Maddie’s field notes from South Africa

Stories of safari

My trip to South Africa came as something of a surprise to me. A lot of the time, travelling is neat and perfect; precisely planned to the minute, looked forward to for months in which you consider every moment before it happens. I usually do this. I imagine my travels in some happy, daydreamt headspace – one where the places I’ll go, what I’ll experience and what it’ll feel like, are all pre-envisaged. A perfect holiday, in my head.

This time – this travel – was messier. A passing idea conceived in a London bar, when Natalia – my close friend and colleague – said, ‘please come with me to South Africa next week’. She didn’t want to go alone anymore, and I knew I needed it. And so, I went.

I wrote every day of our travels. All seventeen of them. I think it was the spontaneous nature of this trip – its unfamiliarity to me, perhaps, that made want to spill things onto a page. My various scribblings from that space in time, however, total a few thousand too many words to share here. So, instead, these are two of my favourite days we spent in South Africa, on safari three hours east of Cape Town.

South Africa luxury travel

Day 8 – Safari Part One

Our wakeup call comes bright and early, at 6:00am. Tea at 6:15, game drive at 6:30. I only just make it, grabbing a muffin and an apple for the road at 6:29. One day I will be a morning person.

The sun is coming up, and there’s a glowing orange light behind the mountains that makes them each a silhouette. The furthest faded grey, charcoal, to deep black. It’s quiet, besides the engine of our 4×4. The wind is cool as we drive, hitting our faces. Another, more bracing wake up call.

When we’ve driven a little longer, the sun is up and bathing everything in luminous glow. The mountains look even more beautiful than they did before. I like birdwatching (old before my time, I know), and we see a flock in graceful flight, gliding above us – striking white feathers beneath their wings. I ask what they are and our guide, PJ, replies. ‘Those, up there? They are ducks’. I feel ridiculous. I maintain that they are much more exciting than mallards, but Nati is laughing at me.

First, PJ finds two white lions – the only two on the reserve. The original pride of seven suffered some losses last year, and their attempt to introduce and integrate some new individuals had been unsuccessful. There are fewer than ten white lions left in the wild, so we are lucky to have spotted them, albeit from so far away that for a while they are just pale, blurry blobs on a rock. Some imagination is required, until the male raises his head. The Klein Karoo is a delicate ecosystem, so no off-roading is allowed here. It’s all in the hands (paws?) of the lions, and how close they choose to get to us.

On our onward drive, we come across some giraffe in the distance. The collective term for them is a ‘journey’. I like this. Two of the males are fighting, known as ‘necking’, and it’s quite brutal – as fights over love so often can be. The aim is to break the other’s neck, fatally, akin to when a human is hanged. Interesting though this is, I really, really do not want to see a giraffe die this morning.

PJ is quietly checking for fresh prints as we drive, listening intently to his radio for updates about the whereabouts of a leopard and a herd of zebra. Meanwhile, we start to see elephant dung at various intervals. Increasingly fresh (we can tell from the stench). And then we see them – on the hill on the other side of the bushes, wandering slowly across the slope, grazing as they go. And, so, we stop. ‘Anyone for coffee?’, PJ asks, and I’m quick to accept. A fresh cafetière brewing beside a herd of wild elephants. Is this the best morning ever? I’m in awe, a little. Especially after the escapades of yesterday, this feels completely and entirely joyful. We chat with PJ over our drinks, and he tells us about his family: his wife and children, his mother and mother-in-law.

On the way back towards the lodge, we pass the same giraffes again (all alive, thankfully), but closer this time. They glide along so gracefully, for such ginormous creatures.

Luxury tour South Africa

Further down the track, we pass another giraffe, solitary this time. Its coat is darker, the pattern you’d expect but the colours in the inverse, more camouflage. We ask PJ, ‘is that a giraffe?!’. They say there’s no such thing as a stupid question, but this truly was one. But we’ve never seen one like this before and the way it’s sitting – sedentary, so still – it looks almost like a statue. Only its mouth is moving, chewing on some sustenance. Even so, I’m really on the fence about this one. PJ replies, ‘no, this one’s one of our models’, and something convincing about why game reserves tend to use them. We are serious now. Is this, or is this not, a real giraffe? He cracks up laughing. Really got us with that one. But how were we to know? PJ explains it’s a different, darker-skinned subspecies of giraffe, and the males of this kind tend to go it alone when not mating.

Returning to the lodge, we eat breakfast, then change into swimwear right away. It’s hot, and we’re out of office, with six blissful hours of nothing until our next game drive. I sunbathe and read and write and doze off – four of my favourite things – cooling down with sips of diet coke in a glass full of ice.

