three week trip to South Africa for our wedding and honeymoon, my
wife was quite insistent that she arrange as much as possible in a
very structured way. This is good, I would have done the usual
things. Not her, being a local she was keen that I got to see the
best of South Africa while meeting my own personal requirements of
seeing the locals, and how things are and the bookshops, she also
wanted my experience to be at the top end of what is possible.
She was keen that we finished
in style and had booked us for three nights into the Thanda game
reserve. Now I wasn’t sure what to expect. I am very ignorant
of these things and how they work. The game reserves essentially are
huge tracts of land, where animals can live freely, scientists work
out how much land each herd, or pack of animals need and so the
reserves are thus sized.
Reserves are quite massive.
Thanda is about 9,000 hectares, and they have purchased another 5000.
Within this there is a lodge and accommodation and then one heads out
from the lodge into the reserve and you have a tracker and a guide
and they show you things.
Gosh. It’s so much more.
The reserve was massive. It had its own mountains, its own low lands,
and everything in between. We were transferred from Thonga Beach to
the reserve and met Paul, one of the guides, he was very nice and
cool, but worried we might miss the evening drive, we got there just
in time and met our team. Truman was our Guide and Musi was our
tracker. So we boarded their landrover, greeted two Irish girls, two
Londoners, two Germans and off we went.
The drive was superb, we saw
giraffe, zebra, gazelles all types of creatures. Then we saw Rhino.
Gosh, they are such a fantastic beast, so big, very gentle, but they
have a temper and of course are heavy, low set and fast and if they
charge you, it’s not so good, you could be in real trouble. I
just wish we could tame them like a horse, I know that sounds
terrible, but they are so powerful and prehistoric looking and
armoured. As we go along, we meet a Bull Elephant coming down the
dirt road we are going up. I am shocked by the silence. There is no
noise to this beast as it walks. It’s like confronting a double
decker bus with ears. Truman explains that the size of their feet
mean they spread their weight and they don’t make the noise
people expect at all. He comes lumbering towards us, walking steadily
and we reverse. Truman explains this male is one of two, he is the
lesser of the two males, the other one is with the breeding herd
probably. There is expansion planned for Thanda and much land has
been purchased, so Truman explains they have some females already in
another area, and he ‘talks’ to them. He seems lonely,
but this is the way. We reverse out of his way, Truman shows respect,
he explains and it’s wonderful as he passes quite close to us,
occasionally stopping and we reverse giving him his due space.
Then it’s the sun downers
stop. This is where we stop, the box on the back of the land rover is
opened and all type of drink is produced and we relax and watch the
sun go down. Then it’s things in the darkness, Musi’s
light catches the eyes of animals and we get to see a wide variety of
Truman explains everything, in
a relaxed way. We even stop and he shows us the stars. It’s
great – the sky is so clear and so black and the stars so
bright. He makes learning easy and we just lap up everything as we
look skywards. It’s a wonderful introduction into the pleasure
that is Thanda. We learn how the owner, a Swede originally was a
hunter, and how hunting has actually contributed hugely to
conservation and the spread of reserves, but he saw the light and he
now has the reserve for just viewing. He is a relative of the King of
his country and as one can imagine the lodge is just incredible, the
king’s family has stayed and the Zulu King opened it. We are in
our own private house, a massive traditionally styled building. It
has a sitting room, a massive bedroom, a showroom and toilet and a
bath room that opens out. There is a decked area, a private plunge
pool, a garden eating area, and an outdoor shower. All private, all
just for us. There are about 20 of these buildings, and they are set
quite high, so the side with the plunge pool and decking is about ten
feet off the ground, which is good as beyond is the reserve. It’s
a dream come through.
There are two drives a day. One
in the morning and one in the evening. We are here for six drives
over four days.
The next day is the last for
the two Irish girls, they are keen to see the cats and Truman is keen
to show them the cats. So we head out at about 6am and it’s
nicely cool and we again see birds, and spring bok and impala. It’s
nice and relaxed. We find some water buffalo. They kill more people
than any other of the big five animals in South Africa. They seem OK,
rather like big cattle, but are quite protective and can be really
aggressive, they are much bigger than I expect.
