World Cup of wildlife

Put Africa on your bucket list if you want an en­counter with the Big Five

Life & Style Weekend - - READ - BY Denise Pick­er­ing

THE ze­bra had lit­tle chance. It had been cor­ralled by the li­onesses into the con­fines of the camp area. They had been plan­ning and wait­ing for more than a day. The ze­bra’s death was im­mi­nent. It knew it, those awak­ened by a des­per­ate an­i­mal try­ing to es­cape its preda­tors knew it. Its pound­ing hooves and es­ca­lat­ing screams left no doubt the pride had found its next meal. We had been wak­ing at dawn to the evoca­tive sounds of the African an­i­mal king­dom. It’s an ex­pe­ri­ence which will stay with us for­ever. But it was 4am, and on this morn­ing, a dif­fer­ent sce­nario. We were in the dark­ness of our tent, safe and never in dan­ger of the li­onesses turn­ing their at­ten­tion to us but, trans­fixed by the drama un­fold­ing, it was hard to not be a lit­tle afraid. We were in Tan­za­nia, east Africa, wit­ness­ing an ev­ery­day event in the Serengeti, but not so com­mon within the grounds of Sanc­tu­ary Re­treat’s Camp Kusini. Camp staff, so in tune with this un­tamed world, had sensed the li­onesses were close to a kill. Within min­utes all went quiet and we were thank­ful the ze­bra’s suf­fer­ing was over. Sun­rise came quickly and the camp was buzzing with talk of the kill, the fi­nal scene be­ing played out at the front of the lodge where the pride was still feed­ing. It was a stun­ning morn­ing and camp man­ager Van Heer­den, a South African who runs Camp Kusini with his wife Es­mer­alde, was thrilled that his guests, the ma­jor­ity on sa­fari to see the big cats hunt, were front row to one of na­ture’s great­est the­atres. Though up­set­ting to some, the re­al­ity of what had hap­pened was far tamer and less con­fronting than what we are pre­sented with on our tele­vi­sion screens. We left the pride half­way through their meal and fight­ing over the car­cass, and headed to­wards the great Serengeti plains. There was no time to waste. To­day we were search­ing for leop­ard, but not be­fore our own treat, break­fast in a set­ting straight from the Hol­ly­wood clas­sic Out of Africa. It was day four of our six-day African sa­fari which took us to three Sanc­tu­ary Re­treat sa­fari camps nes­tled deep within na­tional parks in Tan­za­nia and Kenya. It was early March, and Sanc­tu­ary Re­treats had timed our visit per­fectly for ex­pe­ri­enc­ing one of the great­est won­ders of Africa, the mi­gra­tion. Rated as one of the world’s most spec­tac­u­lar nat­u­ral events, ev­ery year up to 1.4 mil­lion wilde­beest and hun­dreds of thou­sands of ze­bra and im­pala mi­grate clock­wise around the Serengeti/Maa­sai Mara ecosys­tems look­ing for grass and wa­ter, mak­ing time for court­ing, mat­ing and birthing along the way. That morn­ing the wilde­beest, cu­ri­ous look­ing an­i­mals with curved horns, shaggy beards and ta­pered bod­ies, streamed in file onto the plains in their thou­sands. With them were just as many babies, most still be­ing weaned from their moth­ers. Un­der a mag­nif­i­cent aca­cia, Allan our guide set up break­fast. In the dis­tance we saw not only wilde­beest and their trav­el­ling com­pan­ions, but gi­raffes and ele­phants. All grazed peace­fully to­gether un­der a cloud­less, blue sky. It was a feast, not just vis­ually, but culi­nary, with fresh fruit, home­made gra­nola, quiche and pan­cakes, served with hot African cof­fee. No more than 50 me­tres away, vul­tures and stork were feed­ing on last night’s kill. We were up­wind, thank­fully. Noth­ing could spoil this ex­pe­ri­ence. In the “land that moves on for­ever” you feel you are a mil­lion miles from any­where, but you are part of one of the great­est events on this earth. It was a morn­ing when ev­ery­thing was in sync with Mother Na­ture. Ev­ery minute pre­sented a new pic­ture of an event which has been oc­cur­ring for aeons – the vis­i­tors in their mass num­bers turn­ing the plains into a liv­ing sea of life. Sanc­tu­ary Kusini is ide­ally placed to catch the mi­gra­tion from mid-De­cem­ber to April when the wilde­beest and ze­bra drop their young and the big cats get to en­joy the abun­dance of young prey. It was leop­ard we were seek­ing on the Serengeti this day, but birdlife was all around us and Allan, to our de­light a bird­ing ex­pert, soon had us hooked on spot­ting all the species. It wasn’t hard to find in ex­cess of 50 out of a po­ten­tial 800 on the Serengeti – a mecca for bird lovers. The photo op­por­tu­ni­ties were ev­ery­where and the star­lings and rollers gave our zoom lenses a real work­out. Some of the most stun­ning im­ages to come out of this sa­fari are of birds. But they can po­ten­tially ruin a good photo too. Take the cheeky blue star­ling which pho­to­bombed my once in a life­time shots of the mag­nif­i­cent chee­tah we fol­lowed through the grass­lands. He was stalk­ing wilde­beest, lean, hun­gry and fo­cused, stop­ping oc­ca­sion­ally to rest on ant hills, giv­ing us the per­fect view of his awe­some­ness. We may not have spot­ted a leop­ard that day, but I doubt it could have sur­passed the ex­hil­a­ra­tion of get­ting so close to this chee­tah, one of the world’s most crit­i­cally en­dan­gered an­i­mals. There are fewer than 500 chee­tahs left in Tan­za­nia due to poach­ing and a high mor­tal­ity rate among cubs, so we wished him a long and happy life, and good luck with the hunt as we changed course and headed to the kop­jes (large boul­ders and rocks) where the li­ons were wak­ing up from their daily slum­ber. While the big cats take the lead­ing role in wildlife’s big African pro­duc­tion, ele­phant, rhino, buf­falo and gi­raffe are much more than the sup­port­ing cast. Our first in­tro­duc­tion to Africa was gi­raffe – a gen­tle gi­ant, el­e­gant, aware of us but not in awe of us, look­ing for the next graz­ing spot and no more than a few me­tres from our sa­fari ve­hi­cle, a mod­i­fied Toy­ota troop carrier.

PHOTO: DENISE PICK­ER­ING

Gi­raffes spot­ted from the troop carrier.

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