IN GOOD HANDS: Chris Robson and wife Arlene pictured with guide, Shannon at Umkumbe.

MY wife and I recently travelled to South Africa for an adventure that had been planned for sometime and was about to begin.

The relaxing of visas for New Zealand citizens, meant nothing in advance was required – a far cry from a few months earlier when a great deal of personal information and a face-to-face meeting at the embassy was required.

Stocked up with anti-malaria tablets, topped up on hepatitis and tetanus vaccinations and with the strongest insect repellent we could find, we felt as ready as we could be.

We flew direct with Singapore Air, transiting in Singapore a few hours, then arriving in Johannesburg completing the 17,500 kilometre flight.

Although feeling the travel time with not a lot of sleep on the plane, we had a few hours up our sleeve before meeting up with our friends flying in from Canada and Australia, so decided to try and see Soweto with Nelson Mandelas’ house a priority.

LIONS MAKE FIVE: The final day reveals the last of the big five, lions.

This was made easy with a guide able to take us personally from our hotel for an easy four-hour tour that I cannot do justice to in a few lines.

The next morning we picked up our 10-seater rental van and began our drive towards our destination, Umkumbe Safari Lodge, in Sabi Sands Game Reserve. As this was a six-hour drive we had decided to overnight in Nelspruit to break up the trip.

Having been inundated with safety warnings and hearing many stories including vehicle hijackings, you can probably imagine safety was a top priority as we got under way.

ROAD BLOCK: White rhinos take a break in the middle of the road.

Our entire extensive four weeks were incident and hijacking free, apart from a number of persons at nearly every intersection wanting to sell us something or asking for money. We ensured vehicle doors were locked at all times and used a bit of common sense as to what times of day should be okay to walk around the bigger centres.

After a pleasant stop-over in the city of Nelspruit – soon to be known as Mbombela (where the sun rises) in keeping with returning traditional African names – we were on our way with anticipation to Umkumbe for our first safari.

With some navigational help from Google Maps the driving was fairly straightforward. We passed through a lot of smaller townships until eventually the road gave way to dust and dirt and we were stopped on a border gate about 20kms into the reserve to confirm who we were and what lodge we were going to.

Poaching is still prevalent and all security measures are taken where possible both entering and leaving the game park areas.

HARD TO MISS: Giraffe are often visible from the lodge.

The game reserve shares unfenced borders with Kruger National Park and the life blood of it is the Sand River. This is an area of around 65,000 hectares and as our guide would say every day, “lets see what we can find today, because no two days are the same”. We were about to experience that first hand.

Finally, we drove through the gates having already been quite excited to see an elephant and a giraffe along the way. We were met by our guide, Shannon, for our three-night stay.

Though only in her early 20s her experience and passion for her job, along with tracker, Moses, ensured us our best possible viewings and we felt entirely safe in their hands at all times.

PACK ATTACK: The African wild dog is an endangered species.

After a quick familiarisation of what we could expect and safety rules around the lodge and game drive we had time for lunch before departing on our first four-hour drive, from 3pm to 7pm.

Our three-night stay was in the Lion Room, which is on the boundary. It was well appointed with our own porch to look out over the Sand River and beyond. However, it was spelled out to us not to sit out after dark and an escort was required to return us to our room in the evening as an inquisitive leopard had taken a liking to the lodge. It had been seen cruising the fence lines after dark.

We were also told to lock our doors securely as the baboons would enjoy rummaging through our belongings.

The electric fence circling the lodge has been repaired many times after elephants, rhinos and even hippos, to name a few, have stopped in camp for a closer look in recent times.

Adrenalin was as high as the temperature, now touching 39 degrees, as we departed for our afternoon drive in our open-sided, eight-seater, four-wheel-drive Jeep, with Shannon at the wheel and Moses sitting immediately at the front on a raised seat of the jeep on tracking duties.

The ultimate for a game drive is to spot the “big five,” so named many years ago by big game hunters who experienced the most difficulty hunting these magnificent animals.

These days big noters with automatic weapons want to brag about having killed a lion or elephant for reasons only known to themselves. They may realise one day the only form of shooting that should be done here is with a camera.

