The owners of Wildlife Camp wanted to say goodbye to my predecessor and to welcome me back to the Valley. They invited us to go on an evening game drive followed by supper. It was hot and humid by the time we reached the camp. JC had baked a lemon drizzle cake (try saying that in Afrikaans) and some Lamingtons for afternoon tea. We were being spoiled.
By the time we set out for the park, the sky had darkened and we could see rain falling in the distance from bruised clouds. As we reached the park gates, it began to rain heavily. There was a roof over the vehicle but the sides were open. We were issued with ex-army ponchos, but the foam padding of the bench seats allowed the rainwater to percolate under the ponchos, soaking our pants. We were also trying to protect our camera gear, but I had given up all hope of getting any decent photographs.
The animals didn’t seem to mind the rain. A baby elephant was having a whale of a time, rolling in a shallow lake. All the white-faced whistling ducks were enjoying the downpour. Each mother seemed to have a brood of half a dozen ducklings. Off the gravel roads, driving was treacherous. We slithered across WaMilombe, an open grassland area which the grazers appreciate as it gives them ample warning when predators approach. There seemed to be some activity over by the river so we manoeuvred into a good viewing position to watch two lionesses checking out the riverbank. One was looking upstream, the other downstream. We could see their nostrils twitching as they picked up new smells, possible their dinner.
The sunset was, quite literally, a washout. My camera was struggling to take pictures in the gloomy light, so we retraced our tracks and took up another position close to a young male. He was grooming, licking his fur, oblivious to our safari vehicle 10 metres away. Suddenly his demeanour changed. His eyes lost their dreamy look and became focussed on his sisters by the river bank. They were hungry and decided it was time to hunt. He rapidly caught up with them.
We drove back to WaMilombe, but by this time it was too dark to have a leisurely “sundowner”. We got out of the vehicle, chose a cold beverage from the icebox, munched some popcorn and chatted about how lucky we were to have seen three lions after the storm. BJ, the guide, and George, the spotter, kept sweeping their spotlights around the perimeter. We could see two other safari vehicles which had been trailing the lions. One of the vehicles turned in our direction. The driver started manically flashing his lights to warn us. George picked out the male lion about fifty metres away, coming towards us. “He obviously wants to try the popcorn,” I joked. “Get in the vehicle NOW, right NOW!” ordered BJ.
Getting into a safari vehicle which is covered in mud is not easy, especially at night. But we managed to clamber aboard in less than 15 seconds. Seeing there was no popcorn on offer, the lion changed course and joined his sisters. We watched them for a while, but the spotlights seemed to confuse them, so we left them in peace and drove towards the airstrip.
Within five minutes, George had spotted a female leopard, stalking two impala. With 12 years’ experience of spotting game at night, he was able to tell it was a leopard by the colour of the flash back from the eyes. We reversed and watched her moving stealthily through the long grass towards the impala. The impala started to move in her direction, so she ducked under a bush and waited. We waited too, but she didn’t make a move. We were getting cold and reluctantly drove off.
No one was optimistic that we would get another sighting, but George the Wonderspotter picked out a chameleon clasping a branch half way up a tree at the side of the track. Our powerful spotlight was trained on the back of the chameleon, and it turned white to match the light. Its head was still green, away from the main beam. The flap-necked chameleon was about 20cms long, nose to tail. George would not give away his secret of how he caught sight of it, but I guess it might have something to do with the skin turning from green to white in the spotlight.
Five minutes later, George did it again, but this time he kept the beam trained on the chameleon until we came to a stop. This meant it was easy for us to identify it, improving the signal to noise ratio.
We left the park and dropped George at the village. It started to rain again as we drove back to Wildlife Camp. The muddy track made driving tricky, especially when we turned a corner to find an elephant about 20 metres directly in front of us. He was munching leaves from the bushes at the side of the road. We waited for him to finish off a branch and move on, before we could make progress.
I had packed a pair of trousers and a long-sleeved shirt in my waterproof bag, so I was able to change into dry clothing for dinner. Butternut squash soup, bobotjie with banana and pickle, salad followed by cake. Great company, wonderful experience, and they even made sure I got on the right track back to my accommodation at the end of the night.