Later that afternoon, we join two other couples over a cup of afternoon tea and then climb aboard a specially adapted Land-Rover. Sitting stadium style it ensures all six of us have prime viewing position as we set out on our first game drive of this safari.
The Sabi Sand Reserve is a private tract of land with only very few lodges given the traversing rights which means a lot of land to cover and hardly ever another soul in sight. It is fenced with the perimeter patrolled for any gaps and to keep out would-be poachers. But the boundary on the east is shared with famed Kruger National Park and is completely unrestricted allowing large numbers of wild game to have freedom of access from this game rich Park – roughly the land mass of New Jersey.
Within minutes of driving we see tall and graceful giraffe, a perky little family of impossibly ugly warthog, camera shy kudu antelope with the male sporting magnificent curling horns. Everywhere we hear the rasping guttural sound, almost a snort, of the male impala. It is rutting season. Young males tussle and display, engage in mock battles with the clash of curved horns, frisking of tails and general prinking and prancing as oblivious to us, they show off and try and impress the females.
The African afternoon light turns golden and shadows lengthen as we stop to enjoy an essential African ritual – that of sundowners. Our guide and tracker adopt dual roles of bar-tender and story-teller as we sip on ice-cold beers or tangy gin and tonic, stretch our legs and listen to animal accounts from days past. We admire the pristine bush that surrounds us and our ears ring with the deep quiet of the wild. It is almost as if we can hear the earth herself breathing.
We load up again and in the last of the golden light we round a corner and there before us, enjoying the sun-embedded warmth trapped in the sandy road, lie lion! Two males and one female – brothers and their sister, we are told, and members of a larger family group who are, no doubt, near by. Thrilled and completely enthralled we sit quietly and watch. They lift their enormous heads to acknowledge our presence and gaze with golden topaz eyes, completely devoid of emotion – calculating – we are only 6 ft from them and their prominent vertebrae and lean stomachs tell us they haven’t eaten in a while. But years of living alongside this strange beast of many heads (the vehicle and us) has taught them the futility of attacking us. We are no threat and metal does not taste very good…
The game guides or rangers never go out on a drive without their rifles and all are trained to shoot to kill should a human life be threatened. But this only as a last resort.
The light is fading fast now as the large orange sun sinks with leaded gravity towards the horizon, and the big cats stir and begin to move. The boys swipe playfully at one another, yawning and showing off their teeth – each huge canine the length of my hand! While sister gets up and stretches for all the world like my domestic cat at home. She appears to disdain the boys at their games and slowly pads off on enormous paws and is soon swallowed up by the dusk bush. The boys are more accommodating or perhaps just idle as they stick to the road and circumvent muddy puddles from a recent tropical downpour. We follow slowly with the tracker keeping the spotlight on them as they move down the road. One of the males veers off into the bush and we continue to follow the lone regal gait of this King of the African Bush for all intents and purposes as if we too, are part of his royal procession.
“Watch, wait…. Listen” says our ranger. Suddenly, the awesome and almighty sound of a lion roar! A sound that carries across dense and varied bushveldt, sandy plain or wooded hills, for a full 5 miles. We are less than ten feet from the king as he roars into the night and ends in a series of spine-chilling grunts. It is immediate and unquestionably human goose-bump material! We are electrified, our very bones vibrate and every hair feels as if it is standing on end. Breathless we wait and in the distance we hear an answering roar. The rest of the family is checking in! For a while we sit stunned at this magnificent animal symphony as the lion roar and grunt, sometimes in turn, sometimes in harmony… It is quite honestly an almost overwhelming experience and renders every one of us humbly subdued as we make our way back to camp.