I was in deep sleep when I was suddenly woken up by the sound of something moving just outside my door. As I had put out the dim yellow table lamp right next to my bed, (which by the way was the only source of light in my room) I struggled with my mobile phone, using its illumination as the sole source of light in the large tent where I was.
I was scared. I could figure out it was raining cats and dogs. But I was scared of something way beyond the cats and dogs. The wild animals, about whom I had been told many tales by the caretakers while they escorted me back and forth from my tent to the main lobby. They warned me repeatedly not to venture out on the property on my own during night since there were far more wild animals than humans around.
In the night, as I struggled to identify the source of the sound, I could feel something move every now and then. I gathered the courage and walked gingerly to the large glass pane door and tried to see outside. Then, for the first time in my life I could feel what it was like to be in pitch dark. Realising that my tent was the last one and that there was little I could do, alone and in the middle of the night, I quickly ran back to my bed and tucked myself under the blankets as I was cold from fear, and it was rather chilly in the jungle.
Somehow, sleep got the better of me, though I don’t know when I fell asleep, but I woke up to the alarm clock at 5 in the morning. As soon as I woke up, the experience from the night replayed in my mind. By now, I was determined to open the door and see the source of the sounds. And as I opened the door, I saw a sight that I would never be able to forget.
It was wilderness. There was nothing but nature and more nature, all around me. I had forgotten what it was like to wake up to the sounds of birds and here I was almost drowned in a musical cacophony being played beside my porch.
The wilderness outside my tent immediately took me back about 12 hours in the past and I kept replaying a magical experience that I had enjoyed the previous day, an experience that will remain etched in my mind forever since it was my first-ever wildlife safari outside India. And let me tell you South Africa spoiled me for life.
Love and Peace
We had made it to Thanda right before the afternoon safari. Spread over 14,000 hectares, Thanda Safari Private Game Reserve is about 280 km from Durban. Thanda means ‘Love’ in Zulu.
As soon as we reached we met Peace, our game ranger, the man who had the warmest smile and the wittiest sense of humour. I had no idea that Peace with his peaceful nature was going to bring me so close to wildlife in less than 48 hours that I would spend here. We were transferred into the Safari jeep and thus began my first-ever safari outside India.
I had no idea what Thanda had in store for me. I kept on listening to stories from my co-traveller Grace about the last time she was there. Even though I was excited about the possibilities of spotting the BIG 5 in Africa, somehow I was more excited to be in nature. But that changed the moment I saw a cheetah in the first 30 minutes of safari on Day 1. I was frozen. I had never seen a cheetah in its natural habitat. I tried clicking pictures but my camera had stopped working right then. Maybe it was a sign from above that I should just be in the moment. I kept on looking at him as he moved with a perfect poise. We were all on the edge of our seats as Peace had clearly told us not to ever stand up to look at the animals. Before our safari began, Peace had explained that while the animals see a jeep and its people as a single entity and not a threatening one, if someone stands up, the animals see it as different entity and a threat.
In a way I was glad to be looking at the sight of the cheetah instead of struggling with my camera, as just a few minutes later, the cheetah had disappeared. We were all overwhelmed at the sighting and that too so early. And just as we were rejoicing about it, we saw the most graceful animal on planet earth, the giraffe. The tall and graceful demeanour of the giraffe with its the slender body and the way it turns its long slender neck, has for long been my dream look as I have struggled for years with my own posture. I was very surprised moments later when we were told that the graceful creature was actually a male giraffe.
Peace also told us not to be fooled by the looks and the grace of the animal as it was very dangerous, but only when threatened. Peace said that while a lion can kill a giraffe, but only when it is sitting down so that the lion can grab it by its neck, a giraffe can also easily kill a lion with a kick by its powerful legs.
