My first African Safari ironically started on the beach. We landed in Durban, South Africa, and swiftly checked in to the Belmoral Hotel. From my window, I could see the endless Indian Ocean making its way toward me before it slowly crashed at the feet of Africa’s busiest seaport. There is a lot to see in the city; Durban’s Golden Mile is an action-packed destination for families, tourists, surfers and fisherman all set in a backdrop of blending architecture. The city’s ethnic makeup is largely Zulu, but hosts a large number of people of British descent and has more Indians than any city outside of India. Despite the diversity of people within Durban, the hotel manager told us to be careful as attacks on people “who looked different, like tourists” were unfortunately more common. He also said that each ethnicity in the city had a history of mingling and interacting with its own instead of mixing and blending as is common in America.
Later in the vast savannah on safari, I could see this division play out in nature~ the pack of lions lying lazily under the hot sun away from the silent water buffalo wallowing in the river and kicking up mud on the bank. “Living in the wild is a harsh existence; hard for Mishak, too,” said our Nambiti Safari tour guide, who always referred to himself in the third person. “Animals are constantly starving; it is freezing at night, and the attacks are brutal and often deadly.”
That day we saw two beautiful giraffes; their necks elegantly reaching high for leaves. A group of giraffes are called a “journey”; we drive quietly past them in our open-air jeeps. We see kudu with big curly horns, hippos warming themselves in the water, an aggressive white rhino marking his territory and a band of giant eland along with delicate impalas bounce by. In our early morning game run, we came upon a majestic waterbuck, a strange but beautiful stag with a curious white circle on his backside around the tail – almost like he had sat on a freshly painted toilet seat only to get up and run away with the imprint. Mishak told us it was a following mechanism so when the animals scatter in panic, they can run with the group. It is amazing how nature has a purpose in anatomical markings.
After our evening meal, we make our way gingerly back to the safari huts. And again I am cautioned not to leave the room for fear of an attack – this time by a hungry animal. The oversized outdoor rain shower and a good book were my company between rides out in the wild. On every safari you hear about needing to see the “Big 5” – a term coined by game hunters who referred to the five hardest animals to bag. Safari tour operators have taken the phrase and turned it into a marketing tool mainly to get tourists excited about seeing the lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo and the hardest to find: the leopard. Other animals may be more interesting, including spotting a python, some entertaining hyenas, a lucky badger, a family of baboons or a black mamba, which is a highly poisonous snake creeping in the trees. But your tour guide might whizz by them on the hunt for the Big 5.
Kruger National Park is where it happened. We had seen the pride of lions, majestic and in charge, their cubs lying on rocks without a care in the world. Our jeep gently crept up behind dueling rhinos and then turned the corner almost hitting a giant herd of eight elephants. The younger bull showed off, swinging his trunk and tusks and stomping his foot a little too close for comfort up against our jeep as we backed away slowly. Then we meandered through the gigantic park in search for buffalo which we found easily. But it was always the leopard – that elusive leopard – that was the hardest to find. Day after day, we would spot everything but him.
And then finally, on our last day, there he was, crouching motionless in the bushes behind some unsuspecting, poor kudu. Using the binoculars, I locked in and focused on those ferocious, glassy green eyes. In that instant I understood: I was the hunted. And it was thrilling.