4:00pm comes around quick when you’re living the safari dream. We head out for another game drive. First, to the dam – which is fuller than usual, given the unprecedented rainfall the area has had recently. We see five hippos (from a considerable distance). With binoculars, you can just about make out their glossy grey behinds peeking above the surface. Of the animal kingdom, they are the second biggest killer of humans every year – trumped only by mosquitos. The distance is probably for the best. In many less developed parts of Africa, PJ explains, where people walk some distances to access water, they do so before sunrise or after sunset, when it’s cooler. Hippos are not nocturnal, but are most active at night, leaving their resting waters at dusk and returning in the morning. Humans and animals will both gravitate towards the easiest path. A person walks into hippo territory, crosses their path, and the response is fear. Then aggression. It makes sense. Fishermen also, PJ says, fall victim, heading into waters they ought not to. In narrow waterways, a hippo flips a boat accidentally whilst trying to pass, just from its sheer size, and the fishermen drown because they cannot swim. There is no intent there, but the death is recorded as caused by the hippo. A misjudgement. How many times are things like this a result of reckless human behaviour? Animals always fear us more than we fear them, PJ says.

PJ gets a radio message, and it sounds exciting – but we can’t make out the exact words. On the way, we see a brown hyena. They scavenge solo, rather than solely hunting in packs. Their jaws are powerful, and they can digest bone, so their droppings look like white chalk from the high calcium content. We learn about their hierarchies – marked by female dominance – where the lowest-ranking female in the pack is still higher in the pecking order than the highest-ranking male. Go on, girls.

From there, we drive just around the corner. And there are elephants. Right there, in front of us on the road. A double take is required to be certain I haven’t imagined this scene. The entire herd of nine walks past us, close enough to reach out and touch. We are silent, barely breathing so as not to disturb their stroll. These are actual wild elephants. And they really are huge. Stately, almost. Their skin is wrinkled; leathery and thick, like they’ve lived long enough to acquire some extraordinary wisdom. Hazel brown eyes, wrinkled too, with a kindness in them, as they look straight at me. Their gentleness seems so at odds with their size. Do they think as much of us as we do of them, I wonder? We stay with the herd, for a while. Partly because they’re blocking the road. Mostly because this is truly amazing.

South Africa big five
South Africa Big Five

What I love about safari is that there’s a constant stream of information that accompanies the sights you’re seeing. PJ explains that elephants ‘rumble’ from their vocal cords at multiple different frequencies – some that can be heard by humans, others beyond those realms. This allows them to communicate with each other across several kilometres. A language, of sorts. And whatever the matriarch says, goes. You learn something new every day.

On some kind of lucky streak, we head towards some white rhinos. We reach where they are and it’s a game of ‘I spy’. PJ claims to have seen them, but I’m convinced he’s lying. Or that he has bionic eyes. Hotter, colder. Left, right. And there they are – hiding behind a tree – but they’re rhinos alright. The female, PJ explains, is shy at the moment. She lost her horn in a fight last month, and that’s her armour. She’s feeling vulnerable without it. We ask how many rhinos are on the reserve and PJ can’t tell us, because they’re under protection – still at risk of identification by hunters and poachers.

As we’re about to leave, the rhinos emerge and come right up to us. They have very poor eyesight, so PJ gently turns on the air conditioning for a few seconds, to warn them of our presence. Nati clicks her disposable camera and the young rhino jumps. They know we’re here, now. They step into the sun, suffusing their dull silver skin with gold. They are still. And we are still.

Luxury travel South Africa

PJ thinks we might catch the lions again, so on we drive. We spot them, a little closer this time, napping on a rock behind some bushes. Sleeping for seventeen hours a day does sound nice. Maybe they’ll wake up soon.

We stop a (hopefully) safe distance away, for sundowners. Nothing like a sunset gin and tonic to calm your nerves about the fact that two lions could emerge from their slumber and enjoy you for their evening meal at any moment. This is what luxury South Africa vacations are all about. The thrill.

Suddenly, it’s action stations. Another group are already with the lions when we arrive. The female is sat just to the left of the track, the male to the right. A giraffe stands behind us, staring the lions down. These two will not take on an adult male giraffe now, PJ explains, as they are too old. In their prime, a different story; we’d have witnessed a different scene.

The male gets up and walks slowly, at first, then faster into the distance. He has seen something, and she follows. And then together they’re chasing down a brown hyena, roaring, and it surely doesn’t stand a chance. This is like a hair-raising sequence from a David Attenborough documentary, except it’s not on a screen, but real and right in front of us. High drama, maximum tension.

