The sun sets over Southern England as Flight BA55 took off for Johannesburg. A replacement jumbo for one with failed air-conditioning, this too seemed to have failed air-conditioning. Drinking copious amounts and digging in for a hot night seemed the only option. Nine hours later the sun was rising and early glimpses of Angola from 33,000 feet began to emerge. We would have crossed the equator during the night, taking a line from the Western Mediterranean over Morocco, Niger, Gabon and the Congo. It was dry down there – beige dunes and the occasional dried riverbed, but an hour or so before Johannesburg things begin to change.
Botswana is home to the Okavangon river delta. In flood this is massive, but in August all one can see from the air are the channels carved by the mighty river. Then a village appears, then a town. Now all the land is carved up into man-made shapes, fields, roads, power stations, circular, centrally-irrigated fields – and then we are touching down, and the Kalahari desert is long gone. Monitoring the on-board computer, I am taken by the brilliantly named Selebi-Phikwe, but this is not on the itinerary. The plan is to take a short one-hour flight to Mala Mala, billed as the best big game viewing in the world. Soon the twin-prop Fokker is circling low over the airstrip – a smart strip of new tarmac with no buildings whatsoever. The setting is idyllic – a series of thatched bungalows stretching along the Sand River, a natural home for almost every species.
A refreshing lunch and it’s into the land rover for an afternoon drive. I was keeping expectations sensible – four days tiger watching in India had taught me that you could search for hours and find little more than the odd deer. But no so here. The omens had been good even looking out of the bedroom window. A marabou stork six-foot tall fished patiently in the river while a bateleur eagle with its distinctive scarlet head cruised overhead. A lone giraffe strolled past on the far bank, and far off to the right half a dozen elephants scaled the slope down to the river.
We crossed the river and drove straight into a massive herd of buffalo – five or six hundred of them. These are massive beasts and one of the Big Five. Munching and jostling their way among the woods and reeds, these animals have to drink twice a day so the river is a natural magnet for them. We tarried awhile, particularly amused by the young calves protected at the centre of the herd, and then it was time to move on. The day before a leopard had killed an impala, so a re-examination today was a sound plan. No newcomer could ask for what we saw. In a clearing in dense woodland lay a female sunning herself. We edged to within a few feet for the all-essential close up photographs. But with the jeep’s engine turned off, we began to hear other rustlings nearby. To our right, dossing in a thicket surrounded by odds and ends of dismembered impala, was the male. He dozed lazily and occasionally scratched his gorged stomach. He was just a couple of feet away and we drank in the scene of contentment. Then we heard faint mewing sounds coming from behind the trees. In time, a four-month old cub peered out tentatively. With all still, he strode gingerly towards his mother and began to suckle. Hungry boy. When he had had his fill, they embarked on a sustained licking session and a bout of mock fisticuffs. It was a scene of domestic bliss – mother and cub frolicking in the clearing while the male snoozed after his enormous meal. Restarting the engine made junior shoot off back into the thicket. We had only been out for half an hour, and already two of the Big Five had given us the pleasure. Well, three if we include the riverbank sighting of the elephant herd.
There is a rhythm to safari game viewing. Up early to search in the cool of the day when many of the animals are still on the move from their night time excursions. Then back by late morning to avoid the worst heat of the day. And back out again at around three o’clock, depending on the time of year. Here you start with full sunshine and progress through to cool dusk and total darkness. Stumbling upon various herds of impala and kudu (these are large antelopes with white stripes on brown, and prominent horns – they also taste rather good in a peppercorn sauce!) We drove around until teatime. Two bull white rhino (square-lipped) were making their way down to the river for an evening drink. We spotted their significant backsides and left the dirt track to bounce through the bush. This is not for the faint-hearted. The ground is uneven and thick with sharp-thorned bushes. The Land Rover makes short work of most of them, just mowing them down in a most un-politically correct way, but passengers need to be wary of the branches that swing back and smack you in the face or skin your knuckles. Contrary to popular belief, these rhino were not remotely grumpy. They pottered along, pausing to munch on the vegetation from time to time. A little further on we got out of the jeep for a pit stop and were just enjoying a well-deserved cold beer when the rhino turned up. This was great – being at ground level with the pair of them. Apparently rhino have very particular toilet habits. They come to the same place every time, deposit their highly substantial loads, spray it around with their tail, stamp their feet in it, and then use that scent to mark their territory so they wander around it. Charming. Big Five strike number four.
