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South Africa journey Part III: On safari (finally)

(Writer's note: My wife and I recently returned from a two-week trip to South Africa. The following blog entries chronicle that trip.)

The most common question I get from friends and acquaintances about South Africa is roughly "Why would you want to go to South Africa?"

The easiest answer: We wanted to see animals in a wild setting before they're gone forever. 

Getting up at 6 in the morning isn't everyone's idea of a good time. Especially when you're supposed to be on vacation. But when you're on a safari, it goes with the territory. Animals are most active in the early morning, and in the early evening. You run on their time.

That's why Zulu Nyala and every other game lodge has morning and afternoon game drives. That begins with getting up early, getting dressed and heading out to meet your ranger and the rest of your group.

Ruan would be our guide for the next five days. The pairings, if they're done right are nice because you get a chance to get to know the person showing you around the preserve. Ruan is 27, born in South Africa, deeply knowledgeable about the bush and always laughing about something.

"What happened to you guys," he said, extending his hand, making note of our late arrival due to travel delays.

"British Airways happened," I said, as he began to chuckle.

Ruan was born near Kruger National Park, the granddaddy of all reserves and parks in South Africa. He worked in a butcher's shop and later a factory before deciding he wasn't cut out for 9 to 5. He and his wife and two-year-old daughter live in nearby Hluhluwe (pronounced Sha-shloo-e).

To be a ranger you have to go to an academy or four year school. Ruan explained some of the requirements, which include a ton of memorization of birds and trees, among other things.

Ruan announced to the group there had been a cheetah sighted near one of the fences of the reserve. Zulu Nyala is small by most standards at about 11,000 acres. Within a few minutes we were observing a cheetah walking along a road.

This is Zulu Nyala's lone cheetah, and at about 11 years old he's getting long in the tooth. The reserve has been on a list to get a female, but it has taken a while.

One of the most interesting aspects of safaris is listening to the other guide's communicate with each other by radio. This is done to make sure every guest gets a shot at seeing something special. And true to form in our four full days there we saw plenty.

Zebras in the road.

A giraffe giving us side eye.

A rhino who didn't care much at all that we were there. The mother of a baby a day later was a different story.

One morning we ditched the vehicle and hoofed it for an hour on a walking safari. We came across termite mounds that Ruan explained were dormant because of drought that has wracked the area in recent months. And we found our Cheetah again. When you're out on foot, guides always carry rifles.

The last morning would prove eventful. Ruan's radio crackled with reports of a leopard that had made its way to Zula Nyala from nearby Phinda, a much larger reserve that borders Zula Nyala.

"I'm going to drive a bit faster than usual," Ruan said in his heavy South African accent, followed by a hearty laugh.

Within moments we were within spitting distance of the leopard. It had just dug under the fence and was walking along the same road we had first seen the cheetah.

Leopards are hard to spot. Not just because they're endangered, but because they fit in well with their surroundings. It would be easy to walk up on one and not know it. Ruan told the group that baboons and leopards are arch enemies, which seems odd but apparently true.

Later that day we went out on our last evening drive. As the sun was going down Ruan found a spot overlooking the preserve and cracked open a cooler.  This was a fun way to end our stay at Zulu Nyala.

As for the lodge itself, the staff was friendly, the rooms rustic (no TV's) and clean. The preserve is small but if you want to see something all the time, it's a good place to get your feet wet.

And interestingly all of its many rhinos still have their horns. While other reserves are removing their rhino's horns, Zulu Nyala feels confident it can protect its animals from poaching. It's been four years since the last rhino was poached there thanks in part to its anti-poaching unit, and informants within the poaching community.

Up next,

Part IV: Phinda delivers

Related,

Part I: Trials of the stranded traveler 

Part II: The arrival 

Part V: Cape Town or bust

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Matt Patterson

Matt Patterson has been with The Oklahoman since 2006. Prior to joining the news staff in 2010, Patterson worked in The Oklahoman's sports department for five years. He previously worked at The Lawton Constitution and The Edmond Sun.... Read more ›

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