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Big Five sightings and luxury lodges - for a safari first-timer, there is nothing like Kruger.
Most people who've been on a South African safari - especially their first one - will boast of having spotted this animal and that. My most vivid memories are of the sunsets. Every evening as the sun started to set, our game guide laid out a table for us in the middle of nowhere. We sipped sundowners and munched on biltong (cured meat that is the favourite snack of South Africans) and watched the world around becoming tinged with pink. Even our handsome ranger who sees the sight everyday got poetic. "Rangers get paid in sunsets, " he tells us before taking us back to our lodge in the Welgevonden private game reserve.
The next morning at 5. 30 am - if there's one thing you miss on a safari holiday, it's a lie-in - he's there waiting to show us the beauties of the bush. Sebastian, our guide from Clifftop safari lodge, is impressively knowledgeable. He gives us a crash course in biology by explaining the rudiments of the giraffe's circulatory system. Given the distance that blood needs to be pumped up to the brain, giraffes have extremely high blood pressure. An intricate system of valves in the neck enables them to bend their heads down so that they can drink without getting brain damage.
Clifftop Lodge is in a private concession rather than a national park and, as such, the game drives have a little more freedom. Guides are allowed to drive off-track if they spot something interesting. In this case, it is a pride of lions.
We drive up to within a few feet. The bloody head of an impala is a few feet away from our Landcruiser. There are two females and three lion cubs, the youngest of which chooses to calmly polish the impala without even a glance at the humans staring and clicking photos nearby. But there's no sign of the alpha male dad, so we'll just have to wait till the next game drive for a sighting of its magnificent mane.
Clifftop, about a three-hour drive north of Johannesburg, is a great way of ticking off some of the 'big five' - the black rhino, buffalo, elephant, leopard and lion (or lionesses in our case). If you're wondering why the buffalo has made it to this list, the African buffaloes have earned their place - they are strong and fast enough to kill lions.
The lodge itself, the first of the three I am visiting in South Africa, is surreally swank. It's as if a luxury hotel room had been transplanted deep into the wild. The eight cottages, perched on the edge of a cliff, have stunning views of the valley below. They also have hot and cold running water, electricity, air conditioning, and even a private plunge pool. The main lodge serves up gourmet food and great cellar wines. Creature comforts all taken off while one searches for creatures.
The next stop is Hoyo Hoyo lodge, not as swank as Clifftop but more rustic and African. It's in the heart of Kruger national park so we've set our hearts on seeing lots of game. If you're too lazy to get up for the early morning game drive, just grab a chair on the main deck. It's right opposite a watering hole and the animals just parade past. As I gazed out, a warthog and its offspring trotted past. A little later came zebras - quiet, unhurried, gorgeous. Over an excellent dinner - some of us ate impala despite oohing-aahing it over a few hours earlier during the game drive - we saw a family of rhinos drinking at the watering hole. A word of warning though - don't go out at night without calling a guard. I tried to venture out to a friend's room and a lion's roar sent me scurrying back.
Talking about close encounters, there was one I could have skipped. An elephant right outside my outdoor shower which made me rush to grab the bathrobe faster than an African monkey.
A safari holiday tends to grow on you. The first few game drives are spent notching up the big game. Slowly, one begins to appreciate things like the dismissive call of a go-away bird and the colours of a lilac breasted roller. Even the hours spent on a night safari - when all you will probably see is an owl or a bush baby (a tiny nocturnal primate) - seem worth it. Come morning, the attractions of a king-size bed fade compared with the beauty of a South African dawn - a rosy red sunrise, the air fresh and cool and the bush with its spice and dirt smells.
What's a game drive without a surprise or two. One evening, an elephant starts making directly for our Landcruiser. Our guide, however, remains perfectly calm. "When the elephant is flapping its ears and trumpeting, it's usually a mock charge. If it was angry, it's ears would be pinned back and head lowered, " he explains. The encounter, however, is a reminder that this isn't a zoo, it's the African wilderness, where creatures can amble up at any moment.
By the end of the trip, one member of our group could have written a book titled the Butts of Africa. She hit the jackpot with photos of rears, big and small. One of the most interesting backsides was that of the impala. Hennie, the manager of Mabula lodge which was our third stop, called it the McDonald's of the bush since it has what looks like an M emblazoned on its backside.
Hennie had a passion for the reserve and a nice turn of phrase: the long-legged giraffe was a catwalk model and wildebeest were made up of the parts left over from other animals. The latter did, in fact, look part-donkey, part-bull and part-goat.
On a game drive, one might feel like one is getting a glimpse of raw nature but safaris are not without artifice. The guides know the terrain well and radio each other with updates on where to find the big game. Populations of all species are strictly controlled so that there is no imbalance. But there's still enough unpredictability to hold a sense of adventure. And, of course, there is a lot to be said for a well-maintained and easily accessible wildlife reserve.
Most game lodges have no Wi-Fi or cellphone network so be prepared for a digital detox The game drives take up most mornings and evenings and involve being stuck in a vehicle. So a safari holiday is actually quite sedentary. Add to that great meals and you have the recipe for a few kilos Morning game drives can be quite a chilly affair so be sure to take warm clothing
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