The van crawled to a stop next to a huge aloe cactus and the motor shuddered to a halt. Even before the red dust had a chance to settle, we immediately started chatting excitedly. Most of us had traveled half way round the world and this marked the end of our journeys. We had finally arrived at what was to be our new home for the next 4 weeks – Thanda Private Game Reserve, South Africa.
Situated 3 hours drive inland from Durban in KwaZulu-Natal, Thanda covers a total of 15,000 hectares of African savanna. At the heart of the reserve is ‘Intibane’, an old hunting lodge that sits nestled in amongst thorn trees and has stellar views across the surrounding hills and a nearby watering hole. This is also where we’re based for the duration of our stay, along with other groups of researchers, scientists and volunteers. The lodge consists of a cluster of small thatched cabins that surround a large communal dining building that overlooks a swimming pool, open fire pit and BBQ area. A fence was recently erected around Intibane to keep the animals out, but nature has a way of getting around these obstacles and it’s quite common to see warthogs drinking from the pool, impala’s (antelope) grazing in the grounds and the sound of hyena’s calling in the night (they even had a lion wandering around the cabins the week before we arrived!). As you can imagine, there’s never a dull moment.
Most of us are here for the ‘Big 5’ (lion, elephant, leopard, rhino and buffalo), which roam freely within the reserve. But in fact Thanda is home to dozens of species such as hyenas, wild dogs, cheetahs, giraffes, antelope and zebras to name a few. It’s truly an animal and nature lover’s paradise. For us photographers, it is a dream come true. Our task is to go on game drives to photograph flora and fauna that will be used by researchers and the Thanda foundation, we’ll also carry out conservation work within the reserve and visit local schools to educate the children about the animals and their environment. But firstly, we’re busy doing a 4-day digital SLR course run by nature and wildlife photographer Emil von Maltitz. This should improve our skills tenfold (as wildlife photography can be quite challenging) and ensure we leave with a portfolio of amazing images.
Since arriving at Thanda a few days ago, we’ve been on 4 game drives – 3 at sunrise and one at sunset. Our first game drive in Thanda was an experience to remember. We left Intibane around 6.30am in the chilly dawn and drove deep into the reserve. Our guide found fresh lion tracks pressed into the earth and we followed them to a dried up watering hole. There lying in the morning sun was a female lioness and two adolescent lion males, their manes short and spiky with youth. These were the South Pride and quite a find for our first outing! Like a herd of wild paparazzi, cameras began immediately snapping in a frenzy to catch these magnificent animals. One of the young lion males got up and stretched his legs, parading in front of us, his muscles rippling beneath sand coloured fur. He looked over at us with mild curiosity, and it was hard not to stop and pinch myself in disbelief that these animals are in fact super predators and we were only sitting meters away from them in the back of an open top safari jeep.
And so the days have passed by like scenes from The Lion King. We shot photos of zebras before they galloped away leaving a cloud of dust in their wake. Then there was the tower of giraffes, their heads moving about the tops of the thorn trees, visible from miles away. Driving further along we had to stop short on the road to let a crash of rhinos pass (yes, they’re called a ‘crash’ of rhinos – quite fitting when you think about it!). And who could forget the two cheetahs that had just eaten an antelope. We followed these large spotted cats for over an hour, each of us in awe at their effortless grace. There’s still many more animal sightings to come – including a new herd of elephants that have just been released into Thanda’s newest area, the Kings Land. Plenty of action that will keep the next month packed full of adventure. Funnily enough, it doesn’t matter how many times you see these animals, you never get tired of it.
When I walk back to my cabin at the end of each evening, I shine my torch into the darkness, half expecting to see a pair of eyes blinking back at me. Strangely enough, sometimes they do and I tell myself it’s just an impala (harmless) grazing under the Milky Way. Mostly it is, but sometimes I drift off to sleep to the sound of strange noises wailing in the night and it gets me wondering what else might be wandering out there…and I dream of Africa.