In the twilight before dawn, there was a chill in the air in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve adjoining Kruger National Park. As we set out in a Land Rover with no top and no doors, we pulled our thin jackets close and spread blankets across our laps.
Our tracker, Louis, found lion prints in the dirt. Our guide and driver, Franscois, left the road in the direction the lions had taken. We lurched across the rocky terrain, filled with anticipation.
Shortly after sunrise, we spotted a lion in tall grass by a dry creek bed. As we approached, we were startled to see a second lion emerge from the bush, then another, and another. Within moments, there were 14 of them, and we were completely surrounded.
We were as defenseless as lambs and may have looked just as tasty but the lions paid us little notice. Lions in game reserves know vehicles to be harmless. As long as you stay quietly seated in a vehicle, you are not perceived as a threat, or a meal.
There were at least four adult females, several juvenile males and females and two cubs, one barely 3 months old. The lions had not eaten in several days. There were a lot of mouths to feed and two cubs had died in the preceding months. The pressure to find food was mounting.
For an hour, we traveled through the bush with our furry companions. The adults kept a close eye on the cubs and occasionally paused to look and listen for prey while the juveniles played almost constantly, climbing fallen trees and pretending to stalk each other. The cubs snuggled up with their mothers whenever they could.
The animals were beautiful, strong and healthy, but the adults carried the scars of a violent life. One had fresh, bloody scratches on her neck, another was missing part of an ear.
Up ahead, in an opening surrounded by tall bushes, we saw a male impala with his harem of six to eight females. By this time, the lions were widely scattered and advancing slowly in the direction of the impalas but had not yet seen them. The impalas could see our Land Rover, which did not worry them, but could not see the lions.
It looked like the table had been set for a kill.
Forty yards to the left of our vehicle, an adult lion spotted the harem. She froze in her tracks, face hardened and eyes focused.
Another lion emerged from the bush to our right with a deadly stare locked on the impalas. The change in demeanor was remarkable.
The rest of the pride had disappeared.
For several tense minutes, we waited, wondering if the other lions were surrounding the impalas. A lion is only slightly faster than an impala and lacks the latter’s endurance. Generally, a lion must be within 30 yards of an impala when a chase begins in order to have a chance at catching its prey.
Suddenly, the lion on our left charged the impalas, which saw it immediately and escaped into the bush. By the time the rest of the pride realized what was happening, it was all over.
Not long afterward, as the sun rose and the day warmed, the pride congregated at the edge of a meadow to sleep and conserve energy until late afternoon. There would be no meal that morning.
I am writing tonight from the 5-star Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve. It’s the first lodge of three that I will visit on my South Africa safari.
I arrived yesterday via small plane from Johannesburg. At 4pm we set out on the first game drive of the trip and discovered a herd of elephants with several calves, munching its way to a waterhole.
We left the road to follow along and observed an assortment of animals and birds including impalas, waterbucks, a 3-foot-long lizard (rock monitor), grey herons, glossy starlings, yellow-billed hornbills and purple rollers.
The highlight of the drive was an encounter with endangered African wild dogs. By some estimates, there are only 1,400 adults left on the planet, so traveling with a pack of nine for almost an hour was an unexpected treat.
It’s heartbreaking to think that the species could be extinct within a few years.
We left the wild dogs behind and were careful to put a couple of miles between us and them before climbing out of the Land Rover for the traditional “sundowner ,” a drink in the bush at sunset. Within minutes, a spectacular array of stars filled the night sky.
This morning we saw many more species of animals and birds, along with the pride of lions. On our afternoon drive, we had an entertaining rendezvous with a wildebeest that was elaborately marking its territory by rubbing its head on the ground, kicking up dirt with its hooves and rolling over on its back with legs splayed in the air. At the end of his ritual, he realized we were watching and looked almost embarrassed.
Later, as the sun set, a leopard walked by close enough to touch, though we knew better than to try. Leopards are among the most elusive and beautiful creatures on the continent.
Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge is one of four luxurious Sabi Sabi properties on this vast, private game reserve, each with its own personality. Sculpted into the slope of a hill, Earth Lodge is almost invisible from three sides and has been described as the most environmentally friendly lodge in Africa.
Don’t think for a moment that means guests are roughing it. Earth Lodge boasts a spa, bar, library and fitness center. There are four dining areas: indoors and outdoors overlooking a watering hole, an underground wine cellar and a traditional African boma (outdoor dining area protected by a fence).
The staff is friendly and attentive and everything runs beautifully under the supervision of lodge managers Heath and Bridget.
Thirteen spacious bungalows are spread across the property, with views of watering holes and hillsides that are visited by herds of elephant and other game. Each bungalow has a private plunge pool, bath and indoor and outdoor showers and sitting areas.
There are no fences around the lodge. Lions, leopards, buffalo, elephants and rhinos (Africa’s so-called Big Five) are sometimes seen nearby, so guests must be walked to and from their suites after dark.
We dined in the wine cellar last night and alfresco tonight, by candlelight, with a sumptuous selection of appetizers and entrees including game and fish.
I’ve been fortunate to travel in all the major safari countries in Africa, and the game viewing on the Sabi Sand reserve is as good as it gets. This is aided by the fact that guides are allowed to leave the road for up-close experiences, and by the considerable skills of Franscois and Louis.
Tonight, outside the walls of my bungalow, a half-moon hovers over Africa and 14 hungry lions again are on the prowl. Impalas band together near the center of the meadow and watch the darkened tree line.
Sleep will not come easily to the lion or the impala. Every animal here lives on a razor’s edge.