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Up close and personal for a photo finish

Published Jun 12, 2015

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East London - The camera lies forgotten on my lap. It’s useless, anyway: even if I could bring myself to move, the big bull elephant is so close that even my medium-zoom lens would be unable to focus.

We remain like that for an age… me looking into his long-lashed eye and trying to project humility and a lack of fear, and him looking right back at me. We both know he’s calling the shots.

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Then he lifts his trunk to my arm, closer and closer, till he’s sniffing me from barely 20cm away. Abruptly, he makes up his mind that this game of elephant-human chicken is beneath him and moves on, almost scouring the open vehicle with his hindquarters as he lumbers softly by.

Head ranger Jason Friend starts the Land Cruiser as his counterpart on the reserve’s anti-poaching team at Kariega Game Reserve breathes from the seat just behind me, and says: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone sit so still.”

It’s just one incredible experience that reaffirms my love for this 12 000ha reserve just outside of Kenton-on-Sea in the Eastern Cape. It lies between the Kariega and Bushman’s rivers and encompasses a wider range of biomes – from Albany Thicket and riverine to forest and more – than most other places in the already bio-diverse Eastern Cape.

“Because of bio-diversity, you get species diversity,” says Jason, who began his career in Zimbabwe in 1997, “so the Eastern Cape is a great destination for first-time safari-goers.

“Everything is compact: you’ll never get the great herds of the Serengeti or the Kruger National Park, but here you’ll see everything from forest to marshland and grassland-dwelling species.”

It also makes the Eastern Cape (and Kariega, in particular) a paradise for bird-watchers. One morning Jason and I spotted three elusive Narina trogon in the space of an hour, one of which posed patiently while I snapped a myriad pictures. The previous evening we’d watched a beautifully backlit pair of secretary birds settle down for the night atop a thorn tree (Kariega also offers specialist photographic tours for twitchers).

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Game viewing is equally spectacular. Apart from my experience with the cheeky elephant, I’ve been up close and personal – on foot, as often as not – with buffalo, giraffe, hippo, lion and rhino.

Jason stresses that Kariega is a “true” nature reserve: “This is not a ‘canned’ wildlife experience. Our elephants come from Kruger, our lions from Etosha [National Park in Namibia] and our rhino from KwaZulu-Natal. The only contact they have had with humans is capture, contact and release.”

Thandi, a mature white rhino cow, has sadly had more human contact than the other animals. Poachers left her for dead a few years ago after darting her and hacking out her horns. She was part of a small herd, the remainder of which died in the incident.

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She held on through an almost endless series of reconstructive operations and this year gave birth to a calf, the first glimpse of which I got after nearly an hour of creeping inch by inch through the thicket with the anti-poaching team.

Thandi’s not easy to spot in the dense bush, this motionless two-ton grey beast, even though she’s barely 20m away. What betray her presence are the occasional flick of an ear and the soft slurp of her calf as he suckles.

We sit there for a long time, making sure the fitful breeze carries our scent away from her. She abruptly changes position to face directly towards us and we can see that the old wound on her face is softly leaking blood; she's obviously rubbed it against a tree stump.

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Her calf emerges from behind her and looks in our direction. It's the first time I've seen him since his birth two months earlier. Though still myopic, young rhino see better than adults and he spots our indistinct shapes. He's curious and moves away from his mother, in our direction. This makes Thandi skittish and she begins to snort and paw the ground.

As slowly and softly as we can, we withdraw. We're there to check the two of them are well, not alarm an already traumatised mother.

The next time I see the pair, two months later, Thandi has “presented” her calf to the world.

The youngster is boisterous as any child; mock-charging a pair of blue wildebeest but scampering quickly back to “mum” when they stop and stare him down. She grazes placidly, knowing he won't stray too far.

And that's part of the glory of the bush: not all animal sightings are poignant, some are simply “cute”: like watching a one-day-old impala bounding away like all the adults and getting about 30cm off the ground in its most energetic leap or seeing a hippo tussling with a water-pipe in a dam, looking like nothing so much as a snorkeler as it breaches.

I've returned to Kariega because the newest lodge on the reserve has been completed. Settlers Drift is the flagship addition to the larger accommodation facilities, the previous three of which are pegged at four-star level to make Kariega Game Reserve more accessible to local visitors.

Settlers Drift comprises nine luxury tented suites and caters for more discerning visitors who cherish their privacy. It's situated high above the Bushman's River at a spot where it used to be forded by ox-wagons and dispatch-riders travelling into the Eastern Cape interior from the days of the 1820 Settlers.

Each suite has all the bells and whistles one would expect of a five-star tented facility in the province - to my knowledge, the only other is at Shamwari - with the added extra of boat tours along the river … a wonderful birdwatching option that brings viewers up close to fish eagle, Goliath heron, pied kingfisher and many more species.

If you're lucky, you'll run aground at the Sandbar; not quite a bush pub but definitely a damned fine riverine equivalent!

* Jim Freeman was a guest of Kariega Game Reserve. For more information, go to www.kariega.co.za

Jim Freeman, Saturday Star

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