Man at His Best

Don A Safari Hat And Venture Deep Into The African Grasslands

A slow-burn love story for Africa.

BY Lestari Hairul | Apr 21, 2017 | Travel

"Ladies and gents, we apologise for dropping into Hong Kong International Airport.”

I snigger to myself, recalling the budget flight earlier. But I am ensconced now in the plush comforts of my flight aboard South African Airways. The flight attendant gives me a knowing nod as I grin with my empty glass held aloft. More of that good South African Chenin Blanc, please. There are many more hours left on this flight from Hong Kong to Jo’burg.

My Business Class neighbours are predominantly made up of Africans of various nations—South Africans with their distinct accent number more in the mix—but upon landing, a whole contingent of Chinese tourists is unleashed on the airport. Our group is being guided by an appointed airport runner. One man breaks away from the crowd and attempts to join us. “I’m not with them!” he pleads. The Chinese presence is a palpable one in Africa.

We land when the third week of the #feesmustfall protests is well underway. A strike has been called at universities all over South Africa, but since they are confined to university towns, the only trace of the protests is news from the runner and a cursory search on the Internet. He assumes we are in the country to cover them. Alas, we are only here in search of the Big Five.

Johannesburg is 16°C this morning and the roads are filled with people driving to work. Purple jacarandas bloom in the streets leading up to the hotel while the ibis makes the characteristic wah-wah-wah sound that plagues phone calls. One night in Four Seasons Johannesburg is a favoured pit-stop for travellers to the continent, before another flight and a long drive up to the andBeyond lodges. It’s a nice respite and they serve possibly the best-tasting blueberry muffins ever.

Journey to Phinda andBeyond
With last night’s dinner of springbok, kudu and other assorted meats still in the final stages of the digestion process, we take another South African Airways flight to the next city, Durban. Drizzle greets us, as does a colder wind that foreshadows the chill we will experience on the safari. We are in Kwa-Zulu-Natal, home to the Zulu, the biggest tribe in South Africa and the one that the colonists had to contend with when they arrived.

Our driver, a South African with an amazing lifetime of stories to tell, regales us as we cruise north on open roads for a few hours to the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park. There is green all around but this is the deceptive green drought—inadequate rainfall may still get vegetation to bloom but no crops are yielding nor is the water table rising. Notably, the animals of Kruger National Park are suffering. Nature does her work with limited intervention from the park.

Approximately 1,200 to 1,600 people die on South African roads a month and, as we enter the last kilometres of open road, we come across a huge accident. A car being towed passes us, and then we see the flashing lights, and people stamping on sand scattered on the road. A massive, crushed truck is nearby. The driver claims that if he does one trip without an accident, it’s a miracle.

We make it to Phinda without any trouble, only to be brought to the sobering realisation that here, the land really belongs to the animals. We are briefed on the protocol: do not, under any circumstances, deviate from the paths laid out; no exploring after dark, escorts with giant flashlights must accompany any trips to and from the individual lodges and main communal areas. The animals roam free and some like the duiker come right up to the lodgings.

My suite is a floor-to-ceiling glass enclosure set on stilts in the sand forest. Dense vegetation hides its occupants from view and I happily submerge myself in the standalone tub while imagining the animals that may walk right up to the glass.

Each day at the lodge consists of a morning game drive followed by lunch and an afternoon game drive followed by dinner, and this is consistent across all the lodges under andBeyond. In this way, your chances of seeing the animals are maximised, with different parts of the day and locations on the reserve yielding different sets of animals to watch.

While waiting for the whole team to regroup for the ranger briefing, we observe in the distance a herd of elephants congregating. The drought affects Phinda too, but there are boreholes for the animals and that’s where the elephants are having a drink.

Momentarily distracted, no one sees the monkey jumping off the roof of the dining hall and onto a tree. He’s eyeing the food on the table. A member of staff uses a catapult to scare him away. Close interactions between human and animal are rare; the only ones to come up brazenly like this are our closest cousins.

Occasionally, hyena and baboons raid the laundry yard. The lodge accepts no responsibility whatsoever for guests’ clothing damaged during cleaning.

Well, and sometimes hyenas.

Safari camouflage
On a safari, you are one with the vehicle. That means no loud colours, staying hushed when observing an animal and, most importantly, not standing up and breaking the illusion that there’s anything more than a very large creature parked on the side. Each ranger and tracker team ferries guests in an open-top vehicle. The ranger drives, swiftly manoeuvring sometimes with just one foot on the pedal and one hand on the wheel while explaining the various animals or the lay of the land. The tracker normally sits on a special perch in front of the car, the prime spot to see the animals up ahead, before returning to the passenger seat once an animal to observe is spotted. And a rifle is always at the ready.

