As a nature lover brought up on a traditional high-protein South African diet of regular holidays in our excellent national parks, I confess to holding a somewhat ‘conservative conservational’ worldview. At its essence, it’s that any other bush experience doesn’t quite add up to the old-school, real McCoy.
The sheer independence of the self-drive, happy but senseless hours spent contemplating an old map that bears little resemblance to the area it describes and, of course, those wondrous meaty evening braais around which the day’s sightings are dissected – just loud enough so that the Mr Know-It-All in chalet number 13 can overhear and grow bitterly jealous.
I confess on occasion to having thumbed my nose at the exclusive private reserves with their telephone number tariffs and their carefully managed six-star safari itineraries for their European clientele. Sure, one hears extravagant stories of visitors to exclusive reserves spotting the entire Big 5 before leaving camp in the morning, but those tales only served to convince me that there must be something ‘canned’ and unsporting about the entire experience. Images arise of a stampede of jostling game trucks crammed with khaki scarf-wearing Germans speeding toward a jaded lion with a radio collar and a fly problem.
My intrepid partner, Jules, and I caught the dawn flight from Durban to Port Elizabeth. Unfortunately, as we swooped down into Nelson Mandela Bay, thick cloud surrounded us – completely blocking out the sun. The grimness of the weather as well as a questionable airline breakfast had left me in a pensive mood at the baggage carousel, where I once again succeeded in selecting the only defective trolley on the Eastern Seaboard.
We met up with our designated Shamwari ranger, Westley Lombard, whose steely glare and swarthy tan gave Crocodile Dundee a good run for his money. The 60km drive to Shamwari flew by as I asked numerous questions about the reserve and what may lie ahead for us. I learnt that the 25 000 hectares housed numerous satellite lodges that catered for every conceivable bush experience.
My clever interrogation continued; however, Westley refused to guarantee me any great sightings whatsoever and there was not so much as a single mention of
the infamous ‘Big 5 before breakfast’. The bottom line descended on me in a wave of stark reality. To see anything at Shamwari was going to take what it always takes: being in the right place at the right time when everyone else is in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was a major blow to our chances; there would be no easy lunches in Shamwari.
Long Lee Manor is a restored centuryold colonial manor house. Its pale pink facades, stately gardens and glistening swimming pools lend one the belief that
English royalty may at any moment stride across the lawn with servants and faithful horse and dog in tow.
A flocking swarm of Little Swifts added some wild African perspective to the place, by nesting in their droves in the eaves of the Manor; the gardens were alive with Greater Double-collared Sunbirds, Cape Robin-Chats and the ubiquitous throaty melodies of the Southern Boubou.
The weather was disappointingly gloomy by the time we set off for our afternoon game drive. On a more positive note, it wasn’t raining – although a chilly breeze assaulted exposed ears and there was soon a scrabble for K-Way fleeces, blankets and ponchos.
We shared the game-drive vehicle with a delightful couple who, although hailing from Switzerland and Scotland respectively, had settled in South Africa over 30 years ago. Wisecracks abounded, but soon we all settled into concentrated silence as we focused our energies on the sights, sounds and smells of the bush.
I was immediately impressed with the variation in habitat that Shamwari offered. Open plains being liberally grazed by springbok, blesbok and black wildebeest gave way to thickets and dense bush where the Sombre Greenbul’s call held right of way. Ridges and hills burst out of the landscape when you least expected it, and regular crossings of the Bushman’s River yielded excellent sightings of waterbirds such as the African Black Duck and the South African Shelduck.
We soldiered up a high ridge of hills with sharp and dramatic cliffs falling away to either side. The road offered spectacular views across either valley but, more to the point, had recently been frequented by a pair of mating leopards seeking refuge from lions on the rugged crags and steep hillsides.
Westley once again reminded us that there was no guarantee of success; nevertheless, mad and obsessive scanning of the hillsides ensued. Our vehicle ground to a halt.
Up ahead, two further game trucks were parked. Discussions over the radio revealed that they had briefly spotted a female leopard that had since retreated into the bush and disappeared in a typically obtuse anti-tourist leopard manner. The Shamwari rule of never allowing more than two vehicles on a sighting meant we waited until one of the trucks had lost interest before taking a closer look ourselves.
After a few further minutes of staring at the empty landscape, we continued with our drive and the promise of returning to the area at dusk.
A sundowner pit stop revealed an ingenious impromptu picnic table that slid out of the bonnet of the Land Cruiser. To complete the picture, a fully stocked bar materialised and soon we were sipping on whiskeys and sherries, munching on biltong and gazing out at the bush around us.
The arrival of my first Olive Woodpecker signalled a sharp turn in our fortunes and soon we were winding our way back up the hill toward the saddle. The sky turned leaden with ominous dark clouds as dusk and a cold front approached.
Returning to the spot of the earlier sighting, it was decided to switch off the engine and wait in silence. Minutes ticked by and absolutely nothing happened. I stared vacantly out at a drainage culvert beside the road, lost in my thoughts, when into my field of vision strolled a leopard.
She was small and lithe and her gaze took in our vehicle without fear or suspicion.
“There she is!” I heard myself say. The leopard ambled toward us, her tail raised as she spray-marked her territory. After smelling something vaguely interesting on the back right tyre, she proceeded to rub herself seductively against the front bumper of the truck.
“As you can see, she’s quite comfortable with us,” noted Westley. “But the male,
you seldom see.” After her sexy mince around our vehicle was complete, the female leopard sauntered back into the bush and disappeared from view. Within seconds there was the sound of angry growling, followed by the most disturbing gurgling sound I’ve heard since my days in the university drama department. “That’s the male,” said Westley. “They’re mating.” An angry fracas momentarily broke out, followed by immediate silence.
I initially thought our ranger was having us on when he said leopards can mate every five minutes for weeks on end. I know they have the uncanny ability to drag dead animals up trees, but this for my mind was considerably more impressive.
The female reappeared in the drainage culvert. This time the male reluctantly followed her out into the open. He was easily more than double her size and, although wary of our vehicle, his sheer intoxication with his girlfriend had him
stumbling after her with a bemused yet exhausted expression on his face. And
there, a few paces from where we sat in full view, they performed their sacred act against the dying light of the day. An unforgettable and secret moment shared and witnessed. Forget picking up a camera – even breathing seemed obtrusive.
Rain and darkness tore us away and we headed back to Long Lee Manor where more sherry was waiting for us as we stepped off the truck. The toasty luxury of our garden suite saw me pacing about as I attempted to assimilate what I had just seen. Even if we didn’t see another living creature for the remainder of the trip, it was enough – and it truly was.
Rain and biting cold made things tougher from then on; however, Shamwari continued to shower us with excellent sightings: from an idyllic half hour spent in the company of a lioness and her two playful six-week-old cubs, to a rare close encounter with a black rhino who charged our truck. Then there were two male cheetah hunting in unison and sightings of the Denham’s Bustard and Black Harrier.
Smaller moments, too, captured our hearts, such as the young red hartebeest stumbling about with his mother’s umbilical cord still attached, and the misguided scrub hare that froze, assuming we couldn’t see him when we quite obviously could.
These were just a few of the memorable moments of our brief stay on an incredible stretch of land. Scepticism had been turned on its head. No longer cynical, I felt only appreciation to have experienced the other side of the bush in this unique place where you’re treated like a king, yet humbled by what you see.