They’ve cornered the hyena in a walled ditch and severed its spinal cord – but it hangs on, weak and whimpering. Its breath is a clicking sound, slower and slower as its lungs give out. If the lions had wanted to kill it, they could have done so by now. Instead, they stand and watch – as we do – voyeurs over their soon-to-be kill. Ten minutes of suffocating and suffering. And they strut cruelly away, without taking a bite. This has real Scar from The Lion King evil energy. But the hyena will become a meal for something, soon (it’s the circle of life etc.). An ecosystem, doing its thing. Today we’ve seen this in all its glory; in all its sadness.

When we return to the lodge, I ask PJ over a glass of Amarula (South African Bailey’s 2.0) how many times he’d typically see something like this over a period of a few months on the reserve. He replies, ‘once a year’. We are very, very lucky to have seen what we have seen.

South Africa Big Five
South Africa travel

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Day 9 – Safari Part Two

It’s sunrise again (funny how that happens) and time for our final game drive. The sun is fluorescent behind the mountains, bright neon yellow and orange.

We’re on the lookout for a cheetah this morning – notoriously difficult to track. PJ gets out of the car and holds a device above his head. Two long metal loops attached at their centres by a short stick, with wires entangled and a connected hand-held device. Is he trying to get radio signal? Get television to work in the wildest of wilds? Whatever the aim, it doesn’t seem to be working.

It’s equipment – we later learn – that can detect the tracking device of the cheetah within a radius of one kilometre and suggest its direction from your location. A few more kilometres, a few more attempts and it’s beeping. But even so, there’s no guarantee. We stop to watch a lone male ostrich trotting awkwardly past us, which is highly entertaining – it’s no wonder a group of them is called a ‘wobble’. Before we set off, PJ thinks he’s seen something move in the bushes behind us (far, far behind us – I’m now sure this man has superhuman eyesight). We reverse, at pace, then Nati sees something. A big cat. Between the commotion and the tear of the engine as we drive, our calls to PJ to ‘stop!’ get a little lost in the atmosphere, and it’s a miracle we don’t run over the cheetah, which is crossing the track just a few feet from the back of our vehicle. We found it.

South Africa luxury travel

Over the next hour, PJ perfectly predicts the cheetah’s movements – like it’s his obedient puppet. We move before it moves, positioned as it directly crosses our path once, twice, three times. I’ve always been partial to an animal print, but it strikes me now why they’re so often the muse of artists and designers the world over. Light tawny dappled with perfect ebony spots, in distinctive contrast. Long and slender and strong.

After quite some time slinking alongside us, the cheetah stops and sits in the bushes on top of a hill. And then we stop, too. PJ decides this is our spot for morning coffee today. With a wild cheetah just metres up the slope. This is one for the records. PJ insists that of all the animals on the reserve, he’s least worried about proximity to a cheetah. He knows it, it knows him.

As we sip from our mugs and soak up the sunlight, it begins to stride directly towards us. Excellent. PJ is completely calm, though, so we are calm. The cheetah comes right in front of us, and momentarily pauses to stare us down – to show us who’s boss (very clearly, it’s him). It’s easy to forget that such an extraordinarily beautiful creature is also a deadly one. We are still and silent as we share in this moment. And he treads – so casually – off into the distance. Likely in search of breakfast. Breakfast that, thankfully, is not any of us.

After another glorious morning like this one, leaving feels even harder. But Cape Town is calling, and we must go.

It’s comic, witnessing the ease of the route we should’ve taken on the way here. Painstakingly smooth and so clearly signposted. Alas. I am freezing with the air conditioning on full blast but sleep most of the way, on blissfully low alert.

Soon, we are back in the city, after just over three – rather than eight – hours, this time. We walk along the promenade in the sunshine to the V&A Waterfront for dinner at La Parada. We both order fresh handmade pasta – prawn linguine, mushroom tagliatelle – and plead with our waiter to please not buy us tequila shots, or bring over his signature cocktail, which he is trying to get on the menu. It tastes like candyfloss, he says, but we don’t feel like drinking at all. Especially that. We head home to catch an early night. Tomorrow we are waking up early to climb Table Mountain.

If only I could time travel

If I could, I’d return to this trip in a heartbeat. To our stint on safari, and to all the other wonderful experiences those weeks held. From paragliding off Signal Hill and sipping champagne on the balcony of our room at The Silo (one of our favourite luxury hotels in South Africa) to eating huge slices of lemon meringue pie from Oranjezicht farmer’s market and flicking through old postcards in an antique store on Hout Bay. The big moments, the little moments. They were all happy ones for me.