We see countless nyalas and impalas hanging out in the sand forest, their hides providing good camouflage in the dense vegetation but proving no match for our eagle-eyed tracker. Beautiful birds, of the flying and grounded variety, also feature in the cool, quiet, environment. We approach a watering hole, where a white rhino mother and calf are having a drink. We get quite close before the wind carries our scent over and the rhinos start to watch us warily. The only sounds are of the nature all around, and the ranger quietly explaining what we are seeing and relaying our position over the radio so that other groups will know of the white rhinos spotted.

For a member of our team, zebras are a favourite, so we go in search of them. Rangers and trackers go out on drives to keep a close eye on where each group of animals is, their movement patterns and any change in habitat. This helps them to track the population; to see those being born, coming to sexual maturity, and those getting older, injured or dying; and to bring safari guests to what they want to see on the trip.

And that is how we find a group of zebras. The tracker spots them first, miles away. From that distance, they appear to blend in with the environment to the rest of us. The zebras are communing in an area on the right, but as we move closer, we realise that the huddle of grey and brown to our left is a group of male white rhinos. By way of a hello, one of them lets loose a strong stream of urine.

Rhinos have notoriously bad eyesight and rely on their sense of smell to discern what’s what. We manage to creep in close enough, without them really noticing. They eventually get curious, moving in a group right in front of our path and blocking the way.

When a crash of inquisitive white rhinos walks that close to you, stay put and marvel at their beauty. Just when they’re about five to six metres away, the wind direction changes and our pong finally hits their noses. It spooks them and they run away, though not too far because their curiosity still roots them nearby. We are now in a strange position of being the observed, on either side of the path by both zebras and white rhinos.

The radio picks up again and there’s a lion pride nearby. Just mothers with their quite grown cubs having a cuddle-nap in the afternoon. A lot of yawning, stretching, snuggling and the whole gamut of sisterly-motherly love to be observed before we are off again. A truck carrying a group of kids from the village nearby passes us; andBeyond takes these kids out on educational field trips to nurture a love for the environment and the animals.

It’s getting dark by the time we reach our final pit-stop. The sun sets fast in these parts, and at this point, the forest comes alive again. All naps done for the nocturnals, and coupled with the rustling of leaves in the wind and various animal noises, our imaginations go into overdrive. The moon reflects off another watering hole nearby, but then a greater source of light beckons.

A beautiful, much welcomed sight appears before us. Typical on every game drive is a break just before heading back: a couple of spiced nuts called umbila in Zulu (but crack would be a better term for these addictive kernels), some delicious bits of biltong (South African jerky) and the pièce de résistance: as-you-like-it G&Ts—with a special appearance by that ubiquitous bottle of Amarula cream liqueur, of course. It’s made from the amarula fruit, a favourite of elephants.

More mothers and their young in the next morning’s drive. A herd of elephants with a particularly feisty calf attempting to show dominance by waving his trunk about, standing his ground in front of us and trying to look big. A hyena den with a mum and three cubs, semi-burrowed under the shade of a tree and shrubbery having a bit of a snooze. All demonstrating that, in the animal kingdom, matriarchy rules the roost.

At the bouma, it’s a different story. Adolescent white rhinos of both sexes between the ages of four and seven are here as part of the consignment going to the Okavango Delta in Botswana, awaiting further quarantine. Six white rhinos have just arrived from the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi reserve where they were bought at auction, another four are supposed to come from Phinda to make a complete 10. An ideal number for transport, considering just the cargo plane itself is USD200,000, not including other costs involved in the transportation. This is all part of the great work that andBeyond does under the Rhinos Without Borders project with the Great Plains conservation group, with the aim of transporting 100 white rhinos from South Africa to countries like Botswana where anti-poaching laws are far more stringent. To date, with these possible 10 on board, they have just hit 50. Huge costs are involved but the other work that andBeyond has done involving white rhinos has been instrumental in increasing their numbers in Africa. It is just one part of the three-pronged conservation plan that andBeyond does: care of the land, care of the people, and care of the wildlife.

“Unfortunately, the price of live rhino is starting to drop, which is not good news. Like anything, if they have a value, they get looked after. It’s in people’s interest that they have the highest value possible. In South Africa, we are facing a real crisis in rhino poaching now,” says Simon Naylor, Conservation Manager at andBeyond. “More than 35 percent of white rhinos are in private hands. If you wanted to own a white rhino, it would cost you half a million rand. They breed very slowly so that’s why it’s important for them to have a high value, because to get your returns, it takes a long time but it’s worth it. And so, what happens is, the value of the animal declines, so your willingness from a business perspective to protect and look after them declines. A lot of people are getting rid of them; they are disinvesting. I know it’s terrible that they’re talked about as a commodity, but that’s the reality.”

