I’ve never been so intrigued by the sex lives of animals as to gawk at the television when David Attenborough is narrating mammalian copulation, but TV is quite a different matter than sitting ten feet away from a grown male lion as he impregnates one of the lionesses in his pride, with a growl.
Nobody warned me that within fifteen minutes of my first game drive at Londolozi Game Reserve that I would enjoy front row seats to such a show as this—mating lions—and not just once, but four times within the hour. According to our ranger, lions will mate every fifteen minutes for up to three days. Each congress lasts less than a minute, and the look on the lions’ faces showed as much enthusiasm as one might show for an oil change or waiting in a long line at Wal-Mart.
And yet, after the Jouberts’ depressing news about the tragically-endangered state of lions in the world today, witnessing these South African lions’ act of baby-making gave me some small hope in the future of big cats.
Also, we saw zebra—which are my favorite animal in the whole world. That is not hyperbole—I truly mean that. My fondness for zebras outweighs my love for penguins, whales, pandas or any other adorable creatures. To see that field of black and white zebra, all grazing in the lingering sun of a golden South African dusk, well, it made my heart soar. I was genuinely happy to be back in the bush, back in a place still ruled by wild animals.
After a dinner by crackling firelight, I slipped into my bed and fell asleep to the swallowing gulps of lions and the unmistakable bellow of hippos.
Wildlife does not perform tricks for visiting guests, but here at Londolozi, I’m convinced they might. We kicked off Day 2 with a family of cheetah—a tall and slender mother with her two sub-adult cubs who panted underneath a shade tree and watched a herd of impala passing by.
Me watching cheetah watching their breakfast on legs was a bit unnerving. The wind was blowing back towards us, so the impala were blind to the cheetah, and the cheetah only showed a sleepy semi-interest until one little baby antelope stumped out into the open.
Then, like a snap, the cheetah mother leapt into a run, like a flying dance of one furry foot after another, leaping forward until that little impala was in her jaws. What followed next was fascinating—because unlike the Discovery Channel documentaries, the cheetah did not kill the impala. Instead, she dragged it back to her two cubs and then let the dizzy little animal go, instigating a new chase for her cubs.
She was teaching them how to hunt, and we watched the entire thing from our safari jeep. It was incredible.
Minutes later, listening to the crunch of bones in the cheetahs jaws, I found it all a bit violent so close to our own breakfast. All three cheetahs kept looking up at me, warm blood dripping from their fuzzy chins, content with the meal that they had found.
The day was hot, so that I spent most of the sunny hours hiding away in the shade, or lounging in my pool. The vervet monkeys are terribly naughty and come thundering across my deck, wishing that they could break into my cottage and steal something edible. Instead, they encounter me in my swimming pool, which scares them enough to go running back up on the thatch roof.
That night, we spotted a leopard beneath a tree in which lay her rotting kill—the carcass of yet another baby impala. Those poor baby impala—like popcorn pawns in the bush, getting snacked on by about everything.
Like clockwork, a curious hyena showed up beneath the leopard’s tree and began scrounging for any bits of flesh and bone that fell down from the branches. In the end, his wish came true, and I could hear his own powerful jaws crunching on the prize. Hyena feces are completely white—like chalk—an honest representation of what they eat (bones).
Let’s not forget the birds, shall we? Because they are magnificent, too. The hornbills (red, yellow, and grey) are bountiful, as are the woodland kingfisher, lilac-breasted roller and the weavers. As monumental a sight as mating lion, hunting cheetah, and feeding leopard may be, they pale in comparison to a tiny village weaver, as light as a ping pong ball, weaving grasses into a pendulous globule of a basket over the water.
“How do they do that?” I asked, and everyone just shook their head. Like most answers about nature, it’s “just because.” We can explain why these nests are necessary, and even how they pick ultra-light (but strong) grass and hover with agility while pushing each blade of grass in and out like some master basket weaver, but as to how it is that such tiny bird-brained birds know how to create such an object as this, it’s all instinct. Some of us are born to be lawyers and engineers, and some birds are born to weave astonishing nests.
And then come the warthogs, like comic relief, prodding across the driest part of the land looking nervous and guilty and hideous. Once they spot us, they run with their tails straight up in the air—the only straight line in Africa is the firebreak and the upright tail of a running warthog.
“Black mamba!” I yelled, around lunchtime, and for once, I was right—it was indeed a black mamba, although the only thing black about it was the threat of death that lingers in the air whenever one considers such a toxic snake as this. The snake itself shone the color of gun metal, slithering like a rope across the pink dust, and then turning back with its erect head, a rope turned to spear.
I did not suspect anyone else in our jeep to share my fascination with black mambas, but I always count myself lucky to see one in the bush. That something this venomous spends most of its energy on rodents and other tiny furry things is kind of like nature overstating its point. But the snake deserves the same respect as any other animal that must wake up every day and snatch its meal, be it a baboon or mongoose.
In fact, more than anything, going on safari reinforces the idea of the daily struggle to survive. While back at home I must merely walk to my fridge, and here on safari, the biscuit tin magically refills, the law of the wild is to never know when your next meal may come. The zebras can count on the grass, I assume, though they, too are following the green, wherever it may sprout.
Just as night fell, quite unexpectedly, we happened upon two lionesses, mother and grown daughter, prowling in the grass. Lions are the real chameleons of the bush, their sleek coats changing in the light, always matching the color of surrounding grasses and shrubs. In three days, I’ve become nearly as paranoid as an impala, imagining a lion behind every bush.
But these two lions merely walked onwards, and we followed them into the night. We tracked them in silence for a good thirty minutes, until the burst of happy squeals and the show of four little baby lion cubs came tumbling out from under a bush, stumbling on awkward feet to their mother. I doubt that I shall ever hear such a joyful exclamation as this—hungry baby lions reunited with their wandering mother and the ensuing fight for her heavy teats.
Slightly hilarious was the cheeky sub-adult daughter, age three, who wedged her way into the throng of lion cubs and latched herself onto one of the available nipples. It was no different than one of my own older sisters stealing away a snack while my mother’s back was turned.
Though I wished to stay and follow this happy little lion family forever, we left them within minutes, not wanting to shine a light into the sensitive eyes of the little lions. But I returned back to camp with a little bit of a tear in my own sensitive eyes, amazed at the privilege I had to witness this tender moment out in the wild.
Every safari ends too soon, and so with heavy heart, we head out on our last game drive at Londolozi. This was no disappointment, because we spotted a rather fabulous baby rhino with his mother, more wondrous birds, busy little dung beetles on their eternal quest to roll their dung balls uphill, and then—a large female leopard, licking her paws under a marula tree.
Never have I seen the high number of leopards as I saw in Londolozi, all of them so unfazed by our human presence. This last leopard stared right into my eyes, granting me the photo of a lifetime, but also the chilling connection between my own wandering soul and that of this wild beast.
I never denied the fact that I am a spoiled traveler—this is not my first, or last, safari. But Londolozi was absolutely unforgettable, not just for the number of animals that we saw, but for all the action I witnessed.
The downside of my job is that for every beautiful place of Earth that I visit, I must also leave too soon. It is the bittersweet reality of any traveler and as our little bush plane lifted off from the brown strip of dirt in the grass, I stared back at this wide-open stretch of Mpumalanga and rejoiced in the emptiness of the land, then counted the tiny marching elephants, until we disappeared into the clouds.