The Big Five
“Warning,” the small yellow sign declares, “do not pass gates. Lions ahead.”
I smile in anticipation as the taxi drives through. My imagination has come to life here. The sky melts into a concoction of Titian hues, vast and endless on the horizon. Below, the grassy plains stretch beyond my vision surrounding every side. This is Africa, a limitless expanse of savanna and firmament, where nature is primordial and an atmosphere of raw power holds sway over the continent. My African safari begins in Shamwari Reserve, a twenty-five thousand hectare private park in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province. Here, the animals remain unfettered and the landscape has returned to the days when Africa was truly wild. Like any first time safari adventurer, I have come to Shamwari for a glimpse of the famous Big Five: lion, leopard, elephant, Cape buffalo, and rhinoceros. Apart from sighting these epic creatures, I have also arrived at this particular preserve to witness what may quickly vanish: the tenuously balanced, symbiotic relationship of Africa’s virgin ecosystem.
Exploring the Wild
I know I have arrived at the right park when I enter my room which, like the rest of the farmhouse, is decorated rustically with tribal patterned cloth, dark wood panelling, and monochrome photographs of the animals at Shamwari. During my stay, I will be going on three separate game drives, each of which will be a private tour led by an expert ranger named Jan who has a passion for his native grasslands. The air is chilly, but Jan has thoughtfully packed warm tartan wool blankets and I wrap these around me in the back seat of the trap roof covered long jeep. Fifteen minutes into the ride, I am rewarded with a sighting of three young male lions hanging together. They take no notice of us as I stare at them shamelessly. My previous view of lions has always been behind zoo bars and I realize these lions have a livelier attitude, a keener look about them. As we roar down the dusty trail, I gasp and point. Jan brakes hard and we watch as a lioness mother emerges from a bush some fifteen feet away. I don’t feel scared, but tremble with excitement just the same, as she calmly stalks across the road to the other side, ignoring us pointedly. I grin foolishly as Jan continues on toward a lookout over the river. In my mind, I gleefully tick off sighting the first of my Big Five.
At the lookout, I step out of the jeep to spy down upon the lazy, brown waters below. Tiny dots rise slowly and amble onto shore to become hippopotami. The panorama of quiet river, trees sprinkled throughout the grassland, and setting sun before me is a scene out of a storybook. As the sun sets halfway into the earth, we motor down the rolling slopes towards a popular stomping ground for many of Shamwari’s inhabitants. Here, I am greeted by a couple of zebras who watch us carefully as we stop thirty feet away. In the quiet, the two return to grazing unconcerned while small birds rest on their backs. A perfect spot to rest as the shadows of nearby brush lengthen, Jan produces a thermos from which he pours hot chocolate quietly into mugs for us. I munch on biltong (a local snack of jerky) and dried fruit in silent companionship with the zebras. My first day out on the range has already been successful since I saw the lions, but it’s the tranquility of snacking with zebras that stays in my mind as I return to my lodge for dinner. Tomorrow I am eager to discover the other creatures on my Big Five list.
One With Africa
Before the rain came, my second day’s morning drive was filled with orix, zebras, and red hartebeest swarming the grasslands. Driving through miles of trails with Jan is a hands on lesson in African wildlife biology. By the late afternoon outing, I can independently identify a handful of different antelope, the difference between hartebeest and wildebeest, and the many thorny bushes that litter the landscape. Half an hour into our ride through the dips and hills, I spot two male blesboks, their unusual white blazed foreheads glaring at each other, as they stamp their hind feet in a grass clearing. As we come to a halt, they run towards each other and butt heads. I can hear the thud and crack of the impact several dozen yards away as their violent meetings echo like wooden drums through the valley. The males fall to their front knees, horns still locked, pushing and shoving with their back legs. Jan whispers to me that it is mating season and this is a typical display. We leave the blesboks at an impasse and continue on our journey through the reserve. Thirty miles away, at the outskirts of the park, we circle two white rhinos nibbling at the edge of mud pools in the short grass. Then, driving back into the central valley, we catch sight of a cheetah stalking a gazelle on a high rock. As the sun wanes and my drive nears its end, I haven’t seen all the Big Five at Shamwari, but I am deeply content. I have witnessed in this treasured expanse Africa’s wildlife, great and small, roam unrestricted yet protected. I have been privileged to share in the rhythm of Africa’s wilderness. As I sit upon a lone protruding rock overlooking the park and feast on a sundowner of Amarula and biscuits I also find peace amidst the land’s intense ferocity. The bush veldt below shines gold in the late afternoon light, varied in its wild landscape. In the untamed silence I have experienced the gossamer web of Africa’s ecosystem in all its vitality and discovered a resting place for my soul.
Wild animals in South Africa are in danger from poaching, lack of natural habitats, and increasing industrialization. The WILD Foundation helps protect natural wildlife through global wilderness conservation. To learn more about how to help keep the Big Five and their neighbors wild and free, contact the WILD Foundation: http://www.wild.org.
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