The light was fading now, so time to put on an extra layer or two, and for our tracker to turn his spotlight on. This gives us a great chance to catch the nocturnal species that are just waking up. A couple of bateleur eagles roosting on separate trees. A bush baby bouncing from bough to bough. And suddenly, hyena. Four of them, smelling acutely of brussel sprout-like dung. We trailed them for a while, watching their reflective eyes twinkling in the dark, until finally they arrived at a vast giraffe carcass that they must have killed a few days before. It was all but stripped bare, with a forlorn leg ripped off and dumped some way off. But the hyena clearly felt there was meat left to be had, and started tucking in. They have the strongest bite of any big mammal, with a three-ton pressure capability and soon the air was echoing to the sound of cracking giraffe bone.
Just before returning to camp, we received word on the radio that lions had been spotted down by the Sand River. This is a bundle of reeds and islands at this time of year, so it is very hard to negotiate in the land rover. We manage though, and are rewarded with the sight of three lionesses dossing in the dense cover. The Big Five, strike five, and all on our very first time out. Clearly Mala Mala can live up to its awesome reputation. The day is rounded off by a sumptuous dinner in the boma, a traditional circular open-air enclosure, with a huge fire in the centre. After an extended conversation with George and Mary Lou from Washington (he used to be a pineapple expert at Del Monte for 30 years) it is time for bed.
Mala Mala means Sable Antelope, although which mala means sable and which means antelope remains unclear. It must be in the pronunciation. The following day it’s up at 6.30am with the sunrise streaming into the room over the river. It’s cold, but scrambled eggs and bacon swiftly kick-start the day. The first hour is spent checking tracks, are there cheetah in this bush? No. Is there an elephant behind that flower? Probably not. But we do eventually find a herd of six or ten rummaging through the dense woods. Not that density bothers them at all – they simply trample down anything that needs moving. This herd are a bit nervous and mildly threatening. The romantic vision of them as gentle giants needs significant reappraisal up close, where their huge size and slightly grumpy demeanour can be disarming to the novice. They trundle off into the distance and we move on. Giraffe now. Half a dozen of them. Enormous, perhaps 15 feet tall, browsing on the choicest leaves at the top that no other animal can reach. They are so large that they look invincible, but last night’s carcass betrays the truth.
A leopard lying on the ground is one thing, but spotting them in trees adds a whole new dimension. We traced along a dry riverbed to find a male sleeping about ten foot up on the bank. His dismembered warthog kill laying lifelessly a branch behind. He rolled his eyes, totally unconcerned by our presence. A rustle in the bushes then revealed two hyena waiting below – one slip and they will be there to pick up the pieces, but they simply cannot match the leopard for tree climbing skills. Across the river, another leopard was dangling from a tree with a limp impala draped over a nearby branch. It’s cub looked up jealously from down below – often males will wait for a female to kill and then come and steal it from them. We returned later to watch this large male stuff his face, cracking bones and dripping blood from his whiskers, and the so-called professional photographers with their improbably-long lenses complained that we were too close to focus properly.
At lunchtime a troupe of baboons wandered through the camp, drinking from the swimming pool and walking on all fours with their babies suspended underneath or riding piggy-back, which they do when they are a little older. I realised I had left my swimming trunks to dry outside my room and suspected they might take a fancy to them. I fully expected to spot one in the afternoon wearing my shorts and hurling abuse from a nearby tree. Various wildlife would drift past the room from time to time: bushbucks eating the flowers, warthog and nyala. By evening we were back in the thick of the buffalo and a herd of elephant. Mother and baby crossed the road tentatively in front of us. Skittish zebra danced in front of the Land Rover too. Our ranger was full of jokes. How do you tell the difference between male and female zebra? We listen intently, expecting a pearl of wisdom. “One has black with white stripes, the other is white with black stripes…” It was time to head for home. After a beer watching the sunset, we just had time to spot some mini-mongoose (geese or goose? Who knows?), and two small cats, the genet and the civet, before reaching camp. Dinner in the boma was fantastically enhanced by the singing of the catering staff – twelve local ladies singing unaccompanied and clapping enthusiastically whilst the trainee chef danced in front of the fire like a man possessed.
Dinner time is always good for a few ranger stories. A few years back a crew parked under a tree to look at a leopard, which promptly leapt into the truck. They had to dispatch him rapidly with a screwdriver. On another occasion, the ranger drives off not noticing that his tracker is not in the back because he has gone to relieve himself behind the bushes. He only notices fifteen minutes and five miles later. And the ranger who was out on his own fixing a fence without his rifle and inadvertently stumbled across three lionesses! After one of them charged him for the third time he promptly soiled his pants and had to return with his tail between his legs (so to speak) and dutifully report to the laundry.