Truman knows the lions are
about, himself and Musi inspect tracks. Musi sits on a seat that is
welded to the bonnet of the landrover, he has incredible eyes and
scans the dirt as we pass over. The reserve is criss-crossed with a
variety of tracks and roads, varying in condition. Truman decides he
will go on foot. He tells Musi to take us for a spin, while he looks
for lion. He has a radio, his rifle and off he silently disappears
after his quarry into the bush.
We drive on seeing more animals
including a herd of giraffe, then the word is on the radio. Cheetah.
Gear changes happen in quick succession. We are suddenly propelled
into the seats as the land rover which has been steady so far lurches
into speed. Cats are the things people like to see, I don’t
mind to be honest, for me it’s all wonderful. So we pick up
speed at an incredible pace. The landrover is new, it’s a long
wheelbase model with a frame attached behind the driver, with three
rows of seats that can accommodate a total of nine people. The seats
are nice, but it’s exposed and we feel the speed. We hit the
dirt road at a shocking speed and in the distance another land drover
is also vectoring in on our destination, the dust rising in its wake,
we scream forward as the converging point nears, I wonder who will
let off and allow the other way, neither it seems as timing is
impeccable as we hit the junction just ahead and maintain pace and
fly down a better road now.
Soon we see another landrover
near a solitary tree, and we cut power and coast in towards the
scene, Musi guiding the landrover around the tree and we gently stop.
And there in the shade are two
beautiful cheetah. We are very hushed but I can hear the pumping in
my ears. That was a rush. We sit and watch and take photos and Musi
whispers that they are a pair of males who have done a deal to hunt
together, but will separate at mating time. They look hungry he
reckons, and are resting in the shade. It’s incredible. They
get up lazily, stretch and start to wander a bit but not much.
Then more radio. Truman has
found the lions. We back away gently, do a swing about turn and the
Landrover we beat is already speeding away, and the one behind us now
that it’s clear of the cheetahs is also revving up. We belt
along, the wind and dust flying. We are at some speed. Musi is
determined and we leave the road and head on dirt road our speed is
surprising, next we hear more talk on the radio, and something is
Musi tells us. Truman is in
Trouble, please hold on. Hold on I think, holy Mary mother of god,
but this is serious now, Truman is in trouble, the accelerator is
pressed to the floor and the landrover earns its money as we power
ahead, my arse leaves the seat and meets it repeatedly, we are now
all white knuckled, urging Musi onward, we hold on as tight as we can
and the land drover flies from good road to rough dirt track and then
through the bush. We get to another junction, but the other
landrovers are now holding back, they understand that Musi must go to
his guide, his partner, his mentor and that this is not a race to see
an animal anymore. We take some awesome corners, bouncing and
bounding along, my wife hits her bum off the seat rest quite nastily,
but we all urge onward.
We see Truman ahead, he is low,
quiet and we slow and swing in front of him, and all is OK. He
explains there are lions very close. He hops in, and guides Musi
forward. There is a massive gully, a drain that is occluded by
trees and brush, and in the drain we see two females, I just make out
a male as he gets up to wander off and then we see the cubs. WE watch
for a long while. Taking photos, the Irish girls are ecstatic.
We then reverse out allowing
the other vehicles in, and as we head off at a relaxed pace, Truman
explains that he was scouting around the area, and saw nothing in the
drain, and then next thing not ten feet away a cub popped through the
bush to look at him, followed by another and then by their mom. Hence
the call. Not a good situation. He backed away calmly quietly, and
they retreated back into the drain, under some bush.
On our third day, something
really amazing happened. Truman reckoned we should revisit the drain
and we did, but this time the lions were in the open and we got
really quite close to the male, he was awesome but on one side of a
bush in a group of trees. It was very slow and careful, as we got
close to him, squeezing through a gap and at one stage he gave the
landrover a real look of disdain, but he didn’t move. It’s
amazing how the landrover can be manoeuvred around obstacles, and
suddenly there is the King of the Jungle.