It stood there munching on the leaves in the golden sunlight giving us plenty of time to take pictures. It seemed as if it was posing for a photoshoot. After sometime, the giraffe moved away and we also moved further into the jungle. Soon enough, we ran into a big herd of elephants, walking just right ahead of us. We saw two young males fighting and chasing each other. Peace told us that they might be playing.
Besides these big creatures we saw a magnificent animal that is mainly found in southern Africa, the Kudu, an antelope. I was intrigued and wanted to know more about it, but could not find out during the safari. However, hours later, I got to know a lot more about the Kudus while having dinner, but more on that later.
After the elephants, as the sun set, Peace introduced us to another novel experience of a wildlife safari at Thanda. I was about to experience the first sundowner of my life. Peace used the jeep top as a makeshift table and assembled a variety of snacks and liquors for us to sample. Amongst the drinks was Amarula, the most popular beverage in South Africa, but a magic potion for me. It can be consumed plain or mixed with literally anything else. I tried different varieties and found all of them to be amazing, though I did like it the best with hot chocolate.
As the sun set, we quickly made our way back to the camp. Upon arriving, we were told to quickly freshen up as dinner was almost ready to be served. Though we were famished, going to the room to change was also important. As it was already dark, the Thanda staff told us that one should not venture out alone after dark due to the wild animals that may be roaming the property. So, we were accompanied by the caretaker who, with a solar light in his hand, led the way and dropped us to our respective tents. My number came last as my tent was the furthest away. And while dropping me at my door step he told me, “It is not so safe to venture alone at night. If you need anything you can reach out to the staff through the transmitter.”
Walking to the tent, I had no idea what awaited me. Having stayed in tents in India, I was prepared for a rustic facility with bare amenities. But here, even before I had stepped in, I was amazed by the sheer size of my tent. Stepping in, I saw everything that a luxury hotel would have – a huge, comfortable-looking bed, side tables, drawers, almirahs as well as a well-furnished bathroom, equipped with a large bath tub. It was only when one looked up could one remember that it was a tent as the roof was bulged inwards. But everything else in the room spoke of luxury.
Now, it was time for some food. As soon as we were seated, the chef came and announced the meal. From starters to the main course to the dessert and the drinks. The list was long and it turned out to be one of the most sumptuous meals that I had ever had and many of the dishes were entirely new to me. I don’t remember any of the names, but all I know is the main course was the most delicious and the chef had told us it was kudu meat. Told you I got to know a lot more about it over dinner!
Say Hello to the BIG 5
As the first day at Thanda had been so novel and enriching, I could have stood at my porch and ruminated about it all day long. Then it struck me that I had to meet my team members for my second safari. I quickly changed and joined my team at the breakfast area where we had a quick cup of tea and were joined by Peace who was about to show us the Big 5.
It sounds so fascinating. The Big 5. When we were told who the Big 5 were, it became even more exciting. Leopards, lions, rhinoceroses, elephants and African buffaloes make the Big 5 of Africa. As we had already spotted elephants the previous day I was all the more excited about what the Day 2 had in store for us. It proved to be lucky for us. We quickly spotted a rhino munching on the grass, though at a fair distance from our jeep. Peace said that the rhino had been dehorned by Thanda personnel to protect it from poaching, adding that conservation of the wildlife was an important part of Thanda’s activities.
As we moved away from the rhino, our jeep went on rather rough undulating terrain, that climbed and fell sharply every few metres. As we held on to the jeep to avoid being thrown off due to the constant movement, just ahead, on the crest of the hill that our jeep was climbing, we saw three cheetahs. Peace told us that he had hit the trail after getting the news about the presence of the cheetahs from other rangers who had spotted them first. The sight was hypnotic. The three cheetahs were lounging at the top of the hill perhaps to keep an eye out for a prey.
Peace told us that the cheetahs belonged to the same family. While the two brothers were lying on the ground, their sister was alert and on guard. We watched them for a while, but may be the cheetahs had enough of us, so they disappeared.
