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South Africa: Call of the wild

In South Africa, come face-to-face with big cats... and robots

South Africa: Call of the wild

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FRESH from an 11-hour flight, I was concentrating so hard on navigating my rental car through an unfamiliar city I barely noticed the directions to my hotel looked like something from a sci-fi film.

Urban myth would have you believe nobody stops at the robots – traffic lights, to you and me – in Johannesburg. The people who peddle such rumours probably haven’t been to Melrose. Drive through this upmarket suburb and you’ll clock leafy boulevards and shiny modern malls which could have been teleported in from California or Queensland, their cafe-goers as well-heeled and cosmopolitan as any Londoner. If you were expecting something more conspicuously African, this might all come as a surprise.

The reason for starting my South African safari here was simple enough. Ready though I was for a fortnight’s wildlife-watching, I wanted to ease myself into my adventure gently. So rather than opting for instant immersion in the bush, I had booked a room at The Peech Hotel in Melrose for a night of boutique-chic bliss. Peaceful, imaginative and stylish, the Peech is also satisfyingly eco-friendly. Thanks to a combination of solar panels, timers, day-night sensors and water-efficiency measures, the entire hotel uses less energy and water than an average household. What’s more, it offers support to a local charity for disabled children.

The Peech is by no means unique. South African hotels, reserves and safari companies are becoming world leaders in progressive, responsible tourism. If you’d like more from this fascinating, multi-layered continent than a glimpse of a few tusks, spots and stripes through a minibus window, this energetic, self-confident nation makes a very good choice.

It also has a host of natural advantages. The safari heartlands of the north-east, within easy reach of Jo’Burg, count among Africa’s finest. There’s so much on offer it can be quite a task deciding what to cram into your itinerary. But the best plan is to relax, and be selective. After all, your first visit is unlikely to be your last.

Lords of the bushveld

Nobody forgets their first big cat sighting. Whether it’s a tawny flank half-glimpsed through thick foliage or a dark tail-tuft held high above tall grass, the adrenaline hits you with a punch. Your limbs are primed to run, but your head wills you to be still, stay calm and just watch.

Spotting a lion in the open and on alert – a watchful male striding out from the shade of an acacia, or a lioness leading her cubs to safety – brings on the biggest buzz of all. It’s like walking into a celebrity hangout, scanning the room and spying George Clooney or Kate Moss. You had secretly hoped they might be there, but you’re still rather astonished to see them.

I’ve been lucky enough to see plenty of cats in the wild over the years. But when I woke to the distant pre-dawn coughing of lions on my first morning in Kruger National Park, the thrill was as fresh as ever. There’s nothing quite like the gruff, throaty call of a top predator to remind you that you’re a small, soft-bodied human deep in the African bush. And when, later that day, I came face-to-face with a trio of lionesses, the encounter was more exciting than anything I’d experienced on safari before. For the first time ever I was totally on my own.

Think ‘safari’ and you’re probably picturing an open-sided Land Rover on a russet-coloured track; a guide and spotter in the front, punters in the back. The pros tend to know what to look for and where to find it – this is their manor, and they’re all in contact by radio – so they speed you towards the species which interest you, or them, the most. It’s an adventure, but a mediated one. However, in Kruger National Park, South Africa’s flagship safari zone, you can try something a little bit different. Kruger is the classic self-drive reserve and no experience is required: all you need is a rental car, some decent binoculars and an ounce or two of courage.

Just five hours’ drive from Jo’Burg, Kruger has a reputation for crowds. Safari snobs tut over its more mass-market lodges and sneer at the thought of self-drivers causing traffic jams whenever an animal comes into view. If you’re prepared to seek out its quieter corners, however, it can feel wild, empty and deliciously remote. Measuring upwards of 200 miles from end to end, its rolling, wooded grasslands are patrolled by dense, mobile herds of zebras, impalas and elephants, while more than 500 bird species flutter over its mopani trees or perch in its ancient baobabs.

Of course it’s the legendary ‘big five’ – lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino – that most visitors want to see. For some, this is an obsession – a peculiar colonial hangover from the days of the white big game hunters who’d give kudos to anyone who had managed to bag all five, risking life and limb in the process.

Wild animals are still shot in some parts of South Africa, unpalatable though this may seem to the more peaceable animal-lover. Here in Kruger, however, it’s all about taking aim with a camera, not a gun.

In winter, Kruger’s arid landscapes burn to the colour of an old lion pelt. But I was visiting in early summer, and the air was pungent with the ripe, earthy smell of sun-warmed grass. With big cats high on my wishlist, I had decided to explore the central part of the park – the haunt of an impressive number of prides.

Keen though I was to see lions, I was equally eager to drink in everyday sights and sounds, too: the bark of baboons, the swooping flight of hornbills and the scurry of warthogs, their tails stiff as antennae. As I approached a herd of zebras, they twitched and bolted, a moving tapestry of black and white. Later I paused as a mighty bull elephant ambled across the road ahead, disappearing into the bush as silently as a ghost.

