We spot the distant splash of white in the bush at the same time. “You see it?” whispers Gladman Malusi as he muscles the bulky game-viewing vehicle around a corner.
The people behind us pick up on our excitement. “Do you think it’s him?” asks Freddy Gustavsen from Sweden.
Tuesday morning and the weather turned grey for the first time in the three days. Behind me, Freddy and the others are swaddled in heavy ponchos: they’re under the roof of the open-sided Land Rover, but up front next to Gladman (his surname means “shepherd”), I’m hunched over my cameras… trying to keep the Scotch mist off the lenses and the big, ugly bark spiders that have spun their dew-glistening webs between the trees off my face.
As we lurch along the pitted tracks, with Gladman switching frequently into low-range whenever the road gets particularly bad or steep, there is just one thing on everyone’s minds – seeing a fabled white lion. The problem with five-star game reserves such as Pumba Private Game Reserve and Spa is that you get greedy. Not picky-choosy; you want it all.
The previous day, our shepherd had guided us into the deep bush until we were nose-to-nose with a trio of surly – and bloody big – buffalo in dense thickets. Then there was the cheetah group that lucked out twice in the space of an hour, the second time with spectacular and potentially fatal consequences.
First we’d watched them from across a valley, belting down a hill in pursuit of some blesbok… only to be put off their stride by a full-grown Burchell’s zebra that crossed the line of their charge at a critical moment. Greatly miffed, they stalked back into the shade to catch their breath.
Just before we move closer, 30-year-old Gladman (who possesses that acute eyesight that characterises the excellent game guide) spots a prowling lioness about 500m from the sulking cheetah. Between the predators is another group of blesbok that have caught sight of the lioness but are unaware of the lurking cheetah. Nervously, the blesbok keep backing away until two spotted blurs erupt from the bush, bringing down a fawn and choking it to death.
Easy as pie. Right in front of us.
The cheetah, however, have no clue there is a hungry lioness in the vicinity while we, with the advantage of the height offered by the vehicle, can watch the drama unfold. The cheetah retreat with their kill to the cover of a shady thicket. The bush, though, provides cover for the stalking lioness as the soft breeze carries her scent in the opposite direction.
“These cheetah had better be careful,” breathes Gladman. “She’ll kill them if she can… they’re competition.” But something tips them off a heartbeat before she storms out of the long grass and the cheetah bombshell in alarm. The lioness glares at us – not more than a dozen strides and a leap away – before settling down to the easiest mid-morning meal of her life.
Gladman, who has been at Pumba for seven years, explains that the animals in the reserve – with the exception of some buffalo – are comfortable with the vehicles, something that is underlined later that day when we round a corner and nearly drive into the opposite end of a young bull elephant.
Unperturbed, he hangs around for a while before disappearing silently into the dense bush.
A few minutes later, we’re face to face with an SA wildlife legend: Hapoor Junior. Sired 60 years ago and relocated to Pumba from the nearby Addo Elephant National Park in 2005, Hapoor Junior is the oldest and mightiest bull elephant in the Eastern Cape.
Getting (literally) long in the tooth, Hapoor Junior’s years of herd dominance is coming to an end and a younger bull, Nick, is bearing the brunt of breeding responsibilities. Indeed, it’s one of his progeny that captivates us; the youngster clowns for the cameras, treating us to a little soft-shoe shuffling and even a couple of comical mock charges on the vehicle.
There is a dark undertone to our enjoyment of these majestic tuskers, as there was the previous evening when we skootched softly alongside a massively horned white rhino – the growing threat of poachers. In fact, there was a moment of alarm during my stay when we heard a small helicopter.
A two-seater chopper is the local rhino poacher’s vantage and hunting platform of choice. Manned by a pilot and a rifleman/horn-stripper, it is also the perfect getaway vehicle. “Ten minutes. That’s all it takes from the time they’ve shot the rhino.”
Then there’s the unspoken fear – what if the poachers target one of the rare white lions, one of which is now lying about 20m from us?
Gladman has not even had to leave the road to reach that pale glimpse, and we have him to ourselves for about 15 minutes, a rarity in a reserve that is the third-largest privately owned reserve in the Eastern Cape. Guides are in radio contact with one another and, when one makes a sighting, he calls it in.
With his photo-negative features and stone-killer blue stare, I can only describe Temba’s visage as malevolent.
White lions are not albino animals but a sub-species within which a recessive gene predominates. There is a catch, though; they need to co-exist within a pride environment with “normal” lions if they are to survive in the wild. The reason is practical – their startling colour makes it difficult to blend in to the drabness of the veld during a hunt – as well as genetic.
Therefore, while there is a white lioness (Nomathemba) at Pumba, the female that cheated the cheetah of their meal the previous day (Nthombi) is not only the pride’s principal hunter, she also reduces the risks of inbreeding. At the same time, she is capable of bearing white cubs… though at a significantly reduced level of certainty than if both partners in the pairing are “white”.
Because Nthombi was the dominant female of the existing pride, Nomathemba’s integration into the pride in 2009 was tricky. She was first held in a rehabilitation boma to allow her to acclimatise to her new environment (she’d been relocated from Timbavati in Limpopo). Three months later, Nthombi was placed in an adjacent enclosure separated by a sliding gate so that she could accept and bond with the newcomer.
Once they got to know each other through the fence and showed signs of bonding, the gate was opened. Nomathemba indicated her submissiveness and the two animals were held together while the next-dominant pride lioness was darted and brought into the adjoining boma and the process was repeated until all three were feeding together.
The breeding programme (one of two in SA) has not been without tragedy: Nomathemba had two white cubs last year but one suffocated after being darted by rangers.
Pumba Private Game Reserve and Spa covers some 7000 hectares and is situated just off the N2, a couple of kilometres before Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape. The bulk of the reserve comprises the farm Kariega, originally owned by Voortrekker leader Piet Retief who, in light of later developments, should probably have stayed there.
While international tourist fascination is focused mainly on the Big Five (even though the Anglo-Chinese woman in our group is unfailingly enraptured by warthog and giraffe), the reserve features 45 mammal- and more than 300 bird species.
There are two opulently appointed lodges that offer visitors remarkably different experiences. Pumba Water Lodge is the larger of the two with 12 stone-walled and thatched cottages that all overlook Lake Kariega. It also appeared the more child-friendly of the two five-star facilities.
Msenge Bush Lodge's 11 cottages are all glass enclosed, so residents can raise all the blinds and be luxuriously cocooned in nature. Each chalet is completely private, so you can get naked in your plunge pool or outside shower while watching nyala, elephant (and warthog) on the plain a few metres away.
Thankfully, there are no TVs or radios in the rooms. The quality of cellphone and WiFi-internet reception varies from minute to minute.
Catering is superb without being pretentious, completely within context of bush. I couldn't resist the impala and kudu steaks, reminding my international companions of how cute they looked in the veld just a few hours earlier!
Find out more at http://www.pumbagamereserve.co.za - Saturday Star