Up close with the Big Five

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iol travel may 26 cw Travel Sunset Landcruiser 2 INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPERS DAYS END: Staying a few days on the reserve means theres no having to rush before the gates closed for day visitors.

Skukuza - There is no better way to truly appreciate how lethal a lion can be than getting so close to it in the wild you can see the menace in its glare. Sadly, unless you’re blessed with uncommon good luck or oodles of money, it’s not an experience you’re likely to have.

There is a widespread feeling that South Africa’s wildlife heritage has been priced out of reach of most locals. The grouse is that it is only the extremely wealthy who get to view the Big Five, while the majority of self-driving South Africans are obliged to stick to the roads in parks where amenities and service are often of questionable standard.

If the luxury private game lodges adjacent to Kruger – Mala Mala, Londolozi, Sabi Sands and their ilk – are the high road and SanParks-run camps such as Skukuza are the low, which is the road discerning but budget-conscious travellers must follow?

Actually, this third way has already been forged, even though it remains relatively undiscovered by domestic tourists.

The trail has been blazed (and is being very effectively marketed abroad by Intrepid Travels) through Hoedspruit and the Limpopo-located conservancies that border on Kruger. It is the best of both worlds when it comes to visiting the region.

As part of discovering this different way, I was picked up at 6am at my Sandton hotel by a cheerful driver in a clean and spacious minibus. We were a motley crew of Australians, Hollanders, Poles and three Brits who’d spent several days on horseback in the Lesotho highlands on behalf of some obscure charity, before joining the N4.

iol travel may 26 cw Travel Lion kill TUCKING IN: Lions enjoy their fresh kill of buffalo. INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPERS

Just after midday we turned into the Guernsey Conservancy and bumped our way along the dirt road to the 3-star Thornhill Safari Lodge. Situated 40km from the Orpen Gate entrance to the Kruger National Park and about the same from Hoedspruit, Thornhill comprises 13 rooms grouped around a large and inviting swimming pool.

I was in one of two “honeymoon suites” (there are also seven twin/ double rooms, two three-bed and two family units sleeping four people each) and I’d just dumped my luggage and turned on the air conditioner before a booming gong signalled lunch.

Resident cook Thembi Ngobeni staggered out of the kitchen bearing a huge tray of baked pasta. It’s standard midday fare along with salads, breads and bottomless jugs of ice-tinkly fruit juice.

A few hours later, our group was introduced to our two guides. Mine was Lambie Mnisi, a gangling Shangaan who’s spent his life in and around the Kruger National Park.

Most of the group were booked on Intrepid Travel’s “Four-day Lodge Experience” and the next few hours were going to be remarkable.

It was a quick drive from Thornhill Lodge to the Thornybush private game reserve, where we were handed over to another set of rangers in open-topped vehicles. Everyone grabbed a bottle of water and we were off into the bush.

The next four hours passed by at breakneck speed (bum-jarring, actually) and, by the time we hoisted our first chilled sundowners, we’d seen the Big Five up very, very close.

So close to a young lion that my pictures picked out a cavity in one of his canine teeth as he yawned. So close to a white rhino, glistening with black mud, that we could hear it whuffling contentedly as it scraped its armoured hide against the trunk of a thorn tree.

So close to a leopard that even our rangers got nervous when it stood up and took a few tentative steps towards us before turning away and stalking arrogantly off into the bush.

That night, seated in the Thornhill boma for dinner by firelight (a three-course offering that features plentiful quantities of venison potjie, roast chicken, three veg and salad for the main), everyone felt they’d already almost had their money’s worth for the trip.

It had been a long day and most of us crashed early. I got a whisky from the honour bar and took a long outdoor shower before turning in.

Shortly before dawn the next morning, Lambie was hurrying us towards Kruger. I noted, in passing, that the Guernsey Conservancy abuts the Timbavati reserve.

We were not even at Orpen when Lambie stopped. He’d spotted a pack of wild dogs scampering along just inside the park fence, their dappled coats making them almost invisible in the oblique sunlight.

It was Lambie’s presence that made the thought of a self-drive visit to the park virtually unbearable: there are very few people whose eyes are so acclimatised to the wild that they will pick up a 2m-long monitor lizard lying motionless on a shady branch. Nor are there many who have a comparable knowledge of the park and its wildlife, both in science and folklore.

The day passed too quickly and although we had never left the road, Lambie’s knowledge of the area had taken us close to elephant and a pair of mating lions. There was no post-coital torpor for the felines, though, because suddenly the male had enough of our presence and snarled… and there was the glare that will forever haunt one of my British fellow travellers.

It was, however, while we were waiting for a herd of more than 300 buffalo – each animal enveloped in a cloud of flies – to cross the road ahead of us when I had the thought: we’re in the Kruger National Park with perhaps thousands of other tourists but we’re not part of the herd.

On our way back to Thornhill, the British woman who was so terrified by the lion’s malevolence grabbed my arm.

“What’s that?” she called.

I saw a glimpse of white in the bush and screamed for Lambie to stop and back up. For there, just on the other side of the fence, was one of the famed Timbavati white lions … its snout blood-red from the kill. - Weekend Argus

All for R6 000 per person sharing.

l Jim Freeman was the guest of Intrepid Travel. See www.intrepidtravel.co.za

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