Aymar, our armed game ranger at Shamwari, had only minutes before cautioned my wife and I of the risks involved with bush walks.
This is proper "Big Five" country, and while it’s exciting to explore on foot, sniffing wild herbs, analysing spoor, spotting birds and, hopefully, encountering some wildlife (from a reasonable distance) without all the rattle, clank and fumes of a 4x4 game viewing vehicle, it’s entirely possible to cross the path of something deadly.
The three of us unknowingly trundle through a gully, round a bend, take a minute to inspect some fresh dung, and then approach a shrub about the size of a CitiGolf when we’re stopped in our tracks by an almighty roar coming from right behind the bush.
It’s a lion. About 6m away.
I don’t speak Ibhubesi, but I’m pretty sure it said: “One step closer and I’ll feed your face to my cubs.”
Aymar raises his gun, shouts in the big cat’s direction, and motions for us to retreat. As if he had to.
I was already skedaddling at top speed toward safety, despite previous instruction to walk slowly in reverse in such a situation. We made it out alive, but the moral of the story is, always listen to what a shrieking monkey is telling you.
Shamwari’s rangers hope to give guests memorable experiences, but this was the next level.
Nowhere in the brochures does it say “guaranteed near-death experiences at the jaws of a predator”, but as far as making memories, the reserve has the game waxed.
This 25000-hectare private reserve is billed as the largest in the Eastern Cape (Addo is an SA National Park), and at just about an hour north of Port Elizabeth it’s within convenient proximity to one of the country’s main hubs.
The area is malaria-free, and while that drawcard might mean little to most South African tourists, it goes a long way in drawing foreign clientele away from the usual five-star bush retreats of Mpumalanga.
What was once a landscape void of most flora and fauna thanks to an all-out extermination at the hands of early farm settlers is once again teeming with various species as part of a decade-long rehabilitation and restocking programme.
Officially opened in 1992, Shamwari now plays home to over 5 000 head of free-roaming game, including the big five as well as hippo, giraffe, wild dog and cheetah. It hosts 17 types of antelope, extensive birdlife, a diverse plant community and six out of a possible seven biomes.
Instead of allowing guests to navigate freely in their own vehicles, as per regular Kruger Park-type rules, there is a small network of main roads for customers to get to and from lodges.
Getting into Shamwari’s nitty-gritty nooks and crannies requires an official ranger, and as part of the experience one is assigned to each guest at check in.
Shamwari boasts six separate lodges, all of which offer high standards in luxury. Each comes with a unique look and feel, catering to different tastes.
I’m told that Tiger Woods prefers Lobengula, Brad Pitt enjoys Long Lee Manor, and John Travolta, who may or may not fly himself into the reserve’s own landing strip, is a regular at Eagles Crag.
My stay didn’t involve any celebrity spotting, but that’s fine. The wildlife was better. Personal rangers make a point of asking guests what they’d hope to see ahead of each drive, and will do everything in their power to make it happen. Including lion, of course.
But I suggest these sightings happen from the safety of a Land Cruiser. And if you do stumble upon one on foot, remember, walk slowly in reverse.