Published: 19th February 2006
Now, Dyke is a safari guide. The skills he learnt as a child have been developed to a fine pitch of awareness: nothing escapes him, no sound or sight or movement. If you want to understand African wildlife, it’s worth knowing Dyke, or someone very like him. Without a good guide, the bush will be just bush, with a few impala jumping around and an odd sighting of a giraffe’s head. It is the guide whose determination and skills take you within a few feet of animals so beautiful, your life shifts on its axis.
I learnt this just a couple of hours after landing on the airstrip at Ngala, a private game reserve in the Kruger National Park. Dyke had brought us face to face with a lioness and her mate. She lay on her back, paws in the air, while the male turned to us, with a mixture of assertion and condescension. I felt a lurch of fear. “He hasn’t eaten for a few days: that’s why he looks thin,” said Dyke.
In spite of the presence of predators, there was an infectious exuberance about the animals. We came across a grassy clearing where zebra, impala and wildebeest all gathered together and displayed their respective virtuosities: impala leapt across the stage of scrub as if made of air, while two large males locked horns in a mock battle; zebra broke into a sudden gallop, their fat tummies full of gas, farting as they showed off their speed and agility; last of all, the long-faced wildebeest took the floor, thundering across the area, respectfully observed by the other animals. It was the most stunning display of high spirits.
“This is unusual — but they’re confident because they feel safe from predators,” said a beaming Dyke. “The wildebeest have good hearing, the impala a good sense of smell and the zebra good sight, so they know there are plenty of early- warning systems when the three species are together.”
A little later, he became quiet and absorbed as he looked for a leopard that had recently been reported in the area. Finally, we spotted him, stretched over the sand of an empty river bed: a grand young animal, almost too beautiful and formal in his grace, his fur dense, the white background dazzling. He managed to be like a glorious statue yet utterly alive at the same time.
The diversity and quantity of animals we saw amazed me, as did Dyke’s ability to get close without disturbing them. “Can you hear the elephants in the distance?” he asked. “Like a rumbling tummy? There are babies with them.” He read the landscape to us illiterates as we surged through river beds, undergrowth and forest to find the herd, the baby elephants toddling along happily like frisky little Dumbos, while the others, with their wrinkled, grandfatherly legs, ripped up trees to eat.
It isn't just adventure that the best safari camps offer. They are psychologically restoring, because the animals and birds put you and your small-time anxieties firmly in their place. The buffalo stares back at you with insulting candour, the leopard ignores you, wrapped in his magnificent, sumptuous, sleekly fitting fur. Your problems do not matter; there is a far grander scheme here, and if you don’t feel a kick of awe, you won’t feel it anywhere.
As the day melted away, leaving just a few streaks of pink in the sky, and the murmur of insects rose up against the silence, we plunged through trees and undergrowth to find the leopard again, this time with his mother, who had made an impala kill. We watched him play-stalk his mother, who pretended not to notice. Satiated with impala, she climbed up to a low branch and lounged over it, legs on either side.
Dyke took us for sundowners by a lake, where the big ears of hippo peeked up above the water; showed us a hyena camp, where the baby hyenas tumbled like cuddly bears; pointed out the preposterous figures of giraffes; carefully followed a vast, tiny-eyed rhino barging through the bush. His knowledge was as wide as his skills were sharp: did you know that elephants are left-or right-tusked, as we are left- or right-handed?
The two camps on the 14,000-hectare reserve are exceptionally well run, with drop-dead accommodation and five-star food served on fine plates by gentle, shy, attentive staff. You are pampered, entertained, inspired, educated. And what is more, your presence helps preservation and provides work.
CC Africa, which runs the lodges, employs local people wherever they can and, through its charitable foundation, helps with health clinics, education and water.
On our last evening, we stood by the 4WD as the sky turned blood red. Nearby, eagles on a dead tree haughtily surveyed the world below. Dyke, shy yet confident, boyish yet very much in control, prepared drinks.
We were all astounded by what we had seen — the elephant, rhino, lion, hippo, buffalo, zebra, giraffe, antelope, leopard, hyena, waterbuck, impala, wildebeest — and how Dyke had propelled us to them as if by magic.
Somehow, for a moment or two here and there, he had made us invisible observers of intimate moments: seeing that young leopard stalking his mother, or noticing the way the elephants picked up their immense feet then brought them down softly, as if stuffed with cotton wool, while their babies toddled gaily beside them.
Need to Know
Sally Emerson travelled as a guest of CC Africa (00 27 11 809 4300, www.ccafrica.com), which offers three-night packages from Johannesburg from £895pp, including flights to Ngala airstrip, full-board accommodation and two game drives. Or try Cedarberg Travel (020 8755 7917, www.cedarberg-travel.com), another South African operator. For flights, BA (0870 850 9850, www.ba.com), Virgin Atlantic (0870
380 2007, www.virgin-atlantic.com), South African Airlines (0870 747 1111, www.flysaa.com) and Nationwide Airlines (0870 300 0767, www.flynationwide.co.za) fly from London to Jo’burg; expect to pay from £600.
For a package with flights, Alexander & Stuart (020 7016 6746, www.alexanderandstuart.com) offers eight-night trips from £2,740pp, including flights with Virgin Atlantic, three nights’ full-board at the Ngala Lodge, three nights at the Impodimo Lodge and domestic transfers. Or try Audley Travel (01869 276250, www.audleytravel.com) or Tribes (01728 685971, www.tribes.co.uk).