We’d only just arrived and were already holding on for dear life on the back of a safari vehicle hurtling through the bushveld, flattening small acacia and buffalo thorn trees in our wake. In the front row, my middle son sat clinging to me, my oldest and youngest behind us.
Our ranger, sitting on the edge of the driver’s seat grinning, had earlier introduced himself as the well-seasoned ranger Andre Kruger (AK). His tracker, Ntsako, gesticulated wildly as he steered our path clear through the thick shrub. We were on the hunt for a pride of lions in the area. AK was sure they were there because of the hysterical shouts of a troop of baboons that leapt from branch to branch in the trees above us.
The trip had been a last-minute decision inspired by more than a year of lockdown watching my three children trapped indoors, often friendless, staring blankly at screens, their motivation flagging by the day. The cold, wet Cape winter had done nothing to help. I’d had enough.
‘We’re going to the Kruger,’ I told them. ‘No screens for two weeks.’ I ignored their eyes disappearing into the backs of their foreheads and a few weeks later we were in the bush in 35°C heat in the middle of July.
Our first stop had been the Kruger National Park itself, somewhere I hadn’t been since I was a child. To revisit through the eyes of my own children was delightful – the same hornbills I remembered excited my daughter who yelled ‘banana birds!’ every time she saw one. The huge herds of buffalo we stumbled across made my sons nudge each other and mumble ‘dagga boys’ like they shared some insider knowledge.
We’d seen so many elephants that, after a few days, we barely slowed down to look at them. But the beauty and excitement of a few nights in the Kruger did nothing to prepare us for the adventure we were now on at Tintswalo Safari Lodge in Manyeleti Game Reserve bordering the Kruger Park just outside Orpen Gate.
We’d graduated from our hired car to an open 4×4 that treated roads, even the dirt ones, as mere suggestions that could be ignored – as we now found ourselves doing. With the sound of the baboons still filling the air, Ntsako waved his hand in a telling motion and our vehicle slowed to a near stop. AK whispered, ‘Here they are.’ The pride – 12 lions to be exact – stretched out in the bushveld grass napping. A female lifted her head, stared at us, blinked, then rolled over onto her back, legs in the air.
My children’s immediate and unexpected ability to keep quiet was testimony to their exhilaration. Or maybe it was panic. Later my son would say: ‘Geez, we were so close, you could’ve prodded one of them with a stick and they could’ve hauled you off the back of the vehicle.’
The excitement didn’t end there. The radio crackled and enthusiastic chatter in a language sounding like a mix of Ndebele, Zulu, Afrikaans and English came over the speaker. AK turned to us. ‘Do you want to track down and dart a hyena to remove a snare from its neck?’ I didn’t have to look at my kids’ faces to know the answer. An hour later, after a spectacular sundowner of G&T, and juice and snacks for the kids, we pulled into a clearing next to two other vehicles.
The park manager and local vet were crouched next to a huge tree tying a dead impala to its base as bait. And then the fun began. With the sun having set and the moon not yet risen, we sat in the pitch dark as a recording of a distressed buffalo was broadcast across the bushveld. It took less than five minutes before the night was filled with the sound of calling hyenas. A rustling from a bush behind us signalled the arrival of a young male lion who sauntered out sniffing the air.
The lion was not planned, of course. After trying unsuccessfully to frighten him off with a blank dart, the decision was made to work around the lion who had now taken ownership of the impala and was growling at any hyena that tried to join in. The whining, howling and roaring that ensued for over an hour was one of the most dramatic and theatrical events I’ve ever witnessed in the bush, and it was only when my wide-eyed seven-year- old tapped me on the shoulder and whispered ‘Mommy, what’s going on?’ that my attention was interrupted from the unfolding scene.
Moments later the snared hyena was spotted and successfully darted. We watched it stumble, as if drunk, before collapsing in a nearby bush. The vet and his assistant retrieved the hyena on a stretcher and we stood around her as the nasty snare was successfully removed. With the lion and at least 15 hyenas only metres away, our only protection was the park ranger standing guard in the dark of the night.
When we finally arrived back in camp, we were greeted by mugs of hot chocolate and dinner next to an open fire. It was 11pm. Our first game drive at Tintswalo Safari Lodge had lasted eight hours and had seemingly altered my children. As I kissed them goodnight, all three of them announced they were becoming game rangers when they grew up. ‘Better than just gamers,’ I replied.
Tintswalo Safari Lodge is the original family- owned establishment of the Tintswalo Property Group tucked below towering Jackalberry trees in the 56 000-acre Manyeleti Game Reserve, part of the Greater Kruger. Fenceless borders with the Kruger mean the park is teeming with game, and with a low density of vehicles creates the perfect safari experience.
Luxury suites positioned far apart along a river leave you feeling like you’re truly alone in the bush. We regularly saw elephants walking past as we sat on the deck. There are two options for families on offer. Grant Suite sleeps four in two magnificent bedrooms both looking onto a deck and private pool and into the bush beyond. For a real treat and a larger extended family, The Manor House, set apart from the main lodge, accommodates between six and 10 guests and is a spectacular, self-sufficient villa with its own boma, pool, bar, private chef, butler and private ranger. Definitely on the bucket list.
Tintswalos’s pay-off line, ‘Arrive a guest, leave as family’, was true for us. The experience of the wild coupled with the care taken by the attentive staff at Tintswalo shifted us out of the pandemic-driven rut we’d gotten into and opened my children to a world of nature, conservation in action, and the joy of life beyond the glare of their screens. If a holiday can be a life-altering experience, then this was definitely one of them.
By Susan Newham-Blake