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Published: November 6th 2015
I woke about 4am hearing the distant sound of thunder and the closer echo of large animals roaring in response. We got up at 4.50 to get ready for the 5.30 game drive. When I stepped outside it was raining - the first rain Swaziland had received in five months.
Our driver, Maxwell, was driving an open-sided range rover with a canvas canopy. We set off as the sun was rising, brilliant red above the trees. Soon the rain, which had paused briefly, started again and only got heavier as the drive went on.
We entered the park and almost immediately Maxwell stopped the car. We looked around but couldn't understand why. He pointed to a flat tree branch and we could just make out that an African Python was lying wrapped around it waiting for the sun. Not far beyond there we saw a vulture perched in a tree. Then suddenly we came across a pair of elephants. We were very excited as we approached the two bulls, to see such large animals so soon was incredible. The elephants are responsible for damaging the trees... They can destroy a whole forest as they spend 18 hours per day
eating. In the early morning light these two examples looked stately. One was about 20, the other twice his age. They stood there gracefully chewing leaves from the trees, not at all bothered by our presence. I would have liked a bit more time to watch them but Maxwell started the engine and we moved off again.
We drove through the park appreciating the harsh but beautiful scenery. We were approaching the gate to leave the elephant and lion enclosure when I said to Lindsey, "It's a shame we haven't seen lions." Less than a minute later, as we reached the fence, we saw a female lion stalking an impala on the opposite side of the fence. The impala froze as it saw the lioness, not understanding what the lion knew - that it was safe behind the fence. As the impala bounded off into the veld all the lioness could do was flash her teeth showing how hungry she was.
Maxwell took us past the hungry lion - she was only a couple of metres from the side of the car. As we were in an open sided vehicle this was a nerve-wracking experience. In front of
us we saw another lioness stretched out in the road. Behind her were sitting two cubs. Just off the track lay a third lioness, partially camouflaged in the grass. The cubs walked past us and went to play together in the veld. One climbed a termite mound and stood there, proudly surveying its territory. A few seconds later the other cub climbed the mound and displaced him. Soon they were both off the mound, frolicking in the grass.
The mother of the cubs moved towards her children and it looked like they were about to move off but then the excitement really started. From our right, a young male prowled onto the scene. Our attention was diverted by the cubs, who were playing, as oblivious to the approaching threat as we were. Fortunately Maxwell saw and understood what was happening. He started the engine and revved it loudly to scare off the mother of the cubs who had started running towards the young male to attack... apparently this was a pre-emptive strike as males will kill other lion's cubs as they see them as competition. Maxwell's reaction had startled us and we felt a bit jumpy as we observed
the tense situation. The male lion went to sit next to the lioness who had been sitting in the veld, she, his mother, sat next to him protectively. The mother of the cubs sat between this pair and her cubs whilst they continued playing. This standoff went on for a few minutes until she took her cubs off into the veld. The first lioness followed and then we just had the mother and son. They both opened their mouths showing us how hungry they were and stared at us in the Land Rover, waiting to pounce. Eventually we moved on and all breathed a sigh of relief. We'd been mere feet away from nature's best predator with no protection except our driver's wits and knowledge of lion behaviour.
We left that enclosure and went to a hide overlooking an almost dry waterhole. Across the mud expanse in the trees opposite we could just make out an African Fish Eagle. The small amount of water that remained in the mud, really little more than a puddle, seethed with life. Apparently we were watching bubble fish but we could just see the movement. After a cup of instant coffee and two
dry tasteless cakes we went back to the car. It was raining heavily by this point and Maxwell got drenched as he started the car. The rest of us got soaked as we tried to clear the canopy.
Moving on, we passed a lot of leopard tortoises by the side of the road, a few baboons and an amazing monitor lizard two feet from the car. We got a fleeting glimpse of a zebra springing across in front of the car to join two friends before all three fled skittishly into the trees. Sometime later, after not seeing more than a few deer for a while, we suddenly came to a clearing and there stood before us a graceful, elegant male giraffe munching on the leaves of a tree. Lindsey and I were delighted as we had really wanted to see a giraffe.
Maxwell now took us out of the camp. We'd been out for two and a half hours and our time was up. We jumped down from the Land Rover and thanked Maxwell, truly grateful for such an amazing experience. We had seen so many magnificent creatures and had so many meaningful moments all accompanied by
commentary from a great guide. It was worth the long trek to get to Hlane, the early morning and the difficult drive around the reserve.
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