The ghosts and the darkness

Kruger National Park | August 2020

With COVID 19 causing major disruptions to the hospitality and tourism industry, we have had no guests at the lodges since mid-March. The resulting impact gave us as guides the opportunity and time to focus on guide training and mentorship experiences, and we have been spending a considerable amount of time in the bush to improve our skill sets for when guests are eventually able to return to South Africa once more.

Most guides working at Singita Kruger National Park can attest that one of the major drawcards for any visitors considering coming on a safari to this area, would be the remote and pristine wilderness we get to operate and guide in, and for that reason most guides have an obsession with spending as much time out in the wild as possible. So much so, that even during our off times we would head out and explore the basalt plains or the Lebombo Mountain ridges.

During one weekend, Bernard, a fellow guide, Dan, the assistant lodge manager at Singita Lebombo, and I decided that we wanted to do a primitive sleep-out experience under the stars. We packed some stretcher beds and sleeping bags, and off we set to the granophyre bush dinner site. Many of our guests might be familiar with the incredible setting of this area as it is here that we have shared many incredible meals and stories with visitors from across the world.

We lit a fire before darkness descended, and we placed our beds around the fireplace. With no added security offered by sleeping in tents, we had to take turns doing guard duty to ensure the safety of the group and because we were only three people, we decided to all stay up throughout the night and to keep each other company.

To the average person, the idea of sleeping without the comfort and shelter in an area surrounded by predators and other potentially dangerous animals, might sound like we have lost the plot a little, but in reality, once you have listened to the hyenas’ call, and witnessed the stars shifting across the Milky Way, or you have become mesmerized by the sparks of the fire flying up into darkness, your soul realises how much you have been craving this opportunity to reconnect with nature and to become still within yourself.

With the new moon cycle, the stars shone extra bright that night, and there was not a sign of any light pollution. It was eerily quiet and the crisp winter’s air settled around us as we huddled closely around the flames of the camp fire. Not the screech of an owl, nor a chirp of a cricket could be heard – instead silence enveloped us.

That was until midnight when all hell broke loose! The sudden cacophony of hyenas whooping and laughing and lions growling and fighting pierced the dark quiet night. We realised that all of this commotion was taking place very close to where we had decided to camp out for the night. Silence descended again just as quickly as the commotion had started. We were all very alert now, and we quickly jumped into the safari vehicle to see if we could find where this skirmish between the predators had taken place, but no such luck… Just darkness and silence again.

We returned to the safety of the fireplace, with the soft glow illuminating our faces and the boulders of the granophyres. That’s when we heard it first, the distant roar of a lion calling from far south. Silence again… and after several minutes another roar, this time from the north of our sanctuary.

Hours passed… another roar… this time closer than the one before, followed by the return roar to signal to the pride members in the south where the rest of the family might be. Silence again… and darkness and stars.

That was when he spotted it. From the corner of Bernard’s eye, at around 3 am, the slight shadow that was cast just outside of the fire’s glow had caught his attention. Calmly he said, “They are here.” We slowly stood up, and with our torches we illuminated the scene. The whole Shishangaan pride and several of their cubs had literally stumbled into our camp. One lioness stared at us, and several of the small cubs actually started to walk closer towards us. And trailing them, the big Kumana male with the droopy lip followed, scent-marking a shrub less than forty metres from where we had set up camp.

I suppose fear should have gripped us, but instead this feeling of utmost calm and peace descended over us. We actually proceeded to sit down on some rocks, and in the darkness, we were now at eye level with the pride. Their curiosity soon wore off, and slowly the big cats and their small cubs started to disappear into the darkness again.

I have had the privilege to spend many hours with lions at night, but never in my life had I ever, or probably will I ever, have another experience like this again. In that moment we were truly a part of the wilderness. Man, and beast became one.

My soul realised once again: This is where I belong, and I cannot wait to share in life changing moments like these with guests.

Photograph: Our primitive camp nestled amongst the granophyre, by Bernard Stiglingh.