Big five viewings in the Madikwe Game Reserve are virtually guaranteed, writes Sandra MacGregor.
No one in the safari vehicle has said a word for the past 10 minutes. We are staring at a family of lions less than five metres away as they engage in that most universal of activities: soaking up the sun. The pastoral scene unfolds before us as if we've paid them to perform: mother and father lie in the sun as the kids (year-old juveniles) play rough-and-tumble. "This is an extraordinary scene," says Tuningi Safari Lodge's talented and low-key ranger, Christo Rachmann. "We're lucky to be witnessing this."
Suddenly, one of the female juveniles - clearly the show-off of the pride - jumps into a tree and flashes her canines. Her performance is put to a rather ignominious end when her brother asserts his dominion by pushing her out of the tree with a swat of his massive paw. But before this show of strength can go to the youngster's head, his father lets out a roar and begins to methodically circle the group, stopping at well-appointed trees to mark his territory.
And what a territory it is. Tuningi Lodge is in the Madikwe Game Reserve, 75,000 hectares three hours north-west of Johannesburg on the Botswana border. It was created 20 years ago through Operation Phoenix, a project in which 8000 animals from 28 different species were relocated in the largest translocation of game ever recorded.
Yet despite being malaria-free and offering some of the best big five game viewing in the country (Madikwe is open only to guests staying at one of the reserve's lodges, so there are far fewer tourists competing for prime spots at sightings), Madikwe remains little-known even among South Africans - or at least it was until recently.
Animals are as welcomes as the guests.
Last June the reserve made big news when the first lady of the US, Michelle Obama, and her daughters chose to forgo South Africa's renowned Kruger National Park and instead selected the more low-key Madikwe as their game park destination of choice.
From the sightings we've had so far, it appears the Obama family chose well. And lucky for us, the animals don't seem to have let the recent celebrity visit dull their enthusiasm for making appearances for us less famous folk.
Though at this moment Christo probably wishes the wildlife was a little more stand-offish. Suddenly, his demeanour changes. "All right everybody, back in the safari vehicle," he says, noticing elephants heading our way.
"Quickly," he adds, unnecessarily.
Christo has just set up a casual picnic in the bush where we planned to have drinks and watch the sun go down over Madikwe. Unfortunately, these elephants share our ranger's pick of picnicking spots and they rightly get first dibs. Still holding our gin and tonics, we drive to a safe distance and watch the huge pachyderms arrive to make short work of some acacia trees.
However, our animal encounters are not over. As we start to head back to the lodge, a giraffe, clearly feeling it's not getting its fair share of attention, has taken up position in the middle of the road, seemingly refusing to budge until a substantial number of photos have been taken. We happily comply.
On return to Tuningi, guests compare photos and linger over a divine meal as a chorus of aptly named bubbling frogs provides a perfect safari-camp serenade. At the lodge, animals are as welcome as the guests. Most mornings I find myself sharing my alfresco shower with either a couple of friendly geckos or a curious hornbill that also has a habit of depositing half-eaten fruit on a neighbouring deckchair. The lodge is also frequently visited by zebras that drink at a nearby watering hole, and guests happily share the pool with a handful of grey louries that arrive for a quick bath and a drink.
But the best wildlife sightings await us on safari. The next day on our morning drive, we are astonished as two spotted hyenas, notoriously shy creatures, let our vehicle follow close behind as they set off in search of breakfast. The pair couldn't have been more welcoming if we were invited guests and we leave the twosome only when a rhino makes an appearance with her youngster close behind. The mother and daughter barely cast us a glance before continuing to graze placidly, in no rush to leave our company.
"Christo, are you secretly tying raw steak to the bottom of our vehicle to get all these animals to come and make an appearance?" a guest asks.
There's more. At dusk, we come upon an impressive male lion lying in the brush. Christo pulls up the safari vehicle as close as possible and, his experience as a ranger telling him what is about to occur, turns off the vehicle's engine and lights and issues a single command: "Listen." Suddenly, the lion pierces the silence with an imperial roar. His cries continue, each one punctuated by a series of guttural huffs. As the minutes melt and the sun finally falls and leaves us in total darkness, the lion continues to call to his pride until an answering roar compels him to set off into the trees.
"It's the best sound in the bush," Christo says. "It always makes me feel so small and humble."
Back at Tuningi Lodge, as we sit around a bonfire about to enjoy a dinner under the stars, none of us can shake the call of the lion.
Surely the staff must think us crazy as eight seemingly sane adults erupt in a cacophony of calls in a vain attempt to imitate the hauntingly powerful cries.
"In my 30 years of travel in Africa, I have never heard that sound," a septuagenarian from Austria says. "It's inimitable."
But we continue caterwauling, laughing as some of us even claw at the air like a lion, all trying in our desperately human way to keep alive just for a little longer that singular, irreplaceable moment.
South African Airways flies daily to Johannesburg from Sydney, starting at $1935 return, inclusive of all taxes. flysaa.com.
Federal Air flies daily to Tuningi from Johannesburg from $230 an adult, one way. Children from $190. fedair.com.
Private villas at the five-star Tuningi Safari Lodge start at $420 a person a night, twin share. Rate includes all meals and two game drives daily. tuningi.com.