Fly direct to the O.R. Tambo International airport in Johannesburg and it will take about eleven hours from the UK. Brilliant ‘big five’ game viewing is just a few hours away. Some of the posher bush camps, such as Mala Mala, have their own airstrips. For others, fly to Kruger Nelspruit in 40 minutes and then drive the rest – two hours is usually enough.
Game viewing in Kruger Park has its disadvantages like any communal area. Vehicles cannot leave the tracks, so if the game is way off then you just have to lump it and bring powerful binoculars. And as soon as something of interest is spotted, all the jeeps descend on the same spot, which is unsatisfactory for human and animal alike.
So booking onto a private reserve is the best way if you can afford it. Vehicles can drive right through the bush to get you right next to the animals, and viewings are normally restricted to a maximum of two or three jeeps. We went to Nottens Camp in Sabi Sands and completed six drives in three days. The richness of life here was demonstrated in the first drive, in which we saw all of the big five within 24 hours of leaving London. That’s elephant, buffalo – a whole herd walked ‘through’ us, munching and being groomed by an endless stream of oxpecker birds – white rhino, lion, and leopard. Two male lions were sleeping casually by the road. A female rhino protected her one-year old baby, and on the way back a female leopard was beginning her hunting for the evening. Not a bad first run.
The encounters stacked up as the days rolled by. A fifty-year old elephant with one tusk broken off, covered in dry mud and looking distinctly world weary; a male leopard strolling along a river bed and stopping to drink and take shade under our jeep; a male and female lion gnawing on an old impala kill with a black-backed jackal hanging around for scraps; baby elephants flapping around in a herd of twenty or so; giraffe, kudu, waterbuck, monkeys, wildebeest, mongoose, and much more.
Evenings in camp still demand a level of concentration, no matter how much post-trail wine you have consumed. Sitting around a fire in the boma (an enclosure designed to keep lions out) feels secure enough, even if impala are sounding alarm calls as lions attempt a night kill by the waterhole in front of us. But hyena wander through the camp every night scavenging, so it takes composure if you wander off limits. They skulk away in the shadows.
The piece de resistance was reserved for the final day. A pride of a dozen lions had a killed a large buffalo and we sat for twenty minutes as they systematically ripped it to bits. One dismantled the face, one took the buttocks, and others drove massive holes into the flanks big enough to sink their entire heads in. Gory, but natural. The vultures looked on patiently from a nearby tree as the lions dripped in blood or rolled over to digest. It was gone in a few hours.