Sundown surprises

Sabi Sand | September 2020

I think we can all agree that a special part of an afternoon game drive is stopping somewhere tranquil and remote to enjoy a refreshing drink as the sun melts into the horizon. With nothing but the nature surrounding us, ambushing our senses, we share a beautiful moment together, submitting to the overwhelming peace of the bushveld and letting it rejuvenate our souls. As we share a toast, smiling as we communally unite in a moment of gratitude for the events witnessed over the last few hours, we collectively share in the sheer brilliance of the sky as it transforms. Fiery reds explode through the dusty African atmosphere. Silhouettes of birds dance in the magnificent light, concluding their last songs for the day. Shortly the nocturnal winged instruments will commence their chorus, bringing a new monotonous thrill into the air.

From time to time however my tracker Rebel and I have come to realise that these blissful bush moments don’t always go quite to plan… Whether luck or being in the right place at the right time, occasionally we’ve been joined by some unexpected guests. I’d like to share three of these memories with you.

The first instance that holds strong in my mind was on one of my first afternoon drives at Singita. Myself, Rebel and our guests were enjoying a peaceful drink at the edge of an open clearing under a marula tree. We had parked at the highest point of the area to enjoy the golden sun as much as possible before it sank down into the earth. The only sounds we could hear were that made by insects and critters in the shadows.

With just a few sips left, our break was nearly finished, when I clearly remember Rebel looking directly at me and nodding to the bushes on the other side of the road a few metres from the marula tree. I registered what he saw and turned, nodding to him, moving between the animal and guests. I remember Reb saying in a calm and clear voice, “No one panic, but there is a leopard just over there”. Excitement radiated off our guest’s faces, their last sips quickly downed in one as we ushered everyone safely into the vehicle.

The female leopard, known as the Schotia Female had disappeared from view, her pawprints freshly lining the road and dipping into the thicket. With a reinstated eager energy we drove around the block of trees and waited at a small pathway, hoping it was the one she’d chosen.

Magically, moments later, she emerged. Peering curiously up at us, I remember her pausing briefly, scent-marking the apple leaf tree next to us before walking out in front of, leading us back towards the lodge.

Earlier this year, Rebel and I took our guests to one of our favourite lookout points on the northern side of the Sand River. An elevated escarpment with a view stretching to the far west of the Sabi Sand Reserve, we set up the snacks and the gin and tonics started to flow. Quite literally out of nowhere, the bushes behind the vehicle erupted with commotion. Three wild dogs sprinted around us, completely oblivious to our celebratory beverages and laughter. The slow-moving clouds and dwindling speckles of sun seemed to all pause in that moment as the chaos around us sped up.

A scrub hair, which had been crouching in the shrubs close by leapt out, also surprised by these sudden visitors. The dogs, having notice this movement, bolted for the animal. I truly don’t think any of us could actually take in what was happening next to us. We stood dumbstruck, watching as more of the pack leapt out of the bushes to pursue this small creature. Luck was with the scrub hair that night. Being a few seconds ahead of the dogs, it had just enough time to escape their hunt.

Our drinks stop had been dramatically cut short, but we bundled into the vehicle. With our guests balancing their glasses, we raced after the wild dogs, keen to make the most of this unexpected and rare event. As we drove on, we caught up with the pack. They had reunited with the rest of the adults and puppies and were ceremoniously greeting each other with delighted squeals and cries. As the daylight closed in on us, the dogs began to settle down for the night. We toasted in delight to a wonderful evening, heading back for our dinner, our hearts filled with joy at our lucky experience.

My final story to tell is set just opposite this lookout where the dogs joined us, on the other side of the Sand River. The family that Rebel and I were guiding were on their last night and we had decided to stop at a beautiful sandy section of the river for some light snacks and bush drinks. The kids had washed their hands with some devil thorn leaves and we had just prepared some coconut sage infused gin (for the adults) and lemonade (for the kids), when two rhino bulls splashed onto the scene.

Completely fixated on one another, the bulls continued their head to head fight, crashing through the once calm river in our direction. Without much time, the guests all took to their seats once more and we sat together to watch the scene in front of us unfold. Establishing quickly that this must be a territorial dispute, we watched until darkness as these two beasts crashed into one another, using all their strength to drive the other back. The sounds were incredible. Surprisingly the larger of the two seemed more submissive, although the roles seemed to change the closer to the bank they got. Concentration fixed in their eyes with their ears spinning round periodically to assess their surroundings, it was an impressive scene to behold. We sat and observed until darkness completely enveloped us. The rhinos had showed off their impressive strength in front of us and it seemed they too were at the end of their dispute. With one heading north across the river, the other into the darkness behind us, we all agreed that this affair was the highlight of the trip.

Although the day may be coming to an end and the beating sun narrows its journey to the earth, there is still time for something magical to happen. The unexpected and sometimes unexplained can be the most precious moments of all, even if only shared for the last few minutes of daylight. With the Coronavirus outbreak, the last seven months have been challenging. The world has seen doubt, uncertainty and grief. Don’t lose hope, don’t end you day as soon as you see the clouds turning orange and the sunlight fading. There’s always time for something unexpected and wonderful to walk into your world, or for you to wander into someone else’s…