We were at Thanda Safari and there is nothing more invigorating than being on foot in the bush, especially in the early morning. We walked quietly, in single file along an animal track, watching our guide for the appropriate signals of stop, back away or come closer. The sunlight was gradually finding its way through the dense vegetation, lighting our path in a dappled fashion.
We were a group of friends at Thanda Safari, staying at the luxurious Villa iZulu, where time was our own and no schedules were prescribed. We were warmly welcomed by Linda Gumede, one of the team leaders, had lunch prepared by our private chef, and were served by our own private butler who had access to the wine cellar and cappuccinos on offer whenever we required – all this, every day. Oh, and our own private game viewing vehicle complete with ranger and tracker. What more could we ask for?
All having been on safari before, we weren’t desperate to see the Big 5 – lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo, for us it was more about the experience. But hey, when on safari you take what comes, and sometimes the expereince exceeds your expectations! That was certainly the case with this visit to Thanda Safari…
Later that afternoon we met our ranger Buselaphi (Buse) Mngomezulu and his very capable tracker Winneth Khumalo and set off on our first game drive. Virtually a few hundred metres from the lodge we came across two adult lionesses and their ‘not so little’ cubs. When we arrived at the sighting there was another vehicle there and the lions were just relaxing under a tree in what was a dry waterhole. The occasional flick of a tail and slight head movement was all we got from the lionesses, the cubs were a little more active, but still a distance away.
Perhaps it was the noise of the other vehicle leaving, or maybe they just felt like giving us a treat… no sooner had the other vehicle had moved off playtime began. One of the cubs had found a piece of plastic and this became the desired plaything, first for the five young ones and then even one of the moms joined in. There was much chasing and frolicking, some play fighting amongst brothers and then some loving time with mom.
It was such a treat to watch them interact with one another, totally relaxed and although aware of our presence, totally unperturbed – and close enough to even get reasonable cell phone pics. This was the benefit of an un-rushed, private game drive – the fact that we weren’t on an agenda, and this meant that we were able to spend as much time with them as we desired.
Zebra, wildebeest, buffalo, giraffe and even a cheetah mom and her three cubs later, and it was time for sundowners. We even spotted the two territorial male lions doing what cats do best – napping. They would no doubt soon be up and about seeking to fill their bellies. Which was something we were heading home to do too.
Bright and early the next morning we headed into the hills in search of the Thanda Safari breeding herd of elephants. Down narrow ‘roads’ and through thick vegetation, down steep inclines and then back up the other side… and then finally on the distant hillside, there they were. Big ones, little ones, and teenage ones…
We watched in awe as the herd happily milled around munching leaves, tugging branches, and generally getting on with the business of eating. A little one tried to grasp at a few blades of grass with its trunk and seemed confused as to why it wasn’t working, a ‘teenager’ used brute force on a sapling and almost uprooted the whole tree, whilst the mums in the group kept a watchful eye on both the young ones and us. At one point a little one took fright at something and immediately several adults closed rank around it, protecting it from harm and almost glaring at us for the intrusion. Buse backed away slowly giving them room and soon they were relaxed and munching away as normal.
Here too, we just sat and watched until they moved off the road and back into the bush… parched and a tad warm we headed off to find a safe spot for our coffee break – ranger coffee (fresh plunger coffee with Amarula) and the yummiest of chocolate muffins. Ah, life is tough in Africa!
Breakfast on the veranda was waiting for us on return, a delicious spread of fruit, homemade muesli, assorted cold meats, a selection of cheeses as well as the option of cooked breakfast and good coffee. Then it was decision time – to toast in the sun and then cool off in the glistening pool, or grab a good book and curl up on the couch? Another benefit of being in a private villa is that curling up on the couch, and even lunching in the garden with just a sarong wrapped around your waist is acceptable. It’s as good as been at home, only better views, more luxury, and superb service! Such a Thanda Safari treat… but more was to come.
