So, we’d heard about the big 5. We could even name them – well, maybe 3 of them, plus educated guesses for numbers 4 and 5. What we didn’t know, until our first game drive at Kapama private reserve, was that there is also a little 5, a secret 5 and an ugly 5. We’ve decided to add another couple of 5s: the grumpy 5 and a special, ‘fun’ 5 for our favourite animals that haven’t made it onto any of the other 5s. That makes 30 animals altogether and, by the end of our first day at Kapama, less than 24 hours after arriving in South Africa, we had already seen 10 of them. By the time we left for Victoria Falls, we had seen 17 plus genets, a civet, a bush baby, squirrels and countless birds,
But no rush. Let’s start with the big 5. There’ll be plenty of time for the other fascinating animals over the next couple of weeks.
The Big 5
The leopard is notoriously the hardest of the big 5 to find. So, of course, it was the first one we found. Riaan, our friendly, burly afrikaaner guide with a mean line in dad jokes, and Edwin, a tracker from a nearby village, skinny and quiet with a dazzling smile, picked us up in a converted LandCruiser, open-topped with raised seats in the back where Robyn, Jo & I enjoyed amazing views. We plunged into the surprisingly dense bush, down twisty tracks past thickets and waterholes. Riaan wore a small earpiece and muttered quietly into his CB from time to time while telling us about pretty much everything we could see: animals, birds, trees … even the stars when they came out towards the end of this evening drive. We realised pretty soon that there were several vehicles out and about in the reserve although we almost never laid eyes on them. Riaan’s radio connected him with all the other drivers so they could exchange tips on where animals had been sighted and make sure that the vehicles didn’t all crowd into the same space.
In the first couple of hours of this, our first drive, we saw herds of antelope: impala, nyala, kudu, duiker, steenbok, plus towers of giraffe (towers when they’re standing, we learned; journeys when they’re walking), dazzles (yes) of zebra and welters of warthog (OK, I made up that last collective noun). Each time we saw something new, we’d stop for two, five, maybe ten minutes, learn a little or a lot and just generally take it all in. We didn’t feel impatient to see any particular animals … we just knew that, with time, we’d see everything we wanted to. Over the next three days, we more or less did.
After a couple of hours of driving, we stopped on a small ridge, looking west where the sun had just set behind the Drakensburg Mountains. This vast range rises hundreds of metres out of the plain, reminding me of the walls of Mordor, darkened as they were by the setting sun behind them. They mark the boundary between the high veldt to the west (and the high altitude much feared by visiting rugby teams) and the low veldt to the east, where we were. Veldt, it turns out, simply means ‘area’ and Riaan described many of them around southern Africa: the high, the low, the sweet, the sour and the mixed. Sounded like cocktails to me. We were never quite sure if Riaan was telling us the truth or having a laugh. He usually admitted it when he was spinning a yarn … at least he did when we caught him out. As dusk fell, we gazed at the mountains and the emerging Milky Way and Riaan and Edwin laid out a small picnic table with a large array of drinks. Robyn & Jo had gins and tonic; I had my first Amarula, a delicious Bailey’s-style creamy drink made with the fruit from the marula tree.
Warmed up against the cooling evening, we got back into the car and Riaan got back on the radio. Edwin, perched on the bonnet of the car, shone a torch from side-to-side looking for tracks and reflected glints of eyes. Five minutes later, we veered suddenly off the road onto a tiny track. Edwin pointed his torch upwards and we saw the broken body of an impala wedged in a forked branch. The torch swung back down and we saw our leopard. She was just lying there at the foot of the tree where she had dragged her kill, guarding it until she felt hungry enough to go up and eat some more. She was completely unperturbed by five humans in a LandCruiser, or by the torch shining at her. She did look at us, then looked around for any threats to her supper. Her ears twitched at sounds in the brush but she never got up or moved from her spot. She was less than 10 metres from us and we could hear her breathing. After a while, she yawned widely and rolled onto her side. We had been dismissed. We withdrew respectfully and headed back to the lodge. We had been in Africa for less than 24 hours.
Day two and we were up at 5:30 for a 6:00 start. Back into Riaan’s LandCruiser with Edwin up front on the bonnet, and we headed into another sector of the park. Kapama Private Reserve is named after a chieftan of a local tribe. Bordering the much larger Kruger National Park in the north eastern corner of South Africa, it’s 15,000 hectares which makes it roughly 30km north to south by 5km west to east. Each of our game drives over the three days went to a different sector but never much more than 10km from the lodge.
This morning we saw more antelope, giraffe and zebras. We also saw a lot more birds, which are much more active in the early morning than they are in the evening. We saw grim vultures, pompous herons and busy oxpeckers hitching rides on the large mammals, feeding on their ticks – a win-win for both parties. The best bird of all, though, is the quirky hornbill. We saw three different types of hornbill. The yellow bill is the most common and the red bill a little rarer. The ground hornbill is much less common, but we did see one on one of our drives.
Rounding a corner, to our surprise (but not Riaan’s who know exactly what we would find there) we came up against a herd of buffalo meandering across the track just like a herd of milk cows in a Devon lane. They’re truly bovine: big, slow moving, chewing the cud. They wear their splendid horns like vikings. The horns actually come together over their brows to form an impenetrable helmet. Riaan has seen buffalo crush lions with that battering ram of a head and he told us that, if we were ever charged by a buffalo, to make sure that (1) you’re carrying a gun and (2) you hit him just below the horn because if the bullet hits the helmet it will just bounce off. Seems a little off-colour to talk about shooting one of the big 5 (even the buffalo) but it turns out that the big 5 are so-named as they are the 5 most dangerous animals to hunt on foot. History isn’t always PC.