The prospects are grim, especially after seeing the charts rocketing over the value of rhino horns. They are prized on the black market—catering to the Chinese and Vietnamese—more than commodities like cocaine and gold. Prized more for its parts when dead, than alive and whole. The ride back to the lodge feels sombre, lifted a little by a crowd of giraffes that suddenly appears to welcome us home. These majestic creatures watch us quietly from the side, like unmoving sentinels.

Care of the people

Before moving on to the mountain lodge, with its completely different landscape, we check out the communities that andBeyond helps with Africa Foundation. Aside from hiring staff from the villages nearby, they also contribute to the facilities found within them. A clinic has been built, with a new extension contributed by various donors, including more residences for nurses. School buildings are also being constructed to accommodate various stages of the formal education system. 

We have the loveliest experience at Nkomo Primary School. Themba Zikhali, the tenacious and fiercely committed principal of the school, first started it at the foot of a tree. As more students joined, she expanded the school to include three other trees, one of which became her “office”. As the years went by, and with more support, the school eventually had buildings for the students. Mrs Zikhali still speaks fondly of those trees, proudly showing them off, a testament to her years of hard work campaigning for her students and their right to a proper education.

The ride to the mountain lodge is quite different. It is much colder here, with a drizzle that comes intermittently. The land looks more desolate: there are fewer trees, just shrubbery and a vast expanse of land that looks brown, brittle and dry. We are told that the land blooms once the rains come, lush green splendour all around. But for now, the land plays host to El Nino. 

Zebras, various antelope like kudu pop up on both sides of the road leading to the lodge. The kudu, with their big ears, are almost too adorable to eat. In carpaccio form though, they’re a winner.

We settle in and meet up with another ranger-tracker duo for an afternoon drive. Sibu, the tracker, is a quiet man with a keen eye and senses that are sharpened to an almost superhuman level. The dusty browns and yellows of the land are seemingly devoid of life, but he spots a pair of adolescent cheetahs immediately. The black lines that track down their beautiful faces mark them, glancing this way and that as they sense us nearby. Nevertheless, the sisters frolic about, playfully climbing and jumping from trees in a game of tag. We spot another group shortly afterwards; this time, two sisters and a brother napping by a bare tree. Again, Sibu spots the swishing of their tails first, as they are remarkably well-camouflaged against the environment.

A little while later, we finally come across the rare, elusive black rhino. Sibu catches a twitching of its ear and we creep closer, as quiet as can be. White rhinos and black rhinos are discernible from the shape of their lips. The latter has a lip that juts out a little bit more to better pick fruit and leaves from trees compared to the wide, flat-lipped white rhino. They are two completely different species. We watch in awe, a still-living member of a species that our species almost drove to extinction.

At least, the king of the animal kingdom is thriving. We spot several lions on this trip. A group of mothers with still-young cubs—I’d say primary school age in human years—gambol about in the siesta period with a zebra kill nearby. The lions got to the pregnant animal’s meat by ripping out the foetus and eating that first, before proceeding on to the various organs and goring their way out. Nature red in tooth and claw, as exhibited by a lioness with fresh zebra blood painting her face, watching you as she slowly chews.

On a walking safari during the somnolent afternoon hours, Andy the ranger brings us to the resting place of an elephant. Contrary to popular belief, possibly perpetuated by that infamous scene in The Lion King, elephant graveyards do not exist. Their bones are left where they die. The massive sun-bleached skeleton stripped of flesh once belonged to the loser in a fight of dominance between two bull elephants. andBeyond took the tusks away to discourage poachers, but left the rest of the bones behind for nature. When we get there, a nyala is calmly gnawing away at the old bones. For minerals.

Fluorescent green Fever Trees dot the landscape, named as such because the early colonial settlers assumed that the fevers they were getting from malaria were a result of the trees; hence, the brand Fevertree for a particular tonic. I finally spot an animal on my own, observing us from a tree: a Verreaux’s eagle-owl.

We reach our final spot at an even more desolate, apocalyptic landscape. Rocks everywhere mask various tawny- coated animals. We drive around for a while before we see the much-reported alliance of three young male lions, their manes not yet fully grown but with traces of their eventual splendour. Stretched out in a row, they sometimes cuddle to shield against the biting cold. The handsomest of the lot, strands flying in the wind, looks up for a stretch with his profile beautifully presented to us. It is a spectacular sight and his beauty ever more prominent against the stillness of the landscape. All you can do is watch in silence.

