg Mountains looms on the horizon. Everything is calm, peaceful.
Then we’re given a stark reminder of the Kruger’s raw savagery.
An elephant in Klaserie
The radio crackles: a pack of three dozen wild dogs has been spotted to the west. Charcoal face and Tipp-Ex tail, these lean hunters are the middle-distance runners of the bush, killing with exhaustion and aggression. Today it’s an impala. Or rather, was.
By the time we arrive, all that remains is a flattened area of crimson grass and a spine clenched in the jaws of a hyena scurrying guiltily like an opportunistic pet at a family barbecue. Dogs swarm around the bakkie as we hold our collective breath. But they are sated, and so they retreat to a nearby dry river bed to sleep.
Our breakfast is altogether more refined. Camp George, our base, is a fenced and moated sanctuary that ranks among the best in the African bush. Everything — from the inventive, ever-changing menu to the impeccable service and attention to detail in the eight high-ceilinged, air-conditioned suites — belies the remote setting.
It is extremely comfortable without falling into luxury without touching. Headboards hand painted in a dipping African sun and yellowish red; industrial-chic lamps; deep soaking tubs and outdoor showers; sheets as smooth as the bark of the camp’s towering fever trees.
Duncan’s daughters with Camp George team member Sisa
Between morning and evening game drives, we spend long hours in the pool, speckled with huge Natal mahogany, as low-flying red-billed hornbills hover silently overhead like ornately decorated paper airplanes. . Innocent, the bartender, takes palpable pleasure in our appreciation for his rooibos iced tea concoction (“Innocent’s smoothie,” we call him, inevitably).
Always smiling, camp manager Inneke buzzes productively while husband Manie – a fashion-forward build, preschool shorts – is clearly in his element here.
“The other day I was reading about a historic springbok migration that took three days to pass. Three days! I think I was born 100 years too late,” he tells me.
One day, dinner is taken on the lawn; another, around the boma hearth. Most memorable, however, is the evening in the bush – a blazing campfire in the center of a perimeter of predator-proof candles (we tell the kids).
Julius joins us as we eat, explaining something about Zulu traditions and the role of the sacred buffalo thorn tree in carrying the spirits of deceased relatives to ancestral resting places.
The sightings of the big five, while not obsessive, duly materialize. The next day we see a quartet of lions dozing in a dry river bed, their breath hanging in the air. We learn that everything about their predatory life is a brutal exercise in prioritization: they have to weigh the calories on the packet against the cost (in energy) of purchase, because the bush is no place for an empty tank.
A suite at Camp George
The buffaloes – or “daka boys”, as the Zulus affectionately call them, “daka” meaning mud – also leave a big impression. These giant, sniffling, fly-blown beasts have the tenderest of hearts, sharing an unbreakable bond that will see them return to help a herd member in distress, deploying a kick that can shatter a lion’s skull.
And, finally, excitingly, the leopards. Revered by African kings for centuries, these creatures are among the most advanced and adaptable hunters on the planet, combining stealth, cunning and deadly efficiency. Bush lore tells the story of an inexperienced guide who left the vehicle at dusk to answer the call of the wild and met his end with the jaws of a leopard clenched around his throat. Those who accompanied the unfortunate man heard nothing more than the dull sound of his rifle hitting the dusty track.
I’m not passing any of this on to my eldest because, bakkie bucking, we react quickly to rumors of a sighting several miles to the east on our last evening. I feel my pulse quicken; leopard sightings are extremely rare these days.
We arrive in what passes for twilight: this brief window in the bush between the sun which warms your face and the darkness which sings the cicadas and rustles the grass. And there – partially concealed on the edges of a waterhole – is an unmistakable white-tipped tail: rising, hanging in the air, then falling.
The creature rises, a duck-like entrance having caught its eye, and we watch, transfixed, as it stalks its prey – its lean-hipped, rosette-adorned elegance, all the more striking, somehow, for its ruthless lethality.
“Can we go out? asks my nine-year-old son. Julius and I turn around in disbelief, then exchange a smile. “Uh, no, my love. I think maybe not. This is not a story I want to add to the Julius canon.
For 15 minutes, it’s just the three of us and this supernatural predator, this Lowveld ghost. Then, as a light breeze ruffles the treetops, it seems to melt into the grassy darkness and we doubt it was ever really there.
Duncan Craig and his family were guests of Cedarberg Africa, which offers a four-night all-inclusive stay at Simbavati Camp George (simbavati.com) from £2,220 pp including flights, car hire in Johannesburg, drinks and all activities and game drives (cedarberg-travel.com). For more on tours in South Africa, see southafrica.net