We saw lion a couple of times, three females on the evening of day 2 and then two more females in the morning of day 3. We searched for some males on our last evening but without success. These animals may be protected in a reserve but they don’t know this; they live wild as they should and they don’t come out to play just because we want them to.
Our first sighting was a little like the leopard story. The three females – a mother and two daughters, Riaan thought – had made a kill earlier in the day and were unhurriedly working their way through the carcase. By evening, they’d only finished half their nyala and weren’t going to be moving anywhere else any time soon. Thanks to the rangers’ bush radio, Riaan know exactly where to find them.
The first we knew that we were getting close was when we saw maybe a dozen vulture sitting high in a leafless tree. You couldn’t help but think of the vultures in Jungle Book. Apparently, it’s a committee of vultures, when they’re sitting like this; it’s a kettle of vultures when they’re soaring up on thermals (quite an impressive sight) and a wake of vultures when they’re feeding. Sure enough, about 100m from the tree, we found the kill and the three lions making sure the committee didn’t become a wake until they were good and ready. Again, they let us get astonishingly close and weren’t put out at all when Edwin shone his torch on them as they crunched through their supper.
The next morning’s sighting was much more opportunistic and was a score for Robyn. Our mid-drive stop for coffee was under a large tree (with a large and colourful lizard half-way up the trunk). About 50m away, there was a line of bushes and Robyn glimpsed the shape of a lion moving behind them. We all peered hard in to see if we could spot it again and we did, enough for Riaan to guess where it was heading. We jumped into the car and tried to get ahead of it. We came across another ranger who said he hadn’t seen the lion but had seen a herd of impala running fast and had guessed what was going on. We crept on down a small track and … there it was. Another female 10m to our right in the bushes. And, suddenly, there was a second, sauntering straight up the track right behind us. It’s funny how confident we get in our guides in these environments. Riaan told us to sit tight in the car and that we were perfectly safe. We believed him … maybe we simply had no choice. The second lion padded right up to the back of the car then passed us on the left no more than 3m away. Crossing the track in front of us, she joined her sister (Riaan had identified them by now) and they moved down to a dry stream bed. We drove on past the pair, into the stream bed and then back towards them, stopping just 10m from where they had settled down to wait to see what might come their way.
A minute later, we saw four giraffe about 100m away along the stream bed walking our way. We don’t think they knew the lions were there (they were upwind of us and the lions) and wondered if we were in for a David Attenborough live-action episode. 50m away and the giraffe suddenly spotted the lions and froze. We were then treated to 10 minutes of a suspenseful game of statues. The giraffe would take it in turns to edge closer and closer to the lions, freezing for a couple of minutes and then moving again. We couldn’t work out why they were doing this. The lions were showing very little interest. Occasionally they’d look over, then yawn and look away again. Other than that, they didn’t twitch. The giraffe got maybe 20m away from the lions and then climbed up out of the streambed and into the bush. The lions remained unmoved. Maybe they weren’t hungry – at least not enough to go after something as big as a giraffe. In any event, an anticlimactic finish but I’m not sure we really wanted to see two lions bring down a giraffe. Giraffe are really quite beautiful and have eyelashes to die for.
When I visited Namibia with Kate, Jordan, David, Caroline and Rupert some 19 years ago, we saw more elephant than we ever thought we needed to. Certainly, they’re not rare and poachers are less interested in them with much of the world going off ivory. (Not true, sadly, for rhinoceros, more of which later.) Kapama has almost 200 elephants and Kruger National Park actually has too many and are having to relocate them to manage the damage they do to the bush. So, when we came across elephant on day 3, it was like seeing an old friend after a very long time.
This was a family group of maybe a dozen, mostly females, ages ranging from a couple of years to maybe 30 or 40. It was fascinating watching them forage for food. It’s been a long and very dry dry season and most leaves have long gone. The wet starts in a few weeks so no one is partcularly worried but, meanwhile, the elephants have turned to eating roots. We watched them pushing over trees with their foreheads to expose the roots, and using their feet and trunks to dig up and haul out buried roots. Didn’t look very tasty to me but the elephants didn’t look too undernourished so it seems to work for them.
After the leopard, rhinos are probably the hardest of the big 5 to come across. This is partly because there are so few and partly because the rangers are very careful about divulging where they are. The reason for both of these things is the same: poachers. Ivory may be off the menu in an increasing number of countries, which has strangled the trade in elephant tusks, but this isn’t yet true for rhino horn. Rhino horn is made of the same material as fingernails and yet is attributed various medicinal, aphrodisiac and magical powers by several, otherwise modern, cultures. Who would have known it – fingernails have aphrodisiac powers … maybe nailbiters are onto a good thing after all. Authorities in Africa are striving strongly to stop the poachers. Every game park has poaching police and penalties for convicted poachers are severe. Botswana had a shoot-to-kill policy (and almost eradicated poaching) but their new president rescinded this a year ago (and poaching is already back on the rise). Kruger lost 500 rhinos in 2017 and has lost 560 more in the first 9 months of 2018. Controlling supply isn’t working. It’s demand that must be controlled. Governments must be persuaded that the last thing the men in their overpopulated countries need is stronger erections.
Riaan wouldn’t tell us how many rhinos there are in Kapama. It’s policy not to announce to poachers just how much of their prey is in the park. However, I can report that there are at least two white rhinos, who we came across, ambling down a path by a waterhole. A mother and a daughter, they weigh around 3 tonnes each … ambling is pretty much the best way to go. We watched them for about 30 minutes as they wandered down to a small dam, had a drink and then rolled luxuriantly in the mud. Gentle, amiable animals that shouldn’t have an enemy in the world. I hope we see more this trip.