By Terry Willey.

Over the past two decades, I have been fortunate enough to travel the world and visit over 40 countries, but somehow the idea of embarking on a safari had escaped me until recently when my wife booked three days stay in an exclusive small reserve of just 12 square miles, situated south of the infamous Kruger.

There were only a handful of lodges located by a large water hole, and all excellently furnished. We were greeted on arrival by our host, who promised us that we would have the best of times during our stay and that he and his Trackers and team would do all they could to make it a memorable experience.

Each day the “drive outs” commenced early morning and just after lunch time and returned for evening dinner, which meant that we covered many miles in our short stay. Another half dozen visitors were with us in our Jeep, which was tiered so that each individual had a good view. Each day, our driver insisted I sat alongside him with our Tracker on a caged seat elevated above the front inside wheel. During this time I heard from him about his many experiences, and was particularly pleased to be told that during the 10 years or so that he had been involved with safari it had never been necessary to take a gun to any animal.

The dangers of stepping off the Jeep in certain areas became very apparent when, on one occasion I requested a toilet stop – and was politely told to remain seated as we were being watched by a pride of lions which was far from apparent, but they were looking on from behind trees.

Everyone talks about the “Big Five” – those being the game animals that are considered the five most difficult animals in South Africa to find on foot. They are now widely identified by most Safari Tours as being the lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant and Cape buffalo. It became clear that we were privileged to be with one of the most professional and experienced guides, as for the first two days we managed to see four of the “Big Five” with only the leopard escaping us. I was particularly surprised to learn that the male lion is petrified of the Honey Badger, a relatively small animal in comparison but which specifically attacks the male lion and whose bite can be fatal.  There were instances when we saw lions both old and young scurrying away from areas which we were advised were due to the presence of Honey Badgers. They can move across the ground at great speed and attack the male lion’s genitals, causing the lion to bleed to death – although the lionesses are left alone.

Our first encounter with a small herd of elephants was memorable.  Our guide had advised us that they were in the vicinity but wasn’t quite sure where, so we parked up in a clearing and simply waited their anticipated arrival. It seemed for ever and then, almost out of the blue, the first of the herd arrived preceded by a strong smell.  I could not get over how delicately they passed by our Jeep within a few feet ensuring that they respected our presence in their territory. It took almost half an hour for the herd to pass. On our last day we were asked if we would like to do an early morning “drive” which would mean us arising around 3.30am and after a brief coffee the intention was to set off around 4.30am ready to greet the sunrise at 5am. Little did I know that this was to be one special day.

After coffee we were handed rugs and hot water bottles as the early morning temperatures in Africa and even in season are quite low. Our intention was to do everything possible to find the leopard which we had not seen in the preceding days. I had previously spoken to many people who had ventured on safari and to the larger reserves such as Kruger who had not managed to see the leopard. We were advised that leopards were very difficult to find, let alone see in any detail. Our tracker directed us to an area which was uncannily quiet from the normal signs of wild animals and as we passed by, the most wonderful birds of prey sat high in the trees looking down on us, as the sun rose above them.  It was an amazing sight.

As our Jeep slowly proceeded, our driver whispered to us “I think we are going to be lucky” as he turned off the engine and we sat silently as the most beautiful leopard appeared. I will always recall this moment – sitting a few feet from such a powerful and beautiful animal that briefly focused its eyes upon us. Our tracker advised us to remain very quiet as he believed she was protecting her young and indeed this was the case as within a few minutes three leopard cubs approached her and followed behind as they all disappeared before our eyes into the bush. Although the magical encounter lasted only a few minutes, it was one I shall never forget.  It demonstrated the significance of respecting the territory of such wonderful animals in their own habitat.

As we boarded our light plane back to Johannesburg we were able to look down upon the Reserve and reflect upon our special experience and that unbelievable, never-to-be-forgotten encounter.