We are sitting around the campfire that first night, sipping beer and locally brewed hard cider, when all of a sudden Lindiwe, the camp cook, yells to our guide, Andrew. She speaks Shangaan, one of South Africa’s many languages, so we have no idea what she’s saying. But we get a pretty good idea when Andrew turns to us and orders, “Everybody into the Land Rover.”
We race to our tents to grab extra jackets and cameras and minutes later we roar out of camp, Andrew at the wheel while Stephen, the lead guide, perches on the hood of the Jeep, shining a spotlight and holding on for dear life. It is cold. It is dark. It is exactly the kind of adventure I and my seven fellow travelers on this rustic safari have signed up for.
Andrew powers the Jeep down into a ravine where, were it not the dry season, the Klaserie River would run. Then we climb onto the other bank and drive into the bush, branches scraping the roof and poking in the open sides of the vehicle. After a few minutes, he cuts the engine, Stephen cuts his light and we sit silently in the dark.
At first, all I hear is my stomach. But then my ears adjust and I discern the sound of hooves hitting the ground in the distance—which must have been what Lindiwe heard back at camp. Andrew points the Jeep in the direction of the noises and when he stops the vehicle 10 minutes later, Stephen sweeps his spotlight across the bush and catches 50 or so pairs of glowing yellow eyes in its beam.
“Buff,” he says. “There are two herds of 400 buffalo each in the reserve. This is one of them.”
Once he turns off the spotlight we get a better sense of the animals— we hear them pressing their huge bodies against each other, snorting and grunting, stamping their hooves. We smell them, too. They smell like wet hide. They are Cape Buffalo, otherwise known as African Buffalo, and they are considered the most dangerous African animal with the exception of the hippo.
“They’re stressed,” Stephen says. “They’re trying to get away from something.”
Back at camp a few hours later, after we’ve eaten dinner and reconvened around the fire, we hear the roar of the “something” that’s stressing out the buffalo: lion— or, as Stephen and Andrew say in their South African accents, “line.” Actually, they tell us, it’s a group of young males doing the roaring. They’ve recently chased away an elder lion and are fighting amongst themselves to win the chance to mate with the lone female in the area.
The lions roar all night, or so Guro, a feisty Norwegian lass who works for Microsoft, tells me early the next morning as we sip hot tea and munch rusks (think biscotti, but harder and less sweet). “I didn’t sleep at all,” she says. Other people report hearing hyena, and the guides, who sleep in tents at opposite ends of camp, say they heard leopard. I find myself wishing I hadn’t slept so soundly under my pile of blankets— I want something exciting to report, too.
The guides had awakened us just before 6 a.m., and by 6:30 we are driving away from camp— a permanent outpost of 10 sleeping tents, a kitchen tent, dining pavilion and two outdoor bathrooms clustered under a grove of jackalberry trees— toward the spot where the buffalo were the night before. After a 15-minute ride, we park, Andrew and Stephen load their .458 Winchester rifles— “one shot will take out anything and everything,” Stephen tells me— and off we go on foot.
The chance to walk in the wild is the reason most of us have booked this safari through Transfrontiers, a company owned by a longtime guide and his American wife— that, and the fact that at roughly $800 for five days, it costs far less than most safaris. Among our group are a college professor and her daughter, who is spending a semester abroad in Cape Town; a well-traveled travel agent; a U.S. government worker; Guro and her boyfriend; and Mike, my then-fiancé, and me.
We are folks who don’t mind sleeping in tents (especially since we get to lie on beds, not on the hard ground) and eating simple camp food. We think outdoor, solar-heated showers are cool. And, most importantly, we want a ground-level, intimate view of the bush, not just photos of the “Big Five” (rhino, buffalo, leopard, lion and elephant, so named because they present the most danger of any animals in the wild to hunters on foot) taken from a Jeep.
As we walk behind Stephen in a single-file line, with Andrew bringing up the rear, we see the first of countless herds of impala (antelope), spot a yellow-billed hornbill high on a tree branch and begin our training in scat identification. We learn that fresh lion dung is dark (due to the high amount of blood in it) but turns almost white as it ages. We learn that since buffalo are ruminants with four stomachs, their feces are soft and well digested— hence the “splatter pattern” Stephen points out. Elephants, on the other hand, have only one stomach, so their feces are full of nutrients that birds and insects can feed on. Since there is scat everywhere, we get plenty of opportunities to apply our newfound knowledge.
