There I was – frozen to the spot, face-to-face with a rhino. She was a huge, magnificent, beautiful creature that could have killed me in an instant. My life flashed before my eyes as I thought to myself ‘Why the hell am I here, surrounded by wild animals in the middle of the South African bush?!’
Let me explain.
I was on foot on a walking safari in Klaserie Private Nature Reserve, just outside Kruger. This was just the start of an incredible two weeks exploring the country, in desperate search of wildlife – something I had dreamed of doing ever since I was a child. Last year, my dreams finally came true. I had more incredible wildlife encounters in South Africa than I ever thought possible. Read on to find out what they were…
The best wildlife encounters in South Africa
A (very!) close encounter with a rhino
First, back to that rhino…
While out on a walking safari in Klaserie Private Nature Reserve, our tracker and guide led us into a clearing when they spotted three rhinos in the distance. We silently crept through the bushes and ducked behind a tree, never taking our eyes off the figures as they nibbled on grass 20 metres ahead. We were safe. Until they started moving in our direction.
Though rhinos have terrible eyesight, their other senses were heightened, alerting them that something was nearby. They just couldn’t tell what we were.
So they moved closer.
By now, two of the rhinos were staring straight at me – less than 5 metres away. I was on the edge of the group, so I’d be the first one they’d reach if they decided to charge. Our hearts were racing as we fought the urge to run, knowing that running would be the worst possible mistake we could make in this situation. Plus, where could we go? The other rhino had positioned itself on the other side of the group.
We were surrounded.
We watched in complete awe as the animals came even closer. Our guides began clicking their fingers so as to alert the rhinos, but this only served to make them more interested in whatever it was that had crossed their paths. They took yet another step closer to us, and our guides tapped their rifles against the tree. The sound was enough to send the animals running in the opposite direction, returning us all to safety.
To this day, it is still the most wonderful moment of my life. Being so close to a group of such incredible creatures is something I will never, ever forget. I’m so glad to have this video to help tell the story. See if you can spot the fear in my eyes!
An adorable baby elephant
The third largest National Park in South Africa, Addo Elephant National Park certainly lives up to its name. With over 600 elephants calling it home, Addo has one of the densest elephant populations in Africa. We were almost guaranteed a sighting and, thankfully, we had plenty. But none was more special than when we came across a tiny baby elephant, shielding itself behind its mother’s huge legs. The whole scene reminded me so much of shy children who hide behind their mothers’ skirts. Isn’t it amazing to think how similar we are when we’re young?
We watched from a distance as the pair walked down to the watering hole, where the baby clearly got its confidence back. The adorable little thing began chasing birds and playing with its trunk, while the mother strode on impatiently. We could almost hear her saying ‘Come on you, we’re going to be late!’
A majestic lion in Addo Elephant Park
Elephants aren’t the only species that reside in Addo Elephant National Park. Lions were introduced in 2003 as part of a conservation programme, and they seem to be responding well to their new habitat. But with fewer than 10 in the whole 1,640km2 park, finding one would be nothing short of a miracle.
On our last game drive in the park, I was beginning to lose all hope. There had been no sightings at all of the lions, and even the ‘Beware of Lions’ signs mocked us.
On our way out of the park, we came across a queue of vehicles all appearing to watch something on our right. Like obedient children, we joined the queue as, one by one, the cars in front of us tired and moved on. It was only once we reached the front of the queue that we saw them.
I couldn’t believe it – a lioness with two adolescent cubs was hiding behind a bush.
Out of all the vast space in this park, we had stumbled across 3 of the only lions in the entire place! But our luck was about to get even better.
When we first arrived, the plants between us and the lions blocked our view, but our patience for these beautiful creatures paid off when one of the cubs stretched out its legs and got up to stand. It walked towards us, seemingly playing football with the elephant dung in its path. Its gaze never left ours, until it decided to walk into the most beautiful light and sat down right in front of our jeep, as if posing for my camera. I’m not ashamed to say I cried a little bit – it was so beautiful.
Buffalo in Klaserie Private Nature Reserve
On one of our game drives, our tracker received a call on the radio from a group on a walking safari who needed our help. When we arrived to pick them up, we noticed a small buffalo stood near the group. Now, I understand that buffalo are one of Africa’s Big 5 – the most dangerous animals to come across on foot – but surely the group could have safely moved away from the lone female without needing our help? The group piled on to our jeep and breathed a sigh of relief.
It was only then that our driver steered the jeep around the foliage that stood behind the buffalo. There, we found a massive herd of the animals standing in formation, just watching us. Now I understood…
We didn’t stick around. Old male buffalo are the Hulks of the animal kingdom – it doesn’t take much to provoke them into charging. I managed to snap this buffalo portrait just before we were whisked away. I love the fierce look on the bull’s face. We absolutely didn’t want to mess with him.
Wild dogs on the hunt
*Spoiler alert: these next two contain graphic imagery that could make squeamish people and impala lovers a little upset. Don’t want to read them? Click here to skip past!
