It’s the End of the World as We Know It, and … Hey! Look at that Lion!

Well, here we are. 2012. The beginning of the end, so they say.

But, if the curtain really does come down this year, assuming the Mayans didn’t just switch from stone tablet calendars to e-tablet calendars, the opening act was better than Broadway.

Our new year popped open at midnight with a bottle of Cap Classique and a dazzling display of fireworks, flares and flashes of lightning over the Pretoria skyline. Standing on the upper veranda at the home of our friends Yvonne and Danie, we watched as the city celebrated with gushing Roman candles, floating Asian lanterns and soaring distress flares. From the CBD to Sunnyside, back towards the Union Buildings, across to Loftus Versfeld Stadium and beyond the university campus, the night sky was alive with explosive revelry.

Exciting as it was to welcome a new year in a new city with new friends, we could not afford to linger too long into 2012; we had a big day ahead. We were beginning the end at Nkomazi.

Early on New Year’s Day, with our bikes loaded on the back of the Rio, we drove east through the mountains of Mpumalanga for about three-and-a-half hours, pushing ever closer to the border with Swaziland, until we reached the beautiful Nkomazi Game Reserve. Inside the main gate, we met Heinrich, an affable Afrikaner and ranger at the reserve who helped us transfer our gear and bikes to the safari vehicle for the 30-minute drive to camp. Leaving our car at the gate was the first of many unique and rewarding aspects of our Nkomazi experience.

On the drive to camp, we saw most of the usual suspects: wildebeest, impala, warthogs (Jenny’s favorite) and zebra. But there were several more locals who came out to greet us, including blesbok, nyala, giraffe and white rhino. Sightings before settling in. Nice.

Several other staff members were awaiting our arrival as we approached the inner gate at the Komati Tented Lodge. Hopping out of the tall vehicle onto the sandy ground below, we were welcomed by name, offered chilled, scented towels and served a flute of cold ginger beer.

“Thanks, we’re just happy to be here.”

A view of the Komati River from Komati Tented Lodge at Nkomazi

Ulrich, a co-manager of Komati, along with his wife, Arline, gave us the lay of the land at the luxurious lodge. It was amazing. Don’t let the words tented or camp fool you – the place was five-star. But an incredible value.

Like most of the other tents in camp, ours (#9) opened into a richly furnished bedroom, which led into a generous bathroom area, complete with rain shower and separate dressing room. Outside, on the ample private deck overlooking a roaring stretch of Komati River rapids, two wooden chaise lounges sat under an umbrella at the edge of a triangular plunge pool. On the opposite end, hugging the tent to the right of the entry flap, stood a massive, claw-footed outdoor bathtub. We were spoiled.

We got used to it.

In fact, it was this kind of impeccable attention to detail – from knowing our names, planned activities and dietary preferences, to the bottles of water by the bed each night and other little things – that made Nkomazi special.

Over the next two nights and three days, we enjoyed delicious food, struck up stimulating conversations with friends old and new (our buddies Hannah and Bob, and their friend, Ann, were also at Nkomazi), had relaxing massages at the river’s edge, and explored the landscape and wildlife of the reserve – both in open game vehicles and on our mountain bikes (though, I did take a nasty spill).

One of the highlights of the game drives was our time spent watching two lionesses taunt a tower/kaleidoscope/journey (the official names for “herd”) of giraffe. Driving along a grassy path between two outcroppings, we saw four giraffe loping towards us before they stopped and turned their long necks back in the opposite direction. They were running from something.

Sure enough, from behind a lollipop-shaped thorny acacia tree came the self-satisfied saunter of a healthy lioness.

We stopped. She stopped. We stared. She stared.

Lioness watching giraffe at Nkomazi

As we sat in the stillness of the warm, African evening, a thunderstorm was brewing to the west. Lightning bolts pierced the sky above distant mountains.

