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Encounter on the Highveld

Our vacation had commenced with a productive morning’s drive. It was our first morning in Kruger National Park in South Africa, and we had given ourselves an early start by leaving Berg-en-dal camp soon after the gates had opened at 6 am.

While plenty speak about seeing the African Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, Cape buffalo and rhino) on any safari, the real thrills in the savannah or highveld are experienced when coming across some of the big cats. Kruger is not known for large leopard or cheetah populations, but our interest had been piqued by the information that the area nearby around the Satara and Lower Sabie camps – just over two hours’ drive northwest from where we were staying – is one of the best places in the veld to see the majestic felines. We thus began our first day of safari with lofty ambitions, driving towards that region in the hopes of seeing a pride of lions.

Less than a quarter of an hour after setting out onto the road, we came across a lone bull elephant, less than 10 metres from the tarred road. We continued on our planned route, spotting another large white rhino trying to conceal itself behind some bushes, and passing the Sabie River. The area around the Sabie is exceptionally fertile and vegetation is plentiful, hence why it’s one of the best areas to see game during the dry winter months of July. We came across kudu, giraffes, a couple of hippos in the river itself as well as plenty of impalas – Kruger Park’s most populous denizens – before eventually reaching Lower Sabie.

One side of the camp looks over onto the Sabie River, the main gates on the opposite side are a minute away from a large watering hole that even in the driest months, seems to be full. We parked at a lookout point facing the watering hole for fifteen minutes, turning the engine off and watching hippos and a lone giraffe drinking together before finally heading into the Lower Sabie camp for a bite.

After refuelling ourselves with a few sandwiches, we returned to the road. Another stop by the watering hole, but little had changed. It was now just past noon, and the weather had changed considerably. Kruger in the winter is a place of temperature extremes. In the nights and early mornings, it’s extremely cold – at some points going below 8ºC, but the days are extremely warm. By now it was over 30º and there was far less activity with most of the animals having taken to the shade.

We drove southwards towards the Crocodile Bridge, noting the number of small rivers and tributaries in the region and hoping to spot game in those regions. Alas, most of them had dried up in the winter – only the Crocodile River, which forms the south-most border of Kruger, and the Sabie north of us, had significant amounts of water. The land was barren and we saw little for over an hour, bar the odd impala herd and a couple of giraffes.

As we prepared to turn back to Berg-en-dal, noting the 5:30 deadline when the gates would be closed, we were flagged down by the driver of a car coming in the opposite direction. It’s a common practice in Kruger, and one of the many charms of being able to drive on your own through the veld – often stopping or being stopped by complete strangers, and getting snippets of information on where the game are. The brief conversations often begin with “Seen anything back there?” with tips being exchanged on where to go. Every now and then, these uncover nuggets of gold; vital bits of information giving the whereabouts of a lion, a cheetah or a particularly impressive buffalo or elephant herd.

The Range Rover pulled over beside us. The driver seemed like a local; exuding the casual attitude of a regular visitor to Kruger Park with a glass of beer in one hand, steering wheel in another and no camera in sight. Brief greetings followed; then the question of whether we’d had the good fortune to see any game. “Very little this way, most of the animals seem to be resting in this heat. There’s only a giraffe a little while up the road.”

He laughed. “Is that it?”

The grin on his face implied that he had one of those rare gems of advice to share with us. “Keep going this way.” He motioned in the direction that he’d just come from; along the route on which we seemed to be heading. “Turn left; continue for about a kilometre and a half, and you’ll come across a couple of lionesses. They’re right by the road, around a few trees – they’ve just killed a zebra.”

We thanked him effusively; he laughed again and drove off, leaving us to consult our maps. It would mean a detour from the route; the spot he’d mentioned was in the opposite direction to Berg-en-Dal camp and would add onto our travel time substantially. But few would ignore advice like that.

We set off in accordance with his directions, trying not to go over the dirt road speed limit of 30 km/h that applies in Kruger Park. Continuing along the rough path, we squinted in the afternoon sunshine for signs of the lioness when we were momentarily blinded by a few flashes of light. Our hearts leapt. It was the glint of sunlight reflecting off several cars, all of which had stopped in the middle of the road.

It’s among the most thrilling experiences in Kruger Park. Usually when one comes across a group of cars stopped on the side of the road, it’s a signal that there’s a large animal in the vicinity. There have been the odd letdowns – one car might stop for the driver to check directions, a couple more might pull over thinking the occupants have spotted something, and more might join in, looking for a nonexistent predator in the vicinity. This, however, was no false alarm. The cameras aimed out of windows by the car occupants (as leaving the car in Kruger Park outside of picnic sites or camps was a major offence) bore testament to that.

We approached the scene slowly, keeping low speeds and not wanting to disturb the animals that either way seemed unperturbed by the presence of so many vehicles. As we got closer, we realised that only one lioness was in the area – but rather than wonder about the second, we could only marvel.

The zebra lay dead on its side; its entrails falling out onto the dirt from a single clean rip across its stomach. It was a grisly sight, yet mesmerising. Nobody could turn their eyes away. The lioness lay down beside her kill, glaring imperiously at the vehicles around her with her mouth hanging open slightly. We could see the streaks of blood across the sharp teeth in the front, and the deep carmine shade that had stained the skin and hair around her mouth. Cameras clicked incessantly; the lioness remained oblivious to it all. There was a certain dignity about her, an elegant haughtiness in her pose that showed just why lions are known as the kings of the jungle.

Several metres or so away, two bald vultures observed the spectacle from the bare branch of a dead tree; taking in the lioness, the four or five vehicles on the road in front of her, but most of all the zebra lying dead and ready to be eaten. It was that which kept us in suspense. Lionesses are the killers in a pride, usually working in pairs or triads. Our benefactor had told us that there had been two; yet only one was visible. We figured that the other lioness had run off to alert the rest of the pride to the kill, and that they would soon return to the scene for a meal. Perhaps if we waited a bit longer, we would see the other lions and the feast would begin. A few minutes passed; the lioness remained motionless, ignoring the meat in front of her – we were almost certain now that she was just waiting for the rest of the pack to join her.

All of a sudden, she suddenly got up and went behind a clump of bushes and small trees. Afternoon heat, quite probably – and it was far shadier underneath there, and a little more secluded from our prying eyes. We remained motionless for the most part, the odd vehicle perhaps moving back or forth slightly for a better shot of the carcass or an attempt to get a better view of the lioness through the grass.

Five minutes passed. Then ten; twenty; thirty. The lioness didn’t move; she had no reason to while ensconced in the cool shade. Slowly, a few cars began to leave. A few others came, perhaps directed by others who were passing on the news, but they left in disappointment; unable to get a clear sight of the lioness.

With the camp gates scheduled to close in a few more hours and no other lions in sight, we couldn’t wait much longer. We reluctantly backed away and turned towards the camp. That we saw very little once more on the way back, driving in the afternoon heat, was insignificant. There are few sights that we could have appreciated fully after seeing such a spectacle.

We paid scant attention to the impalas and the few vervet monkeys we came across on our route back to Berg-en-Dal. There may have been other small game around, but as we drove back in the cool evening and returned to the camp, our minds continued to drift back. The beautiful, yet violent scene of the lioness lying down amidst the dust after having just killed her prey would remain in our minds, a captivating souvenir of our time in the highveld.

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