Upon arrival to the Amakhala safari lodge, every exhaustion and worry was immediately erased. We were greeted with the distant view of three grazing giraffes as we drove into the lodge, and were alarmed by the close proximity of numerous nyala grazing 5 mere feet from us. Our temporary residence was absolutely gorgeous. Wide opened to view the countryside, with zipper-covers for bugs we were in paradise found. Afternoon tea was served at 2:30, and immediately after we all piled into a huge safari van for our first game drive. The reserve was incredible. In the Eastern Cape region there are no longer any free-range “big 5” animals, which include the lion, African elephant, leopard, rhinoceros, and Cape buffalo. They were cleared out for farmland and hunted/poached through the years. However, with the emphasis on natural conservation over the last few years, many game reserves have emerged, such as Amakhala, to offer a sanctuary to animals from the big 5 down to the common impala or wildebeest, and give visitors a real view of these wild beasts in their habitats.
During our stay at the lodge we partook in three morning game drives beginning after a brief muffin and coffee at 7:00 am, ending with a full hot breakfast at the lodge, and three afternoon game drives, beginning after high tea at 2 and ending in time for a luxurious dinner. Because it is winter in South Africa, the nights begin very early with sunset at 5:45. Just prior to sunset, our guide would us a picnic of cheese, crackers, fruits and spreads served with famous South African wine and we watched the sunset over the reserve, while watching the rhinos slowly graze or listening to the elephants.
We bumped and banged our way through water, rock, mud and mountain all through the immense reserve on curving paths known only to our guide Iban. The enormous tires of the safari vehicle wrenched us from ditches as Iban explained everything we wanted to know about the reserve and the animals, which he knows by name and habit. Along the way we were blessed with spectacular views of the basin and landscape surrounding the reserve.
The “Big 5” includes the leopard, lion, elephant, buffalo and rhinoceros. We were fortunate to stand mere feet away from all but the leopard, which the reserve does not yet have. While searching one morning, I am proud to say that my keen eye caught sight of a patch of yellow in the distance. Upon further binocular investigation, it became evident that I had discovered the typically elusive lion of the park, Mufassa. We took the vehicle off road to see the lion more clearly. In fact, we parked not more than 15 or 20 feet from Mufassa, an enormous male with the most beautifully full mane, as he lay content in the sun. As we rounded the bush he was sitting by, we saw a freshly killed hartebeest in the thicket. He was so docile because he was full and lazy. In the thicket with the fresh kill was the female lioness, Scar. We did not see her the first day as she was lounging in the thicket, but when we returned to see them, both lions were in the open sunning themselves. It was honestly terrifying at first being so close to such vicious creatures. Once I was more accustomed to the situation I was able to observe the power and magnificence that they exalted. Observing the lions was my favorite part of the entire safari. As lions will not leave their kill behind until it is finished and they are satisfied, we were able to revisit them numerous times
And then there was the time that I was nearly stampeded by an elephant. Elephants proved to be difficult to find, as they like to meander between trees as large as themselves. After searching high and low for the monstrous creatures, I had given up on seeing any elephant for the day. Just then, an entire herd emerged out of nowhere. We watched in amazement as a mom, dad and two children elephants walked directly in front of our path. Then, I realized that there were two more elephant directly behind me. The others had passed without a second glance in our direction, but one behind noticed us. The aggressive female of the park came within three to five feet of us with her ears flapped out to the sides in an attempt at intimidation. It was more than an attempt—it was a successful attempt. I was ready to put the car into drive myself, but Iban was not disturbed. He knew when the elephant would actually charge and evidentially this elephant was just trying to scare us away. Regardless, I would call it a near death experience. We saw elephant a few more times, most memorably as we were searching for the cheetah down in the basin a truly enormous elephant appeared out of nowhere. His name was Norman (named after my godfather Uncle Norman I believe) and he was the largest elephant in the reserve. His tusks were two different sizes, as one had broken off when he was KILLING ANOTHER ELEPHANT. Needless to say when he quickly approached us, I saw my life flash before my eyes a second time.
Other than these two exceptional experiences, we spent the rest of our game drives observing the prehistoric rhinoceroses at a distance of 20 feet, groups of 10 giraffes grazing on thorny trees, and a vast assortment of other bush animal including buffalo, velvet monkeys perched in trees, packs of plains zebra, impala, waterbuck, red hartebeest, eland, wildebeest, blesbok, warthog, kudu, springbok, springhare, cape glossy starlings, herons. As the night grew darker we would begin the hour trek home. The pitch-black night allowed us to see by spotlight a few jackals and a rare spotted eagle owl. After being spoiled senseless at the Amahkhala lodge, we reluctantly drove away with our sights set on my future residence of Cape Town.