A photographer travels to the heart of South Africa's wild kingdom
SKUKUSA, SOUTH AFRICA — The African bush has a distinct smell, alternating between sweet, sour, fresh ... wild. It speaks through the exotic voices of its birds, mammals, and reptiles. It touches you with textures: thorny bushes, soft feathers, tough hides, silky furs. And once a lion looks into your soul, you will never be the same again. There is something spectacular, something right about seeing wild animals where they live.
After a 17-hour plane flight from New York to Johannesburg, an overnight stay, and another short flight to Kruger National Park, we were ready to start our photo safari.
Our visit included overnight stays at two private game reserves bordering Kruger - Lion Sands and Sabi Sabi - and one night in Kruger itself. All are within short drives of one another.
We ventured out on our first game drive at Lion Sands to see what we could find. It might be anything from an enormous elephant to a tiny tortoise because every drive is a treasure hunt. This is not Disneyland. Wild creatures can wander where they please, so a sighting is never assured.
Guide Jabu Mathe was at the wheel of our open-air Land Rover, with his cousin Creamson Mathe, a game tracker, literally riding shotgun over the front bumper. Both were armed with rifles, to ensure our safety.
It was February, South Africa's summer, when rainfall is plentiful, so the bushveld was lush, the grass high, and water readily available. All this meant that the animals were harder to spot. They had cover and weren't forced to congregate at watering holes as they might in drier, cooler seasons.
But we knew that the wild animals we had come a long distance to see were out there, and we hoped to find them.
Jabu and Creamson read the bush: the lay of the grass, tracks on the dirt road we traveled, vultures that filled the branches of a dead tree. They listened to bird calls.
Often the Land Rover came to an abrupt halt as they discussed tracks they'd spotted, deciding which way to go. We strained to see what they saw and were often baffled.
They knew that a female leopard and her two cubs frequented this area. So after they spotted tracks, they left us sitting in the vehicle with strict instructions not to get out. After 45 minutes they returned with bad news: They hadn't found them.
Feeling disappointed, we drove on as night fell. The air cooled. Suddenly another guide called with news of a different sighting. Slowly we rounded a curve and stopped. Two male lions were walking down the road headed right for us.
Creamson shone a spotlight on the lions as they walked, mouths casually open, muscles pulsing on their powerful golden shoulders. We didn't make a sound; we hardly breathed. They kept strolling and nonchalantly passed by close enough to touch.
It was a magic moment.
That evening, lying in bed, I thought of those lions as I listened to the sounds of the African night.
Kruger National Park, the gem of South Africa's game parks, claims the richest variety of animal species of any park in Africa. Elephants, lions, leopards, impalas, wildebeests, zebras, African buffaloes, cheetahs, black and white rhinos, kudus, hippos, baboons, hyenas, giraffes, and others roam its 12,500 square miles.
Private game parks rim Kruger, expanding its boundaries. Often the best game viewing occurs at these private lodges where guides are allowed to drive off the road.
We were amazed at a Land Rover's ability to drive over tree stumps, through ravines and thickets, while we ducked under branches and held on for dear life.
All of a sudden, we were right beside a small herd of elephants. We watched from a short distance, then got closer, closer, closer. We heard chewing and breathing, and I worried a bit about the tracker sitting on the front of the vehicle.
Happily, though, the animals were so familiar with the vehicles that they often just kept doing what they were doing instead of fleeing in panic.
Once a hard-to-find animal was located, word went out to other guides, who flocked to the same spot. A cheetah lying in the grass wasn't the least bothered by four Land Rovers circling her, each filled with humans oohing and aahing, cameras clicking. She continued lazing in the grass and didn't even sit up.
Safarigoers like to play a game: Locate the "Big Five," sadly so specified by hunters who prized shooting these man killers: rhino, elephant, lion, buffalo, and leopard. (Guides like to point out that the hunters forgot one, the creature that kills more humans than any other: the hippo.)
