Patty Peavler | June 20, 2016 10:15 AM ET
‘A Thrill To Behold’
PHOTO: Imagine being this close to this magnificent guy? (Story by Patty Peavler. Photo courtesy of Tricia Thurman)
I began a journey April 12 to South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana with customers from Farmers Bank and several from other parts of the country. We were under the care and guidance of Ntaba African Safaris, which is the Frankfort-based company started 10 years ago by Stella and Robin Mountain. Both are South African natives. "Ntaba," means "Mountain" in Zulu.
The journey began by flying from Louisville to Dulles near Washington, D.C., where we boarded a South African Airways jet for Johannesburg via Ghana. Here the plane refueled and a fresh crew and pilots took over after seven hours coming across the Atlantic. Five hours later we were collecting our bags to go through customs, then boarding another flight which took us from Johannesburg to Cape Town. Here at the bottom of Africa, where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet, penguins frolicked in the surf and brayed with a donkey-like sound as they waddled on the shore. The countryside was heavenly.
Perfect weather the next day found us riding a revolving cable car up Table Mountain for a view of land and sea. An expansive vista can be enjoyed from the top of this rock. The area is known as a biodiversity hotspot with more than 2,200 species of plants, including a large number of protea found nowhere else in the world.
Beauty at every turn
We followed that with a tour of a winery where we sampled an assortment of cheeses paired with different wines.
Not being a lover of spirits, I parked myself near two ladies on a bench outside to enjoy the sun and munch on a few olives purchased at the attached market. Soon several of our group joined in the olive feast as did my bench buddies, both delightful South Africans out to enjoy a day in the country. Cape Town is home to Kristenbousch Gardens, a UNESCO World Heritage Site featuring native plants, running streams and so many birds.
Luckily we started at the top and worked our way down through twisting paths to the bottom of the garden, which is beautiful at every turn.
The next day we flew to Kapama, a 34,000-acre private game preserve, which adjoins Kruger National Park. Here, spacious, well-appointed rooms and abundant buffets provided a touch of luxury. We arose early to see the animals with our Ntaba African Safaris leaders.
In a matter of minutes, three scampering hyenas arrived to play in the water. They chased each other and sniffed the ground giving no mind to the nearby giraffe, who paid them no more attention than to our truck parked nearby. In the bush everything knows its place and those animals near the top of the food chain have no reason to fear.
Everyone wanted to see elephants, which proved elusive that morning.
After several hours zipping along rutted dirt tracks in our four-wheel-drive Toyotas, four trucks filled with our party came together for coffee, hot chocolate and snacks served by the trackers. Each truck was driven by a ranger, a young man skilled in driving and possessing loads of information about the animals and trees.
Though they are keen-eyed spotters, the real stars of the safari are the trackers. These men, some not so young, perched on the front left fender of the land rover sitting on a small seat equipped with two handles. No seatbelts for them — just a good grip. Using hand signals to alert the ranger to low-hanging branches and the presence of wildlife, they are truly eagle-eyed. Speaking of eagles, we saw fish eagles that from a distance are a dead ringer for the bald eagle and an assortment of ducks, herons and storks.
About 10 a. m., we returned to the lodge where an expansive breakfast awaited. At three, we gathered for tea before starting out on our afternoon safari. This time we hit pay dirt: a leopard had taken down an impala. Our ranger said leopards usually hunt at night, so it was a rare sight in the afternoon. The leopard was eager to take the kill up a tree where he would be safe from lions and hyenas both capable of stealing the carcass.
First, he had to get past at least a hundred impalas standing in a clump and making loud grunting noises. These served as the impalas’ way of showing their displeasure. More importantly, the noise might actually attract a lion or hyena who would run the leopard off and take the meat for his own. What we saw soon after was another amazing sight.
READ MORE: Discover Southern Africa With Ntaba
Blaze of orange and red
A group of female lions had killed a warthog. While the lioness who made the kill, ate first, the others waited their turn. The big cats who had already eaten were lying in a stupor. So full were they it was too much for them to do any more than open their eyes to see our vehicle before going back to sleep. We were very close but they were not concerned. Our ranger explained that as long as the nine of us stayed seated and quiet, the lions had no idea we were actually juicy tidbits.
