Southern Africa safari: Chasing the 'Magnificent Seven'

Our tracker, Noah, an imposing man shaped like an industrial fridge, has jumped down from his perch on the front of the jeep. He's seen some paw prints in the red dirt of the trail through the Zimbabwean bush and thinks a lion or two may have recently passed this way.

He's maybe five metres away from the vehicle, examining the dust, when out of the dry beige undergrowth hurtles a disconcertingly large male lion. Growling, snarling, massive paws extended, it charges towards him.

All this happens in a split second. One moment the bush is quiet and empty and suddenly …

Luckily, the lion's only interested in scaring the interloper away and doesn't follow up on the threat to tear him limb from limb. Nonetheless, Noah lopes back to the safety of the passenger seat and smiles over his shoulder at me. Notice "lopes". Not "runs like a madman while screaming in a voice that could shatter crystal". No, he lopes.

"Are you OK?" I ask around the heart in my mouth.

He shrugs. "It happens."

The incident takes me back to my first game drive, just a few days ago at the &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve in South Africa, when I asked Malusi Khumalo, a tracker there, about the stick with the heavy, bulbous head that was jammed in the front grill of the jeep.

It was, he said, a knobkerrie and was there for scaring away lions. He demonstrated. Seems you whirl it around your head and then throw it at the advancing feline. Just like that.

And you've actually done this? "Oh, yes, several times."

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Welcome to Africa; land of understatement.

As both an Africa and safari virgin, I really don't know what to expect on this trip but I have heard about the Big Five, a term coined by big-game hunters of old and which refers to the five most difficult and dangerous animals to hunt on foot. In Africa these are lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros.

Today, ticking off and photographing the animals on the Big Five list is part of every safari-goers' armoury, alongside envy-making zoom lenses, good binoculars and cargo pants with dozens of pockets.

But there's another list I haven't heard of until Amy McMillan, one of the rangers at Phinda, mentions it: the Magnificent Seven. This, it seems, is the Big Five plus cheetah and wild (painted) dogs. You are, I am told, very lucky if you manage to tick off the Magnificent Seven.

Of course, I have an advantage over many of the other guests; I'm being given a 10-day whistle-stop tour of five &Beyond lodges in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana – and if you don't tick off all seven in that time then it's probably time to give up buying lottery tickets.

After flying into Durban's King Shaka International Airport in KwaZulu-Natal province on the east coast of South Africa I spend the four-hour drive to Phinda nodding off and then trying to learn some Zulu from the driver. Ngiyabonga (thank you), unjani (how are you) and ngicela utshwala (beer please) are about as far as I get.

It's significant beginning my journey at Phinda because this is where the &Beyond brand was launched back in 1990 with the purchase of 13,000 hectares of degraded farmland – used for cattle, pineapples and the like – and a mission statement encompassed in the credo of "care of the land, care of the wildlife, care of the people".

And it seems to be working because, 26 years later, &Beyond has 29 luxury lodges and has expanded into India and South America.

Phinda itself – named after the Zulu word for "the return" – has today grown to 23,000 hectares (that's about 12,000 Sydney Cricket Grounds to me and thee) with plans to increase that to 30,000.

Today it is home to cheetah, lions, giraffe, elephants, kudus, impala, warthogs, you name it. The first to move in, though, were white rhinos – 21 were moved there on one day in 1991 – and they've been so successful they're now being exported to other parts of Africa.

As part of a project called Rhinos Without Borders, says Conservation Manager Simon Naylor, &Beyond is planning to relocate 100 animals to Botswana in the next few years. It won't keep them totally safe but it helps that, in Botswana, you can shoot poachers on sight – a deadly initiative of the government which it is said discourages the practice.

It seems only fitting, then, that the first animal we spot on my first ever game drive is a female white rhino with her calf – and we're not even 200 metres from the lodge.

It's also a first insight into just how close the animals in the reserves will allow you to get. The rhino mum is understandably a little wary and most of the time keeps herself between us and her offspring but later interactions see us trundle within spitting distance of five cheetahs chowing down on an impala – quite literally red in tooth and claw – and end up among a 20 or more strong pack of painted dogs, which swarm around the vehicle without a care in the world.

It's while we're manoeuvring the jeep for a better look at the cheetahs that I learn another lesson about the African bush – it gives good thorn. In this sun-blasted, exhausted-looking landscape the trees and bushes are grey, brittle, twisted and armed with some of the most vicious thorns you've ever seen.

I was even moved to keep one small specimen of an acacia that broke off in the jeep to photograph later. If you do this, be careful not to move to one side to avoid getting whacked in the face with other branches and then sit back down on it. This will move to laughter most of the people around you but, from a purely subjective point of view, it isn't very funny at all.

In the ensuing week or so I come to understand that death is big on game drives. How else to explain the bloodlust that overtakes me within days? And I'm not the only one. We tourists head out on the morning and evening drives hoping to see some poor Bambi chased down, killed and eaten by a predator fleet of foot and sharp of claw. People who would balk at an abattoir visit whip out their cameras at the first gory sight of a freshly killed buffalo being eaten from the bum up by lions.

