On safari in South Africa

BY NATHAN BEAUMONT
Last updated 05:00 29/04/2010

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In the middle of a Limpopo game park late at night, the stars are shining and the wildlife is in full voice. Our guide suddenly stops our open-sided Jeep on a gravel road and tells us to get out and lie on the road. For all I know there could be a lion watching, waiting to pounce.

For 10 minutes we lie listening and watching, absorbing all the reserve has to offer. Birds chirp, a chorus of insects make sweet sounds and lost animals bark for their mates. This is the life.

It is the perfect way to end our first day on safari in South Africa's 22,000-hectare Entabeni Safari Conservancy in Limpopo. Hours earlier we sat two metres from a pride of lions as they lazed in the sun, and watched a herd of elephants walk through the bush on their way towards water. We've seen countless zebra, water buffalo, warthogs and impala.

My first time on a safari is an experience I won't forget. The excitement of seeing the Big Five -   lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo - in their natural environment is one thing; the anticipation of driving around looking for them is quite another. Knowing that around the next corner could be the jackpot is addictive.

Our guide JD (John Dixon) is a South African Barry Crump, and makes the safaris unforgettable. He can find an animal's trail from a broken branch, the lie of the grass or a footprint.

Over a couple of beers the night before our safari I tell JD I'll be his mate for life if he puts me in a position to witness a live kill. He tells me the park's lions killed a baby giraffe the previous day as tourists watched. It sounds awesome.

We don't get close to the live kill during the next day's safaris, but during a morning venture a day later, JD sniffs out two cheetahs on the hunt for breakfast.

They have a herd of 60 impala in their sights as they slowly crawl through the long grass  surely it's just a matter of time until they pounce. JD positions the jeep to give us the perfect view.

Suddenly an impala spots one of the cheetahs when it pokes it head just a fraction too high. The impala bolt, the cheetahs know they aren't close enough to strike, but they give chase anyway.

Maybe one will trip over. But the cheetahs are wasting their energy. Today they won't eat breakfast, but it's surely just be a matter of time until their tummies are full again.

There is more to the area than just safaris. Legend Golf and Safari Resort offers golfers a round on a course designed by 18 top internationals. It includes New Zealander Michael Campbell's par 4 fifth hole, the hardest on the course.

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But the course boasts a spectacular and extreme 19th hole  the most dramatic par 3 in the world. Set high on Hanglip Mountain, it is accessible only by helicopter  the tee is 430 metres above sea level. The green, way down below, is shaped like the map of Africa.

To shoot a respectable score, golfers need to be able to drive the ball about 180 metres to reach the fairway and the slightest slice or hook will land you in the rough.

I've played plenty of golf and never once hooked the ball, but today I create personal history: I hook the ball and it flies way off target. I'm told, reassuringly, that even professional golfers have folded under the pressure of playing such a magnificent hole.

West Indies cricketer Franklyn Stephenson holds the course record  in January he landed his drive 20 feet from the hole and, with a confident putt, made a birdie. There's US$1 million on offer for the first hole-in-one.

A 20-minute plane ride takes us to the 65,000-hectare Sabi Sabi game park, in South Africa's Kruger National Park. Wildlife wanders around parts of the accommodation and, at night, guests are escorted to their rooms by a ranger, just in case there are animals roaming or snakes dangling from the trees.

The habitat is home to the Big Five and 200 other species, including cheetah, hippopotamus and wild dog. Sabi Sabi is also home to 350 species of birds.

Sabi Sabi blew me away and I wonder if there is anything quite as stirring as the sight of a lion, elephant or rhino roaming free in the bush, or as haunting as the sound of a hyena laughing in the dead of night.

There has been no hunting here for more than half a century and the animals have become used to the safari vehicles.

We park metres away from a pride of about 15 lions and they don't care: a quick glance in our direction and they ignore us. But our ranger says that if we stand up and break the vehicle's silhouette, they'd change their tune.

"They see the vehicle and everyone inside as one big animal. They have never been attacked by a vehicle so they don't see it as a threat."

We rise just before dawn. The bush is already alive, the air filled with birdsong as the rising sunlight dances off beads of dew on spiders' webs. Nobody, not even the most experienced tracker, knows what's in store.

Our tracker watches the road for clues, looking to find any print left by a predator during its hunt in the dark.

There are hushed discussions between ranger and tracker and radio contacts between vehicles, so everyone gets a chance of a sighting.

This morning there is no shortage. We were excited about seeing zebra a few days ago; they now feel as regular as a horse in New Zealand. To our left we have rhino and a giraffe, and lions have been spotted up ahead.

The dawn safari is exciting, but it's in the evening when we find lions preparing for a hunt. The pride moves as one, sensing food nearby. We know there is a herd of impala not far away, having driven past them a few minutes before.

It's pitch black and our tracker is shining a spotlight to follow the lions. As we get closer he dims it  the light gives the impala an advantage.

As we wait for the lions to make their move, a piercing scream cracks the silence. Has an impala been taken? We drive towards the scream but don't spot anything. Minutes later we find the lions wandering round.They'd failed.

I am still to witness a live kill, but it looks like I'll have to come back another time.

The writer travelled courtesy of Air New Zealand.

THE OTHER SIDE OF SOUTH AFRICA

Soweto contains two different worlds co-existing within blocks, clearly marked by contrasting lifestyles. On one side there are large homes with sprawling lawns. On the other, there are the shanty towns where poverty and squalor are a way of life.

For 17 years Gladice has lived in a house with no electricity or running water. She struggles each day to feed her four children.

More than 20,000 people live in the shanty town in Motsoaledi, perched in Soweto. They rely on one tap to provide water for the whole area and often go days without a decent feed.

Most days Gladice, who lets me into her home, has no money to buy food for her children. Instead she grows vegetables and relies on tips from the tourists she shows round.

There's something not quite right about letting tourists roam through the shanty town to take photos of people as they do their washing, sweep their paths and fill their water containers. But our guide says they don't mind.

They are not embarrassed about their situation and see it as a way of educating foreigners about their plight.

Gladice lets people ask any questions they like. She would love to have a better house for her children, but knows that will never happen.

Her kids can read and write and one day she hopes they will break the poverty cycle and get a job. She admits their chances are slim.

"I hope they can get a job. I try to get a job, but it is difficult. My children need food and it breaks my heart when they have to go without."

Soweto boasts the only place in the world to have a street that's produced two Nobel Peace Prize winners  - Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.

- The Dominion Post

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