With the world in turmoil at the moment and all the talk about COVID-19, I feel desperate for the lives lost all over the world and the people the virus has affected more directly than it has me, so far.
At times like these I feel incredibly privileged and lucky to be a safari guide in the incredibly beautiful Kruger National Park. I, along with a small portion of our staff force and our families, am fortunate enough to be in lockdown in the park. We are taking care of our beautiful lodges and, for me, one of the most extraordinary pieces of land in the world, our Singita Kruger National Park private concession.
I wake up every morning and look into this beautiful wilderness from my bed, my four-year-old son runs and jumps into bed with me and shrieks with delight as I tickle and cuddle him, the innocence of a child is something to behold. This is how my day starts and I love it!
Our last guests left on the morning of the 25 March, and we had to help them make emergency last minute changes to their itineraries so that they could get out of South Africa and safely home before all the lockdowns around the globe commenced. Before that we had one last game drive before everybody sadly had to leave. My tracker, David, and I were desperate to find a cheetah for our guests as this was all they had not seen out of the high profile game species possible to see on safari with us. We knew it was a long shot as we had not had a cheetah sighting on the concession for some weeks, but we were going to give it our best.
We were at least two hours into our drive having had an amazing time with a large white rhino bull and some elephants earlier. The general game viewing that day was also incredible. Journeys of giraffe, herds of wildebeest, dazzles of zebra and huge aggregations of impala, kudu and waterbuck had kept us very busy, but the last half an hour had been quiet and we needed something big to happen.
I asked David where he wanted to try next and he indicated to continue a short way further up the road we were on and then we should turn around and try a different area, but he said he had a feeling that something was going to happen. And happen it did. Suddenly David’s hand flew up in the air in the standard stop signal. I obliged, as David said, “Look cheetah, in the long grass!” I looked and saw nothing. David motioned me to off-road and get closer, and I did so. As we got closer I saw the cheetah, barely visible above the long grass. As we drew closer still, two more cheetahs popped their heads out of the grass to our right and then another to our left. We were so overwhelmed with excitement, not one cheetah, which we would have been more than satisfied with, but four!
What’s more is that we had found the coalition of four males which we had not seen for at least two months!
I looked back from my seat and saw nothing but sheer joy on our guests’ faces. David had found them for us with an incredible set of eyes and amazing gut instinct. Trackers of his skill level and humility never cease to astound me. I gave him a huge high five. At that moment we all forgot, for a while, what was going on in the world, – we were lost in the magic of these beautiful creatures as they played and ran and frolicked around the vehicle, super relaxed, no more than seven meters from where we sat, mesmerised.
Young cheetahs will be left to fend for themselves, by their mother, at 18 months old. Female young will fairly shortly head off on their own to look for a mature male to mate with so they can start their own breeding lives. Young males on the other hand, will often stay together with other males from their own litter, also occasionally meeting up with other young males in the same situation and staying together in brotherhoods or coalitions. They do this so they can hunt bigger prey, they also have the safety in numbers element by doing this, more eyes and more ears to look and listen out for danger. Cheetahs are under constant threat from the larger predators such as lions and hyenas, that will kill cheetahs to eliminate competition for space and food. Only 20% of cheetah cubs make it through the first year of their lives in certain areas. It is also believed that there are no more than 300 cheetah left in the national park, so we were very privileged.
After an amazing hour spent with the four cheetah we started heading back to the lodge, it was about a 40-minute drive, most of it spent in relative silence other than a short stop for a beautiful bird, a sounder of warthogs, elephants in the distance and eight buffalo bulls wallowing in the N’wanetsi River. There was much reflection of what we had seen, deep thinking and processing.
For me it was wondering. When would we be able to share our world with guests again? What would happen next? How long will this last? Will we all be ok? The uncertainty of it all is what affects me personally the most. I guess, if this was to be the last big sighting with guests for a while I would choose these four cheetahs again and again.