There's something mighty attractive about the sight of animals in the wild, even if they look like they're not up to much
Boarding the van outside Port Elizabeth airport in South Africa's Eastern Cape, we, a bunch of around 10 journalists from all over, are told it's a short, picturesque drive to the Kariega Game Reserve we're headed. Picturesque it was, the road for most part running parallel to the still, jade shimmer of the Indian Ocean. When the wheels stop moving 90 minutes later, the radio guy from London drawls “That's the shortest half-hour I've ever seen, mate.”
Must sound like a lame thing to say “I went to Africa and saw lions”. But then, that's the thing about lame things; they are highly attractive, and keep re-asserting themselves. At the game reserve, as we board the two green jeeps — Toyota Land Cruisers, elongated, roof removed and bars added — waiting to take us deep into the bushveld that forms a big part of this 9,000-hectare reserve, the game ranger manning the other vehicle lists a set of rules that can't be broken. “Under no circumstances is anyone allowed to stand up or leave the vehicle. You can click pictures, but no sudden movements. No littering. Cell phones should be switched off, as they interfere with our communication equipment. So, no calling home and going, ‘Mama! I'm watching a lion!'” Ground rules set, we proceed.
It's past four in the evening, so any hope of catching at least one of the Big Five has a small time frame to survive in. Candice, our game ranger, is relatively new on the reserve, being there for a year now. But as she manoeuvres the vehicle as if it were Hot Wheels on a marble floor — to a just-out-of-driving-school rookie such as me, she seems a khaki-clad Superwoman.
After passing a couple of white-faced blesbuck, we stop at a watering hole, where a still-as-Plaster-of-Paris heron eyes a grey-pink blob in the water sceptically. What looks like a turtle turned-turtle on the water surface happens to be a hippopotamus. It could have been eyeing us, or it couldn't care less. Disinterest meets disinterest, and we move on. It's quite tempting, making a noise just to see the heron fly, but one doesn't want to be fed to the lions (which, by the way, are still out of sight).
With every jeep track resembling another, don't people get lost, someone asks. “I once did, in the beginning,” Candice replies, pointing out to a distant communications tower that the rangers use as a landmark while driving around.
One needs to watch out what with the thorn trees lurking dangerously on the sides. We see herds of blue wildebeest walking past, showing off their blue-grey coats. There are giraffe too, bending down and feeding on the grass like cows instead of craning their necks towards trees — which our guide finds quite out-of-character.
Despite regular monitoring, poaching is a problem at the reserve, the rhino being the most frequent victim. Though South Africa houses 90 per cent of the world's rhino population, the first three months of 2012 have seen more than a hundred falling prey to poaching. Though security has been beefed up at the reserve, poachers are more than keeping up — they now land in helicopters at night and it isn't until morning that the bloodied animals are discovered. (One rhino, Themba, gave in to injury-induced infection barely a week before our visit.)
We're still far from any rhino, but we stop suddenly. Sprawled on the grass, barely 10 metres from the jeep track, is what's called ‘The Big Male'; we're told they prefer not to name the animals here as that's a very zoo thing to do. One of the two lions at the reserve, this one is quite oblivious to its surroundings, having feasted on an unfortunate four-legged being only a few hours ago. Belly bloated and heaving, he raises his tail once in a while in a lazy hello. There are hushed conversations on the handset and two more Land Cruisers join us (three being the maximum number of vehicles allowed to converge at a spot).
The chances of spotting the rest of the pride are suddenly real. Our moment comes all too soon, the next male being more camera-friendly than the earlier; we get to capture more than its tail. “What if he gets up?” someone asks anxiously. “I reverse,” is the reply.
Not much later, the sun starts going down, and coats and blankets are pulled closer. Cricket chirps take over and, later, the water-colour sky withdraws to give way to a Milky Way that threatens to fall on your head. We have until 3 a.m. to be in the reserve, which, turns out to be one of those good things that takes its time to come.
(The writer was in South Africa at the invitation of South African Tourism)