Brian Spencer, winner of our 'Subscribe and win!' competition, reports back from his winning holiday. This time, he's getting up close with South Africa's Big Five.
A hulking South African stands just outside our small hut in Manyeleti Game Reserve, rhythmically beating a drum at 4:30am; he is our alarm clock. Half asleep, we quickly dress, stumble outside into the early-morning blackness of the African bush, and guzzle a cup of coffee before climbing into the van for a one-hour drive to Orpen Gate. Kruger National Park opens at 6am sharp, and we want to be first in line.
It's our first of three days on safari in Kruger, a protected swath of land in the northeastern corner of South Africa that stretches across nearly 5 million acres. It's one of the largest and most-popular game reserves on the continent, annually drawing half a million visitors who are lured by the park's truly spectacular scenery, well-managed infrastructure, and, of course, its high density of exotic wildlife.
Africa's 'Big Five'—the lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros, and buffalo—top most visitors' game-viewing wishlists, and we were indeed fortunate to see each one of these magnificent animals. We watched breathlessly as a lioness came into and back out of view in the tall, willowy brown grass as she stalked a small herd of giraffe. The next day, we caught a fleeting glance of the ever-elusive leopard as it leaped with impossible grace from one rock to the other on the banks of the Sabie River; a few hundred yards away in the other direction, hippopotamuses peeked out just above the water's surface.
We spotted 23 species of animal and 17 species of bird in all, including the rare and endangered saddle-billed stork. Dan Joubert, our dedicated guide and owner of Okapi Shuttles and Tours, said it was 'a magnificent three days, guys, some really lucky sightings.'
It's important to remember that Kruger National Park is not a zoo: specific animal sightings are not guaranteed, and safari guides rely on your eyes and ears just as much as they do their own for spotting game. We sometimes went hours without seeing much more than a few grazing impala, but it was that unpredictability, that tense excitement of never knowing what we might see next, that made the safari so magical.
By day's end our eyes were strained and tired from constantly scanning the bush from dawn to dusk, expecting and anticipating another 'lucky sighting'. At night, we slept like babies, but come the next day's 4:30am drumbeat we were ready to do it all over again.