For the record, the “big five” are cape buffalo, elephant, lion, leopard and rhino. We almost immediately saw giraffe, zebras and elephants along with many impala, wildebeest and a lot of bird life (over 250 species in Africa).

A lot of ground was covered as we ventured further into the outback and bush. The time flew before we stopped for sundowners. It was a bit of a novelty to get out of the safety of the jeep in the middle of the outback and enjoy a wine or beer and take in the surrounds as a spectacular sunset formed the backdrop.

Not long after, under way again and Shannon received a call from another guide. We became used to the warning, “Hold on, I may have a surprise for you”, from our guide. At these times she would drive as fast as possible on-road or off-road and this was known as

“Ferrari Safari”. How Moses stayed on at all times I don’t know.
Soon afterwards, we were privileged to spot a leopard striding along just on nightfall. We managed to view him for some time before leaving him to disappear into the bush.

As soon as it started, it seemed our first drive was over and it was time for dinner in a traditional Boma setting within our lodge. All meals were fantastic and seemed to come around quickly.

The African evenings really come alive as darkness unfolds. There are many sounds and intriguing noises, many of which are unidentifiable but together it is like an outback symphony.

HIGH TABLE: A leopard is discovered in the branches of a tree with its prey. Photos Chris Robson

The morning drives commenced at 5am and we had six in total, all of which provided us with a lot of excitement, and we were very fortunate to spot not only the big five but many other species big and small, from the hard-working dung beetle to the mighty elephant.

A highlight was driving to get a closer look at a lone hyena and, on getting closer, realising it was waiting beneath a tree that a leopard had dragged its kill up into, and was feasting on. We had a good view of this, as we were right under the tree, next to the hyena. I asked Shannon what might happen if the “kill” dropped from the tree in front of us. “It could be interesting,” was the reply (didn’t happen).

Our lodge name, Umkumbe, means white rhino, and we spent time with them at various places and at one point they blocked the road just to take a break. The poaching of rhino for their horn with the misbelief it provides virility is beyond belief. Unfortunately, as long as people still demand it, despite the hard efforts of many, it will likely be an ongoing problem until the last one is left. Some wildlife parks are taking the radical step of de-horning their rhino to save them.

Everybody wanted to see the lions and on our last drive we completed the big five. They were resting ahead of a herd of buffalo and just waiting for their time. When you see the cape buffalo up close, you appreciate their size and the strength a lion must have to bring one down.

The buffalo can be unpredictable and as the leader was watching us with a fixed gaze, Shannon decided it was time to go – they give no warning when they charge she told us.

As I was sitting on the side he was closest to, I was completely happy with that call.

It was such a privilege to spend time with these animals in their domain, and at times a bit surreal how close we actually were. Just when we thought we had seen it all, “hold on,” we were told. A pack of wild dogs were passing through – it is estimated there are only around 250 left in the reserve, so to see a pack of around 20 was a special moment.

They were clearly on the scent of something and with a hunt and kill rate of 98 percent, unfortunate for their prey. Closely behind them, trailing for scraps were hyenas. It was like being on set in a David Attenborough documentary.

It felt that no sooner had we arrived it was time to go, even though it had just been three nights it seemed like we had seen so much and yet probably just a fraction of what was available in this everchanging great expanse.

ZEBRAS CROSSING: Zebras are among the first animals to be seen.

If you are considering a safari, check out Umkumbe on Facebook. They have regular updates and just yesterday spotted a pride of 21 lions with three cubs.

During down time at the lodge you can relax with a drink or take a dip in the endless pool looking straight out over Sand River and never know what you may see next. From here we saw giraffe, hippo, a troop of baboons and much more.

Another activity was to take a walk with your guide into the bush. This took around 45 minutes and was only available when lodge management were reasonably happy no big game was in the immediate vicinity. This was a bit of a thrill as even though nothing was expected, the unexpected can still come around the corner.

We all thoroughly enjoyed our short, three-night stay and can recommend it highly.

Our African trip was only just under way, next stop was Zambia for Christmas Day to take in the majestic Victoria Falls.

By Chris Robson