All safaris start with good safari wear and I couldn’t wait to wear mine. I had a tan tracker shirt and tan pants, both with multiple pockets in which the brave tracker can stash ranch-flavored Corn Nuts should he have to distract an angry rhino who is hot on his trail.
Clothes that say, “I can spot a lion from 300 yards while drinking a gin and tonic and carving a giraffe out of a baobab tree.”
Recently, we went to South Africa. The trip started with a three-day safari at the Kapama Game Reserve that covers more than 30,000 acres near Kruger National Park. Kapama advertised itself has having all of the Big Five: lion, leopard, elephant, black rhinoceros and African buffalo.
Being from Bakersfield, I was familiar with the concept of the Big Five because we have that too. Bakersfield’s Big Five includes squirrels, rabbits, downtown kit foxes, stray dogs and backyard rats. I have seen all five, some of them up close.
We were met at the Hoedspruit Airport by FW, a bearded, solidly built young Afrikaner of Dutch descent who looked capable of wrestling an African buffalo to the ground and convincing it to say uncle.
FW was our guide for the next three days, taking us on game drive in the morning (6 to 9 a.m.) and afternoon (4 to 7 p.m.) I understood the dawn-and-dusk concept because some of my best sightings for the rattus rattus (otherwise known as the “Oh, my God, there is a disgusting rat living in my garage”) have been first thing in the morning or the soon-to-be darkness.
In addition to being a wealth of knowledge on local fauna and flora, FW was dead set on his six charges — three couples including newlyweds from England and Spain — seeing all of the Big Five. There were four or five guides at our camp, each of whom drove an open air safari vehicle with three rows of seats and a seat suspended in the front for the spotter. Ours was Foster who would call out “kudu,” “zebra” and “giraffe” as the animals appeared.
There was friendly competition among the vehicles, guides and their charges. No one wanted to get skunked and after each game drive, at breakfast or dinner, guests would casually mention what they had seen in the bush.
I say bush, but the first time I saw the landscape — flat, somewhat desolate with trees many of which looked like they were dying — I thought, “No way this place has wild animals in it.” It was early spring following a horrendous drought the year before so not much had leafed out, but there didn’t seem to be enough to eat or hide in. The only things on the menu appeared to be each other; “each other” including crocodiles, zebras, buffalos, hippos, hyenas, jackals, wildebeests, rhinos and nyalas, which we saw in abundance; “abundance” being misleading because seeing an animal in the wild doesn’t get old. It’s borderline thrilling.
However, we couldn’t buy a lion and, as our twice-daily game drives rolled on, FW became intent on finding one, even extending one of our evening drives past dinner time.
Guests in the other vehicles did not suffer from a lion drought, especially Smith and his wife, who we met the first night at dinner. Smith was from Portland and had recently swum with both killer whales and great white sharks (the swimmers were in cages).
In other words, Smith had wildlife credentials, which apparently included being a lion savant.
"We saw a pride of lions outside the gate (the camp was fenced) on our way in from the game drive,” Smith said. “I think there were about seven of them.”
Smith couldn't brush his teeth without seeing a lion. I'm surprised one didn't sleep on the end of his bed at night.
Every time Smith turned around, lions were standing on two legs, dressed in tutus, posing for pictures.
“Did you hear the low rumbling of lions last night while we were sleeping?” Smith said.
No I didn’t. My ears are evidently not tuned to the Lion Channel.
The second night at dinner, after Smith had notched a few more lion notches on his safari belt I told him I had seen Bigfoot and a polar bear.
“FW, hunting lions is like hunting mushrooms,” I said on our second-to-last game drive. “Sometimes you’re better off letting the mushrooms hunt for you rather than you hunt for the mushrooms.”
He looked at me. I recognized that look. That was the look guides give supercilious guests before they toss them out of the Land Rovers and use them as lion bait.
No dice and we were down to our final game drive, the morning when Sylvia and Noe, the young Spanish couple had to leave without spotting a lion. We said goodbye to them, hopped into the Land Rover and within 15 minutes had come across two female lions being trailed by two cubs.
That’s the way it works. Somebody has to leave, somebody has to make the sacrifice, and then all of a sudden the waves start breaking again or you see lions.
One of the cubs was hurt, favoring its right hip.
"He might have gotten hurt in a hunt,” Foster said. "If he doesn't get better, they will have to leave him behind.”
Nothing prepares you for seeing a lion walking five feet from your truck. My first thought was, “This thing could jump up and snatch me out of the truck,” but they don’t.
The lions just walked along the dirt road and eventually turned toward the trees.
“Lord, they are beautiful,” is your second thought. Beautiful and very relaxed. The kind of relaxed you get when you’re very powerful.
I couldn’t wait to return to the camp and casually mention to Smith that we had seen lions, but by that time, Smith was into his second leopard.
Kapama was good. No, it wasn’t good, it was epic and although it’s halfway across the world and not cheap, if you can, go.
Big Five. Big world.