I AM trying to stay calm, but my heart is racing.
A two-tonne rhino that could kill me in an instant is so close I could touch it. I am sitting in an open four-wheel-drive on safari in South Africa.
A few minutes earlier I was standing outside the vehicle having a drink while watching the sun set. Four of us and our ranger, who is aged in his early 20s, were toasting the night and having a laugh.
“Get back in the vehicle,” the ranger says, after receiving a CB radio message.
“Rhinos are coming around the corner.”
We hop back in and drive towards them. There are three of them. They are massive, prehistoric-looking beasts.
Another four-wheel-drive full of people is parked ahead of us. The rhinos are curious. They go close to the other vehicle, then trot towards us. They come within about five metres of our vehicle, as they shuffle along a plain. The encounter is thrilling enough, but the ranger’s adrenalin is kicking in.
“Do you want to do that again?” he says, with a sparkle in his eye.
“Why not,” we say gamely.
The ranger drives ahead of the rhinos and parks the vehicle. The rhino trio moves towards us. They are heading straight to the back of our vehicle, where I am sitting. Two of the rhinos walk to the right of the vehicle and stand directly in front of it. The other rhino walks to the vehicle’s left side and stops directly next to me. She is so close I could touch her. The experience is thrilling but terrifying. I can sense the beast’s enormous power. She starts to snort. Minutes go by. The rhino isn’t budging. Suddenly the car is jolted. One of the rhinos at the front of the vehicle has butted it with his horn. After about five minutes, but what seems like longer, the rhinos shuffle away.
Back at the lodge, we disembark from the vehicle feeling euphoric.
“OK, be honest,” I say to the ranger, “were we in danger?”
“Well, I was worried for a moment there,” the ranger replies.
The ranger says the rhino next to me had shown a fleeting sign of aggression, along with the other rhino that butted the car.
If the rhinos wanted to attack we would have had little chance.
“They could have easily flipped the vehicle, if they wanted to,” he says.
How rare was it to get that close to a rhino, I ask.
“It doesn’t happen every day,” he says.
If the rhinos were awesome, the lions were equally amazing. Minutes into our first safari, we see a pride of lions eating a zebra they had killed the night before. This, too, is not something seen every day, the ranger says.
Seeing lions up close evokes powerful emotions: fear, awe, wonder, respect, joy, surprise, caution and gratitude are all there.
Lions are the kings of the jungle. They look and act like royalty. Only one male is in the reserve where we are staying. If there were two, they would fight to the death. The male doesn’t hunt. He lets the females do that. They serve him his dinner and he loves it.
We stayed at Hanglip Mountain Lodge in the Entabeni Private Game Reserve, a few hours north of Johannesburg. The lodge is within the reserve, so animals can roam within the grounds. When we first arrive, a herd of impala mill about in front of our verandah.
The following afternoon, we sit on the verandah watching the impala. Suddenly, they become frightened. Several of the creatures run around fast, some hopping high in the air. A few seconds later we hear a deep and menacing guttural growl. We couldn’t sight the creature that made the fearsome sound, but our ranger said it must have been a lion, cheetah or leopard.
Because the lodge is open to the elements, when we walk the 20 metres from our cabin to the lodge’s restaurant, a ranger must accompany us with a shotgun. Strangely enough, we are allowed to walk through the lodge in the day without a ranger. I ask why. Apparently it is because lions are easier to see in the day. And what if a lion were to approach?
‘‘Whatever you do, don’t run. Then it becomes a game and you’re dead,” the ranger says.
“You stay still, act strong and then slowly move backwards to safety.”
One of the rangers told us that was exactly what he did last year in a close encounter.
“I thought I was gone from this world,” he said.
I ask our ranger why he doesn’t carry a gun in his vehicle while on safari. He says there is no point because if a lion, elephant or rhino attacks, he won’t have time to reach for a gun. He said when rangers used to carry guns in vehicles, it was done only to make guests feel safe.
When we first arrive at the lodge, the talk among guests is about an incident that happened two days prior. Apparently lions were roaming through the lodge (something that happens quite often). One of the guests disobeyed instructions and stepped outside for a cigarette. A lion was in the process of charging him when a ranger stepped in and yelled the beast away. Close call. “He didn’t listen,” he says of the smoker.
It seems like just another day at the lodge.
I am keen to see the reserve’s elephants, but they are not easy to find. The ranger takes us to an area where ‘‘they like to hang out”.
We know we are in elephant territory when we start to see trees literally smashed to bits, the bark stripped off.
We drive along trails in the area, mostly in vain. Just when we think we won’t see any, out of the blue they appear. A family of elephants are standing on the side of a trail feeding. I get the feeling the ranger is a little scared of them. It’s hard to see the elephants’ faces, as they are obscured by scrub. But after a few minutes, a baby elephant pokes its head towards us. A few other larger faces emerge.
We see many animals at the reserve, but the cheetahs prove elusive and the leopards are rarely seen. The funniest creatures are the warthogs. The giraffes are mostly serene and calm, but can be skittish around vehicles.
“That’s because they’re always on the menu,” a South African in our vehicle gleefully informs us.
What a privilege it is to see such tall creatures on this Earth.
The zebras are a pleasure to watch. Their stripes are mesmerising and special. They like to hang out with wildebeest. We see a zebra hobbling, possibly from being chased by lions.
‘‘He’s tonight’s dinner,’’ our South African friend says.
When I leave the lodge, I feel on a higher plane. I am surprised to realise my eyesight and hearing has improved. Living with lions, elephants and rhinos sharpens the senses. I guess that’s what helped man survive on the savannah.