By the great Zambezi River 
Singaporean passports get a better deal passing through certain areas. Landing in Zambia, we take a car ride across the Zambia-Zimbabwe border to get to the next andBeyond lodge. Going through customs in Zimbabwe would have been a nightmare so this is the alternative, and it includes a glimpse of Victoria Falls. We don’t pay any visa fees and the whole process is done in mere seconds. For other nationalities, there are costs to land in Zambia, and then further fees when you cross the border. That’s the legacy of colonialism, quips another journalist when we realise visa fees for the Briton in our group is the highest.

andBeyond’s Matetsi Lodge sits right on the edge of the mighty Zambezi with 17km of the stretch belonging to the lodge. First opened in 1996, it closed in 2012 because of hard times and reopened again just two months before we get here, under the andBeyond name. I spot some baboons hanging out poolside, having a drink and trying to look into my room through the darkened glass sliding doors. The meddling primates are bigger here. 

The heat hits you first. At almost 40°C but thankfully with little humidity, it is a stark contrast to the cold at Phinda. Flies that drink our sweat grow exponentially in numbers as the sun goes down, swarming our damp shirts and alighting on our sticky skin, grossing everybody out. But the view is no less spectacular.

By this last leg of the trip, my strange feelings about the continent, or at least the parts that I have seen of it thus far, have grown to their greatest point. They are a mix of homesickness for a land that I’d never been to and a return-to-home feeling that sounds utterly nuts when spoken aloud. The river evokes a sense of misplaced sentimentality while cruising on our boat safari, spotting many birds and a glimpse of the dangerous hippo as people living on the other side of the river fish in the late afternoon. The dry grasslands of the game reserve at Matetsi further exacerbate that; the empty trees, the red sun setting all ablaze as it lowers, and all the accompanying cacophony of wildlife. Skittish zebras scaring themselves silly by starting a mini stampede, giraffes running as if in slow motion with their long limbs doing a graceful ballet. We see many more lions on the land, in larger prides this time with dominant males and their harems of lionesses.

From a distance, we observe a group of male elephants walking towards a watering hole as the sun sets. Following a bit closer, we notice two male lions relaxing by the water’s edge, holding their ground even as one of the bulls walks up as close as he can. The lions merely watch, lazily it appears, but there’s tension in the air. The bull loses his composure and his attempt at a display of dominance ends with a quick thundering of steps away.

Going down the path, we look for the third male lion. A stench notifies us first, and then we see the carcass of a young male elephant. Decaying rapidly in the heat, the odour seeps in and we stay there for as long as it takes to satisfy our curiosity before moving away; the lion close by guarding the kill. The thick waft of miasma follows us for a little while before we are again distracted by the business of swatting flies away.

We hit the jackpot on the last game drive to wrap up the near two-week trip. No, not the leopard to complete our Big Five, but one of the most curious sights of all: lions mating. For approximately 40 times a day, lions mate for a duration of mere seconds each time. We first notice the peeping tom of a lion hanging out nearby, just a couple of metres away from a well-hidden couple under the shade of a tree.

The lion and the lioness are courting, the other lion an interloper trying to look for his chance to make a play. She is feeling a little frisky, and soon, her flirtatious displays get her mate going but he is wary of the other guy watching from a distance. He growls a little and they move away from the shade to mate in the open. A quick one and the lioness wants another go but he is jealous still. The creepy one has followed them to the mating spot. Dude is definitely killing their vibe and the main guy is not happy. He snarls and pounces over to the weirdo. Back off. The lion returns to his queen, but she’s not in the mood anymore. Life.

Out of Africa
Our adventure ends with a special dinner out in a clearing under the glittering night sky. The full moon reflects on the water, while the insects of the grassland and the riverbank chime in with a song. The evening is no less wonderful than the braai barbecue we had at the South African lodge. Delicious food piled high on the plate, tons of laughter and horsing about with the staff amidst serious talk about conservation and the impact that we have on the land, the animals and the people.

I think of what someone from the andBeyond team said when we were having beers at the hip 44 Stanley Street back in Johannesburg. A common affliction among female guests, and presumably some male, is khaki fever; that is, lusting after the virile young rangers that we are in close proximity with on each game drive.

In the South African accent, it sounds more like cocky fever. Perhaps I have that, but of a different strain. Not for the ranger, but for the job he has. That’s living the dream right there, exploring every inch of the land and reading signs of the animals that inhabit it from the traces that they leave behind. Signs invisible to the average person. I entertain the possibility for a bit before the biting mosquitoes bring me back to reality. Perhaps on another visit.

Flights to Johannesburg, Durban and Zambia can be booked via South African Airways. For more information about the safaris and conservation work, head to andBeyond.

This article was first published in the print edition of Esquire Singapore, April 2017.