To keep the lions away, I left the lantern on when I went to bed. I told myself I was doing this to find the toilet behind the dividing wall if I rose in the night – but I was kidding myself. The lantern was on because I was alone in a large tent in the South African bush and there was nothing besides a zippered canvas flap between me and the local lion, leopard, elephant, and hyena population – not to mention the deadly black mamba snake.
Sure enough, I woke at 3 am and noticed the lantern was out. No gas. I stepped to the mesh flap and gazed up at a magnificent starry sky with the Southern Cross in high prominence above Kruger National Park where I had come to experience a walking safari. Instead of a van tour where people were driven to wildlife, visitors have the option of walking the bushland with a tracker and ranger, both armed with rifles. All the better to track rhino and Cape buffalo and giraffe but I hoped not to encounter on foot the resident lion prides and packs of salivating spotted hyena.
Staying at Ngala, the only private game reserve to be incorporated into Kruger National Park, I had my own tent, large enough to stand in, a main room with two single beds and a dresser. There was an adjoining room with a toilet and a basin for a gravity shower and a smaller table for shaving. But not even a berm or fence around the tents.
“How come the tents are so unprotected?” I asked Ranger Gavin Foster. “Animals here are as territorial as we are,” he reassured me. “They recognize your territory around the tent and won’t disturb it.” Instant flashback to the evening before and the elephant that knocked over a tree just behind us as we ate dinner. Territory is an elastic concept.
“On our walk tomorrow,” I said, “what do you do if we stumble into a pride of lions?” “Just do what I say and stand behind us,” Gavin responded casually. “Don’t move. Running triggers the kill response. They’ll rise and roar if they see us, and we back off.” Later I learned that Ngala ranger training included nine unarmed walks alone in the bush.
Our schedule was simple: up at 5 am, breakfast at 5:30 and walking by 6 am. We walked with brief stops until 10 when we returned for a much needed gravity shower. Then a rest during the heat of the day and high tea at 3:30 pm. That may include sandwiches or pizza, cookies, tea. In the late afternoon everyone gets in the Land Rover for a more traditional game drive. The drive includes a stop for a sunset cocktail with snacks, and then dinner is at 7:30 pm.
At 5 am the sky was black. I packed camera gear and binoculars. I slipped my knife in a pocket where I could find the blade. I calculated it to be about the length of one lion’s fang. By 6 am the sky was lightening and we walked in close single file behind tracker and ranger.
Impala sprang from the undergrowth and monkeys shook the treetops. Bird life was colorful and abundant, but we were after bigger game. Abednigo Masuku, our tracker, pointed out leopard claw marks and elephant rubbings on a single Transvaal Saffron Tree. He then spotted fresh tracks of a white rhino with calf. With silence emphasized, we followed. Rhino have poor eyesight but good hearing.
Abednigo and Gavin knelt and filtered clods of rhino dung between their fingers. They felt for moisture content and pointed out the baby dung neatly deposited beside mother’s. “Passed through about half an hour ago,” Gavin said “Are we up for pursuit?” We were.
Can You Tell the Difference?
The white rhino (acceptably short for rhinoceros) eats grass and therefore holds its head lower, mouth near the ground. The head is longer and heavier, with massive shoulders and a big hump to carry the weight. It also has a wide, square shaped mouth, if you can see this.
There is nothing in the color to distinguish it from the black rhino: the “white” comes from the Afrikaans word for “wide” mouthed rhino. The black rhino carries its head higher because it eats leaves instead of grass. It has a smaller, lighter head, with a pointed “prehensile” lip for gripping leaves. Also, black rhino calves follow the mother; white rhino calves run in front.
After much circling, we found the rhino with baby in a grassland interlaced with acacia trees, termite mounds, and aardvark burrows. We hid behind a mound and glassed the mother rhino who, with head lowered, looked a bit like a black boulder left by a retreating glacier. Other black boulders lay to left and right. Slowly they moved and Gavin whispered, “We’ve found Rhino City! There’s five more over there. Keep low and follow us – the wind’s blowing from their direction.”
Back at the lodge I read about our quarry: “Neither the strength nor the temper of a rhino when he is annoyed should be underestimated. He is the extrovert of the animal kingdom, prepared to charge headlong into oncoming trains.”
At 40,000 acres, Ngala is a small part of huge Kruger National Park. After tenting there, I moved south to the smaller private game reserve of Phinda north of Durban where both Land Rover and walking safaris are offered.
