We quickly had breakfast and headed to the open top Landcruiser for our last game ride. Dylan, our ranger and field guide, handed out ponchos and thick blankets in an effort to keep us warm and dry on our inevitably damp and chilly ride. Our expectations were low. The weather was cold and rainy, and the animals tend to hide in the thicket when it’s unpleasant. We also were lucky to have seen almost everything we wanted to see on our prior sunnier game drives — aside from the elusive leopard — so anything else would just have been an added bonus. Little did we know, we were in for one of the best game rides of the week.
Dylan told us that the night before, he heard crunching outside the window of his lodge, which was just a few minutes away from our camp. He shined his flashlight out the window and found a large herd of buffalos munching the grass. It was only minutes into our last game ride and the buffalo were still there, munching away as if it was any other day and the rain wasn’t pouring over them. The large male with a huge rake of horns stared at us, along with a couple of his female counterparts. We watched them graze for a few moments before letting them finish their meal in peace.
Buffalos are considered one of the “Big Five”, along with lions, leopards, elephants, and rhinos. The term Big Five comes from game hunting and refers to the five animals that are the most dangerous to hunt. It’s said that if you don’t get them fast enough, your definitely a goner. I definitely do not condone game hunting and have no interest in showcasing the topic, but the animals included are impressive. The buffalos look like dark brown cows with horns — deceivingly docile — but they apparently use their massive racks to flip and toss anyone who provokes them. They’re definitely not a bovine to be messed with.
As the car rolled over the now muddy dirt roads, crashing through pools of water, we made our way into the southern part of the reserve. It only took us another few minutes to spot a white rhino mother and her baby on the road ahead of us. The Landcruiser came to a halt. Dylan put the car in park, so we could admire the white rhinos from a distance and not bother them by getting too close. We watched in awe, as the large two rhinos walked through the mud, occasionally glancing back to keep their eyes and ears on us. The mother showed off her beautiful, long horns. Their backs glistened with rain and they shook their ears to knock off the raindrops. These white rhinos are two of the less than 12,000 left in the world. And the black rhinos we saw the night before are two of less than 5,000 left in the entire world.
Rhinos, in general, are endangered due to poachers killing them for their horns. They’re believed to have medicinal benefits and are also used as an aphrodisiac. One kilogram of ivory is worth over $65,000 and the mother’s two horns alone can weigh several kilograms. Poachers sneak onto game reserves like this one and camp out in the bush for a couple of days, tracking the rhinos on foot. When the opportunity strikes, they either shoot them with rifles or tranquilize them, cut off their horns and leave them to die. Sadly, just a few days before our arrival, a white rhino mother and her baby were poached on Shamwari's game reserve. The employees were noticeably upset because these beautiful, prehistoric-like animals are slowly crumbling away right before our eyes.
We learned that a lot of the native animals of Africa are at risk of being endangered if they are not already on the endangered list. Cheetahs are endangered from loss of habitat. Lions are vulnerable from being poached for medicinal use and meat. Even giraffes are poached for something as small as their tails, which are a status symbol for some native tribes. Kruger National Park and responsible game reserves, like Shamwari, are working to help preserve and conserve South Africa’s animals. Us humans, as the dominant species and the reason for the endangerment of these animals, have a responsibility to do everything in our power to preserve their habitats, create space for new ones, and protect the animals from human harm. One can only hope that these breathtaking animals are still around for the next generation to enjoy and respect.
As the rhinos ventured back into the bush, we were back on our way. We passed through a small plains-like area that we had seen a female cheetah in the day before and were lucky enough to see her again on this final ride. The day before, she was bathing in the sun’s rays, looking majestic as ever. Today, she seemed less than pleased to be in the cold rain.
Cheetahs are mostly solitary animals. They live and hunt on their own unless they are with cubs or have formed a coalition. The female we saw is the mother of three young adult male cheetahs who formed their own coalition. Once they reached adulthood, they separated from their mother and now they work together to hunt and survive in the bush. They will stay together for life, with the most dominant cat heading the coalition.
