herald

Monday 20 November 2017

Animal magic

There'll be plenty of action in South africa this summer, but not all will be over a ball

It's the ungodly hour of 5.30am and I wake to a symphony of unfamiliar sounds. It takes me a few seconds to remember that I am alone in a tent at an eco-safari camp in the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park in South Africa.

The Bateleur Safari Camp is an environmentally friendly, tented bush camp, promising an adventurous perspective on a safari. It is very hands on and flexible. But there is no lie-in for the weary traveller.

I tumble out of bed to meet my guide and camp manager, Brett, for a cup of tea and a biscuit before our group starts out on our daily 6am trek.

"Come here and have a look at this," says Brett, pointing to tracks in the ground. "These are lion tracks. They paid us a visit last night."

Yikes!

Bateleur encourages as much walking as possible to reduce the impact vehicles have on the environment, so instead of a bush drive guests are taken on an early morning trek before the day heats up.

Any notion of tiredness quickly disappears as, while the night predators sleep, we experience the start of the day-to-day business of the smaller animals and the sound of more than 400 species of birds.

We are hoping to meet the Big Five over the next three days: the lion, elephant, leopard, buffalo and rhinoceros. Brett warns us not to get too obsessed. Everyone's expectation is to see the Big Five but we should appreciate all the wildlife, whether it is the tiniest insect or the biggest animal.

Half an hour out in the warm early morning sun, Brett halts the group as we encounter an elaborate web crossing the bush path, the web of the golden orb spider.

We trace our fingers along the intricate pattern and, amazingly, the web is like wire. We bypass the web, keeping it intact in keeping with Bateleurs policy of being as least disruptive as possible to bush life.

We immerse ourselves in the sights, sounds and the smells of the bush, taking in the bird calls and animal tracks. This morning we are rewarded with the powerful, deep roar of a lion calling in the distance. It is mating season and we are promised a good chance of seeing them on our bush drive later in the day.

We are given a crash course in tracking skills, with our tracker showing us how to study the ground with an informed eye to see in which direction animals have been walking. He points out the front and back pad marks and the difference between a leopard, mongoose and genet.

We have decent sightings of kudu, impala, giraffe, zebra and wildebeest but the thought that we may run into something larger and scarier is never far from our minds.

When we get back to camp for brunch, all is not well at my tent. There has been a visitor. My suitcase has been upended and underwear scattered all over the floor. Money and credit cards are strewn on the bed and medication has been taken out of its box. A bag of hard boiled sweets and a carton of orange juice have been devoured.

A roar from my neighbour's tent. He too has been done. All his malaria tablets (€60 worth in fact) have been eaten. Brett reveals the identity of the thief, one of the many baboons that live in the bush. We paid the price for not zipping our tents up properly.

After a midday siesta we board the safari jeep for an evening drive and see lots of local wildlife including stembocks, which are small antelope, impala, bushbacks, baboons and scope owl-- and one of the Big Five, a herd of elephants near a water hole.

But the lion lures us with his roar and, with the help of the tracker, we come upon a mating couple. We park the jeep and hold our breath as we watch them copulate. It was over in seconds. Brett explains that during the mating season lions mate about once every 20 minutes, up to 100 times a day, and the sex lasts for less than a minute!

Bateleur camp caters for groups of four guests and upwards. There is only tented accommodation but don't be put off as most have en suites and are as good as any hotel bedroom, with fresh towels, toiletries and huge showers.

There is no electricity and natural fuel such as wood is purchased from community-driven projects where bush-encroached areas are cleared in land restoration projects. Even the camp's swimming pool is free of chemicals and harmful additives.

The next day we are treated to a lecture from one of South Africa's most famous snake handlers, Donald Strydom. He fills us in on the perils of the black mamba, one of Africa's most feared and respected snakes.

We said goodbye to our luxury tents and moved on to Kambaku Safari Lodge in the heart of the Timbavati Reserve with its thatched chalets overlooking a private watering hole. Kambaku offers a slightly more luxurious experience and the feeling that effort needed to be put into getting dressed up for dinner.

We wrap up our visit to the Kruger region at Otters Den, a river lodge on an island in the Blyde River. The Den is reached by crossing the Blyde River by suspension bridge, giving a real feeling of an escape into the wilderness.

Otters Den is a great base from which to visit the Kruger National Park, the nearby Reptile Park, the Blyde Canyon Nature Reserve and the Cheetah Breeding Project. The area offers peaceful pursuits such as birding and hiking, or the excitement of hot-air ballooning. Unfortunately, our ballooning date had to be cancelled as the weather was not right. Next time.

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