Established in 1991, Phinda is operated by Conservation Corporation Africa on land formerly consisting of cattle ranches and farmland. A decade later, Nature has overtaken the land, supporting two distinct biomes – forest and savanna – and South Africa’s Big Five – rhino, cape buffalo, elephant, lion and leopard. It’s possible here to encounter all of the above on a single game drive.
Last seen in this area in 1928, lion were reintroduced to Phinda in 1992. Rooms are separated from the main lodge and dining area by paved walkways. However, unescorted strolls are not encouraged, especially at night when lions and cubs may come in closer than during the day.
On the day I arrived, the Lodge at Phinda was surrounded by wild nyala antelope. One big white-striped male had a three-foot swirl of horns above its head and the females, with young, were scattered around the grounds between the rooms. By the time I checked in and got my camera out, the magnificent male was gone and didn’t return. Note to self – always have camera ready.
Our safari walk at Phinda included sightings of giraffe with young, great groups of nasty looking warthogs, and a herd of Cape buffalo from which our guide was anxious to keep a respectful distance. A rifle would be meager aid if they stampeded our way. We also studied micro-systems along game paths: burrowing spiders, ant lions, dung beetles and the scat of a serval cat.
Our last meal was in a bush clearing with long tables and bright lanterns in the treetops. The lanterns also led to portatoilets down a bush path where guards with flashlights and guns stood nearby. As we dined in the wild, the smell of roasted meat brought company. On the hill opposite a high-powered flash beam picked up a humpbacked spotted hyena frozen in the light, drawn by the powerful aroma.
Back at the lodge I had a nightcap in the bar and then set out for my room, forgetting to request a security escort. Halfway there, I stopped and squinted into the darkness. Was that a reclining lion ahead or a tree stump? It seemed to block the path. The snapping of twigs in the bush sparked a faint tingle down the back of my neck. I chose not to acknowledge the dangers of the night by walking straight ahead, not looking to either side.
South African Airways, www.flysaa.com, flies nonstop from many gateway cities around the world.
Ngala and Phinda safaris are run by Conservation Corporation (CC) Africa, www.ccafrica.com.
For additional safari options in Southern Africa and East Africa check out:
For over 10 years, Swala Safaris Ltd has offered tailored safaris in luxury tented camps and lodges in Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda. Based in Arusha, the company is an accredited member of Tanzania Association of Tour Operators and is licensed to operate safaris by the Tanzania Tourist Agency Licensing Authority. www.swalasafaris.com.
Explore the mysteries, magic and natural wonders of Kenya and Tanzania with GoAfrica Safaris & Travel. Specialized safari services offer disabled and special needs travelers unprecedented freedom to travel as well as visits and volunteer opportunities at one of our charitable organizations. www.go-africa-safaris.com.
Africa Dream Safaris provides wildlife safaris and adventure travel to East Africa. Visit their extensive online resource guide and detailed sample itineraries to plan your African safari. ADS specializes in private and custom tailored safaris to Tanzania’s northern safari circuit, offering the finest game viewing in all of Africa. www.africadreamsafaris.com.
African Horizons provides nature safaris and tours to Africa for leisure, adventure and group travel. Our website contains detailed itineraries for over 60 trips. We specialize in tailor-made safaris and tours reflecting your interests and budget. www.africanhorizons.com.
Authentic Tanzania offers memorable wildlife safaris and cultural experiences throughout Tanzania combined with beach extensions in Zanzibar. Mount Kilimanjaro, Serengeti Plains, walking safaris, bird watching and much more for tour groups, family groups and seniors with a spirit of adventure. www.authentictanzania.com.
ElderTreks specializes in small-group cultural and nature vacations for people 50 or better. Their tour itineraries cover more than 80 countries, including among their wide-ranging African trip menu Kingdoms of Southern Africa, Splendors of Southern Africa, and Tanzania. www.eldertreks.com
Family-owned and operated, Endeavour Safaris specializes in unforgettable wilderness camping safaris for physically challenged vacationers wishing to explore South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zambia. Specialized equipment and vehicles open doors to safe, full service, authentic bush adventures for disabled people, their friends and families.www.endeavour-safaris.com
Peter Aiken has written for the New York Times, Toronto Globe & Mail, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Islands Magazine, Discovery, Travel Holiday and many more. Travel stories have appeared in Travelers’ Tales India and Travel Unlimited. He has contributed to two guidebooks on New England, and edited the Access Guide to Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.