The alarm goes off with a startling ring. I pop up before I realize what’s going on. I instinctively walk towards my phone, which is located across the room on purpose. I look at the phone to see it say 05:45am. I walk back over to the bed, rub Emilee’s shoulder and whisper in her ear, “Time to wake up. It’s our first morning safari!” She pops up and we start getting ready. We hear a knock on the door as our game driver, Francis, gently says, “It’s 06:00am, time to wake up. Today we search for lions.”
This is now our second safari, or “game drive” as the Mabula Game Lodge staff calls each three hour excursion. The first game drive was the evening before, and we saw so many animals just on the first day [maybe a link to Emilee’s article for list of animals]. We had four game drives total, two in the morning and two in the afternoon, but today is the only day with both a morning and an afternoon game drive.
The air is crisp as we walk from our room to the area outside the lobby where we will meet Francis at our vehicle, M7. We are greeted with coffee, tea, and donuts as we wait for the remaining members of our tour group. Our Gate 1 Travel guide for our trip, Johnathan, meets us to see us off, though he will not be joining us on the game drives. Instead, we have Francis as our guide – a very soft spoken man at about six foot ten inches tall with a thick Afrikaans accent. Francis is a human encyclopedia specializing in the flora and fauna of the South African landscape.
The rest of our group arrives at the staging area and grabs a hot drink and a donut. As we finish our pre-game drive snacks, Francis walks up and asks if we’re ready. With as much excitement as the sleepy group members could muster at 06:30am, we say, “yes!” The group lets me sit up front with Francis since I have the best lens for capturing the animals, and Emilee is sitting behind me with the GoPro in hand. Draped over each seat on the truck is a fleece lined poncho that definitely helps keep us warm in the cool, crisp morning air. With a completely open vehicle, the wind can cut straight through most jackets. Lucky for me, sitting in the front seat with the driver also means I have the heat from the vents, so I skip the heavy poncho and stick with my fleece jacket.
There are around ten other vehicles loading their eager passengers up as we all get ready for the exciting drive ahead. Our group has eight people plus Francis, and as we load the truck he tells us we are after lions today. We zip out of the dirt parking lot and continue down long, bumpy roads, surrounded by thick brush. Luckily we’re the first in the pack leaving so there isn’t any dust I have to worry about as I fiddle with my camera.
The sun begins to rise as we leave the lodge. We hear on the radio of a nearby hippo sighting and head down a side road en-route. There is a thin layer of white smoke from a nearby trash burn settling on the land like fog. Francis glances into the bush and casually says, “do you see the hippo?” To the untrained eye we thought he was joking with us, but then after pointing where to look we can see through the trees a hippopotamus staring straight at us. Francis radios the nearby trucks about our spotting and another truck arrives shortly after to see the hiding hippo. It’s crazy to see them out of the water, and staring right at us, but Francis knows it will soon cross the road to get to its favorite watering hole close by. We reposition ourselves in a place to get a better sighting when it crosses. Sure enough, after some hesitation, the hippo runs as quick as possible across the road into more thick brush.
A short time later, we’re off on our way towards the lion’s territory. The lions are fenced off from the rest of the 14,000 acre conservatory to protect Mabula Lodge’s horses. As we enter the lion area, we anxiously look around trying to see anything; however, looking for a wild African animal in the African bush is comically difficult. Suddenly our truck comes to a sliding halt as Francis looks out his side of the truck and studies the footprints crossing the road. He glances off into the bush and instantly accelerates forward. We are on the hunt.
Francis radios another ranger about the footprints. A reply confirms we are headed in the right direction. We rush down a back road splashing puddles from the recent rains, climb over some rocks in the low 4×4 gear, and fly down the straight-a-ways. Another quick stop to check for tracks, another glance into the bush and we take off again. The excitement builds as we know we’re on their path; we know we will see lions today.
Suddenly a call comes over the radio from the other ranger saying the lions have been spotted with a fresh kill. We arrive on scene where the other truck is parked, and get our first glimpse. A female lion is enjoying her breakfast of freshly killed gemsbok (type of antelope). Just then the male joins and wants some of the spoils. After some aggressive threats from the female, the male lion decides against stealing her food and instead lays next to her and waits his turn. Another truck arrives farther behind us and lets us know they’re standing by. One of my favorite things about Mabula is they only allow two trucks at a time at an animal sighting to avoid any chaos. The animals aren’t overwhelmed by too many vehicles surrounding them, and it makes for more natural photographs.
We get a few more seconds of the sighting and Francis asks if it’s okay if we let the other truck have a view. After some hesitation, he tells us we are going to find the other pair of lions anyway, so we agree to move on. As we arrive where the other lions have been reported, we see another male and female lounging in the grass, much more unenthusiastic about being awake than us. They slowly go back to sleep.
As soon as this happens we hear a call on the radio that the first lions we had seen with the food have left the area. We didn’t think anything about it, but Francis pops up and begins to drive. He then tell us, “If they’re leaving then they will be going to get a drink of water after eating. I know where their favorite watering hole is.” We are on the hunt again.
We arrive at the watering hole and only have to wait about five minutes before, sure enough, both male and female lions begin walking towards us. They then cross the road just yards in front of our vehicle. The male gets to the water, takes a drink, and lays down in the shade. The female is close behind, after investigating the noises from the trucks, and joins him at the watering hole. She takes a drink and lays down for the day. Francis tells us that they are down for the day now, and we can move on whenever we’re ready. We leave the lion’s territory completely satisfied with our find. The excitement of the chase and hunt were so exhilarating that now our adrenaline was beginning to crash and some in our group members almost fell asleep as we drove back towards the lodge. On our way back, though, we had more great sightings of some giraffe and many other animals.
Later that day on our afternoon drive, we spotted some elephants, and then searched high and low for the cheetah and leopard to no avail. As the sun set on the reserve and the air began to cool, we reminisced on the long, exciting, and fulfilling day we got to experience together. One of the most fun things on the afternoon drives is just before sunset, we stop to have an afternoon snack. We set up a table with food and drinks and enjoy the stunning landscape as the sun dips behind the horizon.
On our fourth and final game drive we were on the hunt again for cheetah, leopard, and buffalo, but came up empty handed. In fact, the only new animal we saw was a beautiful lilac breasted roller. As saddening as it could have been to end our stay at Mabula not seeing the rest of the large animals, it made it extremely real for me. This was 14,000 acres of protected land for these animals – that’s it, they’re simply just protected. Mabula Game Lodge offers views so wild and extreme it can feel like an amusement park at times, but the reality is exponentially more incredible. I recommend that everyone experiences the unforgettable landscape and wildlife offered by Mabula Game Lodge, they are certainly something to cherish.