The giraffe took baby steps away from the lioness, but another big cat appeared. Soon, both were lying in the grass, struggling to choose between chasing or napping. In an instant, it seemed that the feline closest to our vehicle would choose the chase. She sprang to her feet and darted directly towards us. Had she recognized us as human steak kabobs? Would she leap into the middle row, where Jenny and I had just broken one of the cardinal rules of safari by trading seats?

No, she was using the truck as a shield to surprise the giraffe from their left flank. They spotted her as she rounded the rear bumper and ran through a clump of small trees. They trotted safely away, for it was all just a game, anyway. While the lion(s) surely could catch the giraffe, they would need much more help to actually bring one down. These two girls couldn’t do it alone.

Still…it was an exhilarating moment.

From here, it’s probably best to let the pictures tell the story, but let me just say this: Our Fulbright Friend, Cynthia, allowed me to borrow her 300mm lens for this trip, so almost all of my photos show signs of my experimentation with how to keep such a lens in focus and the shots properly exposed, etc. In other words, they are not my best work. Fortunately, I think the magnificence of Nkomazi’s flora and fauna make up for my mediocre photos.

Safari, So Good

As if out of nowhere, two massive waterbuck charge from the thicket on our left, rumble down the grassy slope and splash violently into the previously tranquil watering hole straight ahead. Are they being chased? By what? Where is it now?

Wait! One of the waterbuck is turning around, swimming for shore. The lead buck is now safely across, water dripping from its dark, brown fur as it stands on the bank and looks back for its mate. We sit, watching as the second buck climbs up onto dry land. A small herd of zebra stroll in from our right to survey the scene.

Everyone, and everything, is quiet.

Is there a predator nearby? A lion? A leopard? Why won’t the other waterbuck cross?

Finally, the animal finds a more narrow, shallow spot, crosses the water, joins its buddy and bounds off into the brush.

I look across at the zebra, the water again still enough to reflect their stripes. I start the car. We drive on.

And that is how our 4-day safari in Pilanesberg National Park began: with an afternoon “self-drive” game drive in the sunset beach Kia Rio.

Waterbuck swims across watering hole

Due to a bit of a scheduling error, my mom, my Mike and I were not booked on the official lodge game drive on our first night at Kwa Maritane, so we opted to drive ourselves. While I am no ranger, we actually managed to have some decent sightings, including a white rhino munching along a riverbed and a black-backed jackal hunting for ground birds.

Later that night, we joined fellow lodge guests at a “bush braai” out in an enclosed (read: safe from lions) a short drive away from the main buildings. It was a nice introduction to safari-dom for my mom, who was the only one of the three of us who had not experienced such an adventure.

Mom & Mike at bush braai

This particular adventure featured:

Giraffe sauntering home at sunset (the star above is actually the planet Jupiter)

And the list goes on…

Though we didn’t get to see all of the Big Five – the buffalo were hanging out in a remote section of the park and the leopard remained elusive – we did, I think, have ourselves a nice little safari. But don’t take my word for it. Judge for yourself, check out the rest of the photos.

Oh, and just ask mom & Mike!

Live from the Watering Hole

Greetings from the underground hide. I’ve been down here for a couple of hours now, since we finished breakfast following our 5:30am game drive. It’s peaceful, for the most part, except that there are two massive hornets building mud nests on the ceiling and every once in a while some intrepid birds fly in to search for bugs.

The hide itself is situated at a small watering hole on the Kwa Maritane lodge grounds inside Pilanesberg National Park. I am here with my mom and my Mike on a short safari.

We’ve had some pretty nice sightings already, and hope for more tonight and tomorrow morning before we head back to Pretoria. In fact, tomorrow morning I am going to skip the normal game drive to go on a 3-hour bush walk with one of the rangers. I’ll wear my fastest shoes in case we encounter the Alec Baldwin of lions. (Don’t get the reference? Stop reading and go watch Madagascar 1 & 2 right now.)

Anyway, since I’m down here in the bunker, I thought I’d share a little iPhone snap of a wildebeest that just came by for a drink. More, and hopefully better, photos to follow soon.

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Now, time to find a watering hole of my own.