When I spotted the lionesses, the sun was almost nuzzling the horizon. Relaxed, the cats preened, yawned and nudged each other like actresses resting between takes before sauntering off to some unseen stage. It was the kind of moment that can turn a safari into an addiction – and here, in the heart of one of Africa’s busiest parks, I had it all to myself.

Secrets of the bush

For a change of perspective, it was time to put myself in the hands of experts. My new destination was Phinda Private Game Reserve, some 200 miles south of central Kruger as the crow flies on the other side of Swaziland. Like Kruger, this is ‘big five’ country with a magnificent variety of habitats – but it’s not run by the state. Instead, in a pioneering example of community tourism, it’s owned by the Makhasa and Mnqobokazi tribes whose ancestral lands it occupies.

This Phinda ‘model’ is following a pattern that, little by little, is transforming conservation in southern Africa. The Makhasa and Mnqobokazi lost their land during the apartheid years, but they reclaimed it in 2007 after a groundbreaking settlement which took five years to negotiate. Rather than turning Phinda over to pasture, they agreed it should remain a reserve with conservation safari experts (and travel company) &Beyond staying on as paying tenants.

&Beyond teams had already been working in this corner of KwaZulu-Natal for around 16 years, painstakingly rehabilitating it from overgrazed farmland to a lush, wildlife-friendly landscape. Today, its woodlands, rivers and rare sand forest support a dazzling variety of species – from heavyweights such as rhinos, leopards and cheetahs to nimble-footed nyala and swivel-eyed chameleons.

There’s no shortage of well-stocked private reserves in the north-eastern provinces of KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and Limpopo, but it’s Phinda that keeps scooping the awards. As I sank into my rockface plunge pool, I began to see why: spread below me was the kind of epic, untamed wilderness that makes the popular parts of Kruger look more like Bedfordshire’s Woburn Safari Park. All of Phinda’s lodges are beautifully designed, with luxurious but unfussy interiors and sparkling views; lavish banquets served under a dome of stars add to the allure.

Setting out on foot in a cool, spice-scented dawn it felt strange, after the freedom of my solo safari, to be marching in single file behind a rifle-toting guide. But 10 minutes into our bushwalk, Daryl had already unlocked more detail in the landscape than I had managed to observe in my entire Kruger adventure.

“Look who we have here,” he said, crouching over tiny tracks in the sand. “I reckon that was a suni. They’re about the smallest antelope you’ll find anywhere. Not much bigger than a tabby cat.”

Reading the dusty path like a morning newspaper, he continued delivering a running commentary on the creatures that had passed that way in the night, pointing out snake tracks, kudu hoofprints and, in a coup that seemed to take even him by surprise, the wide-padded spoor of a leopard.

For connoisseurs, walking safaris are a coveted treat, but there’s no reason why you shouldn’t indulge just because you’re new to the game. Granted, you’re unlikely to get close to charismatic creatures such as elephants or lions, and antelopes will have skittered off long before you see them, but your connection with the wilderness is so engrossing you scarcely notice. Every step delivers its own new sensory bombshell.

Phinda offers superbly guided game drives too: ours revealed a herd of intransigent buffalo and a lone cheetah, pacing into the middle distance like an athlete before a race. Specialist conservation experiences, meanwhile, allow you to track rhinos or work with leopard researchers for a few days. Pleasingly, these activities benefit the community as much as the wildlife, with revenue filtering into job creation schemes and energy projects.

In years to come, could Phinda’s example become the norm throughout southern Africa’ The team at &Beyond believe it could. “When communities surrounding wilderness areas truly feel the benefit of ecotourism, they have a compelling incentive to promote biodiversity and support the conservation process,” says reserve manager Simon Naylor. “It’s a system which really makes sense, especially for future generations.”

Jewels in the darkness

The staff at AmaKhosi, a luxury lodge with a trick up its sleeve, were politely impressed by my ticklist to date. “Sounds like you’ve met the whole cast of The Lion King,” said the jocular chap who served me breakfast on my first morning. I couldn’t resist a smug nod of agreement.

AmaKhosi is fond of royal references: its name means ‘place of kings’ in Zulu. Like Kruger and Phinda, it’s ‘big five’ country, and it’s a great spot for little critters too. If you’re in the mood to hunt down a frog prince, this is a very good place to start.

Lying within the AmaZulu Game Reserve, a lush patchwork of mountains, savanna and riverine wilderness west of Phinda, AmaKhosi’s appealing timber chalets face the lazy Mkuze River. Each year with the onset of the summer rains, this little Eden becomes a frog heaven: more than 30 species have been recorded here to date. In case you’re thinking that number sounds rather modest, put this in perspective: in total, the UK has only 14.