After a mile or so, we come upon the buffalo, but every time we advance, they retreat— we can’t get as close on foot as we did the night before. As the guides explain, the animals perceive the Land Rover as a monolithic entity they’re familiar with and unafraid of, whereas individual humans they view as predators. We do get a good look at the head of the herd, whose “boss” of horns identifies him. And when I point out one buffalo limping at the end of the pack, Stephen says simply, “Lion food.”
As we walk on the sun rises and we shed our hats and scarves and strip down to T-shirts and jeans. The guides point out trees native to the area: tamboti, silver raisin, guarri and the iconic baobab. Around nearly every turn we encounter termite mounds the size of tractor tires. Soon we reach a lookout that offers a panoramic view of the 158,000-acre Klaserie Private Nature Reserve. Klaserie borders the legendary Kruger National Park— because animals can move freely between the park and reserve, the entire area is dubbed Greater Kruger National Park— but since it’s privately owned by a group of families (one of which leases camping and walking rights to Transfrontiers), we’re almost guaranteed not to see other travelers.
Were it summer, we’d be facing an impenetrable expanse of green stretching to the Drakensberg escarpment to the west. As it’s June and the beginning of the South African winter, there are patches of green near the water holes and along the riverbank— and a few bright spots of red aloe— but the palette is largely gray and brown. One of the upsides of going on safari in winter, however, is that bare branches mean easier game spotting. And though it gets nippy at night, daytime temperatures of 65 degrees make it perfect for walking.
Back at camp we tuck into a delicious breakfast of fried eggs, fish cakes, banana dumplings and melon. When we push back from the table, the guides tell us we’re free until 2:30 p.m., when we’ll eat a light lunch before heading out on trail again. Some people go to their tents to nap, but I’m too wound up. I tally the morning’s sightings on the bird, animal and tree checklist we’d been given. Then I get some books from the camp kitchen and start memorizing the collective nouns for animal groups. Journey of giraffes. Shrewdness of monkeys. Dazzle of zebras. Crash of rhino. Implausibility of wildebeest. I’ve just invented my own name— annoyance of tourists— when Carol, the travel agent, runs up saying, “There’s an elephant in camp.”
For the next half-hour we stand riveted as the largest land animal in the world makes a buffet of the bushes behind the shower. It’s a rare moment of harmony: the elephant eats and the humans watch gratefully.
It’s awfully dark the next morning when Andrew shakes our tent flap and says, “Get in the vehicle quickly.” When Mike looks at his watch and it reads 5 a.m.— nearly an hour before the usual wakeup time— we know we must be going after “line.”
We spot the first one not far across the river, which makes sense to Guro, who says she’d heard them “very close” during the night. This first lion, apparently, didn’t win the mating battle, because another five-minute drive away we come upon a male and female lying together in the grass. They stare at us disinterestedly. We stare at them admiringly. Mating, the guides assure us, is imminent.
In the three days since we entered Klaserie, we’ve seen four of the Big Five: rhino, elephant, buffalo and now lion. All that’s left is leopard, and we know from spotting tracks on our walks that at least one is in the area.
Indeed we do see a leopard later that evening. But before that we’re driving to our afternoon walk when Mara, the college student studying in Cape Town, calls out from the back of the Land Rover, “Wait, wait. Stop!”
When Stephen backs up the Jeep, we all see what she’d spotted: five feet from the edge of the road, two 6-foot-long charcoal-colored snakes are doing a kind of snake charmer’s dance, their lower bodies intertwined as their heads weave back and forth. I look at the snakes then look at Stephen and Andrew. On their faces is an expression— surprise— I haven’t seen before.
“These are black mamba snakes,” Stephen says. When he tells us they’re the most aggressive snakes in the world, and that their venom can kill a person within an hour of being bitten, Ütta the government worker says, “I hate snakes. Can we kill them?” She may be scared but the rest of us feel extraordinarily lucky, especially after Stephen says, “I’ve been a guide for 12 years and I’ve never seen this before.”
The two are fighting for dominance, he adds, fighting to see who will mate with the female that must be coiled up in a hole nearby. We stay for 15 minutes, watching and taking photographs and watching some more. Then, because there is another adventure ahead of us— a walk among zebra and giraffe in the golden late afternoon sunlight— we drive on, leaving the black mambas as we’d found them, doing their mesmerizing dance of life and death.