The big five! Not necessarily Africa’s biggest animals, nor the rarest or the most ferocious. The term ‘Big 5’ actually refers to the animals most coveted by 19th century, white, colonial hunters.
Lion, Elephant, Buffalo, Rhino and Leopard.
They were the most sought after prizes, the trophy kills. They became the most dangerous animals to hunt and so dubbed ‘The Big Five’. The name stuck. Now, rather than prowling through the bushes with a rifle, seasoned travelers arm themselves with a camera lens and a pair of binoculars. A more civilized sport, but one for which the thrill of the chase remains the same.
To begin our South African trip we headed North East from Johannesburg to the Mjejane game reserve on the border of South Africa’s famous Kruger Park. The drive to Kruger was incredible; beautiful and diverse. For the most part we drove through rolling farmland adorned with sugar cane and citrus trees covering entire hillsides. The landscape was spectacularly green and full of life, the valleys dwarfed only by an endless sky. In parts, the land became harsher, townships sprawled across smokey valleys and the smell of burning fuel filled the atmosphere. Ed, suggested that these townships, built in the middle of nowhere, were provided by the government in exchange for votes. My distant view suggested that the people who lived here are provided with homes, but nothing else. No opportunity, no real freedom. The towns looked dirty, harsh and downright dismal. As we rolled on further we passed abandoned farms which once, had burst with life. Mags mused that these farms, and their farmers, had fallen victim to land claims. It had been taken away from white owners and placed into the hands of indigenous workers, who had no knowledge of how to operate a working farm. It appeared to be such a terrible waste and an inevitable consequence of South Africa’s constantly transitioning political landscape.
We arrived at Mjejane late in the afternoon after an incredible lunch at Millie’s Trout Farm. Our beautiful lodge was buried deep within Mjejane Game Reserve, its terrace overlooking Crocodile river, a hub of animal life. As I looked out at the scene before me, a huge herd of buffalo trudged their way down to the waters edge, settling a little further down the river. The mob kicked up an almighty dust cloud which partially concealed them from my view. I couldn’t leave the terrace, afraid I’d miss another animal appearance. My patience was rewarded a little later on as the sun was dipping below the trees. Plodding out of the bushes came a family of elephants who walked down to the waters edge to join the buffalo. Right below me two Hippo’s, who had been lazing in the water looking convincingly like rocks, awoke with agitated grunts. The sunset drained my river view into darkness, but called more animals out to play. It was an eerie feeling hearing the calls and movements of wild animals and not being able to see them.
We prepared our first nights Braai. The cackling flames shed a little light across our terrace, but all around us was pitch dark. Below us, by the river, a scuffle broke out. There were unmistakable noises of distress, thrashing, panting and splashing. Then quiet. Then running. The bushes rustled and branches snapped violently. The daunting sound of a charging animal crashed through the trees towards us. We all dived back from the edge of the terrace where we had been listening intently to the sounds in the darkness, afraid for a moment that something much bigger than us was hurtling our way.
Then it stopped. We tentatively crept back towards the edge of the terrace and peered over, but the absolute darkness revealed nothing. It was a reminder that I was in their house now, merely a visitor.
Within a few hours of arriving in the game reserve I’d found myself surrounded by an abundance of wildlife. Two of the ‘big five‘ had arrived right on my doorstep. We feasted on sausage and chops fresh from the smokey Braai and listened to South Africa’s twilight chorus. I didn’t think it could get much better, but this was South Africa, of course it could.
The following afternoon we organised a game drive with the local rangers. At 3.30 pm our guide Bongani rolled up in his huge safari jeep and we rumbled off into Mjejane Game Reserve. At first the roads were relatively smooth. We bobbled comfortably over loose gravel before turning off road in to the bush. Almost immediately we came across two rhinos, a mother and baby. They stopped promptly in their tracks. Bongani explained that from a distance the Rhino couldn’t see us but were certainly aware of our approach. He killed the engine as the skittish mother appeared to be on edge. We watched quietly as the baby cautiously followed its mother through the sparse trees and out of sight.
A little further down the track we turned into an area carpeted with short dry grass and decaying trees. Less than 20ft in front of us an imposing male Rhino blocked the road. Again we stopped and killed the engine. The rhino halted in its tracks, aware that something had approached. Its thick grey skin looked bulletproof and its small eyes now strained on the road ahead. We sat silently, observing every move of this fantastic animal. Slowly he strolled towards us, his nose like a vacuum trawling over every inch of the ground. Bongani realised that now we were between him and the female Rhino behind us in the bush. This, obviously, was a bad place to be. Thankfully, not seeing us as a threat, he veered off the road and wandered by us in pursuit of the female.
From here the road became more of a ride. The sturdy jeep clambered through huge potholes and down steep verges throwing us around, but never seeming to struggle. Once the terrain flattened out again we entered a narrow path surrounded by tall trees. All around us were dainty Impala. A deer like animal which prance across the landscape. As the car approached they froze on the spot before darting deeper into the trees and far from sight.
We came to a clearing where the road skirted around a river. The sun had just started to set and the skeleton frames of old trees on the bank were silhouetted by the sun. Bongani told us we could stretch our legs here. I approached the river bank taking in the serenity of the scene. It was everything I had expected of Africa. In the water a dozen hippos lay motionless, their heads poking out of the water like stepping stones. From the calm waters edge our attention was soon shifted. Behind us a herd of Impala’s, flanked by charging Wildebeest, darted across the road and disappeared into the long grass. It’s a surreal feeling to leave the safety of the vehicle knowing that you are the smallest most fragile thing around for miles. But standing in their habitat and watching everything pass by is an incredible experience.
We followed an uneven road around the river. Along the banks we passed Crocodiles which lay half submerged in muddy puddles. Their only movement was the blinking of their prehistoric eyes. Further along we passed an area in which the riverbed had dried. A carcass cleaned of its flesh lay ominously to one side. As we passed I took extra care to scan the area, wondering what lucky beast now lay satisfied after their meal.
The sky darkened now, it became difficult to see much in the thick concealment of trees. As Bongani turned on his flashlight, a family of Warthog scurried by the jeep in a perfect line, waddling their behinds in the air as they went. The sun’s disappearance took with it the warming rays of the day. It soon became unbearably cold in our open jeep, but the chance of seeing more animals as they came out to hunt maintained our focus. We drove a while through an undulating track with over-hanging trees, which caused us to duck for cover on more than one occasion. As we began to lose hope of another sighting, the last glow of a fantastic sunset presented us with the most majestic silhouette. The endless necks of two towering Giraffes stood tall above the treeline. Purposefully their tongues reached out for the leaves of the tallest tree and with ease they grasped their evening snack.
The Giraffe’s surprise appearance through the darkness was a perfect way to end our first Safari experience. I’d ticked Rhino off my ‘big five’ list and ventured up close with bathing Hippo’s. We retreated back to our lodge, layered up our clothes and enjoyed a beer in the cool African night.