After hundreds of game drives I still get into a game viewing vehicle with a sense of anticipation and excitement. Having got dressed in my usual superstitious way and wearing my lucky shirt I take my seat. I tie my camera and binocular case somewhere secure and place my camera around my neck ensuring the strap sits comfortably under the collar of my lucky shirt. Before fastening the draw string on my new lucky hat I try not to anticipate what wild animals we may encounter in the next three to four hours. On this particular drive I was thinking many things but wondering if we would see and encounter one of the rarest of all beasts.
I savour every moment I spend in the bush. I take in every sight and every smell. On a drive I am more than happy, and often ask to stop for everything. On this afternoon, and more in reflection than realisation at the time, things built up. As we left the lodge we were greeted by many small herds of blue wildebeest all with calves, the young distinctive with their golden coats. Then there were impala, herds and lone males, everything in the foreground set to magnificent mountain backdrops. In between the animals there were birds, kingfishers, European rollers and black shouldered kites to name but a few. Time was ticking by, and we decided to take our late afternoon tea break. I say tea, but I enjoyed a cold beer and biltong, chatting and all the time looking down into the forested valley below and the surrounding hills and mountains for movement and the signs of animals.
Soon after our afternoon stop my eagle-eyed guide, Xolani also known as Mr X, spotted a herd of buffalo on a distant hill. It took some time before I could see them even through my binoculars. As we moved forward the herd came into view as they slowly made their way down probably on their way to water and a place to rest for the night.
Within minutes Mr X spotted something moving on the dirt road above us. Was that a bush pig I asked him? Then we got a second glimpse, and both said, near simultaneously, brown hyena. There was a distinctive stride pattern, but it was moving at speed. It was my first ever sighting of a brown hyena. It took us a few minutes to climb the steep dirt road and when at the point where we last spotted it Mr X jumped from the vehicle. Using its spoor (footprints). Mr X could see where the hyena had run along the road before exiting into the bush. After scouring and searching it was decided that the animal had gone to ground, and our chances of another sighting were slim, so we moved on.
It was time to start making our way back as the sun was dropping in the sky. Mr X was constantly looking down, leaning out of the vehicle and observing the surface of the road. I could tell he had spotted something but light and time were running out. He drove up and then back down the same stretch of road several times all the time looking into the long grass and thick bush. I could tell he was on a mission and using his tracking skills was onto something. Looking down then up he quietly looked at me, pointed, and said “there, there she is”, I could see nothing? He eased the vehicle into reverse then made a three-point turn. He pointed again. And again I could see nothing. Then we stopped and looked down into thick bush. All I could see was leaves, thorns and a rock. The rock then moved out of sight. He smiled and said, “you see now”? Before I dare ask, but I knew it could only be one thing, Mr X said the words: “Black Rhino, a female”. Only an expert guide and tracker with tuned bush eyesight could have found this rare, reclusive, unpredictable and potentially dangerous beast.
Mr X positioned the vehicle at a safe distance and predicted where she might exit the bush and cross the road. He was correct and we were privileged and rewarded with memorable sightings of her as she walked and browsed. We were rewarded a second time, the following day, when Mr X was able to track her from where we had seen the previous evening. This time she was not alone, she had found a male. It was clear that the now pair did not welcome our presence. Mr X showed them the respect they deserved and we left them in peace to hopefully start to add to the black rhino population.
What a time this had been at Babanango Valley Lodge. This is the valley of the kings and I had been royally looked after and not just by Mr X when out in the reserve. My modern and luxurious room, and large en-suite bathroom, had a real homely feel looking through indigenous gardens and into the bush beyond. There is an infinity pool, with decking areas, sun loungers and umbrellas, just meters from my room and the main lodge. There is an outdoor boma, or eating area, with natural gardens perfect for meditating and being at one with your surroundings.
I certainly ate like a king. Coffee with Amaralu and home-made rusks and biscuits when out in the reserve. Breakfast including local fresh tropical fruit, cereals, cheeses, cold meats, cakes as a starter to a full South African of eggs, bacon, sausages and mushrooms. Lunch took an unexpected oriental feel but was perfect for the time of day and weather. Dinner under the stars was a feast of fish and full of vibrant colours and tastes.
I left Babanango Valley Lodge with a lump in my throat. I stood in the lodge gardens with Mzi the lodge manager and we chatted about my experiences. He then recited, with Babanango touches, “I am an African” by former South African president Thabo Mbeki. A wow moment, but I do not want you to read the poem. I want you to listen as I have done at Babanango Game Reserve.
Footnote: The mention of our black rhino encounters were carefully considered and discussed at length. As you can see in our pics all rhinos are dehorned and are fitted with a radio tracking device, one to where a horn once sat and one as a ankle bracelet on their hind leg. A dedicated anti-poaching unit are on duty 24/7 offering round the clock protection to individual animals.