Chasing animals in the Waterberg

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As the title of the establishment suggests, the sprawling Clifftop is situated on the apex of a mountain. Pictures: Mary Corrigall

The sky is smeared with pink and orange tones and not more than 10m from where we are standing are three rhinos keeping a watchful eye on us. This is the best part of the game drive ritual, when you’re released from the open-top 4x4 and you gingerly stroll around the bush while enjoying some sundowners in a spectacular spot.

It’s only when the engine is off and you can hear the brittle grass crushing beneath your feet and the persistent hubbub of insects and birds that you are truly immersed in the bush. This is what we are seeking; immersion in something other than what we know in the city we have temporarily left behind.

We are standing on the fringes of an open plain in the expansive Welgevonden reserve in an area known as the Waterberg in Limpopo. Gathered around a makeshift table on which the usual game-drive sundowner snacks – biltong, droëwors and mixed nuts – are displayed, a conversation between strangers evolves. Our attention is centred on Sebastian Spann, our young enthusiastic guide from the Clifftop Exclusive Safari Hideaway, our luxury accommodation.

He is dressed in the standard game-ranger ensemble: a beige two-piece outfit and a hat adorned with faux leopard print band. There must be a game-ranger store brimming with these colonialesque costumes. It’s anyone’s guess why lodges expect their game rangers to dress up in these dated, clichéd uniforms.

Clearly it has become an essential component of the contrived ritual we call the game drive. For it’s not practical; Spann admits he freezes in it when the sun goes down and the hat, made from artificial fibres, is hot when the sun is beating down. He doesn’t need the costume to play the role; he seems engrossed by the surroundings, constantly swinging his head around, scanning the bush for animals and birds.

He speaks enthusiastically and knowledgeably about the habits and characteristics of wild animals. It’s as if we have stepped out with a walking-talking Wikipedia. Of course, we will never retain all the data. All I will be able to recall is that the mountain reed buck are the flagship species of this area of the Waterberg. These lissome brown animals are to be found in abundance around the rocky outcrops we pass, so, as it is in the bush, we lose interest in them quickly.

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The all-white wooden decked building might be more appropriate for a seaside destination but it is pleasing and trendy.

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Rare beasts are prized during game drives; hence the leopards and lions are like the Holy Grail in these settings. Game rangers tease their audiences with rumours of sightings of these beasts.

An hour into our drive, Spann switched off the engine of the vehicle when we approached a waterhole. “Did you hear that?” he asks, referring to screaming baboons. He suggests they are responding to a threat. “It could be a leopard.”

We drive around slowly, while Spann scans the ground for tell-tale footprints.

“It’s a female.” There is no argument from us ignorant city-folk. The trail reaches a dead-end and our hopes are dashed.

Spann seems so at ease, so in tune with the environment, as if he was raised in the wild by a pair of civilised elephants. So, we are surprised, and amused, to learn that he hails from Brakpan.

He proposes that life in Brakpan, South Joburg, is far tougher than in the untamed bush. “I used to walk barefoot with a spanner in my hand for protection,” he confesses.

He has yet to get a licence to carry a rifle but, pointing to his biceps, suggests he is “armed”. We all laugh nervously, casting our attention back to the rhinos that are still within sight. They seem just as suspicious of us, so it seems that Spann won’t have to activate his inbuilt “weapons”.

As the sun finally dips behind a low mountain, we climb back into the Land Rover. It gets dark and cold quickly, so we slip under the lined ponchos provided.

Spann scans the bush with a search-light attached to the vehicle, carving out bright lines across the dense bush. The topography is now cloaked in darkness – it’s only when branches scratch against the outside of the vehicle that we are reminded of the surrounding vegetation.

The animals escape the beam. Well, except for a chameleon. More interested in the smaller creatures that go under the radar, Spann is quite delighted with his find.

It is a relief when the lights of the Clifftop Exclusive Safari Hideaway come into view. A small group of staff are waiting for us at the entrance as if we are returning from some month-long grand exploration.

Hot towels and cocktails are at hand, providing a respite from our very brief spell roughing it in nature. We are such delicate creatures, we city dwellers.

A sprawl of all-white buildings united by white decking, Clifftop Hideaway is a trendy-looking establishment. Something you might encounter in the pages of glossy décor magazines.

In line with this all white kind of minimalist vibe, the look is sparse with furniture in neutral tones. Hanging basket chairs that dangle near the pool appear like bird’s nests and are the only real concession to the setting. Though the décor is pleasing, it’s unexpected for a mountainous bush locale. This pristine white look might be more suited for a seafront destination. However, the glass-fronted buildings and open balconies, which face the cliff edge allow visitors to revel in the setting while they are ensconced in the lodge.

