Sunday, September 17, 2006

A visit to South Africa's Karongwe Game Reserve

September 17 2006 at 12:55PM

By Jan De Beer

Near Trafalgar Square we encountered a magnificent young leopard. And along the Golden Highway, basking in the sun, was a trio of huge hippos. The effects of global warming? Part of a new Spielberg Jurassic Park movie? No, just a game drive along the quaintly named roads of the Karongwe Game Reserve, near Tzaneen in Limpopo.

Our base for a weekend of bush adventure in the 9 000ha reserve was Ingwe Lodge, a three-star resort which you'd swear is five-star when it comes to style and service. Courtesy and consideration are keywords at Ingwe.

Clive the ranger and Bennie the tracker, for a start, abandoned an impressive lion sighting to fetch my wife and me - along with a young Danish couple who had also arrived too late for the start of our Friday afternoon game drive - to the lions.

Male lions at Karongwe have that regal Kalahari black mane. As we pulled up, the imposing Zero, king of the local pride, lifted his reclining head to let out a fearsome roar that the old MGM lion would have been proud of.

Next to him were two adoring females and, about 20m away - waiting in the wings, so to speak - lay his son Mpho.

"Mpho is approaching the stage when he will try to topple Zero from the throne. Zero knows that. So, when there are females around, he makes sure his son keeps his distance," Clive told us. But for then, Zero seemed unfazed and - having delivered that spine-chilling roar - plonked down as if to say "Right, that's my scary bit for the day…"

In the company of only one other Land Rover, we were a mere 100m away from the pride.

Karongwe rangers are allowed to drive off-road at selected spots, and in circumstances such as this sighting - but reckless cowboy bush-bashing is frowned upon.

In fact, etiquette among the vehicles of the six lodges in Karongwe is not just encouraged, but strictly enforced, to avoid the wild stampedes that so often arise at South African game reserves when rangers jockey for position at major sightings. Through radio contact, Karongwe rangers respectfully ask their counterparts on the scene if there are "any open locks" for a sighting.

"Locks" are opened only when a maximum of two vehicles watch. Having alerted other drivers of a sighting, rangers occupying a lock ensure they don't hog the sighting, and invite their counterparts to move in as soon as they pull out. "It's in the interest of all the lodges in the reserve," Ingwe Lodge general manager Arrie van Zyl told me afterwards.

"Only very occasionally is there cause for discipline. Generally, all the guys want to share the bush with everyone in the park."

Our ranger Clive had on his Land Rover's bonnet the most amazing tracker I have ever encountered.

Bennie is a veteran spoorsnyer, who can spot and identify the smallest of tracks in the road, even while the vehicle is moving. Perched on the bonnet, Bennie would be in the hottest of seats if an elephant suddenly jumped out of the bush or a lion decided to pounce, but he has faced far bigger danger in his former job: a tracker for the South African military in countries such as Angola and Namibia.

Bennie's tour de force came when he had Clive pursue the track of a lioness in the road.

"Mafasi ngala," he described a lioness's track to Clive in the coded ethnic language rangers and trackers tend to adopt in Big Five country, to avoid ruining guests' expectations if potential sightings fail to materialise.

But this doesn't happen to Bennie too often. Once he's tracking, only a limited-time game drive can keep his quarry hidden.

It was amazing to see how he could differentiate between the spoor of a male and female cat. Bennie asked Clive to wait in the Land Rover with his guests while Bennie, on foot, entered the bush, eyes fixed to the ground.

The persistence paid off and eventually Bennie located his lioness - and what a sighting that was. Maggie, one of Zero's harem, lay in the shade of a tree next to a dam and seemed unperturbed by our presence.

"She's on a hunt," Clive and Bennie agreed - and indeed, later that afternoon we heard that the lioness had killed a baby warthog.

