By Bill Warelis
It was 7 am and I was tired and cranky. The previous day had been spent traveling for 12 hours, followed by a three-hour drive from the airport. I was now wondering what compelled me to think that at 55 I’d enjoy being bounced around on rough trails, in an open touring vehicle, with my wife and seven other bleary-eyed tourists.
It was when I was looking down at the floor somewhat despondently that the vehicle suddenly stopped. I looked up to see the tracker and game warden point to the brush on the right…and I knew then why I’d made the trip.
Striding slowly and gracefully approximately 15 feet in front of us, without so much as a glance our way, was the alpha male of the local pride. He was beautiful, as was the moment. Suddenly everything was right with the world and I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
We were in the Balule Private Game Reserve, inside the nearly 5-million-acre Kruger National Park in the northeastern corner of South Africa. For the next several days we spent three hours early each morning, and three hours each evening, searching for the other four of the “Big Five” — lion, African elephant, rhinoceros, cape buffalo and leopard. As we searched we were treated to endless sightings of birds and animals as they went about their day- and night-feedings, “trying not to be eaten” as our guide put it.
When we weren’t driving we also enjoyed 90-minute bush walks, or dining on gourmet meals at the luxurious Pondoro Game Lodge where we stayed (no roughing it in tents for us). During the walks we had the opportunity to watch birds and track animals. Of course, learning how to track is not for everyone since, among other things, it involves studying and handling droppings large and small.
The evening drives were particularly pleasant. Part way through we would stop at a watering hole to see the birds and animals that came by for a drink. We joined them with the “sundowner” of our choice as the sun set and the Southern Cross became visible in the darkening sky.
We never completed the Big Five since the elusive leopard stayed just that. But we all took consolation in what our tracker told us: “If you see one, it’s moving and mostly a blur because they don’t want to be seen.”
Getting to Balule is a long way to travel from North America but, oh, so worthwhile when you see four young male lions sauntering past on their way to rejoin the pride after a successful hunt. And you won’t forget the sight of giraffes striding elegantly from tree to tree as they feed, or the herd of elephants protectively surrounding their young, or the half-dozen zebras in the midst of, well, horseplay.
My favorite sight, however, came near the end of our final morning drive. The tracker had found a male White Rhino and as the vehicle got close the rhino seemed agitated and began to stare us down. We stopped and stayed still and quiet, as did the magnificent animal.
Our guide whispered that he knew the male but he seemed out of sorts. “He could be unwell or just tired,” he explained, and we had our answer a couple of minutes later when it suddenly fell to the ground asleep.
We’ve all smiled at the videos of pets and babies fighting sleep and then finally dropping off. And it turns out that size doesn’t matter — even a three-ton White Rhino flopping down after losing the battle with the sandman is cute.