Later that day, it just got
better. We were along a road and Musi spots something, it was luck
mixed with his skilled eyes. In the deep thick foresty bush, he saw a
cat. We could see it, barely, fortunately the lodge has binoculars
and I had borrowed a set, so we could see through the foliage, a cat.
Initially I wondered if it was a cheetah, it was on its side a bit,
with light fur exposed. It was a leopard I was told and I could see
it was stockier and had a different upper coat and bigger head. But
more movement, it was suckling its cub. We just sat in silence. I
tried to take some pictures, I had my wife’s Nikon digital SLR,
but the auto focus wasn’t having it, and of course I stupidly
didn’t put it into manual. It was awesome. The little one got
up and looked out at us.
After a while, Truman called it
in and the other landrovers arrived, engines off, coasting, just the
sound of tyres on stones. Everyday was like some sort of movie. I had
never ever imagined that these animals would look so prestigious and
mighty as they do in their natural surroundings. They are in charge
here. The owner interestingly has never seen a leopard in the
reserve, something that does upset him, but Truman who has been at
Thanda since it opened and a guide for many years and a game warden
chasing poachers before that, found a leopard for the owners mother
and wife, which apparently was some bet, but has yet to do so for the
owner. We are congratulated Musi. As did other guides and staff upon
our return, this was no luck, it was a really big deal.
The last day came too quickly.
We were departing in the morning. But the reserve manageress who was
just so beautifully wonderful to us, helping us incredibly as we had
some major car issues. I drove it into a hole, hence the transfer,
had sorted out our situation. We had dinner in private and she
arranged for a bath with eucalyptus and everything and it was service
to die for. Anyhow Bianca the manager had said we could stay for
lunch and take our time leaving on the last day.
The wife who has been on over
150 drives, as she is a local after all, was wrecked, such is the
honey moon, and decided that she would lie out the last drive,
although she told me her luck would work against her and that I will
no doubt see some amazing things, how right she was. The day before,
we had had a walking part, Musi dropped us off about 2 miles from the
lodge and we walked back, it was excellent to see things up close,
spiders and small animals and burrows and giraffe and it was just
great. So the wife had had enough. I was cool with that and I joined
It was a good start to the
drive, at this stage there were just the two London men and myself,
and off we set. We saw an impala after a few moments, so that was a
We saw buffalo, and got word
that the pride of lions was at the dam, where there was a small lake.
A watering hole. So we go down to the dam and surely enough there
they are, two lioness’ and the Lion and they are obviously
setting a trap. As we approach from one direction many animals are
keeping well away. We get to the watering hole and we wait. As we do,
Truman points out blue wildebeest coming in, and we see the lioness
pop up into a heavily leafed tree. Unfortunately the lazy male is not
so good and he is seen, and it unsettles the wildebeest who gather
and make much sounds of unhappiness and generally they are not going
to the watering hole, the sting having failed.
So we head off again. One group
of animals we haven’t seen has been the mating herd of
elephants. We had heard much about this group and also the Bull with
them. Apparently he had killed a person once, in anger while he was
in must, this is a heightened state of arousal and aggression, at
certain mating times. Interestingly although he is dominant, if the
submissive male is in must, he allows him to be with the herd. So
this elephant is drugged occasionally when in must, as it is a
dangerous beast. But it is ok at the moment we understood he may or
may not be with the herd.
Much tracking takes place and
we are stopping and looking at signs. At one stage we go off round
into very thick bush and just sit silently. Eventually we hear
snapping of trees and that’s the herd, but we go around. We
meet Paul. He said he has failed to find the herd, he saw some
females and they disappeared as soon as they heard him, so he was off
to another dam with his clients for morning drinks. Paul had a whole
family of French people with him, about 12 in total, three
generations and many kids a lovely bunch. So off he went, but Truman
was sure we would find the herd.
Off we go and again it’s
off road and over some interesting obstacles, and then in the
distance we see the huge flapping ears of an elephant, an immature
male Truman tells us. That’s good, so we turn and start to
travel in a parallel line to the one which the elephant was going.