They saw only the truck and were not interested at all. Later, we watched as a male lion ate his fill of some unfortunate creature while the females who had done the hunting waited none too patiently for him to finish so they might feed. Even the cubs could not resist joining their mothers in some growling to show their displeasure.
As the sun went down in a blaze of orange and red, our group met up at a pre-appointed place for some nibbles and drinks. It was a thrill to behold the Southern Cross and the evening star, which is Jupiter, from the darkened plains. Our trackers broke out large flashlights whose beams they swept back and forth to see what game might be near.
The tracker uses the light to find the animals but does not shine the beam at them as this will temporarily blind them. Sight is very important to keeping ahead of predators. Back at the lodge we enjoyed a barbecue of local favorites as well as chicken, fish and many side dishes. We ate with our safari group, the ranger joining us to tell stories of recent adventures.
Fit for a queen
Leaving Kapama, we returned to Johannesburg for an overnight near the airport. Next morning, we were off to Zimbabwe and the wonder that is Victoria Falls. The Zambezi river is wide and shallow and teeming with hippos, elephants and lots of birds that we enjoyed seeing on a sunset cruise. And what a sunset it was … fiery and crimson colors melted into streaks of pink and all in a few minutes.
No expanse of water I had ever seen prepared me for the wonder of Victoria Falls, with water rushing hundreds of feet into a deep gorge, one of seven the river has dug. I was thrilled to finally ride a helicopter, this one taking us along the river and falls for some wonderful views of just how massive the water is. We were fortunate enough to be at the falls for the full moon. Victoria Falls and our own Cumberland Falls are the only two places on earth to see a moon bow. Ntaba African Safaris is a resident of both!
Though the night was overcast, see it we did.
On the far bank of the Zambezi sits Livingstone, Zambia, a town named for that great explorer who came to Africa as a missionary.
We were fortunate to have heard a local historian tell of the extraordinary life of Dr. Livingstone, who suffered from malaria many times and whose wife and several children died in Africa. Though Livingstone came to Africa to bring Christianity, his greatest contribution was to report back to England on the slave trade.
So appalling were his accounts, England banned slavery soon after Livingstone made known what was happening. Of course, Dr. Livingstone’s meeting with American newspaper reporter, Henry Stanley, resulted in the famous greeting, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.”
A large statue of Livingstone stands on the bank of the river very near the falls he named for his queen.
We enjoyed seeing hippos, the “river horse,” which spend most of their time in the water, eating grass and staying submerged — except for those noses, eyes and ears. They don’t swim but rather walk on the river bottom. Though innocent-looking, many deaths each year are caused when surfacing hippos overturn small fishing boats.
Elephants, too, enjoyed the water and sprayed each other with their trunks and sometimes walked to low-lying grassy islands near the middle of the river.
Botswana was our last stop. The Chobe National Park and Chobe river were a wonder of wildlife.
Crocodiles basked open-mouthed on the river bank while zebra, impala and buffalo cautiously drank nearby. The Chobe is shallow and so wide. Waving grasses and seas of water lilies sheltered the hippos, and birds were everywhere.
The river is the dividing line between Botswana and Namibia, and both countries have safari lodges and riverboats taking ever more tourists to see the animals.
All too soon, we boarded an airplane in Kasana, Botswana for a flight to Johannesburg, the first leg toward going home.
We arrived back in the U.S. at Dulles, then a connecting flight to Atlanta before our last stop in Louisville. Though getting there is long, the time spent seeing the beauty of the land and the wonderful animals makes it a most worthwhile trip.
I still cannot believe I sat only a few feet from a grazing rhino, saw baboons swinging in the trees and watched as a cheetah lazily walked up the road in front of us, paying only a few backward glances before bounding into the bush.
Go see South Africa with Ntaba African Safaris. You won’t believe your eyes.
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