Day two, and the fun is just beginning. The rhythm of safari life continues. Up at 6.30. Breakfast. Warm clothes, blankets and hot water bottles in the back of the land rover. Bens the ranger and Moxe his tracker are decked out in gloves and ear muffs. The rifle nestles on the stanchion by the steering wheel and off we go. Seeing a particular animal once in the wild is a big thrill, but then it becomes a question of in what context, and interacting with what, and doing what exactly? We leave camp to be confronted immediately by the charming sight of a giraffe urinating and defecating simultaneously. To add insult to injury a small bird in close attendance shot right up his arse to benefit. “Jees, he got right in there!” exclaimed our companion from Seattle. We spent time with a herd of zebra and cornered a lone bull rhino before continuing our seemingly endless line of leopard encounters. The first, a female, had dragged a kudu into a large thicket. The second, a male, was idly snoozing in the reeds on the edge of a dry river bed. But the third was a fantastic opportunity to watch two male leopards facing off in a territory dispute. Leopard ‘A’ was in thick woodland. High above the monkeys were thoughtfully barking out warning calls for anyone further down the food chain. ‘A’ was scratching the ground, scent marking his patch. Then ‘B’ came ambling up the riverbank and all hell broke loose. Deep primeval growling filled the air. Scuffing, rolling and posturing on both sides. After twenty minutes or so ‘B’ though better of it and wandered off. No big cat wants to be injured in a fight. If you are injured, you can’t hunt, and that means no food, and eventual starvation.
We were hungry for more lions, so to speak. So far we had been restricted to minimal views at night. We drove to the edge of Kruger National Park. The boundary is unfenced so the animals can come and go, and we spotted three lionesses dozing on the other side of the border. Bens said we couldn’t go there so instead he would call them over. We thought he was joking. We drove a few hundred metres away, hid the land rover behind some trees, turned the engine off and then he started making a series of puffing noises, followed by bursts of sustained groaning. “That doesn’t sound much like a lion”, exclaimed Linda from New Jersey. “I am imitating impala”, remarked the ranger and, sure enough, two minutes later the lionesses came over to investigate. The man has extraordinary bushcraft skills. They lay down right in front of us, and they presented a photographer’s feast.
On the afternoon we had one big ambition left: cheetah. And they were proving quite elusive. We found more leopard, zebra, impala, kudu and scores of other species, and drove for several hours. Then just as the sun was setting, all their tracking expertise paid off. There was animated pointing at a stretch of rolling dried grass. I couldn’t see a thing. Finally, as we approached slowly in the land rover, I could see a tail waggling, then another: a mother and cub together in the low sunlight. This was perfect. They frolicked together and licked each other. Every time the mother wondered off the cub purred loudly. Then they sidled up to a large raised mound to adopt the classic cheetah surveying the landscape pose in the evening sun. Classic. On the way back in the darkness we chased a civet up the road and had a further demonstration of a tracker’s amazing power of observation. Standing up in the back and sweeping a spotlight from side to side, you have to be highly observant. You might just spot something big like a rhino, which we did, covered in mud from a good wallow. As we sped along, he suddenly shouted for the driver to reverse, and proudly highlighted a four-inch chameleon in a tree. We were gobsmacked. How on earth did he see that? The chameleon was gingerly prised off its branch and we had a chance to hold it, examining its peculiar two-toed feet and rotating eyes. It was time to stop, head for the bar for a beer and a nibble of biltong (their dried beef equivalent of beef jerkie).
The final morning proved, once again, that it’s not so much what you see but what they are doing and in what context. We tarried with half a dozen waterbuck, co-operatively pointing their heads in the same direction in unison. We smashed down many a thorn bush to gain access to two happily munching rhino. We got thoroughly in amongst a herd of elephant to watch them feed on trees and nestle the babies in between their legs. We sympathised with a battered leopard, licking his wounds in a dry riverbed. He had open wounds on the top of his head and below his jaw, and his right eye didn’t seem to be opening. This had been a fight with another leopard, and closer examination suggested that the injuries were caused by one massive jaw bite – teeth on the top and bottom encompassing his entire head. Photographs at home later showed the wounds gently oozing some nasty fluid or other. We wished him well and moved on down the main Sand River.
Here we were greeted by an extraordinary panorama. To our right, a leopard sitting calmly on the sand. On the far bank, a herd of elephant feeding. And to our left, four lionesses emerging from the reeds following the watercourse. “It’s a zoo!” declared Bens. We watched the scene unfold. The lead lioness spotted the leopard and started towards him. He thought better of it and skulked back into the reeds. That was a contest he could never win. We spent half an hour in amongst the lionesses as they pottered around by the river, and then it was time to go. Mala Mala had delivered an extraordinary haul in three days flat. We estimated at least 15 leopard sitings, a dozen or so lion, half a dozen square-lipped white rhino, a beautiful pair of cheetah and countless elephants, buffalo, wildebeest, eagles and other birds. There was only one sight left unseen: a male lion.