Since frog-spotting is an AmaKhosi speciality, I had to give it a try. So, come nightfall, I was squelching through the marshlands near the lodge in wellies and waterproofs, my head-torch throwing the reeds into sharp silhouette.

It was a thunderous, moonless night and beyond the beams of our torches, the darkness was complete. I tried not to dwell too much on what might be out there, watching.

Alwyn Wentzel, our guide for the evening, had slung a rifle over his shoulder before we set out. “If you see what looks like a speck of red light moving across the water, yell out,” he said companionably. “It might be a croc.”

Not for the first time, I wondered what on earth I’d let myself in for.

My eyes were of limited use in the velvety blackness, so I let my ears take over. The creatures we were searching for were, in any case, much easier to hear than see.

During the dry months of winter, AmaZulu’s frogs, most of which are no bigger than the bowl of a teaspoon, bury themselves deep in the mud to hibernate. When at last they emerge, they celebrate the change of season with a frenzy of activity: feasting on newly hatched insects, defending their territory from rivals and calling insistently for a mate. They’re not exactly shy about the latter either: amplified by their balloon-like vocal sacs, even the most miniscule of males can make enough racket to cover a considerable range. Some species could drown out a vuvuzela.

Alwyn was clearly very taken with them. “Every species has a distinctive call,” he said, wading in the direction of a particularly piercing vocalisation, “but it takes a bit of practice to pick each voice out of the chorus.” The Tinker Frog, we learned, emits a staccato sound, while the African Bullfrog belts out what’s best described as a full-throated belch. Others trill like mobile phones or whistle like submarines. You can guess what kind of noise the Common Squeaker makes.

Getting into his stride, Alwyn showered us with frog trivia. Bizarrely, one local species, the African clawed frog, has been sent into orbit (reproductive biology researchers loaded a batch on to space shuttle Endeavour in 1992) and has even been used as a pregnancy test: scientists in the 1930s and 1940s found if they injected a female frog with the urine of a pregnant woman, the frog would immediately release its eggs.

Even more impressive is the Sharp-Nosed Frog. This true athlete of the amphibian world can leap a mighty 10 metres. At 200 times its body length, that’s the equivalent of a Londoner jumping across the Thames in one bound.

Isolating the sound of a ‘quoip’ from a ‘quarp’ was a challenge, but spotting the animals themselves proved even trickier. As I splashed and flailed, I envied Alwyn’s expert touch. Each frog he caught in his beam shone like a jewel.

At last I made a find of my own: a Painted Reed Frog with exotic, vermillion-tipped feet clinging gamely to a stalk. Alwyn deftly trapped it in a plastic bag so we could briefly admire its humbug stripes and tangerine-hued belly.

Prince or no prince, it’s definitely a charmer, I thought. And with that, I let it vanish into its watery kingdom.

ESSENTIALS

South Africa

Getting there
The following all fly daily between Heathrow and Johannesburg: British Airways (www.ba.com), South African Airways (www.flysaa.com), and Virgin Atlantic (www.virgin-atlantic.com).

 

Getting around
Driving distances in the north-east of South Africa are considerable but straightforward enough to cover by rental car. To get around Kruger, hire a car or join a tour: walking is only permitted on designated trails.

 

When to go
The average daytime temperatures in Kruger and northern KwaZulu-Natal rarely waver beyond 25-30C, but they can rise to 35C in the summer. May to August (winter) are the coolest and driest months. The KwaZulu-Natal frog season runs from November to March, weather permitting.

 

Need to know
Visas: Nationals of the UK and Ireland don’t require a visa for a visit of up to 90 days.
Currency: Rand (R). £1 = R11.1
Vaccinations: Consult your GP about jabs and anti-malarials several weeks before travelling.
International dial code: 00 27 + city code

 

How to do it
Mid-range: A double room at The Peech Hotel in Johannesburg costs from £125 each a night. In KwaZulu Natal, a stay at Phinda Private Game Reserve costs from £297 each a night on an all-inclusive basis. www.thepeech.co.za
Rooms at AmaKhosi Safari Lodge cost from £295 each a night. The guide Alwyn Wentzel has now moved on from AmaKhosi Safari Lodge, but the lodge continues to operate frog safaris. www.amakhosi.com
Luxury: A two-week luxury self-drive tour of the north-east of South Africa costs from £2,715 each including international flights through Rainbow Tours. www.rainbowtours.co.uk
Or Tribes Travel. www.tribes.co.uk

 

More info
South Africa Tourism: www.southafrica.net
The Rough Guide First-Time Africa by Emma Gregg & Richard Trillo (Rough Guides, RRP £12.99) will be published in April 2011.
A Complete Guide to the Frogs of Southern Africa by Louis du Preez and Vincent Carruthers (Struik, £19.99) includes a CD of recorded frog calls.
Rough Guides and Lonely Planet both publish good guide books.
Published in Jan/Feb issue 2011 © National Geographic Traveller (UK)