A much anticipated trip to a private game reserve was the highlight of our most recent adventure to South Africa.

We were lucky enough to be hosted by some friends of my family who live and work in the reserve. The whatsapp conversations about the imminent visit to the lodge spanned months and possibly gigabytes of data with much overuse of the various animal emojis. Needless to say the extended family was very excited to get down to the reserve and breathe the air and bathe in the light, smells, sounds and sights that can only be found in the “bush”.

We drove down in two cars, and spent a night in Lydenburg on a trout fishing farm, where hilarity ensued with a ridiculous game of 30 seconds.

Early the next morning after a night of listening to peacocks cawing and screaming from the roof of our cottage we blearily eyed made the rest of the trip over potholes and through frontier biltong towns, stopping for coffee in a taxidermied pub where if you fancied, you could get a whisky poured out of a springboks bum. Since it was a bit too early for that we continued on the road watching the landscape change from mountainous to bushveld. The odd baobab sprouting it’s upside down branches above the thorn trees.

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Through a number of gates, each one a tad closer to the end of the journey. Tarred roads turned to gravel, pedestrians transformed from the clothed type to the furred type as Impala danced away from the dust churned up by our passing car.

Birds flashed by and the road wound its way through the winter bush, greys, browns and yellow.

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Eventually the path opened up in front of us and the lodge and its surrounding gardens welcomed us and enveloped us in its green leafy arms. Like a shady emerald, verdant jades and forest olive, we felt nestled in a gem secreted in the wilds. A moment to be truly treasured.

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A wonderful and joyful reunion occurred as we tumbled out of our dusty cars, the kids came to say hi and plans were concocted for tea and game drives and art!

We settled in and ‘high fived’ ourselves on our luck at finding ourselves in this coveted spot. We were pretty much giggling and doing small jigs as we ogled our perfect rooms and blinked owlishly at the beautiful bathrooms, outside garden showers nogal, and couldn’t quite believe our fortune! Is this real life?

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Not wanting to miss out on anything we explored and landed up in the heart of the lodge in the outside lounge and dining area. Ensconced under an arching wooden ceiling with sweeping views up and down the river below the lodge gardens, we enjoyed tea and cakes and felt like royalty.

Licking our sticky sweet fingers we pointed this way and that – birds, bugs, kudu, wait, what’s that? Someone pass the binocs. Anyone want another cake? Last chance we’re meeting at the land cruiser, we’re off on a drive, hats, sunscreen, scarves for later, ready? Let’s go! Hee heee hee!

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We roared off in a cloud of dust, leaving the iridescent glow of the lodge in our wake.

Around the corner, and we are surrounded by the dry bushveld. Tumbled scrubby trees and grasses disguise all manner of creatures. Our binocs at the ready and Hayley taking the tracker seat at the front of the land cruiser we peel our eyes for the slightest movement, the simplest swish of tail or flick of ear.

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A crackle over the walkietalkie informs us of a herd of buffalo nearby and so we are whisked off to track them down, the trees and brush whipping past. Around a bend in the road and we roll into the late afternoon conference of a large group of Buffaloes chewing the cud and catching up on current affairs. We spend some time watching them as they blink at us and our smart host points out various qualities of each animal. why encountering a larger herd in the wild is better than stumbling upon a small group of bachelors. These tending to be grumpy and most likely the source of the fearsome Buffalo legends that will no doubt be told around firesides on all game reserve visits.

Conversation turned to Rhinos, the rife poaching epidemic and the struggle that goes into protecting them. We are informed that should we walk into a black rhino who are now terribly endangered, our host and guide would evacuate the area as quickly as possible. Avoiding letting us fend for ourselves, as he would be more inclined to shoot us than the rhino. We nod in agreement, and secretly hope we don’t run into any black rhino.

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The vehicle is moving off again and amidst chatter and birdsong we bump along peering into the bush through the fading light.

We wend our way up to a view point and are treated to some yummy biltong and drinks as we chat and watch the night encroach. Korhaans and guinea fowl clatter through the underbrush and the first few bats flit overhead as the stars begin to shine.

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We bundle up warm on the land cruiser, the wind whips up our hair as we descend again on our way back to camp.

All of a sudden we hear an eerie yip yip and cackle. We’ve uncovered an old hyena den, with one semi grown pup sniffing about. Very curious he ventures right up to us, and we draw our limbs closer as we remember that this little fella chews on bones like chappies bubblegum. He looks up at us with liquid eyes blinking in our spotlights. Soon he is joined buy some other members of the gang and we spend some time enjoying a family reunion before everyone disappears into the bush on tonight’s adventure.

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We rumble bump our way slowly back to camp. Tummies starting to grumble and knowing that all kinds of deliciousness await us back at the lodge. One last look at a waterhole, Hayley is on top notch spotlight duty, nightjars swoop through the beams lighting bugs and dust motes.

All of a sudden two huge cold eyed cats saunter into the light. Lions! Their massive heads twist our way but they write us off as utterly beyond their interest, our guide informs us they have a mission. He can tell in a heartbeat that they have business further afield. He positions our vehicle in their path, and they walk right past us, mere centimetres away. One turns a gimlet eye on Hayley and we giggle nervously as mom whispers HaaaYLEEEEY! Probably envisioning her third born to be gobbled up in an instant. Luckily for us, these lions have a hot date and quickly we are left behind as their strides take them deeper into the thick brush.

We drive into camp amid a line of glowing lanterns , beneath the orange eyes of a minuscule white faced owl, chattering of our close encounters and nerves. Instantly we are calmed as wine glasses fill our hands and lulled into banter with our hosts around the camp fire. The night stretches on and we stuff our faces with delectable food and good conversations. The day couldn’t have ended better.

Amid yawns, the silence of a night away from cars and city lights, we make our ways to bed, and so ends the first of 3 days in the bush.

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Read part II here