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South Africa: The backyard of the Big Five

From nosy elephants to lazy lions, a cast of characters lurk among the fynbos of Gondwana Game Reserve

South Africa: The backyard of the Big Five
Gondwana Game Reserve. Image: Getty

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My eyes scan the top of the hills — first along the ridge, then down. And there they are, small dots, clearly moving. I point my zoom lens, trying to focus on a giraffe. There’s a group of four, but they’re just too far away to properly appreciate. Our guide, Khulumani — “Call me Coolman” — Moyo parks our vehicle and reminds us that nature often rewards patience. And so she does, for after just a few minutes the family of giraffes starts gracefully making its way down the hill towards us. Soon I can see their coats of camel and fawn dots, as well as their amazing eyelashes and I’m suddenly marvelling at the world’s tallest mammal.

I’ve driven for four truly breathtaking hours south of Cape Town, down through the Garden State to come to Gondwana Game Reserve to hopefully catch sight of the free-roaming Big Five: lion, elephant, buffalo, rhinoceros and leopard. Around 5pm, we head out in our vehicle, and pass zebras and ostriches. “Look,” says Khulumani. “Two brothers.” Our eyes settle on two lions, lazily lying in the last rays of the setting sun. “Their mother must be somewhere,” he says, but we can’t see her. “The boys don’t leave their mother until they reach three years and these boys aren’t that old. They think that they’re older and clever, but they stick together with their mother sometimes — just like teenage boys who go off out and be naughty but then come back to mummy.”

As we drive, the smell of the fynbos (Afrikaans for ‘fine bush’) is astonishing — like a mix of wild herbs and sweet flowers, made all the more pungent when a patch is caught under the tyres of our 4WD. The wind whips up, and we’re chilly, so Khulumani suggests we quickly stop for a sundowner — and once he’s mixed some drinks, he opens a tiffin box loaded with nuts, dried fruit and biltong.

After dinner, we’re escorted to our rooms (modelled on traditional Khoisan dwellings), and discover that an elephant is hanging around our doorway — we now appreciate why a burly guide with a torch and a loud yell has insisted he sees us to our beds. The following morning, baboons are dancing around on our roof. The wildlife here really is free-roaming.

Later, as he drives, Khulumani tells us that when zebras stick together, their stripes create an optical illusion that makes it harder for a lion to single them out. “The elephant, buffalo, lion, rhino and leopard are the most dangerous animals. But the animal that’s killing more people than any other is the hippopotamus. It’s the most dangerous animal but it’s not one of the Big Five,” he says, before parking up at a watering hole and pointing to some nostrils just peaking out of the water. “There. Hippopotamus.”

“With the Big Five, you have to respect them. Especially when you’re intruding on their place. You have to give them a good comfort zone and know what their behaviour is. They have fast charging speeds. You have to be very, very careful.”

With Khulumani, we learned to be careful as well as to be patient. And we learned to accept that this time, the leopard would remain elusive. “All the more reason to come back to Gondwana,” he says, with his roar of a laugh. “Coolman!”

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