I hear stories galore from other guests – about lions pulling down a steenbok; of cheetahs working in unison to separate an impala from the herd – and even have my own bloody moment when, at &Beyond Ngala (a short flight north of Phinda), I watch as a panicked bush buck bursts out of the bushes on the edge of a dry river bed pursued by the long, lithe, black-and-white streak of a cheetah. God, those things can move – no amount of nature documentaries can prepare you for it, trust me.

We don't see the actual kill but the cheetah emerges from the bushes moment later, dragging the bush buck by the neck, its tongue flopping, its eyes wide open in surprise and death.

It is at Ngala Lodge (still in South Africa) that I learn from Andre Scrimnger, our ranger, that zebras fart a lot, that mopane worms are "a little gross" to eat and that termite queens (I've never seen anyone get as enthusiastic as Andre about termites) lay 30,000 eggs a day.

One hot day we also take a short walk out into the bush with another ranger, Allyn, a tall upright young man in khaki whose fascination with animal poo is second to none. Buffalo dung, dung beetles, the smallness of giraffe dung and why honey badgers dig up dung beetle balls … our very own dung whisperer is across it all.

At &Beyond Matetsi Lodge in Zimbabwe, the landscape is very different. Less drought-stricken and with the Zambezi River running alongside it (there is a 17.5-kilometre frontage onto which the rooms all look), the bush is greener, more sandy, with healthier looking trees such as teak, the perfectly named sausage tree and the baobab, the bulbous and odd-looking "upside-down" tree.

It's here that I meet Noah the tracker (a quietly stoic Tsonga tribesman who seems to be carved of ebony) and ranger Milton (a jolly Shona man with a great sense of humour). They are the "hand-in-glove" team that are so sanguine about lion attacks and with whom I go out one morning for a sunrise boat trip during which the first kill of the day is achieved by a pied kingfisher hovering just off the bank of the Zambezi. So it's not hugely spectacular but … something died, OK?

We watch birds flying in to put in a hard day's fishing. There are sea eagles, white breasted cormorants, rock pratincoles, African skimmers with their bright orange beaks, southern grey hornbills and helmeted guinea fowl. At one point, as we watch a couple of bush buck edge tentatively to the riverbank for a drink, I find myself hoping a crocodile will leap out and grab one of them by the head.

What is wrong with me?

At Xudum (pronounced Kudum) Lodge, in Botswana's Okavango Delta, I arrive just a week or so after a bush fire has swept through the area. Hotter, flatter and (where it's not blackened by fire) greener than the first three lodges, the landscape is littered with what look like the sort of Buddhist stupas you find in south-east Asia. They are, in fact, termite mounds.

Here the lodge is on the edge of a lagoon from which issues the distinctive watery grunt and angry puff of hippos. I eat a dinner of excellent kudu pie with irrepressible co-manager Peggy-Sue Olebogeng and, one afternoon, find the way back to my room barred by a female elephant and her tiny baby.

An hour later, hiding from the midday heat in the bath with the back doors open to the bush, they come back and stop right outside. I watch, enthralled, as the mother rips leaves from the bushes and the calf tries to copy her, its wriggling trunk still not quite large enough or strong enough.

It is cuteness itself and I think about jumping out of the bath and getting the camera but decide against it in case they look at me and start laughing: "You call that a trunk?"

And finally, at nearby Nxabega (it's just a 10-minute flight away by light aircraft), I am met by ranger AK and tracker Master for the short drive to the lodge. Unlike Xudum, this part of the delta has permanent water coverage and some pretty paradisiacal waterholes.

It also turns out that I have a "butler" for this part of the trip – a man with a dry, English-style sense of humour called, wait for it, English. His wife, Sandra, is a lovely woman who works at the Matetsi Lodge and helped shoo monkeys away from my breakfast table while I was there.

By this time I have seen my fill. There isn't an animal or a sunset or a sunrise or a bird or a situation I haven't experienced. My Big Five is a Big 15 or more. I've seen cheetahs so full of impala they are unable to move; a leopard in a tree with a fresh kill; monkeys stealing breakfast toast; and I've been charged by an elephant in smelly musth.

As for that Magnificent Seven list … mine goes like this: Noah, Malusi, Amy, Andre, Milton, Peggy-Sue, English and Sandra.

OK, that's eight. So throw me to the lions.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/africa

rhinoswithoutborders.com

FLY

The Africa Safari Co arranges all flights and transfers, we were on South African Airways which flies from all major Australian cities to Johannesburg via Perth; see flysaa.com

VISAS

A visa is not required to visit South Africa but, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), you are required to have a passport valid for no less than 30 days after the end of your intended stay. A visa can be obtained on entry into Zimbabwe for $US50 (take cash). Visas for Botswana can be obtained on arrival. For detailed information on visas and vaccinations, see smartraveller.gov.au

STAY

For details of &Beyond lodges, see andbeyond.com

TOUR

The Africa Safari Co is an Australian-based agency specialising in tailor-made safaris to Africa. Phone 1 800 659 279 or see africasafarico.com.au

Keith Austin was a guest of &Beyond and The Africa Safari Co.

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