As the months went by and we got to know all of the roads on the reserve, the quality of our game drives improved a lot and we started seeing pretty amazing stuff (more about this later).
The predator sightings were far and few between, as the game reserve was very young and still recovering from the hunting and cattle farming activities of the past. There were only a few lions and cheetah, and we never saw leopard or hyena. This being said, the quality of rare nocturnal animals like aardvark, aardwolf, pangolin, honeybadger, serval , and caracal (just to name a few) was better than anywhere else I had – or have – experienced in my life time. We would sometimes see up to five different aardvark sightings on one drive!
I remember one particular sighting of a lion interacting with a pangolin. We sat and watched for nearly an hour as the pangolin rolled up into a tight round ball – sharp scales protruding outward. The lions would play with the pangolin, kicking it around like Brazilian football stars. They would then suddenly lose interest, and after a few minutes the pangolin will uncoil itself and start to move away from the cats. This would trigger the curiosity of the lions, and they would jump up and chase the scaly anteater – only to find him rolling up into a round ball again. This process repeated itself over and over again, and the guests on the vehicle got the most incredible footage on their video recorder (a massive beast of a machine back then). This wonderful footage was broadcast on South African television a few months later.
I still remember some of the animals at the Centre. There was a beautiful male cheetah named Pandera. Temba was a young Leopard, and Manya a white Rhino calf rescued in the Manyeleti (click here to read a very funny story about Manya).
Tourism was starting to pick up in the post-apartheid South Africa as more and more international visitors started to visit the new rainbow nation. Two new rangers where appointed at the Centre – Willem and Riaan. They – together with myself, Tom and Grant – formed the back-bone of the division on the reserve focusing on tourism. When it got really busy, rangers from other sectors on the reserve also came to help. There was Jaco Scheepers (head of the anti-poaching unit), Mark Bourne (in charge of predator monitoring) and Giep and Erich (reserve management).
One of the dams on the reserve was actually named after Willem. Late one night late he ended up in the dam on his way back from a very important ‘appointment’ at the local hotel. For some or other unknown reason he missed the turn, and ended up submerged in water. The dam still carries his name. Willem had many of these late night ‘appointments’ at the hotel, and although he never ended in the dam again, he did get lost a lot. Unfortunately he could never remember where things went wrong…
There were only 2 camps on the reserve – Buffalo Camp (a tree top tented camp which slept 12 people) and The Guest House (with just three bedrooms). As no permanent ranger was appointed to manage these camps, the four of us took turns. To work at the camps was the highlight of our month. We were not confined by routine safari drive times, and we could go out for as long as our guests wanted too. I fear that some poor souls must have felt like they were relegated to Boot camp as we could never safari enough! The long-suffering chefs were not our biggest fans, as we would occasionally only come back for dinner after ten pm.
Those were the days…