“A Game Park is so-named because finding animals is like a game: sometimes you win, sometimes you lose”. It was during my weekend trip to the last of the three “Big Game Parks” in Swaziland that I was given this wise definition.
A group of 9 girls and I decided to head East for a relaxing weekend getaway, staying in a self-catering cabin or rondavel that overlooks a waterhole in Hlane Game Reserve. While most were content to sit and chill, I decided to head off on a self-drive tour through the park. Two unsuspecting friends were convinced to accompany me – Courtney, an American who’s also new to the country, and Michelle, who has been to the park before and was roped in to serve as our pseudo-guide.
It was mid-afternoon by the time we left and followed the track through various gates, and down different turns. We stopped at a waterhole in the hope of catching some thirsty elephants or giraffes, but had to be satisfied with parched impala. As the evening got closer, we endeavoured to make our way out of the park, only to find that the tracks weren’t as straightforward as we thought.
Fear and panic crept in as night time fell and the 6pm park curfew (the time when they lock the electrified gates) drew nearer and nearer. The question of whether to continue on or turn around was ever-present and we decided to take our chances with the first option. I picked up the pace in the hope of finding a gate that would lead us somewhere other than the lion’s area. Finally, we saw a sign, an arrow of hope, and dodged impala at high speed to reach the final gate to our campsite at 5:50pm. As if that experience wasn’t bad enough, we were informed on our arrival back at camp that we had missed seeing a bunch of giraffes drinking at the waterhole. So far, in the Hlane game, it was Nature, 1 – Humans, 0.
Although early in the game, I doused my sorrows in cold beer, and cheered up somewhat thanks to braai chicken and beef, quinoa salad and roast vegies, finished off with coal-roasted chocolate banana. After all the afternoon’s excitement, I decided to hit the sack early, but was kept awake most of the night by roaring Lions, as if to rub insult into injury. Nature, 2 – Humans, nil….still.
I tried to remain positive as I rolled out of bed at 5:30am on Sunday morning for the second half of the Hlane game. Courtney, Michelle and I had decided to try our luck with a guided tour, putting our faith in Maxwell, a local guide with 6 years experience. Huddled under four layers of clothes and a blanket, we staved off hypothermia while keeping our eyes peeled for lions camouflaged by the beautiful yellow glow of sunrise. Only 15 minutes in, we scored: Three lionesses feeding on the remains of impala, watched closely by an older male, as distinguished by his bushy black mane, all less than 5 metres from us.
Once they had finished their meal, one of the females wandered off and was followed by the male who made some desperate urination attempts to score a bit of early morning lovin’. Clearly she had a headache that morning, as he got the snub. It was right when we were commenting how cute they were that the lioness started roaring and eye-balling us. The male followed suit, and when she started wandering toward the vehicle, I seriously thought we were going to become a big can of human-flavoured Whiskers. However, she passed us by and instead sauntered off into the distance. It was later that Maxwell politely informed us that she was merely heeding the call of another male. Scarlet woman.
After that excitement we set off again and with an hour or so on the clock we scored once more: a small herd of elephants, including a 1 year-old baby. While they didn’t seem to mind us being there at the start, after about 15 minutes one of the elephants began to get agitated as it seemed we were parked between her and a close relative. Maxwell didn’t hesitate to reverse us out of there, adding the most memorable quote of the weekend: “Elephants can get dangerous. Let’s go find some lions”.
By this time, our fingers and bums were well and truly frostbitten, so we stopped for a cuppa and inspected the tracks and poo trails for signs of other wildlife. Once blood had returned to our extremities, we were back in the Jeep in search of giraffes. Just before the full-time whistle, our fearless guide found us three beautiful females: two adults and a 3-year old, hanging out in the open plain. It’s hard not to be enchanted by these graceful and docile animals. It’s even harder to resist the temptation to run up and hug them.
Alas, the tour had to end, and as we passed through the gates the second and final time that weekend, the scoreboard had turned around. Humans, 3 – Nature, 2. As we sat back and ate our breakfast of Shakshuka, we received a final show of Rhinos fighting and elephants drinking, leaving us more than satisfied that in the Hlane Game, we were victorious.