Monday, January 11, 2016

Best of a #Travelife 2015: Hunting for a cheetah on safari at the MalaMala Game Reserve in Africa

This is part of our series on the best experiences in a #Travelife for 2015.



Until the last day of our trip to Africa that included four safaris in two weeks last May, living a #Travelife, we'd still not seen the elusive cheetah.

There were no cheetah in our first safari on this trip, which was at Oceana Game Reserve, a seaside safari lodge near Port Alfred. 

As for the other three safari lodges, they did have cheetah but the sighting of a cheetah is a matter of luck as there are relatively few wandering about compared to other animals. 

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BEEN THERE, DONE THAT.
SEEN THE CHEETAH.

I was relatively relaxed about not seeing this beautiful animal as cheetah and I had already crossed paths several times before. The first time I saw a cheetah was on the way to one of the most remote safari lodges in South Africa. 

This is at the very tip of the remote Northern Cape, located within the Kgalagadi Transfrontier National Park with no commercial flights to and from the national park.




On this particular safari, I had to take a private plane to a dusty and deserted airstrip, and from there it was a five-hour drive through nothing but desert to the lodge.

And, as there are no commercial flights here, the pilot had to park the plane in one corner and wait for me on safari -- and so he ended up coming along with us, too, for want of something to do.

This was two years ago, and it was on this safari that I first encountered a cheetah in the wild. And wasn't he beautiful, sauntering in front of our jeep, just like that.


THE PRESSURE TO FIND A CHEETAH
IS ON


On this trip last May, though, my companion had never seen a cheetah, so the pressure to find one was clearly on by the time we got to MalaMala Game Reserve, which was our last safari stop.

By then I was also a tinge guilty about doing a best effort to show him a cheetah as I'd dragged him into going on this safari trip. His idea of a holiday is not riding a jeep through the wilderness, and he much preferred to do the wine route of South Africa for that same amount of time we had.

And now it amuses me no end, by the way, when he tells me he can't stop watching lions and other wildlife animals on YouTube.

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THE BIGGEST ESTATE IN SABI SANDS

Anyway, the pressure to find a cheetah on our last day in Africa was even more because we were assigned ranger Greg Baldwin, who is the head ranger for the entire MalaMala Game Reserve, which is the largest game reserve in this area of Greater Kruger.

All the other private reserves literally pale in comparison, as far as size is concerned. So we had a lot of ground to cover, and we had the best ranger in the area guiding us.



ONE FOR THE ROAD:
OUR LAST SAFARI GAME DRIVE

Greg was our ranger for our stay at MalaMala and almost at the end on our last safari drive before flying back to Johannesburg, we still had not crossed the cheetah off our sightings list when we got into the jeep to start off.

By then, after so many game drives, I was actually quite happy just to meander about, and see impala jumping around and elephants wading in the river.



WHERE TO FIND A CHEETAH

But suddenly Greg turned to us and said: "Two cheetahs have been sighted at the very far end of the property. But they're actually walking out of the property now and into Kruger Park."

He'd been on the radio, you see, and so he was listening to all the chatter that morning. He continued: "Do you want to see the cheetah? It's about a 40-minute drive over there."



A LAST HURRAH

We were in the middle of our drive already, and 40 minutes meant 80 minutes roundtrip on bumpy terrain and rough roads.

But we decided to go for it as a last hurrah, and boy, did we literally fly. I felt like Indiana Jones' sidekick, with our jeep flying through bushes and brush and us bumping up and down in the back.

Once, Greg turned around and said: "Sorry if I'm driving so fast, but the cheetah are literally on the border. We're minutes away from missing them."

THE STRICT RULES 
AT SAFARI GAME RESERVES


And if you know safari reserve rules, you'll know that most game reserves don't have physical fences. Properties are just delineated by roads, but things are very strict, and you cannot cross even one inch into another property, even if there are no fences.

And even if no one is watching.

When we finally got to the sighting area, we arrived just in time to see the cheetah pause. Literally pause for a minute or two.

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THE LAST TWO MINUTES 
AT A SAFARI

The cheetah were already officially in Kruger Park so we couldn't follow them in with our jeep, even if they were just a dozen meters away from us. But from the very edge of the final inch of MalaMala property, we could see them well enough.

And if we'd arrived two minutes later, we would have missed them completely. The cheetah had paused for a two-minute breather. And how lucky were we.

Because after that, the cheetah turned their backs on us and walked deeper into Kruger National Park, presumably living their own versions of a never-ending, and never-endingly eventful #Travelife.






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