Unfamiliar feelings swirl inside me, and unknown sounds ricochet through the sky as zebras scatter, colliding with one another, sheer desperation lighting up their eyes. Three cheetahs with laser-like focus leap through the air right in front of our game drive vehicle. They look like ballet dancers, poised and blocking out the world, their eyes on the prize. We're on a game drive at Bush Lodge in Amakhala Game Reserve in South Africa's Eastern Cape province, and I'm perched on the edge of my seat, unsure what will happen next…
Buffet Closing Time
The cheetahs have disappeared behind bushes, and all that's left to indicate they're there are high-pitched, desperate screeches from the zebras and red hartebeest antelope fleeing for their lives.
I gasp audibly, digging my nails into the seat in front of me, a million thoughts racing through my mind. That baby zebra? Will he make it? Will the cheetah succeed and have something to eat? Should I root for him? No, I don't want the zebra to die… but the cheetah… the zebra…
What was probably mere seconds felt like it was happening in slow motion. "Did they catch something?" I ask in a wavering voice. I collapse back onto the backrest, bracing myself to hear the answer.
"No, they did not get anything," says Roan, our guide. His eyes are bright, eyebrows raised, and his voice packed with just as much wonder as mine.
"Wows" all around, everyone pauses for a moment, digesting what just transpired. But then the cheetahs appear from behind the bushes, walking our way with a swagger that seems to say: "Don't worry guys, it's all good. Next time, we'll get them".
Licking Their "Wounds"
We watch as they slink downhill to flop down on an open grassy patch, "licking their wounds" that they did not succeed. Of course, they're completely unscathed, but it sure looks like they've used a fair bit of energy for their hunting session.
Another game drive vehicle passes us, all the guests just as wide-eyed and grinning as we are.
"It was the hadada that gave them away," says their guide, shaking his head. "Real party poopers! The cheetahs were set up for success, we've been watching them for a while, and then the birds' call warned their prey in the nick of time."
I let this sink in. A couple of seconds made all the difference in whether the prey got to live and the predator was left hungry. I've just witnessed the "Circle of Life" – in real life.
Big 5 Game Drives
After our very eventful start to our afternoon game drive, our senses seem sharper, eager to see what else the bush has in store for us.
We pass an elephant, calmly plucking branches from a tree and feasting on it. He seems to enjoy having us there, putting on a bit of a show, and we spend quite some time marvelling not only at its sheer size but also at the way he makes eye contact with you, fluttering those extra-long eyelashes that will make anyone green with envy.
Calls of the Wild at Amakhala Game Reserve
We eventually move on, passing two jackals at a pond. I'm fascinated watching them stretch, yawn, and roll around in the grasslands. Their behaviour is so similar to dogs!
Most people think of jackals as being nocturnal, and it's almost surprising to see them so out in the open when the sun is still up, but Roan explains that they're actually both diurnal and nocturnal and are most active at dawn, dusk and night.
Later, as we make our way to our viewpoint where we'll be enjoying sundowners, a favourite safari activity, I hear a strange strangled-sounding howl pierce the slowly-darkening landscapes around us.
I look at Roan questioningly, and he smiles. "It's the jackals again. This is what we call their satellite call, which basically means they're announcing that they're "still standing" and survived another day."
Immediately, I hear Elton John's voice in my head, singing "I'm Still Standing", and I think to myself how every day for the wildlife is just a game of survival. There's nothing like being out here in the bush that makes me more acutely aware of my own mortality and gives me a new perspective of this great big world we call home.
Roan pulls up at a viewpoint that looks like a huge crater that's so lush that from this distance, it looks like it takes a whole landscaping team to keep it looking like this. But of course, it's only Mother Nature's magic touch.
"This is what we call God's Window," says Roan, which really could not be a better name. In the distance, we see some baboons clambering their way up the escarpment and a lone elephant slowly wading through the landscape.
Roan makes a selection of drinks and snacks appear out of thin air. Soon, our glasses and hearts are overflowing as we stand and stare at one of the best views I've seen in my life.
"It looks like a painting," I whisper, almost too scared to break the spell. This is one of the things I love most about safaris.
It's a whole series of magical moments weaved together, each so unique and memorable that it turns into a blanket of bliss wrapped around you. And this feeling lasts beyond your departure; it follows you home.
The sun has casted its final rays, so we start heading back to the lodge. We've rolled thick, boldly printed blankets around ourselves. "Wrap yourself like you're sushi," I joke, and nostalgia washes over me suddenly, reminding me of staying at my grandmother's home where she had similar blankets and I always cuddled up on her sofa with a mug of coffee and a slice of cake.
Arriving back at Amakhala Bush Lodge, we're handed steaming cups of hot chocolate. What really stands out about this lodge is that you can tell it's a family-run lodge. There's just something cohesive and welcoming about everything, from how staff greets you to the artwork and other bits and pieces around the lodge. It's something you just can't fake.