Inspired by the discovery of Maggie, Bennie warmed to his cat-tracking and a little later found our old mates, Zero and Mpho, stretched out on a dry riverbed - still friends as there were no lady lions around to break the father-and-son coalition. Two hours later, on our way back to the lodge in the dark, we again encountered the duo in long grass next to the road.

Through a radio lead, we drove to the junction of "Luicy Link" (at first confused by the ranger on the radio with "Juicy Lucy Road") and "Other Road" for a magnificent leopard sighting. The male was young enough to show large areas of white fur on his chest.

"Now, if we'd only known it was Luicy Link and not Juicy Lucy Road, we would have got here earlier," Bennie reflected as the leopard decided to move on soon after our arrival.

Clive, who is relatively new to Karongwe, later showed me a map of the roads in the reserve: a bewildering spider web of short links that must give new rangers nightmares. It was easy to understand how the ranger who'd found the leopard had mistaken the location.

Guests can never complain about a shortage of game drives at Ingwe Lodge. There are four hours of it in the morning, and another four in the late afternoon, spilling over into a short night drive.

Naturally, the preponderance of overseas visitors (we had visitors from Denmark, Chile, Jamaica and England just in our group) inevitably leads to a focus on the Big Five, or the Big Four, one should say. "Buffaloes don't do much for overseas guests," Clive observed.

"They say they look like cows. They'd think differently if they found a lone bull on foot in the veld one day…"

Apart from the cat sightings, our weekend also produced some memorable elephant adventures - including a somewhat unnerving, almost head-on collision with an angry young bull, in musth to boot, just as we were about to turn a sharp corner into a dry riverbed.

"That ndlovu is bad news. Look how he's dripping urine all over the show," Clive told Bennie as the elephant, now on a road just below us, seemed to consider climbing up the incline to charge us.

Those flapping ears were ultra-menacing. Throughout the weekend, our ranger consistently opted for discretion, and here again decided to put as many kilometres as possible between us and the sexually frustrated ellie.

Pusa (sundowner) settings were carefully deliberated by ranger and tracker every evening, depending on predators' presence and the position of the setting sun. On the Saturday evening, in particular, skeletal winter trees on the banks of the Makutsi River, silhouetted by an orange ball disappearing on the horizon, gave my digital camera something really special to store.

Night drives also produced magic moments, such as nightjars on the road, owls in trees next to it, the cries of bushbabies or jackals in the distance, a serval hastily darting for cover, zebras crossing the road, and overhead, an amazing blanket of stars that urbanites rarely get to see.

Clive used his flashlight to point out the Southern Cross and the curled-up starry tail of the Scorpion, while Bennie's party trick was to shine his strong spotlight on the surface of a dam to make the fish "walk on water" while chasing the light. Dinner at Ingwe is a memorable experience.

With tables set around a roaring campfire, rangers host their particular groups - and relate bush tales to their cosmopolitan guests as long as the visitors wish to listen.

"Usually, knowing they have to be up at about 5.30am, few guests stay up later than 10 pm," Clive told me, with just a hint of relief.

The accommodation at Ingwe is cosy and comfortable, with outdoor showers and atmospheric patios overlooking pristine African bush.

The cuisine is top class. Word about the quality of the food on boma night must spread by bush telegraph, because the next morning, warthogs were on their knees grazing on the lawns, and a majestic kudu bull had boldly moved in to feast on Ingwe's garden plants.

"He's only chewing the leaves. He's welcome to it," Ingwe GM Arrie said as we gazed at the kudu's magnificent horns.

That's Ingwe for you: everyone's welcome.

To get to Ingwe, take the N4 towards Nelspruit, then take the Belfast turn-off to the left. Follow the Dullstroom, Lydenburg, Ohrigstad signs. 12km after the Strydom Tunnel, turn left onto the R36 Tzaneen road. Ingwe is 24km further along this road.

Phone 013-752-8227 or 083-310-7231, e-mail ingwelodge@global.co.za, or visit www.ingwelodge.com

This article was originally published on page 12 of The Star on September 16, 2006

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