One of the first things you need to know about…
Tour operators will tell you there is no guarantee of seeing the “Big 5” on an African safari. But they haven’t met Elvis.
I met Elvis on my first ever safari in South Africa. A safari guide at Umlani Bushcamp, located on the Timbavati Game Reserve in Kruger National Park, Elvis gave an iron-clad guarantee that we would see all five animals. No hound dog, that Elvis. He delivered. In the first two days.
What are the “Big 5”? It’s a term coined by big game hunters and refers to the animals that were the most difficult and dangerous to take down. While game hunting and poaching of these mostly endangered animals has yet to be eliminated, the term is now more often used in marketing by safari tour operators.
Here is the Big 5 List:
You know you are truly alive when you’re living among lions. (Karen Blixen, )
There is nothing that can describe the moment when we came upon this lioness and her cub – – my first big five sighting. And what a stroke of blissful luck to see lions first, since I am a life-long fan of cats of all sizes (my friends are inserting “crazy cat lady” here).
This is easily the pinnacle of my travel experiences so far.
Seeing these magnificent felines in their natural environment somehow just doesn’t compare to a zoo. It creates a feeling of wonder that such wild beauty exists in the world. It’s awe-inspiring and touching.
And yet bittersweet. According to the World Wildlife Fund, there are only 30 to 35 thousand lions left in the wild and these numbers are declining rapidly. At that rate, they could be gone by the year 2050!
Despite the incredible beauty of this sweet scene, Elvis was not satisfied that he had fulfilled his guarantee for this animal sighting. We had seen a lioness, but not a lion.
On the early morning game drive the next day, Elvis found a lion with his pride, snoozing in the sun after the night’s hunt and feed. It was a young lion, but battle-scarred and regal, nonetheless.
One of the things that surprised me about the safari experience was how close you get to the animals in an open-air jeep. The guides are keenly attuned to the animals’ behaviour, and readily back off at any sign of annoyance. But, apparently, they saw no danger as we were surrounded by a herd of elephants.
I could actually hear the flap of their ears, as they cooled themselves in the heat of the day.
As we watched the elephants feed, Elvis shared some facts about these giants, the largest mammals on land. Did you know that elephants are right or left ‘tusked’, much as people are right or left-handed? They have a dominant tusk, usually the larger one, which they use for digging up earth and uprooting trees. No, they don’t like peanuts, and yes, they have amazing memories.
They say that while an elephant never forgets, the buffalo never forgives. These large bovines have been known to attack anyone who has previously caused them harm, and, four times stronger than an ox, are reported to kill more hunters in Africa than any other animal.
Perhaps this ominous-looking fellow uses his sense of style to distract his enemies.
Over the course of this trip, I was lucky enough to see both the white (threatened) and black rhino (seriously endangered).
On the Elvis guarantee, we saw this white rhino, the second largest land mammal. Despite its bulk, I was surprised at this guy’s ability to hide as it disappeared from view as quickly as it had appeared.
You’ll notice that the white rhino is not actually white in colour. The name comes from the Afrikaans word ‘weit’, which means wide, and refers to the rhino’s muzzle. Just call him “square-lips”.
The elusive leopard. Skillful at blending into its environment, this is the one that evades many a safari-goer. But not with Elvis. He tracked down this teenage male in a tree, just as it was finishing a breakfast of some kind of antelope.
A leopard will drag its kill up a tree to keep it from hyenas. It’s an amazing display of strength to carry an animal, often heavier than itself, at least twenty feet or so up a tree.
We stayed under that tree and watched the leopard for over an hour, as he finished his meal, and the obligatory cat bath afterwards. Watching him, his piercing eyes, sleek coat and contained power, I was again struck by the grace and lyricism that is nature.
As Luke Massey says in his stellar article, “Leopard Tales” in Sidetracked Magazine.
It is privilege to share the planet with such a creature as the leopard.
They say that something of Africa seeps into your soul, and creates a longing to go back. Indeed.
Thank you Elvis, thank you very much.