It’s the last of our five game drives in Balule Game Reserve, just after our final coffee stop and at the end of 15 hours out in the bush on safari in South Africa. We’ve been weaving our way through a maze of dusty red paths for the last couple of hours. Past straggly looking trees, across dried-up river beds and along rocky tracks. The landscape seems so dry and empty that it’s hard to believe anything lives there, but you can hear sounds of life all around you. There’s the constant buzzing of insects, the call of birds and the rustle of something unseen in the undergrowth. In the last few days we’ve seen giraffes, zebras, buffalo, hippos, hyenas, a black rhino and a leopard. But no lions and no elephants – and this was our last chance.
As we twist and turn our way through the rough tracks I keep thinking that we’ve been here before; that I recognise that tree or that termite mound or that bend in the road. But in reality we could be circling the same route all day and I would have no idea. Our eyes are constantly flicking around from one side to the other, scanning the bush for any sign of movement. But if it’s there then we’re too slow to see it.
Our guide Eric is our eyes, his senses attuned to any sight or sound of the park’s wildlife. He can tell by their tracks how long ago they were here and which way they were heading, like he can speak their secret language. A tree isn’t just a tree it’s an elephant’s scratching post, a footprint isn’t just a footprint it’s a signpost. Someone asks him how long it’s taken to learn his way around the park’s roads, but he says it’s more like learning to read the landscape – how to navigate from the angle of the sun or to know which direction you’re facing by the position of birds’ nests in the trees. If you can do that you’ll never get lost.
After hours of sitting quietly and watching you go into an almost trance-like state. Your mind and body are both so still it feels like you’ve powered down. But then the radio crackles into life and suddenly we’re off. Eric transforms into a rally driver in the flick of a switch, swerving around corners, sliding across sandy paths and bumping along uneven roads. We cling onto our hats and the frame of the jeep, and can’t stop laughing as we try not to get bounced out of our seats. That previously calm, meditative state has been injected with a dose of adrenalin. We’re all on high alert, our senses sharper and our attention focused.
But as ever it’s Eric who spots him first as we slide to a stop alongside another jeep – a male lion with a golden mane framed with black. There’s a sharp intake of breath and a sudden flurry of camera clicks as it sinks in that we’ve finally seen a lion, just when we thought it wasn’t going to happen. He looks over from a hundred metres away then just carries on walking. Eric works out which way he’s heading and repositions the jeep so he passes just in front of us. He stops to look and listen to what’s going on around him, and at one point it feels like he’s looking me right in the eye. But it’s not us that he’s interested in.
As he passes by and heads off into the depths of the bush we spot a lioness in the distance doing the same looking and listening routine. You feel like shouting ‘he’s over there!’, but you keep quiet and just let them go, hoping that they’ll manage to find each other eventually. And back in the jeep we all let out all that breath we didn’t realise we had been holding in, the adrenalin rush fades, Eric drives on and it’s back to searching and waiting and watching, because you never know what you might see next.