As we drove on, we came to a large field where we saw a herd of zebras, along with deer and rhinos. As it was early morning, all the animals were busy munching grass. We spotted two fully-grown rhinos, who lifted their heads occasionally and looked back at us with their tiny eyes. Though both had been dehorned, the horn of at least one had started to grow back. As they moved lazily on the grassland, it was difficult to imagine that the same bulky animal, looking more like a war tank than an animal, could charge at its enemy at a fairly fast speed.
4 of the Big 5
I was also mesmerised by the symmetry that one could see on the zebras’ backs. It looked like Mother Nature was an artiste with perfection that had taken a broad brush to paint these dainty animals in perfect harmony. There was a large group of deer as well, but since we had seen so many of them in India, it was not as spellbinding as the other natives of African jungles.
We continued the drive and spotted a herd of elephants.
As we got closer, a baby elephant, visibly in a playful mood, began to move towards us. Seeing the elephant approach, Peace slowly took the jeep backwards. Yet, the baby elephant kept on moving ahead, keeping an eye on the herd to be sure that he was not alone.
It was clear that the Dame Fortune had decided to smile on us that day. Just a little distance away from the elephants, we spotted the King or rather two of them together. Partly hidden by the tall grass, we saw two large, majestic African Lions lying down in the grass. Peace said that the two had just eaten a heavy meal and hence were asleep.
Peace added that in a pride, usually it is the female lions that hunt while the alpha male comes and eats the best part, leaving the rest for others. ‘‘But these two are exceptional. They don’t depend on the pride because they hunt for themselves. They go to the pride only for mating,’’ recounted Peace, adding with his usual wit, ‘‘these two males do very well. They hunt a lot. They don’t depend on a female for food.”
As the sighting was rare, we hung around for a while, waiting for Their Majesties to make their moves. After some time, the two lifted their heads and yes the sight was worth the wait. It was only then that I could appreciate why it is called the Lion King.
After we had clicked enough pictures, Peace drove on. A few minutes later, we spot the next member of the Big 5. A large herd of about 20 African buffaloes was grazing in the field. Though we have a lot of buffaloes in India, the African buffalo, also called the Cape Buffalo, is something else to look at. Though not very tall, as most of them are 130-150 cm high, with short legs, a full-grown male of these massive beasts can weigh up to 900 kg, more than four times a fully grown male lion. The buffaloes are so powerful that often they can defeat even the lions in a battle.
As if to prove the point, just then Peace showed us a buffalo with lots of scars on its body. Peace told us that the buffalo had been attacked and caught by a lion, but it managed to free itself and escape. Indeed, a contest between a lion and buffalo can go either way. As with any other herd, the buffaloes also have an alpha male and Peace pointed at the mightiest of them all, with the thickest horns that seemed like a crown.
After the buffaloes, we wanted to wrap up the Big 5 experience by spotting leopards. However, it seemed that our luck had run out by then. Or perhaps the Fortune Fairy wanted us to return soon to complete the Big 5. So, we returned to Thanda, a bit tired but entirely satisfied with the sightings. Our experience had been enhanced by the backstory shared by Peace at every stage of the drive.
So far, South Africa had surprised us at every step and the surprises kept on coming. It was like the hosts knew what exactly we needed and when. When we returned to the camp, practically all of us were a bit tired by the hectic days we had had so far. So when we were told that we would now be headed for a spa treatment, we were grateful as only we knew how needed it was. There were various options of treatments – from gentle therapies to deep tissue massages. Fairly obviously, I opted for the deep tissue massage. As I entered the dark room I was not sure what would follow. As I lay down on the massage table, the masseuse gently whispered in my ear about the steps that were to follow. And what followed led me into a trance. As the massage progressed, I was neither asleep nor awake. I was somewhere in between the two. I imagined, rather I thought I saw myself in the big field, sitting right next to the rhino and telling him ‘‘My life is better than yours’’.
After the few days at Thanda, it certainly was right.