So while the décor is an attraction, attention is very clearly directed outdoors, towards the top of the mountain on the other side of the gorge, which is covered in a thick carpet of bushes.

As each individual suite, some of which are housed in separate buildings, boasts its own decked verandas, you can gaze out and laze about in privacy.

After our long bush excursion, all we are in the mood for is a hearty meal before retiring with a book. We are relieved to discover that we won’t be subjected to a communal meal, as is the tradition at many lodges. The quality or enjoyment of that arrangement really depends on the personality of the guests; if you get lumped with a garrulous or abrasive character your meals can become pure torture.

So we are happy to be led down to the cellar, where we will dine alone. The fare is simple: a potato and leek soup, a stuffed chicken breast followed by an apple strudel of sorts. Haute cuisine, or attempts at haute cuisine, in these settings always feel so incongruous.

Exhausted from the almost four-hour drive from Joburg and the game drive, we turn in as soon as our dessert bowls empty – besides, there is an early morning bush adventure to look forward to.

The next morning Spann wryly asks if we have any game-viewing “orders” to lodge before we pull off in the open-top Land Rover, as if he can magically produce wild animals. In some game reserves, like the Pilanesberg, where you practically trip over a beast as you step out, you can more or less make requests but this is not the case in the Welgevonden Reserve. It is mountainous this side of the Waterberg and thus in stark contrast to the flat savannah areas of the Marakele National Park on the other side of the Waterberg.

Naturally, the topography is more exciting in a mountainous region; you get to enjoy views from above and your gaze cannot penetrate the landscape instantly, forcing you to explore. The downside is that wild animals, particularly those desirable ones – lions, elephants, zebra – tend to congregate in savannah areas.

For this reason our sightings are limited.

But when there are fewer animals to be seen it can be more invigorating; undoubtedly you are more appreciative of each sighting.

Had we known, we would have paid more attention to the elephants we encountered when we were making our way to the Hideaway at the beginning of our trip. A young bull seemed intent that we would never reach our final destination as he blocked the only dusty road leading to the lodge while he snacked on a couple of trees. We sighed in frustration as the young elephant made a display that reminded us just whose territory we had entered.

Blowing soil over his weathered grey epidermis, he looked as if he was covering his face with war-paint. His large ears quivered and flapped.

Were we in trouble? Spann reversed the 4x4. We looked down at our watches. This was a bush-style traffic jam. When animals are involved there can be no fixed plans.

Game rangers have studied their movements, know their patterns and behaviour but yet, they still elude their grasp.

It also doesn’t help that the possibility of an encounter can occur only along a narrow strip of road that runs through an expansive game park. You are always left with a sense that the real experiences lie beyond the worn tracks.

Spann hears over the walkie-talkie that a pride of lions have been spotted in the north-eastern part of the reserve.

He puts his foot down on the accelerator, living up to his reputation as being an expert in what is termed a “Ferrari Safari”.

Branches whip past us as the vehicle bounces and rattles – Land Rovers are not quick getaway cars. The road, littered with rocks, doesn’t smooth our progress. After half an hour of bona fide bundu-bashing, Spann eventually relents.

The lions have moved even further north and away from the road so a sighting will be impossible.

As if to compensate, the reserve offers us an encounter with a young male giraffe, who is quietly snacking on a tree top.

After breakfast we face a hard day of lounging in our bungalow overlooking the steep valley.

It’s too cold for a dip in the pool on our veranda, so we lie basking in the sun.

Like all the animals in the park whose behaviour is governed by basic corporeal needs, we once again gravitate towards the lodge near dinner time, starting off with light sundowners while we watch and listen to the busy stream of water rushing through the gorge below. We don’t say much; there is no need for words.

Our immersion, in the setting, has been completed. - Sunday Independent

l Mary Corrigall was a guest of the Clifftop Exclusive Safari Hideaway. For bookings and information visit: http://clifftoplodge.co.za or call 011 516 4367 for reservations

Readers’ offer:

Mid-week rates from R 1 200 per person sharing per night inclusive of accommodation, three meals and two safaris.

For reservations please contact: 011 516 4367 or res@extraordinary.co.za, please quote the reference SUNIND.

Terms and Conditions:

Rates exclude gate entry fees, beverages and items of a personal nature. Rates are subject to the availability of rooms allocated to the special. Single supplements apply.

Rates are valid for Sunday to Thursday night only, weekend specials available on request.

Children from 12 years are welcome and are accommodated in their own rooms at full adult rate.

Standard terms and conditions apply. E&OE

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