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We awoke with the false dawn, the early morning cacophony of the birds soft through the windows. Torn between wanting to luxuriate in the beautiful beds and wanting to get up to embrace the days itinerary. The question of What we might see from our balconies or the lodge’s main living area won, and we rolled out of bed.

Day 2 and 3 of our weekend in the South African bush merged in an almost overwhelming deluge of highlights. How wonderful to be so spoiled! (read part 1 here)

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Dawn down the river revealed birds swooping over the reeds; a miniature owl roosting right outside our room. Swaying kudu and dainty Impala picked their way along the sandy banks below the lodge, dining on a breakfast buffet of leaves and scraggly grass. We breathed in fragrant coffee and the early morning light, as everyone drowsily drifted into the veranda, ready for our morning bush walk to hunt down a pair of fabled Pels Fishing owls.

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Excited and somewhat filled with trepidation we clambered into the land cruisers and swiftly lost sight of the camp through the trees. We made our way to a top secret location and plans were concocted regarding our rendezvous point after our walk. If we made it back out alive!

I’ve never been on a guided walk in the bush before and, being a South African, have been well schooled about the dangers of Elephants, Buffaloes, and my all time favourite terror: the cute Hippopotamus. Naturally our chosen walk would encompass all of these creatures territories and so with ears and eyes a quiver, mine in particular, we made our way down towards the river.

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Slowly but surely I began to relax (a little) and could enjoy all the discussions of rock formations, birds, trees and meters long snake skins found entangled in branches, that should accompany every walk through the South African bush. The birds were busy and we were treated to a turquoise pack of waxbills, ping ponging through the underbrush, and a flash of golden throat as a bush shrike peered at us curiously from its perch in a thorn tree.

Ears pricked for sounds and eyes peeled for movement, we near our destination – a secret island peppered with towering trees, the perfect spot for a fishing owl.
Some elephants trumpet in the distance – the hair on the back of my neck rises- will we run into them?
No, they seem to be on the other side of the river.
Phew!

We cross over the winter-dry sandy bed of the river, making our way around rock pools until we clamber up onto the islands where the Pels roost In the giant trees overlooking the deeper side of the river on the other side of the embankment.

We quieten down as we begin the search, stepping lightly and being careful to not disturb the hippos grunting and snorting in the river pools below the island. We almost step on a huge Nile crocodile, before Milos, a head taller than the rest of us, points it out on the path. It sees us and skids down into the water and beneath the surface with a splash! We are amazed at how quickly it disappears, only some small tell-tale bubbles hinting at where it could be hiding.

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Our guide points out likely croc nests and we admire the huge scaly impressions left behind by other crocodiles in the sand. Each ripple and ridge of their skin imprinted in exact detail.

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No Pels to be seen here we quietly hunt along the island to each massive tree, trying to catch a glimpse of the ever secretive birds. Unfortunately on this adventure they remained elusive, and so we returned to the other side of the river and hiked back up through the bush to the waiting vehicle.

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Arriving back at the lodge in time for a sumptuous lunch and then the obligatory lunch time siesta. I suffered from bush FOMO and so didn’t nap at all but wandered around the gardens of the camp, peering up at trees and bush surrounding the lodge, watching monkeys scamper, hornbills jump, and shy bush buck leap out of sight. I spotted a pair of minuscule Hawks in the tippy top of a tree that stretched its branches over the verandah. Eventually I settled down in one of the loungers with some binoculars and lazily passed the time enjoying the view.

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Some time later everyone woke up and we reconvened for our afternoon game drive. Bundled up in blankets we set off, rumbling through the bush and chattering away. Regaled with stories and fascinating bush facts from our ever entertaining guide. The bush whipped past.

This time Megan had the hot seat at the front of the land cruiser in the trackers spot. As we circled round a curve in the road, she suddenly let out a squeal and whipped round, hurling her half chewed rusk right at our astonished guide! To a lesser prepared person, this may have caused an accident, but all was taken in stride. After all, dealing with grumpy Elephants probably gives one lots of practice for dealing with grumpy guests.

Astonished, we all wondered what could have caused this sudden turn of events. Megan maintains that she thought, going around the bend, that she was purposely having her tracker position on the front of the land cruiser, driven into every bush that our host could find. Amidst laughter we agree that most shocking of all, was the fact that Meg’s hurled rusk found its mark. She sat somewhat pink faced on the front after that. (And probably held on slightly tighter to her seat, in case our guide, now covered in crumbs, decided to take revenge!)

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A crackle over the radio alerted us to the possibility of a leopard sighting! Milos and I, in all of our bush adventures in the past, had never seen one, so this was a Big Deal (with capital letters!) We unanimously opted to try to track it down.

As the sun slowly made its descent toward the horizon, we zipped across the reserve to try to catch a glimpse of the spotted feline.

As we made our way closer to its last seen position, we slowed down, everyone was on high alert. Then! Just as every National Geographic promised, I saw him! Tail hanging down, leopardly-lounging in the crook of a tree branch ~ the perfect sighting, outlined in the pinky dusk light. Just like a big pussycat!

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We watched him for an hour, inching as close as we could. He was digesting a fat Impala, so he didn’t have too many plans to move, his belly protruding, he calmly put up with us as we ogled his lovely spots and glowing eyes. He came down from his tree and tongue lolling, growled his growing impatience with us disturbing his siesta. Eventually we opted to give him some space and turned the vehicle around and left him in the ever thickening gloom, two eyes blinking and his spotty coat melted perfectly into the brush. No wonder I have never seen one before! His camouflage was perfect.

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We were animatedly discussing our sighting when we noticed flickering lights through the trees. Before we knew what was happening we had been swept into a fairytale. Our dinner that night had been set up beneath a canopy of giant fireflies. Lanterns were strung up in the overhead branches and cocktails and wine arrayed as if we were royalty. I felt transported into a fantasy novel with my beverage in hand, waiting for the clock to strike midnight and it all to end. We barbecued dinner and tried to savour and memorize every moment and taste ~ this proved a little hard after one too many drinks. Bellies as full as the leopard we had just seen, we made our way back to camp. Our last night.

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The following morning, our last, was spent hunting tarantulas. We located several likely spots, and were instructed to scout the areas in search of tarantula holes. Pretty much the stuff of nightmares. But since we had survived Buffalo, Elephants, Lions, Hyenas, Crocodiles, Hippos, Leopards, we felt that we could take on anything! At least, we felt confident, under the vigilant eye of our host! After unsuccessfully trying to coax the huge hairy spiders from their lairs, one obliged us, and Chris and Milos experienced its fuzzy legs and golden bum first hand. Literally!

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I will never forget that weekend, and want to thank my family, our wonderful hosts who really made us feel special and their friendly and attentive staff! It was truly a blessing and Milos and I will remember it as one of our lives highlights! It was so lovely to share it with you all! But even writing all this down, I realize that I am already forgetting details, so… time to go back? 😉