In mid September 2015, I took up a long promised offer from my mate Brett Drew to join him on a 21 day boys own type odyssey through KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. Brett and I met initially while he was working in the UAE, running a conservation bird breeding program at a Sheikhs private reserve just out of the town in which I lived called Al Ain, situated on the eastern border of the UAE with Oman, roughly equidistant to the desert cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi . We struck up a friendship based on our mutual love of African wildlife, and generally just enjoying a good time, despite there being a 20 year plus age difference. When I learnt that Brett was also an experienced and licensed guide who had worked at some of South Africas most famous and legendary game reserves, the seed was sown that we would get in a trip when our respective planets aligned. I had long been planning an extended sabbatical year in 2016 so the time was ripe to take up Bretts offer and get an African Photo based trip in beforehand. September seemed as good a time as any, so flights were booked and the excitement started to mount.
Our trip was an epic and rambling experience and will form the basis of more than one blog post here. Our adventure began at Bretts base, a small farmhouse on the outskirts of Durban, among rolling hills of sugar cane. The safari journey began from Durban and took us through the lovely countryside known as the Midlands Meander. The trip through the Midlands first awakened me to a fact that I would notice continually as we worked our way through the varied regions of KwaZulu Natal, and that was the similarities of many of the landscapes to my home country of Australia. You could easily have been driving through the Yarra Valley or the prime farming country of the NSW Southern Highlands.
The Midlands led us to the southern Drakensburg Mountains and to a beautiful place called Lotheni, onwards and upwards to the spectacular Sani Pass and the border of Lesotho, up the coast to lovely St Lucia and the brilliantly diverse Isimangaliso Wetland Park and Cape Vidal .The Drakensburgs reminded me a lot of fly fishing trips to the Victorian high country and so on and so on as the trip progressed. From now on though, our trip would become a game photographers dream as we explored Hluhluwe ImFolozi National Park, Zululand Rhino Reserve, Kruger National Park, Balule Private Game Reserve, Manyleti Private Game Reserve and finally the beautiful Kosi Bay. As I explained earlier, there are ready made blog posts for those places by themselves and for today, without further ado, comes the story of one of the most memorable days of this trip and perhaps my life.
Having spent a large chunk of his childhood visiting and camping in Hluhluwe Imfolozi National Park, Brett certainly had the inside running when it came to game viewing in the park but also when it came to acquiring a safari tent. Upon registering in the fabulous Mpila Camp, we managed to get a tent that was right on the edge of the park, with nothing between our deck and the parks wildlife. I should point out that a day game driving with Brett is not for the light hearted, he is passionate about his work and I sometimes thought he was more excited than me at some of the sightings, ( he actually squealed when we saw my first leopard, despite him probably having seen thousands ). It also means LONG days game viewing. Not that I had a problem with that, I did not want each day to end but it did mean that we were often the last folks back in before they shut the gates and as the sun was going down.
Our second day in the Park was such a day, long and indescribably fantastic with loads of sightings and we wound our way back right on closing time. The tents in the park are well appointed and have a thick lining of velcro coupled with zipped padlocks for security, all of which we had done up before heading out in the morning. Upon our return and before unloading the car, I noticed that the thick velcro had been ripped aside and the zips pulled apart. Adrenalin on both our parts kicked in as we realised that we may have been burgled. We stormed into the tent to find a scene of carnage. My only thought was for my passport and thankfully it was still in place, locked in my bag. As we quickly realised, the burglars had not taken anything of value and it was obvious that the culprits were local monkeys and they had done a number on us. Apart from some bitten toiletries and electrical gear thrown about, no major damage was done so we decided to calm down, crack a long neck of Carlsberg Black label and get organised to cook a feed on the Braai and relax a little.
The tents have a small deck area in front and a separate kitchen that stands a couple of meters away. Brett had grabbed a large storage box and was about to take a step off the small landing step when we both heard a loud hiss and a thud. By the time I reholstered my Black Label and Brett had managed to see over the box he was carrying we quickly learned that the sound had come from the landing of a very large and unhappy Mozambican Spitting Cobra from its strike position. After a string of African and Australian expletives were fired off, we quickly decided that this thing had to go. The adrenalin did not have a long way to go to get back to max levels again after the monkey episode and was now going full blast. As an Aussie boy who has spent extended time on farms, venomous snakes do not generally worry me too much and I know that a clap of the hands or a well aimed stone will usually send them packing. Well this one was having none of it. No matter what we did it would just keep doubling back to try and get back under the kitchen area. I can only imagine that it either had a nest of young there or it was simply a good place to hunt rodents from, either way it was going nowhere. Despite several attempts we basically gave up and decided that the MSC could stay there, right under the kitchen. As the kitchen was only 3 meters from where we sat on the deck ( with big gaps in the slats ), the Black Labels were not as quite as relaxed as before.
After some beers a few laughs about the days events and a return to normal adrenalin levels we thought we should check out that the snake was ok and then start the braai going, the braai ( BBQ for you Aussies ), was located just off the deck on the ground. I really should have thought to take a decent photo of the MSC but it skipped my mind. Brett managed one with his phone, which while not a great shot, does give you an idea of what it is like to have a beer with the eyes of a MSC watching you.
I honestly thought that we really had had enough excitement for one day, so I prepared some food, lit the Braai, worked my way through another beer and quietly pondered if days actually do get any better than this. Obviously, being a South African and and Australian, meat formed a sizeable part of our meal and we polished it off in no time flat. We had decided for a change to eat from our chairs down on the ground, away from the deck and the MSC and I was now feeling very full, fulfilled and pretty happy with things in general. I was half way through some, no doubt entertaining yarn when I noticed that Bretts attention was not quite with me and his eyes were darting back and forward. He quietly let me bang on with my story and when I was finished he just quietly mentioned that I was in no way allowed to panic or run but it would be great if I could just take a peek over my left shoulder. I shifted a bit in the chair and slowly turned around to be looking directly into the bottomless black pits that are the eyes of a Spotted Hyena. My first thought was that these hyenas are obviously attracted to the smells of the cooking in the campsite and are probably ( ??? ) well used to humans. Luckily that thought process was about right. It still does not however, totally prepare you for unexpectedly finding yourself face to face with an apex African predator, especially when you consider the events of the preceding couple of hours. Our solution was to simply quietly get up, check that the MSC was still happily under the kitchen and head back to the deck for a last bevy and to let the hyena do what he had obviously come to do, and that is sample the Braii. I do not know what Hyenas tongues are made of but it must be tough as leather as the grill on the Braai was still blazing hot. It certainly didn’t seem to bother this fellow as he spent a few minutes licking off the fat and any little meaty bits left.
I must confess that by now, I was beginning to have had enough excitement for one day. Bretts only repost was that ” Africa is not for sissies mate “. Thankfully the night was generally uneventful, though the roars of a lion nearby did having me wondering if the crazy daily events were actually over.
There are many ways to visit and experience African wildlife, from expensive high end lodges to basic bush camps. all bring their own unique characteristics but one thing is certain, no matter how you do it, a visit to Africa and being close enough to smell the animals becomes like a bad itch, you can never really scratch it enough to make it stop. Africa has a magnetic effect. Other destinations are currently on the horizon for me, but I will go back to Africa, that is a given.
For anyone ( still reading ), Bretts safari company is called Mangaleka Africa and he does tailored trips to all parts of Africa. The website is at http://www.mangalekaafrica.co.za
If you want an interpretive, impassioned guide for your African Safari, Brett is your man. I cannot wait to get back there.