I had always wanted to go on safari and in 2003 this became reality when Mrs Wilbur and I visited the Kruger National Park.
100,000 Air Miles secured us flights with British Airways from London to Johannesburg, onto Cape Town & back to London. We very nearly didn’t make it as in my wisdom I decided we should take the bus from Croydon to Heathrow costing a bargain £1 each.
The problem was that the expected 90-minute journey took nearly three-hours due to an accident near Kingston upon Thames, which meant we hardly moved for an hour.
We survived the most stressful journey of our lives (even worse than nearly missing our honeymoon flight to Barcelona in 2000) by the skin of our teeth and only then thanks to my Executive Club status which saw us allowed to board despite the departure gate officially being closed. It took me at least an hour to recover!!
Jo’burg was pretty uneventful for us as we stayed pretty much the whole of our two days holed up in a hotel in leafy Sandton. Stupidly I baulked at the cost of a Soweto Township tour, which I now of course regret.
I will probably never get the opportunity again to see the only street in the world with houses belonging to two then living Nobel Peace Prize winners – the abodes of Nelson Mandela & Archbishop Desmond Tutu*. Lesson learned and a ‘when in Rome’ philosophy since adopted.
*A 2-2 draw in football is now universally known as a Desmond!
I had booked the the safari independently – we would be flying from Johannesburg to a tiny airport at Hoedspruit and then taken by jeep to the Akeru Safari Lodge.
Our turboprop flew us the 45-minute journey to the landing strip on the edge of Kruger and our pick-up was happily there to meet us. Barbara managed to cede to my request to listen to the Rugby World Cup semi-final between England & France.
Even though the radio reception was awful and the South African accent of the commentator unfathomable at times, Barbara managed to translate a welcome England victory played out in torrential rain in Sydney, Australia. England were through to the final which would be played the day we would be leaving Jo’burg for Cape Town.
For now though it was real lions & springboks we were concerned with as we excitedly entered the gates of Akeru. We had booked two nights’ lodging, with five safaris – two in the afternoon, two early morning and one at night.
After lunch we set off for our first foray into the jungle. We were the only arrivals at that time so it was just us with Ryan our guide & driver and David our tracker.
We were like kids in a toy shop, wondering what delights we would encounter. Ryan guaranteed that we would see lions & elephants during our stay, but he had reports of a rarer leopard sighting in the area and this was to be our pursuit.
We drove around fruitlessly for an hour as David stood on a footplate outside the jeep looking for telltale tracks. Eventually he saw some and Ryan stopped the engine. They both left the vehicle and made off into the distance, rifles over their shoulders.
We eventually lost sight of them and after ten-minutes or so it dawned on us that we were totally defenceless in a hostile environment! We had visions of big cats jumping into the jeep for a snack. “Ryan, Ryan, Ryan,” we bellowed as we lost our nerve.
Ryan eventually rushed back, initially concerned, he soon grinned when he heard our fears. He explained that animals see the jeep as a single large beast even when it is filled with people and they just leave alone. Whether this was true or not I do not know, but it allayed our panic anyhow.
We were not to get to see the leopard, satisfying ourselves with zebra, giraffe & majestic elephants. We were made up with what we saw, there was plenty of time for big cats.
As the sun set, we stopped for our first sundowners of the trip. We both chose a cold beer with which to sit and watch the sun disappear below the tree canopy far in the distance. It has become one of those visions & feelings that evoke tremendous well-being when recalled.
When we got back to Akeru, we met our fellow guests who had arrived after us and would be joining us for a late night safari after dinner. We retired to our electricity-free thatched lodge for a rest and brush-up before food, diligently carrying oil lamps to illuminate the way. It really was a beautifully rustic setting, well worth the small fortune I had shelled out.
After pre-dinner G&Ts in the lodge bar, followed by barbecued ostrich cooked on an open fire, it was time for the night safari. We heard lots of monkey calling, owl hooting and frog croaking, but saw virtually nothing, despite David controlling a huge floodlight up front.
We did see some flashing eyes in the trees, aye ayes Ryan confidently informed us, but that was our lot. We retired bushed but very happy. As I lay beneath the mosquito net, Mrs Wilbur exited the bathroom rapido and uttered the immortal words, “there’s a scorpion in our bath!”
Yours truly was despatched to get Ryan who carefully picked up the critter in toilet paper and dropped it out of the window. He then explained that the tiny black predatory arachnid was the most dangerous kind, being very aggressive. We had definitely done the right thing he agreed as he left (probably muttering something about yellow-bellied tourists).
We were now right on edge, what other creepies would we encounter? It was about then that I spotted a large red-winged beastie inside our net! I lashed at it with a magazine, but unable to locate it again alive or dead, we eventually drifted to sleep after tiredness overtook our state of alert.
We were up again before sunrise for our first morning safari. Coffee & rusks set us on our way for a quite brilliant morning fauna spotting. Prides of lion, large elephant herds, a jackal, antelope, birds of prey, vultures, an army of baboons traversing a dried-up riverbed, African rollers, yellow-billed hornbills, bee eaters, termite mounds, macaque monkeys, countless ungulates and lots more.
I cannot remember that much about our fellow enthusiasts, but there was one seasoned game observer with a camera lens the size of the trunks we had seen adorning the elephants. It made my small manual Canon look totally inadequate. These were the days before digital cameras had really taken off and the smart-phone camera was still in the imagination of Steve Jobs.
There was much excited chatter over our huge breakfast, as we got to know each other and recounted what we had seen. Afterwards David took us on a walking safari, which was an educational flora experience as he explained which plants cured fever, how to clean your teeth on a flower stalk and how to survive on edible plant life, whilst avoiding almost identical poisonous varieties. Fascinating.
We then had a few hours to enjoy the camp, watching warthogs going about their business, having a plunge in the small pool (which was chemical free as it was sometimes drunk by elephants apparently), going down to the nearly empty waterhole to see what may be lurking and just generally relaxing.
At one point I sat in the room reading my African flora & fauna guide, when I felt I was being watched. I turned to the window to find a waterbuck staring back at me!
That afternoon we were to be disappointed by not seeing leopard or buffalo again, but then the message came through on the bush radio that rhinoceros had been spotted. We were joined by several other vehicles in hot pursuit.
Eventually, just as we were about to give up, something appeared out of the gloom. There was a crash of around a dozen rhino, the most Ryan had ever seen at one time. My photos do not do them justice, but again the memory is magical.
Sundowners were G&Ts for us this time. A superb end to another fabulous day.
After our last safari next morning during which we viewed much the same as we had seen before, we bade a fond farewell to the camp after lunch before returning to Hoedspruit for our flight back to Johannesburg.
We had seen three of the big five (I never can understand why buffalo is in the top 5 over hippopotamus), but this did not matter. We had a superb time and vowed to do another safari another day to hopefully tick off the others.