I have been very much looking forward to today since I found out that I was coming to Africa - Safari Day! And as much I built up in my mind what it would be like, I could come close to imagining how incredible my day was!
Belinda picked me up from the hotel this morning with her husband and her daughter. They have a wonderful family and were very gracious to give up their day to spend with me. We had a great time getting to know one another in the relatively short 45 minute drive out to the Lion and Rhino park outside of Johannesburg. We got to the park around noon and the pavement gave way to all dirt roads. We followed that path to a small lodge where we had a light lunch. It had been cloudy during the morning and the skies finally opened up with a light rain. It actually cooled the temperatures down nicely and only lasted for a relatively short perious of time.
Our guide met us at the lodge and directed us to an open-air Toyota Landcruiser for our afternoon game drive. The headed out around 1pm and the rain had slowed to a light mist. The Lion and Rhino Park is a non-profit reserve but is definitely not a zoo. All of the animals are kept in the park - 1600 hectares (nearly 4,000 acres) but within the park there are different "camps" to keep the natural predators from eating the rest of the animals.
We were only a few minutes into our first drive when we came across a lion just walking towards us down the dirt road -then noticed several other lions just off to the side in the grass. I couldn't believe that there were no fences! YIKES! It was incredible to be that close. Our guide told us just to be very quiet and completely still - as he drove our truck by the lions. I tried to snap a couple of photos while I was less than 1 meter away from a lion right outside the truck - but was so NERVOUS that I completely missed. I did get some great before and after shots, though!
Our journey continued through the park to the wild dogs. They are often mistaken for hyenas but are apparently much better hunters. When we found them, they were in the middle of the their lunch. There were two packs together, each feeding on a different animal. The next scene was incredible.
There are two prides of lions at the park. They only get fed once per week. Today was the day! We arrived just as the pick up truck carrying a dead cow was driving into the second lion area. This feeding area is behind a chain link fence. A chain had been wrapped around the dead cow's body and as driver placed the other end of the chain around a metal pole so it would catch. As he drove off, the cow fell out of the bed of the truck and landed on the ground. As soon as that truck entered the area, the lions all came running from a distance - CHOW TIME!
There was an immediate struggle between the lions and lionesses for feeding spots. Our guide explained that the pride watches out for each other, will lick each others wounds, etc UNTIL it comes time for feeding. They swipe at each other and the claws are not retracted! We watched these lions devour this cow - it was so primal! The sounds they made while eating were so incredible you could hear the power in their low growls while they feasted. We could even smell when they got to a new part of the carcass!
We stayed and watched for a while before moving onto the next of the Big 5 of Africa: the Cheetah. We found the cheetahs also enjoying their lunch. There were 3 of them together. They are beautiful creatures - the only big cats with non-retractable claws - and the fasted land mammal on the planet - clocked at over 70 mph! We were right next to them without any fences. Incredible!
Our driver took us throughout the park, highlighting features of different animals we saw. One of the other highlights was seeing a white rhinoceros (another one of the Big 5) with it's new calf - only 4 months old. The rhinos had more of a reddish color than I had seen in the zoo because they take on the color of their surrounding mud (more red in this case). Early drawn pictures of the rhinoceros from the European explorers had them "armor plated" - with rivets and all!
Our game drive lasted about 2 1/2 hours and we saw lions, rhinoceros, wild dogs, cheetah, wildebeest (black and blue), springbuck, ostrich, zebras, crocodiles, Blessbok, Gemsbok, Impala, vultures, and mongoose. At the end of our drive, we had the opportunity to "play" with lion, cheetah, and tiger cubs. I was a bit leary at first but they were so much fun (and didn't seem to interested in eating me - just wanted to play).
We had a full day at the game park and then headed back to town. Belinda's friends had invited us over to their neighbors for a Brai (BBQ) and some to watch some cricket. We stopped at the grocery store and picked up meat and drinks and headed over. We had a truly internation crowd for our brai. Two families were from the South Africa, one from UK, and me from the US. We had a great evening sharing what life is like in our part of the world, where our travels take us, the challenges of leaving family when we are away, and more. We had a very relaxed and enjoyable evening. At the end of the night, I was dropped off back at the hotel to reflect on a very incredible day.