On a continent where few destinations can promise sightings of the famous Big Five, South Africa’s Timbavati Game Reserve has earned its bragging rights.
Here, the wildlife has free range between the Timbavati and adjacent, unfenced Kruger National Park, including the five animals historically considered by big game hunters to be the most challenging to pursue on foot: the lion, cape buffalo, elephant, rhino and leopard.
They’re abundant in this 53,392-hectare wildlife sanctuary. So too are other countless mammals and over 350 species of birdlife.
Timbavati is also a privately owned park which, I’ve learned after multiple safaris in three African countries, has its advantages over national parks like Kruger. The tight restrictions over the number of vehicles that traverse a private game reserve make for a more rewarding game-viewing experience with fewer distractions and interruptions. Moreover, unless the animals themselves approach the dusty roads, it’s impossible to get the close-up wildlife sightings in national parks that are enjoyed in private reserves where off-roading is permitted, but closely controlled to protect both visitors and the animals. (My guide didn’t have this privilege, for example, on my safaris through the Maasai Mara and Amboseli national parks in Kenya.)
It’s late October, and I answer the call of the South African wild at Motswari Private Game Reserve, a four-star luxury lodge in Timbavati. I’m accompanied by my ranger, Shadrack, and tracker, Tiyani — both local residents with intimate knowledge of the surrounding terrain and diverse wildlife that call it home.
With two 3.5-hour game drives each day, Motswari offers guests plenty of opportunity to come face to face with the big game in the comfort of open, 4 x 4 land rovers — once early in the morning and again in the late afternoon. These are optimal game-viewing times when the sun dramatically rises and falls, and the animals are most active.
Timbavati boasts a healthy population of rhinos, so it’s no surprise we spot a herd of seven white rhinos on my very first game drive.
I am in awe by their sheer magnificence.
Shadrack tells me poachers are not a threat in this area but, sadly, they face grave danger in other regions of the country near the villages. It’s tragic, really. (For more on the conservation efforts to save South Africa’s rhinos, I encourage you to read this article about Rhinos Without Borders by my friends over at Green Global Travel.)
Later, we come across antelope species such as duikers and impalas, then zebras, elephants (one of my favourite animals), a yellow-billed hornbill and a pride of resting lions.
Known for its abundance of predators, the Timbavati is home to one of the highest densities of lion in Africa.
Before calling it a night, we encounter a pack of hyenas on the drive back to Motswari.
And, just when I think they’re cute, I remind myself they’re dangerous beasts and bold scavengers.
On the second game drive the next morning, we come across a giant herd of cape buffalo in the hundreds. It’s overwhelming in the best way possible. Not to be confused with the larger, tamer Asian buffalo, the cape (or African) buffalo is known by hunters to be notoriously dangerous.
We’re clearly outnumbered but we keep our distance and, while they take notice of us, they leave us in peace as they take their drink from the nearby watering hole.
When we later spot a group of grazing warthogs, I can’t help but think how peculiar-looking they are.
We stop at a clearing for hot beverages and snacks when one guest in our vehicle, a curious young boy, expresses his wish to see giraffes.
Shadrack, now on a mission, has a hunch he knows where to find them — he’s a skilled ranger who’s instinctually familiar with the bush and its wild inhabitants. So it isn’t long before these three giraffes appear, towering over the bushes and their long necks arching forward to feed.
The boy wanted giraffes — and that’s exactly what he got. Just like that.
To learn more about the flora and fauna on foot from a different perspective, Motwari also offers morning bush walks for the more adventurous explorers. After our morning game drive, Shadrack arms himself with a loaded rifle for our protection before leading us through the varied landscape surrounding the lodge.
He tells us to stop when a few nearby elephants sense our presence, but we tread quietly and carefully, and make our way back to camp safely.
On the last game drive of my two-night stay at Motswari, we spot even more elephants, a herd with an over-confident calf who storms over to our vehicle in a futile show of aggression. Through his flailing trunk, he ejects a mini trumpeting shriek to intimidate us, but I turn to my friend Suzanne and we simultaneously burst into laughter. Does he know we find him adorable and entertaining? Maybe in a few years the little guy will get the hang of it. Just maybe.
Shadrack and Tiyani lead us to a herd of grazing white rhinos too, but wait… what? We’re going to climb out of the vehicle? Who gets to walk with these beasts in the wild? We do!
But we can’t get over-excited. For our safety, Shadrack, with rifle in hand, keeps a close eye on one particular male who recently ripped the door off a vehicle. Perhaps I should be shivering with fear but, instead, I ruminate: this is exhilarating.
My final animal sighting is a pack of hyenas, including this little guy, and I remind myself not be deceived by appearances.
And what about the shy, mysterious, elusive leopards?
In the end, I was given the opportunity of four game drives at Motswari, but skipped one to catch up on work and much-needed rest. Suzanne, on the other hand, didn’t want to miss out, so off she went. And, thankfully, she did because, as luck would have it (for her, not so much for me), she spotted this one lone leopard from the corner of her eye and, together with Shadrack and Tiyani, helped track her until she appeared in full view.
Suzanne may be a Canadian urbanite, but I think she may be cut out for this line of work in the African bush.
A big thank-you to Motwari Private Game Reserve for hosting me as their guest and sending me on a most extraordinary wildlife adventure.
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