This sighting was perhaps the luckiest of all. Wild dogs are rare. Very rare. Their numbers have depleted drastically in the past few years, so even our driver seemed surprised when we stumbled across three wild dogs running through the reserve.
We followed them from a safe distance, and eventually caught up with them as they greeted the rest of their pack, jumping and yelping with happiness to see each other again. Their similarity to wolves was striking – they’re pack animals that sleep, hunt and play together, and we couldn’t help but want to be part of their team.
We stayed with them until they began to move on. A couple of the dogs splintered away from the rest of the group – their ears pointed straight forward with a look of determination on their faces. They were on to something. Again, we followed, desperately trying to see what they had spotted, but they were too fast for us.
When we caught up with them again, two of the dogs were dragging a lifeless impala by its neck into the undergrowth, clearly trying to hide their kill from nearby scavengers. They ate quickly, well aware that the fresh kill would attract unwanted attention from other predators. Their faces stained red with blood, giving them an eerie, devilish appearance.
The vegetarian in me was torn between wanting to watch these incredible creatures doing what comes naturally to them, and wanting to believe the impala was going to live happily ever after. But, regardless of how I was feeling, it’s a sighting I will never be able to forget. It was such an honour to witness.
Vultures living up to their name
We had seen plenty of vultures circling overheard on all of our game drives, but it was only after our encounter with the wild dogs that we finally saw them in action. As the dogs dragged their kill into the undergrowth, we heard the vultures flapping their wings as they came to land in the barren trees high above our heads. They were on to something.
Soon, the sky was black with vultures all vying for a piece of the kill. As soon as the dogs moved on, the swarm of vultures swooped in to surround the carcass, quick as a flash. Within minutes, there was nothing left but bones, and the vultures left as quickly as they had appeared.
We were fascinated to witness the vultures taking it in turns to scavenge: the most aggressive vultures with pointy beaks go first to help break the skin, before the others move in to have their fill. Have you heard of the phrase ‘pecking order’? Well, now you know where it comes from.
An angry/hungry hippo
On one of our game drives around Klaserie Private Nature Reserve, we came across a seemingly empty lake. We stayed, watching the water for a while, our eyes drawn to the slightest of movement on the calm waters in hopes of spotting something underneath the surface.
We were just about to drive away when our patience paid off. Suddenly, a hippo popped his head up, followed by at least four others. While the others returned to the depths of the lake, satisfied that we didn’t pose a threat, the first hippo stayed above the water, his eyes fixed on us.
We stood our ground from the relative safety of the bank, fascinated to see what his next move would be. As if he was being pulled towards us by a magnet, he swam towards us in complete silence. I started to shuffle in my seat, having suddenly remembered that hippos were responsible for more human deaths than any other animal in Africa. Suddenly, the giant hippo propelled himself up and out of the water, his jaw wide open as if to say ‘you could fit in here’. He thrashed about in the water as we all looked on, completely stunned.
After a few minutes of watching him threaten us, we all breathed a huge sigh of relief as the driver moved on. The hippo looked after us, grunting as if to call us wimps. But we weren’t willing to prove him otherwise.
An incredibly photogenic giraffe
Despite the 5am wake up calls, the beginning of a morning game drive was always my favourite part. I loved wrapping up in blankets to protect ourselves from the cold air and bitter wind that rushed past our jeep, because it meant we were still in time to catch the sunrise.
On this occasion, we were travelling to the centre of the reserve when we came across the most wonderful photo opportunity. The sun was rising in a bright purple and orange ombré sky. We all poised our cameras to capture this beautiful sight, when out of nowhere, a majestic silhouette dominated our viewfinders. A giraffe strode confidently into sight, casting the silhouette you see in this photo.
To this day, this image is still my favourite photo I have ever taken. Every time I look at the canvas on my wall, I remember just how lucky we were that the giraffe decided to grace us with its presence that morning. What a perfect start to the day!
These incredible wildlife encounters prove that nothing beats seeing animals in their natural habitat. How much more of a privilege is it, knowing that these animals could easily run away and hide, but instead decided to stay put and let you observe them?
Now, the eagle eyed among you may have noticed that we saw all of the ‘Big 5’ except one… that elusive leopard continues to elude me. But, I have to respect the fact that this time around, a leopard just didn’t want to be seen. And that’s the nature of the beast (all possible puns intended). But it’s an excuse to get myself back to Africa if there ever was one.
Have you ever been on safari? I’d love to hear about your wildlife encounters – share your favourites in a comment below!
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This post was written as an entry in to the Trips100/Audley Travel blogger challenge.
Win an African safari with Audley Travel by sharing your best wildlife photograph or video on your social media channels. To enter write #AudleySafari and @AudleyTravel on your Instagram or Twitter post or share directly on the Audley Travel Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/audleytravel/. To find out more or enter via the website, visit https://www.audleytravel.com/social. Entries must be posted between 20th August – 23rd September.