A huge boma fire on the deck welcomes us, and we warm ourselves up, casting our gazes upwards to marvel at the stars strewn like glitter across the inky sky.
Bellies and Hearts Full
We sit down for dinner, huddled in front of an indoor fire and with fluffy red blankets draped across our laps. We feast on really incredible food, our bellies now just as full as our hearts.
Chef Godfrey steps out to check in with us and asks whether we enjoyed our meals. His face breaks into a smile when we tell him that we most certainly did.
"Well, that's excellent news. I always say I only have two wishes for our guests. One is to be happy, and the other is to gain weight during their stay with us!"
We all burst into laughter, and I assure him that both his wishes will most likely come true!
If someone had to ask me whether I prefer morning or afternoon game drives, I'd say there's no way I can choose one. They each have unique reasons why I enjoy them. And this morning, as the crisp air tickles my nostrils, I'm reminded again how much I love getting up early in the bush.
Don't get me wrong, back home. I'm not necessarily an "easy" early riser. But waking up with the wildlife has an allure you can't deny.
The grasslands are bejewelled with dew droplets, and I have a strange urge to run my hand along it. It looks like it should feel soft and fuzzy like wool.
This morning, we're on an extra special mission, and I'm feeling hopeful that we'll succeed. Because the reality is that you never know what a day in the bush will bring. We drive, listening to our guide Roan as he explains that they have four cheetah cubs he'd love to show us today but that it will be quite a drive and that he can't guarantee we'll find them.
Amarula Coffee Stops
We drive and drive, but I'm not complaining because the landscapes are extra beautiful today, and we occasionally stop to marvel at different wildlife starting their day just like us. Eventually, Roan suggests we first pull over for our morning coffee before we continue on our mission to see the feline cubs.
As we sip on our coffees spiked with the South African liqueur Amarula, a tower of giraffes moves across the horizon. They amble like they're on a catwalk, swaying like they're showing off their spectacular spots.
The Search Continues
Suddenly, Roan hears something on his guide radio, and he drives with renewed purpose. He pulls over, pointing at a tree ahead.
"Can you see them? The cheetah mom and her four cubs are right here," he says, and I can't help but detect a note of pride in his voice. I mean, I would be proud too! I crane my neck, squint my eyes and try to make out their shapes in the grasslands that so closely match the colour of their coats.
There in the distance, I see something move. And the next moment, a couple of blobs leap through the grass towards us. I giggle with glee at the sight, their outlines and details becoming sharper as they get closer. Roan passes his binoculars to me, and I laugh out loud as soon as I zoom in and see their little faces much clearer.
They're so playful, tackling each other, and chasing their mother's tail. Only three months old, they've still got so much to learn about the wild. It's a highlight of my life, not just this game drive, to watch them go about their morning as a little family.
Bukela Amakhala Lodge
We're staying at Bukela Lodge, also located on Amakhala Game Reserve, for a night to experience it from a different perspective. As we check in, I admire the elevated views from our tented camp's balcony, with a watering hole in the distance. I can already picture myself stargazing here tonight.
Once we're settled in, we're ready to head into the bush. This time, our guide is called Lucky, which I silently hope will be a good omen for our wildlife sightings today!
As we start our drive, his name's good luck delivers, as we see a pride of lionesses striding up a hill, cubs following on their heels. As we watch them, quite a while behind them, we spot a majestic-looking lion slowly but surely following them.
I chuckle, thinking of how he's letting them go first to check whether it's safe. Lucky points to other moving shapes on the horizon. "Look, it's Rooibok antelopes," he says. "Or, as I like to call them, the McDonalds of the bush, as they're such an easy meal!" Laughter rumbles from him at his own analogy.
Eastern Cape Safari Landscapes
As we drive, I think of how the Eastern Cape safari landscapes look so different from other safari destinations like Kruger National Park. It's a lot more open, with bushes reminiscent of broccoli sprouting in between.
Suddenly, a mane emerges from the bush, and we gasp. The lions are passing right next to our game drive vehicle! Moments later, lionesses swagger past too. And just as quickly as they emerged, the bush swallows them again.
I suddenly feel lightheaded and take a gulp of air, realising I've been holding my breath the whole time.
The Lion King's Cast
The sky is painted with wispy clouds, looking like someone dragged a wide brush across it, and the air smells especially aromatic today.
We pass some warthogs, and I call out: "Look, Pumbaa!", which causes fellow guests to giggle. I look at these not-so-attractive-yet-adorable creatures zooming across the landscapes, tails straight up, then abruptly stopping and staring as if they're waiting for us to chase after them.
Minutes later, someone on the game drive vehicle exclaims: "Timon!" And sure enough, Pumbaa's friend Timon is standing upright, watching us from a distance. From Mufasa to Simba, Nala, Timon and Pumbaa, we've seen almost the whole cast of The Lion King today!