At this point on our photo safari in the Kruger area, the group I was traveling with had seen four of the five, but, alas, not the elusive leopard. We had one more chance at Pilanesberg National Park, a picturesque game reserve located in a gigantic extinct volcanic crater.
After a quick flight back to Johannesburg, and a three-hour drive to Sun City, we were near another of South Africa's spectacular national parks. Although much smaller than Kruger (which is the same size as Singapore), Pilanesberg is home to most of the same type of wildlife, including big cats.
On our way to a hot-air balloon safari at 4 a.m., we watched two lionesses in the grasslands stalking a herd of springbok (a small antelope).
Female lions work as a stealth team surrounding their prey, their maneuvers barely discernable in the predawn light. This time, the springbok got away, alerted by the gray lourie, aka the "go away" bird, who warns of danger with its distinctive call.
After our balloon ride was canceled because of gusty winds, we embarked on our last game drive, ever hopeful of more sightings.
A humongous elephant lumbered along close to the road. It was Thabo, a bull elephant with a story. Since Kruger has too many elephants for its space, naturalists tried relocating some young males to Pilanesberg.
These juveniles, out on their own without the family structure of their herd, got into trouble, killing more than 40 endangered white rhinos.
In a last-ditch effort to avoid shooting the delinquents, six mature male elephants were brought in to teach the young upstarts how to behave. Thabo was one of these elders. The experiment worked, and the young elephants were spared.
Of the photographs I took, one of my favorite images is of a distinguished Thabo walking down the road toward the mountains in the distance, his trunk swinging slowly from side to side, his footprints just visible in the rosy light of dawn.
We met quite a few other elephants and also a herd of agitated baboons who scurried toward - and past - our vehicle.
While everyone else was following the baboons' antics, I happened to look ahead and noticed a big cat crossing the road. Leopard! She stalked into the tall grass.
We drove ahead and, as we watched her indescribably beautiful coat disappear into the bush, we marveled at nature's perfect camouflage.
We sat very still, hoping she would cross in front of us again. Before long, she came and waited just at the edge of the grass, then quickly strolled across.
It was over in seconds, but this time everyone saw her clearly. Just before leaving South Africa to return to the United States, we had finally seen the Big Five.
We were ecstatic.
• For more information:
Sabi Sabi private game reserve, PO Box 52665, Saxonwold 2132, South Africa or 85 Central St., Houghton Estate, Johannesburg 2198, South Africa. Telephone: 011 27 11 483 3939. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org . Website: www.sabisabi.com .
South African Airlines, 866-722-2476. Website: www.flysaa.com.
KRUGER NATIONAL PARK, SOUTH AFRICA - It's 5:30 a.m., and we're late getting started. Rangers Manzi Spruyt - known as "the lion lady" - a tall Afrikaans woman with golden hair, and her partner, Thapelo Motebo, a young black South African, are leading us on a bush walk. That means we get out of a perfectly good vehicle to walk in the tracks of wild beasts.
Bush walks are for those brave souls hoping to get closer to nature. Ms. Spruyt and Mr. Motebo each carry a rifle, but say that they have never had to use them.
Climbing out of the vehicle, we four bush walkers listen closely to instructions, because our lives might depend on them: Walk in single file, the rangers up front. Follow all directions, in words or hand signals, from the rangers. Don't talk. Stay alert. If an animal charges, follow directions and do not run, even though every fiber of your being tells you to.
"OK," Spruyt says, "now we'll look for things big, hairy, and scary."
And we're off.
Anything is possible. The rangers are on high alert. So are we. When you're on foot, all your senses are heightened.
Zebras thunder off into the distance, sensing our presence. Spruyt frequently checks wind direction by spraying a quick squirt of white powder into the air. Apparently, you can walk right up to an animal if it doesn't smell (or hear) you coming.