Suddenly up ahead an elephant
appears through two trees, for a moment I wonder if it’s the
same beast, but this one is huge, and it’s … er ...
running towards us, it all happens very slowly, but we are thrown
forward as we go into reverse, and the landrover flies backwards,
meanwhile, Musi is smacking and banging his hand against the door of
the landrover, the elephant is gaining on us at an incredible pace, I
say “That’s the bull!” and the London gents look at
me equally aghast. I just take photos. We stop and Truman makes noise
as well banging the door and shouting. It stops in its tracks and
wonders what exactly we are and wanders off.
That’s the bull says
Truman and he is in must can you smell it, and there is a very
strange smell now. He explains that the last dart of drugs must not
have worked or may have fallen off as he is really very aggressive.
This is not good and he reports it in immediately. I consider myself
lucky to have two such excellent men guiding me.
It was truly scary.
The radio is going. All
communication is in Zulu and we do not understand, but Truman tells
us, the herd is heading towards the Dam, we need to raise Paul on the
We are now moving at quite a
disconcerting speed on very rough ground, and we hit a road, and
suddenly its high speed again. Truman apologises, he warns us, that
he cannot raise Paul, base cannot and everyone is trying, that the
herd are heading for the dam and that there is now a very dangerous
situation in the offing. He explains we must now try and distract the
bull in an effort to delay him getting to the dam.
The Radio is alive, no one can
contact Paul. We fly along and there is the bull, he is in an open
area ahead, but our road ends in a T Junction. We fly up and the Bull
sees us. He is enraged I think and spins towards us. Truman does some
manoeuvring in between shouting and we are lined up for a quick
getaway, the men then shout and bang and again try and distract the
anger, again the bull slows on approach after building up a charge
and turns away. This is a tactic I understand.
Still no Radio contact. Truman
is apologetic, we must take some drastic action (jeez) and get a
chase out of the bull, in a particular direction, but which will
allow us to then curve in towards the dam and warn Paul. Again we get
its attention and it is angry now, it trumpets at us in warning and
charges towards us, its huge, I would be less scared of a one hundred
ton train, its monstrous, the noise the dust, the bloody speed it’s
so big and getting bigger, we goad it into a chase, and it chases us
and we pace a while and then pick up speed and then it’s gone,
in the distance behind us, and we do a couple of turns, and follow
the line of a road in a circuitous way and we are in bush and on a
dust road and then we see Paul and the family, all standing around,
spread out at a waterhole.
Our pace is indicative and kids
are natural survivors, as we careen towards them a few of the younger
ones are already dropping cups and heading for the landrover. We have
barely stopped and Truman is calling out to load up, waving hands,
Musi is out, Paul looks very surprised, he doesn’t understand,
he hears Bull and Must and then it’s into action, as he two is
sweeping the family up into to the landrover, Musi fires the drinks
into the lock box and kids are flung into the safely of the vehicle,
it takes seconds, but Truman is armed and ready, should anything come
through towards us, time seems so slow, we had seen how quickly these
animals could traverse land and they were just moments behind us,
Truman was obviously prepared to do what was needed to protect us,
but that is something he wants to avoid at all costs, and again, at
last everyone is back in and we are flying away at speed and Truman
explains that that is the end of the drive and we head back to the
lodge at a more genteel pace.
I cannot explain adequately the
respect I have for these men. I asked them to join us for breakfast
which they did. I never mentioned how during drinks I would quiz
Truman about politics, South Africa and himself. A family man, who
went towards the ANC when he maybe should have been inclined to vote
for the IFP and who was as equally well read as a hobby as he was
qualified. A studious man who loves to learn and pass on that
experience, which excited him, I found him to be more than just a
guide. He offered so much about the wild, but was also happy to be
frank and explanatory about the realities beyond the reserve.
Breakfast was equally an
amazing experience in the men’s company and too soon we were
heart still pounds when I think of it, it was more adventure than I
had bargained for, fair play to the wife for arranging it.