More game drives, more fabulous cuisine but still no rhinos. I guess we couldn’t have it all, could we?
The next morning, we were up at sparrows, well some of us were – and that’s another benefit of being in a private villa, we could do whatever we liked, sleep in, go on a game drive, or in our case choose to do a bush walk.
We set off in the game viewing vehicle so that we could be dropped off ‘somewhere’. We were left in the capable hands of our ranger Buse (rifle at the ready if required, and in radio contact), while Winneth and Nicola set off on a game drive for one…
The air was fresh, and I relished the opportunity to breathe in deeply and smell the fragrance of the bush around us, to be able to pause and appreciate the stillness. There is nothing more invigorating than being on foot in the bush, especially in the early morning. Walking quietly and pausing often – this wasn’t a stretch the legs at speed kind of walk – Buse pointed out porcupine tracks and the little kitty footprints of a genet.
Soon the tracks were bigger and more plentiful – it was the elephant breeding herd! The dung indicated that they had passed through earlier that morning, and the broken twigs were still fresh, confirming this. “Maybe they’re heading for the waterhole” Buse said… excitement and adrenalin now peaking and the heart rate beginning to increase, we followed. Quietly.
We heard trumpeting in the distance… too far, they had already moved on and were now on the hillside across the valley – “there are no animal tracks across there and it’s too dangerous in the thick bush” we were told. Theresa said, “ah no”, and Lesley and I breathed a sigh of relief – not just because of the ellies, but for the hill we would have had to climb!!
We munched on sour plums, marveled at spotted foam nest frog nest and inspected ticks on a rhino rubbing post. Recent rhino tracks and a vast indentation in the soft sand at the edge of the waterhole indicated their presence would not be far off.
As we emerged from the waterhole, we spotted rhino mum and a young one – about three years old, Buse told us. Using a flimsy bush as camouflage we inched closer, as quietly as possible, and pausing occasionally so that she wouldn’t hear us. Rhinos have an incredible sense of hearing, but thankfully their eyesight isn’t great. After spending some time watching her, we backed off to continue our walk.
Lion tracks, big ones, and little ones – the pride we had been watching a few days before. Buse told us that it appeared that they had gone to drink at the waterhole we had passed and had returned along the same route. I was remembering how easily they had disappeared into the grass when they were playing and was hoping they weren’t hiding in the grass along our path – and if they were, that they would have had a recent meal!
We see more rhino tracks and another sleeping spot in a tamboti thicket. “There’s another waterhole ahead” Buse told us, they must be there. They weren’t the only ones, Buse spotted buffalo dung and a couple of tracks – a lone dagga boy – probably the most dangerous of the big five!!
He spots both the rhino and the buffalo, and we skirt the bushes exceptionally quietly, watching every footfall to make sure we don’t step on a twig. Finally, we are out of sight of the buffalo, with two rhino wallowing in the mud a short distance away. We watch in awe as they delight in the soft squishy black mud. A rhino spa for sure.
All through our walk Buse had kept in communication with Winneth, and with two dangerous animals in our midst, Winneth had arrived and was now parked on the far bank. We watched the rhinos, who by now had heard something, unaware of where we were, but troubled, nonetheless.
Unbeknown to us, but easily seen by Winneth and Nicola, the buffalo had roused himself out of his mud bath and was sauntering in our direction…
All we heard was the sudden acceleration of the vehicle while we quietly, under the watchful eye of Buse, made our way back towards the path. Once back in the vehicle we were told of our ‘narrow’ escape, Winneth the hero, but Buse saying the buffalo was simply curious and that we would have been fine. Either way, I felt completely safe knowing that Buse was well trained, confident, and fully able to take care of the situation if he had to.
Back on the vehicle we headed, first to where Winneth and Nicola had seen the two male lions, and then to a well-deserved coffee stop. All we had missed on our Thanda Safari Big Five walk was evidence of leopard… but who knows, one might have been nearby without our knowledge.
To read more about Thanda Safari conservation efforts click HERE.