Bush Walk at Hlosi Game Lodge
Riaan Brand and his colleague Liam are waiting for us, and they look the part, armed with rifles, binoculars and khaki outfits. Nerves bubble inside me, but I try to push it aside. It's clear from the moment Riaan introduces himself and gives us the safety briefing that he not only knows Amakhala like the back of his band but that he's fiercely passionate about protecting it.
Hippo Sunbathing Sessions
As we start our walk, Riaan points to the watering hole right in front of Hlosi Lodge. My eyes follow, and I see three hippos sunbathing on the banks of the dam! I've seen hippos before, but usually, they're just heads bopping out of the water, so seeing their round bodies fully out of the water is quite a sight to behold.
We continue walking for a few minutes, and then Riaan holds up his hand, luckily palm open, which just means stop. If that hand curls into a fist, it means we need to freeze right there and then as he spots a dangerous animal.
Following in Lions' Footsteps
We stop, and he points to the ground. "Look, a lion's spoor," he explains. "As it has not rained away yet, we can see it's still fairly fresh."
We continue walking, and he points out another spoor, this time the duiker antelope. "Did you know…" he whispers, as silence is key on a walking safari. "The duiker is the smallest antelope. However, it's also the only antelope known to eat meat occasionally to survive."
Moments later, Riaan stops and plucks a small purple flower from a tree. He sticks it to his earlobe, grinning at us. "They're called "Umasheleshele". Zulu girls wear these as earrings," he explains and continues walking with the flower still stuck to his ear, swishing in the light breeze.
Working with The Wind
Our second guide Liam stays behind us, keeping a watchful eye on our surroundings, whereas Riaan leads us in a single file through the bush.
Suddenly, he raises his fist, and my heart stops along with my feet. Dangerous animal, freeze. After a few seconds, Riaan ducks a bit and looks back at us. "Buffalo," he whispers, "But the wind is in our favour, so let's go this way quickly as they're on the move."
Having just heard days ago that buffalo are quite temperamental, like honey badgers, he does not have to ask me twice, and I follow him hastily.
Mother Nature's Pharmacy
Riaan again stops, picking a fleshy leaf. "If you're ever in the wild and have sore muscles you need to put some heat on, you can leave this leaf close to the fire and then place it on the area. It's like nature's heat pack," he explains.
He points to another plant. "And look at this one. You can use this as a pain reliever. Simply stick this part into your skin like needles, and within a few minutes, you'll feel better."
I must look a bit sceptical because he smiles and points at the same plant. "And these berries? Well, some say it's the most delicious thing you'll ever taste. On the other hand, others say it will give you the most violent diarrhoea… But I'm still looking for a guinea pig to test it for me."
I burst out laughing, quickly covering my mouth with my hand because, as I said, silence is key on a bush walk.
We continue walking in silence, the only sounds from our boots crunching on the dry soil and birds serenading each other overhead.
Nothing Lasts Forever
Riaan lifts his hand, palm open again, and bends down. "The shongololo worm," he says. "Look, this one is just an empty "shell". What happened was that an assassin bug inserted a protein that liquified its insides. It basically turned it into a shongololo milkshake! It's always so fasincating to me that so many things kill the shongololo, yet you still see so many of them around."
After many more interesting tales and tidbits, we've reached the end of our walk. Riaan points to an antelope skull.
"Look, even skulls eventually perish and, in turn, feed other creatures. Nothing on this planet lasts forever."
Riaan's poignant words replays in my head, and as we step back through Hlosi Lodge's front door, I think to myself: Yes, Mother Nature takes away. But my goodness, does she give back in abundance.
The Heart of Amakhala Game Reserve
Everything at Amakhala is about making a positive impact on our world, in particular through conservation, community uplifting and their anti-poaching efforts.
From the very beginning, when the farms that now make up Amakhala Game Reserve joined together, these founding families have placed emphasis on treading lightly and making a difference. This has not been without its challenges, like the serious drought in the area in the late 1980s, but they've made an effort to work with Mother Nature instead of against her. And it's paid off.
Over the years, wildlife populations have grown and more native species introduced, which led to the need to introduce an anti-poaching unit which has been immensely successful.
Amakhala Game Reserve is also proud to be a member of the Indalo Protected Environment and it has officially been recognised as a key biodiversity hotspot in Eastern Cape fauna and flora. Furthermore, they work closely with the Endangered Wildlife Trust focusing in particular on their cheetah metapopulation project to supply genetically resilient cheetah to other areas. They also have several other initiatives and ties with established conservation and academic authorities.
How to Get to Amakhala Game Reserve
Amakhala Game Reserve has various lodges, each catering to a different type of traveller. However, anyone from those on a honeymoon, celebrating an anniversary, babymoon, or enjoying a family-friendly holiday will love this malaria-free Big 5 game reserve.
It's also super easy to get to. We flew in from Cape Town International Airport to Gqeberha (formerly Port Elizabeth) Airport and drove the rest of the way, which only took about 45 minutes.
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