The lions are bullet-fast. “Hang on!” yells our safari guide, Pierre Mouton. Veering off-road, we crash after them through the bush. Just moments before, the pride had been sauntering slowly across a grassy plain – out for a stroll, we thought.
But no, the lions were hunting.
And now, as we screech to a halt in front of them, we see that, in an instant, they have already taken down their kill.
Sitting fanned out like spokes in a wheel – their furry faces smeared with blood – the lions tear at the impala.
One lion rips off the antelope’s head, complete with lyre-shaped horns, and wanders off to savor its prize alone.
It’s a macabre scene, a spectacle of nature at its wildest.
That the lions are unfazed by our presence – and we can safely witness it from ten feet away, seated in an open Land Cruiser without high sides or roof – makes it even more surreal. “But if you get out of the vehicle, things would end very badly for you,” warns Pierre.
Safari at Sabi Sand Game Reserve
The Sabi Sand Game Reserve, which dates back to the late 1920s, pioneered wildlife viewing by game drives in South Africa.
The animals are habituated to the engine sounds and people seated (but not standing up) in open game-viewing vehicles, and they go about their business undisturbed.
Today, the 153,000-acre sanctuary, which shares a 31-mile unfenced border with Kruger National Park, is famous for its up-close game viewing of the “Big Five” – lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino.
Leopards, in particular, are a big draw.
Sabi Sand has the highest concentration of leopards in the world.
Watching lions on safari (and the rest of the “Big Five”)
During our three-night safari at Simbambili Game Lodge in Sabi Sand, we saw all the “Big Five.” We also saw giraffes, zebras, wildebeest, cheetahs and thousands of graceful, leaping impala.
But no hyenas.
Those we spotted in Thornybush Game Reserve, another private reserve adjoining Kruger. And after oohing and aahing over hyena pups suckling on their mother, we think hyenas are kinda cute – well, at least the babies.
Days began at 5:30 a.m. with a knock on our door. After scarfing down a quick coffee and muffin, we’d climb into our assigned Land Cruiser.
We were visiting in South Africa’s cooler winter months (May to September) – best game viewing – so we were grateful for the hot water bottles and blankets provided to ward off the morning chill.
Then we were off, bouncing along on seriously bumpy dirt tracks criss-crossing the dry bushveld.
It always amazed us how the tracker – perched precariously over the front grille without a seatbelt – never fell off. His was also the worst seat when we encountered the horny white rhino (pun intended!).
Driving slowly, we’d been watching this fella, as red-billed oxpeckers picked insects off his back and he snuffled about the low grasses with his flat snout. But then he started spraying urine on the dirt road in front of us, stomping and snorting as he got closer. We backed up.
The rhino charged forward – and thrust his horn almost onto our poor tracker’s lap.
“He smells a female’s scent on the ground,” explained Pierre. “Unfortunately, we’re right on it.” Pierre cupped his hands around his mouth and blew, making “rhino talk” for “Go away!”
Fortunately it worked – the rhino grunted his way around us, then ambled on.
Quiet moments and sundowners
Not all our game drives were so adrenalin-fueled. Once we just sat quietly gazing at a grazing herd of Cape buffalo.
Another time, we leisurely observed a leopard drag an impala carcass higher up a tree, while her cub slept on a branch, feet dangling.
And we always stopped for sundowners on afternoon drives.
Whoever invented this safari sunset ritual was a genius.
Our guide and tracker would whip out limes, liquor and ice cubes from a cooler, plus traditional South African snacks like biltong (spiced dried meat). We’d drink gin-and-tonics while stretching our legs atop a knoll, watch the sky turn pink then inky violet – and wonder how the next day could possibly be any better.
Spotting lions on night game drives
There was also an hour of night driving on the return to the lodge. Everything felt different in the dark, as the bush seemed to close in on the vehicle.
The tracker would shine a bright spotlight back and forth, looking for the reflecting eyes of smaller nocturnal critters, like cat-like civets and fierce honey badgers. We saw lions again too (lions usually hunt at night).
Luxury safari lodges
Back at camp, warm vanilla-scented facecloths and a glass of creamy Amarula eased the transition from wilderness to civilization. Our safari lodges (Simbambili and Thornybush Game Lodge) had electricity, air-conditioning and even in-room phones and free WiFi.
But as they were unfenced and animals wandered about, we had to be escorted to dinner from our bungalow or room. And a guide had a rifle handy when we dined in the bush or outdoor boma (gathering place).
In the boma, warmed by a blazing fire, we tasted African specialties like barbecued impala and pap (a cornmeal staple flavored with fresh tomato sauce).
Our safari quickly took on its own rhythm. Game drive, breakfast, bush walk (with an armed ranger-guide) to learn about animal tracks and towering termite mounds, lunch, siesta, sometimes afternoon tea, game drive, dinner.
And at night, deep in the wild, we’d occasionally fall asleep to the heart-thumping roars of nearby lions.
The details for seeing lions on safari:
- We flew from North America direct to Johannesburg on South African Airways – we review SAA in our post SAA: Direct flights get you to the lions’ dens.
- For safety reasons, you should pre-book airport-hotel transfers in Johannesburg with a reputable local company like JMT Tours.
- Flying time from Johannesburg to Hoedspruit airstrip (for both Thornybush and Sabi Sand game reserves) is about 60 minutes.
- Anti-malarial tablets should be taken (as Sabi Sand is in a malarial area).
- We loved both the honeymoon-worthy Simbambili Game Lodge (in Sabi Sand Game Reserve) and family-friendly Thornybush Game Lodge (in Thornybush Game Reserve).
Our magazine article:
This story was first published in print in Cruise & Travel Lifestyles magazine (Fall 2013/Winter 2014 issue) as “Wonder Where the Lions Are” (PDF). And many, many thanks to our safari guide Pierre Mouton for allowing us to share his fabulous wildlife photos here.