As we made our way deeper into the southern part of the reserve, Dylan received a call from a colleague who let us know there was a lion being quite vocal in our proximity. These calls are so much fun because if we are in the area, it means we get to go on a chase to find them. We all held on tight, our hearts racing as we plowed through the mud to find the lion. As we got closer to where the sounds were coming from, we started to hear the strangest call. Dylan said the sound was the lion being territorial. As we inched around a bend in the game trail, we spotted a beautiful adult male lion. His blonde coat was darkened by the rain and his mane was all shades of red and brown. The bark coming from his throat was loud, but not intimidating. It sounded as if he wanted everyone around him to know he was there and he is not afraid. A herd of dozens of giraffes only a few meters away kept their eyes on the male, as he continued to bark. As the lion laid down to rest, a few of the adult giraffes inched forward to keep an eye on him. Within minutes, his brother and the elusive “Blue Eye” came up behind us and joined the lion in the bush.
Blue Eye is the infamous lioness who somehow lost an eye to a cataract — probably from a fight or accident in the bush — and is known as the best hunter of all the lions on the reserve. Female lions do all the hunting, and she’s definitely the largest and most intimidating of the ones we saw.
There are three lion prides on Shamwari’s reserve. The first in the South consists of an old male, his females, and his cubs. He used to be king of the entire reserve until new lions came into the picture. The second consists of one of his male cubs that reached sexual maturity and formed his own small pride in the center of the reserve. The last, but most definitely not the least, are the two new male brothers who are in their adult prime and stole females from the south to form their own pride in the north. In the last couple of weeks, they have begun interacting with the southern king to let him know they’re ready to take him on and win over the southern region.
These are the two male lions we encountered on our last day. They were barking in the south to let the old king know they’re not afraid and want his land as their territory. Apparently, Blue Eye used to be the matriarch of the southern pride. The rangers hadn’t spotted her in a few weeks, thinking she was maybe giving birth in the bush. Alas, she betrayed the old King’s pride and joined forces with the new, stronger brothers in the north. In the upcoming weeks, the brothers will either fight to the death the old king of the south or the old king will submit, and go off on his own to die. His females will be left to join the brothers or form their own female pride. The males will be forced to start their own pride or perish. The lion way of life seems cruel, but it’s only natural. After all, the southern king defeated his predecessor to obtain his reign today, so he knows what is to come of him in his old age.
We watched the lions from a distance, while simultaneously watching the herd of giraffes. There were ginormous adults and “tiny” babies, all towering over us and the surrounding trees. Giraffes are born six-feet tall and the babies only reach about the thigh's height of the adult giraffes. All the animals we saw were beautiful and majestic in their own way, but the giraffes felt especially prehistoric. They glided across the plains with their strong, long legs. Even from miles away, we could see their heads pop up from treetops. They munched away at leaves as they closely watched predators and potential danger in the distance. Dipping their heads out of sight to grab more leaves and then returning above the treetops to chew and digest. It is really quite a charming sight to be seen.
After watching the giraffes and lions, we made our way back to the lodges to catch our flight to Cape Town. We had one more cup of delicious honey tea, wiped our faces with the warm towels, and said our goodbyes. Saying goodbye to the reserve, Dylan, and the other staff was literally heart wrenching. There have been only a handful of times I've felt that way about a place I've traveled to. As you leave, it feels like you left a physical part of you there and you just know it will always hold a special place in your heart. I have no doubt in my mind that I will return to South Africa.
Watch my video blog from our South African Safari:
When In Rome
Two of my most cherished hobbies go hand-in-hand. Writing is my favorite way to reflect after traveling to a new country. I have kept this blog ever since I studied in Rome to share my travels with families and friends. I hope you enjoy learning about my experiences and getting a sense for my writing skills. If you have any questions, please reach out!