Chris Thurman visits Exeter River Lodge in the Sabi Sand private game reserve in South Africa’s Mpumalanga province, and has a bush experience different to any that he’s enjoyed before.
There are those who will tell you that it doesn’t matter how you spend your time in the African bush, or where you stay – it’s enough simply to be there. To some degree, this is true; certainly, no matter what your accommodation and game-viewing is like, it’s better than being in the office.
After only a few hours at Exeter River Lodge in the Sabi Sand private game reserve, however, I couldn’t help reflecting that it was different to any bush experience I’d enjoyed before.
It wasn’t just that our luxuriously appointed room looked out onto the Sand River, giving us a view of buffalo crossing the water or baboons loping down to the shore. It wasn’t just that the ever-available but never-intrusive staff treated us like royalty. It wasn’t just the food, or the wine, or the afternoon teas. It wasn’t the private plunge pool, the masseuse, the quirky collection of books or any of the other distractions to while away the day.
Over and above these pleasures, the highlights of the trip were the morning and evening game drives.
A good game ranger is many things: a raconteur, a sturdy outdoorsman or woman, a walking encyclopaedia of information about animal, bird and plant life.
He or she can tell you, for instance, that a hunting leopard can leap up to 22 metres in a second – not very encouraging when you’re about 20 metres away – and will explain why the same leopard rubs its neck in the mud around a watering-hole (so that it can mark its territory by brushing the mud against trees and thus leave a more durable scent).
Not just the Big Five
A major advantage of going on a private game drive is that rangers in different vehicles are in constant radio communication, increasing your chances of great sightings. But our ranger at River Lodge, Ryan, ensured that no drive was a headlong rush from one Big Five member to another.
Along the way we also learned about the less glamorous animals, like the numerous species of buck whose presence is so often taken for granted. Kudu, for instance, have big ears and therefore the best hearing, which means they are less skittish than other antelope and provide the most reliable alarm call to anyone tracking big game on foot.
Furthermore, we were reminded, if you’re only looking for creatures with four legs, you miss out on half the action.
There is an abundance of birdlife pursuing the same herbivorous and carnivorous habits as gravity-bound mammals: we saw a juvenile fish eagle on a high branch, trying to crack open a tortoise (don’t worry, it ended well for the tortoise; the eagle dropped him, he fell on his shell and survived).
And you don’t have to be a birder to appreciate the exquisite colouring of a lilac-breasted roller.
The more time you spend in the bush, the more you appreciate the minutiae – admiring rare flowers that only bloom for a couple of weeks each year, or discovering, courtesy of your ranger, the subtle interactions that take place between interdependent elements within an ecosystem. Oxpeckers remove ticks from buffalo and giraffe; desiccated termite mounds become lairs for warthog and hyena.
Best of all, with an experienced tracker assisting the ranger in locating game and a radio always at hand, you’re guaranteed to see a greater variety than you would on your own. And once you’ve spotted something in the distance, you don’t have to strain with binoculars just to catch a glimpse of a horn or tail – the ranger shifts down a gear, engages the diff lock on the 4×4 and you head off-road to take a closer look.
What would a late afternoon game drive be without a sunset pause for a cup of coffee or a gin and tonic – and, of course, some snacks to tide you over until supper? Then it’s time to enjoy the magical world of the bushveld at night.
Rangers and trackers are careful not to interfere too much with nocturnal activity; and, after many years of conservation efforts, the animals have learned to tolerate the human presence because it is neither intrusive nor threatening.
Where possible, the principle of non-intervention is applied. In some cases, however, humans have to undo the damage caused by previous interventions which may have been less well-intentioned or well-conceived.
A good example is the challenge of decreasing the prevalence of tuberculosis in the buffalo population: up to 70% of buffalo in certain Kruger-Sabi herds have bovine TB.
The solution is an intriguing one – raising disease-free young buffalo who suckle on domesticated Jersey cows before being released into the wild. This has been quite successful, and also provides a curious proof of nature overcoming nurture.
The buffalo calves have to learn to suckle from the side as all Jersey calves do, but when they become mothers in turn, they follow their instinct and let their young suckle from behind. This is a vital survival tactic, because it means that cow and calf can keep walking, and allows buffalo herds to keep moving even while the young are suckling. Another little-known fact is that buffalo milk makes delicious Feta cheese!
Of course, the conservation programmes being implemented in South Africa’s game parks also require ongoing vigilance against human threats. The recent increase in rhino poaching is a case in point.
Countering this disturbing trend requires not only stricter policing within our reserves, but also broader campaigns to stop both the international demand for rhino horn, particularly in east Asia, and the local suppliers. These are the “foot soldiers” of poaching who have no other means of livelihood.
Certainly, staying at a place like River Lodge is a luxury. But our natural heritage should be a shared, public concern – protecting it is the responsibility not of the few, but the many.