Soon we notice the grass is bent down in a wide swath. We are walking in the footsteps of a white rhino, Spruyt says. She can tell by the tracks and the dung. White rhinos eat grass, black rhinos eat twigs. She compares the rhinoceros to a ballerina en pointe: Rhinos put their weight forward on their three toes when they walk.
Spruyt and Motebo track the rhino: This is where the rhino defecated. Here the rhino took a mud bath to get rid of ticks, wiping off the mud by rolling on the ground and then using this bent-over tree where the bark is rubbed off smooth to scratch under its tail. Spruyt acts out the rhino rubbing under its tail, and we all laugh.
We continue walking where the white rhino walked, hoping to catch up to it. The markings are fresh. A huge web built by a golden orb spider straddles our path, so we step around it.
At any moment, we hope, the rhino may appear.
As time runs out on our walk, it is clear we will not be seeing a rhinoceros today. But, in thinking about it more, we realize that learning from Spruyt and Motebo is our prize: how this twig can be used as a natural toothbrush, where the leopard climbed a tree, what marula fruit - an elephant's favorite snack - tastes like. These two experts' respect for wildlife and their excitement in doing their jobs are impressive.
As we head back to the Land Rover, a giraffe spots us. She runs off with slow- motioned grace - turning and watching, running, turning, and watching.
We climb inside the vehicle and head out, thinking that Motebo and Spruyt are a team that could be a model for South Africa, depending on each other for survival with the utmost respect.
Visitors to South Africa's game parks can choose from a wide range of accommodations - from the affordable to the ridiculous. Which you choose depends on how much you can spend and how pampered you'd like to be.
The Lion Sands Lodge offers luxury that is not overwhelming at $400 to $600 a night per couple. The presidential suite at Bush Lodge in the Sabi Sabi private game reserve is $1,600 per night and includes a living room, bedroom, enormous bathroom, and a private "plunge" pool (a deep Jacuzzi with cool water).
Nowhere but in Africa might an elephant, an impala, or a warthog wander by during your morning outdoor shower, since no fences separate the lodge from the areas where the animals live.
But, beware: House rules require guests never to walk to their bungalows alone after dark - only with an armed escort.
Private lodge prices include meals and two, four-hour game drives per day. Animal lovers won't mind the early wake-up calls that ensure morning drives leave on time at 6 a.m., when animals are active. Late-afternoon drives continue into the evening when trackers use spotlights to search for the eyes of the animals.
In Kruger National Park, more-modest housing is available. Round, thatched-roof bungalows with open-air kitchens are comfortable and nicely decorated. They cost $70 a night, game drives and meals extra. But be careful with food and belongings, as vervet monkeys frequent the grounds and love to raid the cabins.
Whether you stay in a private lodge with everything included, or go it on your own, be sure to take at least one private guided tour - or a bush walk. Otherwise, you may miss hearing about the giraffe: the tallest animal on earth with the best eyesight of any mammal. They give birth standing up so giraffe babies fall six feet to the ground when they're born, feet first. Males and females both have horns, but the males' are usually bald from fighting over females. (They literally use their heads.) Lions are their only predator.
The best time to go on a South African safari is June to September, wintertime, when the grass is low and brown, water is scarce, and the animals are easiest to spot. You can feel good about supporting South Africa's economy now as it struggles to rebuild a society torn apart by apartheid.
Air fare will probably be your biggest expense, but how can you put a price tag on being within yards of six white rhinos? All these animals are allowed to survive because of tourists who pay to see them.
A good example is one of my favorite animals from the trip: B.T., or Broken Tail the lion, named after his distinctive crooked tail. He lazed in the road at Sabi Sands Reserve while we watched from 20 feet away. I could have sat there all day watching him taking a bath, yawning, rubbing his gorgeous golden eyes, lying down, falling asleep, and waking up again. Suddenly, he looked up and stared deep into my eyes: one, two, three, four, five, six seconds. Priceless. I will never be the same.