We're in high spirits when we stop for sundowners in a clearing beside the Mohlabetsi River, inside South Africa's Balule Game Reserve. Not long earlier, we'd watched from our vehicle as two adolescent lions feasted on a freshly killed buffalo. The lions gnawed at the buffalo's bloody flesh for 20 or 30 minutes and we were about to move on when another pride joined them.
We counted 10 lions in the second pride, including several cubs that stuck close to the sides of two muscular lionesses. The two prides seemed to get along fine, dining side by side, and we began to assume they must all be one big, happy family.
But all wasn't as it seemed. While the cubs eagerly tucked into a meal that left bloodstains around their snouts, the larger of their maternal guardians prowled the periphery. She was clearly agitated.
All of a sudden, the lionesses charged at one of the adolescents, roaring loudly and lashing out with claws that could tear it to shreds. The younger lion bared its teeth as it desperately tried to escape, but it was no match for its two larger rivals. And it knew it.
The two younger lions skulked off into the bushes with their tails between their legs, observing from afar as the lionesses re-joined their pride around the shrinking buffalo carcass. In a matter of seconds, they'd asserted their dominance.
What we'd witnessed was the law of the jungle being applied in its rawest form. During many safaris across two continents I'd never witnessed an event like this and it made me appreciate how fearsome these apex predators could be. It also rammed home my place in the food chain. Against these fearsome cats, I wouldn't stand a chance of survival.
Sunset is cocktail hour in South Africa, and it's customary to celebrate a day's game viewing with a cold drink. In our case, it would also help settle our nerves.
After hours of being couped up inside our safari vehicle, the break is also our first chance for a rest stop. "We only ask that you avoid checking your water levels in the bushes bordering the river," says our game ranger, Isaac. "You never know – there may be lions resting there."
I heed Isaac's advice and walk in the opposite direction, towards a herd of six greater kudus surveying us, with ears pricked, from just beyond the edge of the clearing. The filtered sunlight highlighting their faces makes for a great photo opportunity so I creep closer with my camera raised, firing off shots until they eventually scatter. When I return to collect my gin and tonic beside the vehicle, the three European couples in my safari group are chatting excitedly.
"Shoosh!" urges Isaac. "We can hear lions."
Sure enough, the muffled roar of a lion pierces the silence. It sounds sufficiently distant for us not to worry, until a German girl sounds the alarm. "It's just over there," she says, pointing towards a young male that's walking across the clearing towards us.
It takes a few seconds for us to realise that two others are stealing through the fading light behind it. One is male – also young, with an underdeveloped mane – and the other is a larger lioness that's almost certainly their mother.
Isaac hurriedly advises us to pile back into the vehicle, where no more than a minute later the three lions amble past, just inches from our door. There's a collective sigh of relief inside the vehicle when they disappear into the darkness.
We all look around at each other, wide-eyed and disbelieving. I suddenly feel foolish for wandering off towards the kudus. Who knew what else was out there? But what also dawns on me is the realisation of exactly how vulnerable we all were when we'd walked through clearings, just like this one, much earlier in the day.
RUN THROUGH THE JUNGLE
During our pre-departure briefing outside Greenfire Game Lodge, our luxury digs we'd set off from for a three-hour walking safari shortly after dawn, we'd specifically been told we'd be avoiding anything that could harm us. Elephants, rhinos and buffaloes were all off limits, and we'd been advised to avoid wearing brightly coloured clothing. "In case elephants mistake us for flowers and want to come and have a closer look," Isaac had said.
Only the previous day, a starving buffalo cow had somehow managed to slip inside our electrified camp perimeter to nibble on some flowers planted in a garden bed outside the staff quarters. Buffaloes are notoriously cantankerous beasts so we were warned not to approach it for fear of being mauled. In the wilds beyond the protective barrier surrounding our safari lodge, that risk would escalate.
Without Isaac saying as much, we also knew that lions sat firmly among that group of animals to steer clear of. A sizeable pride – probably those we'd just seen in the clearing, or perhaps earlier around the buffalo carcass – had been sighted lazing beside a waterhole several hundred metres upstream in the otherwise barren Mohlabetsi River bed. There, they had been picking off drought-weary buffaloes as nature inevitably dictated the need for them to drink. So when we set out from our lodge, Given, our walking safari guide, had deliberately led us along a circuitous route, far away from the waterhole.
Balule Game Reserve forms part of the Greater Kruger National Park, South Africa's largest protected area that incorporates the state-owned Kruger National Park with 20 privately owned farming plots that have all since been converted into game reserves to the west of it. In 1993, each of these private reserve owners collectively agreed to remove all existing fences so that the animals could roam unencumbered through a wilderness region that's larger in size than the nearby kingdom of Swaziland.
It's only on these private reserves that walking safaris are offered, enabling guests to appreciate sounds and smells that might otherwise be muted by a safari vehicle's chugging diesel engine or spluttering exhaust pipe. More than game drives, these walking safaris allow guides to impart their extensive knowledge of the African bush and its creatures.
We learned to recognise the high-pitched shrill of a Natal francolin and the grating call of lilac-breasted rollers that Given described as the David Beckham bird because "it looks good, but its voice sounds horrible". We spotted impalas and warthogs, and hornbills they call "flying bananas" because of their curved yellow bills.
We came to recognise animal droppings and even learned what those animals had eaten. Our guides continually passed on truths regarding the medicinal properties of various plants, or how herbivores leave bushes with high tannin properties untouched. We scrunched leaves that sounded remarkably similar to taking bites from an apple and our mouths became parched after we chewed on foliage from the Magic Guarri tree.
The obstacle that walking safaris encounter the most is always the weather. If the conditions aren't right, you simply can't go.
We'd barely walked 100 metres from our lodge when Given stopped to point out fresh leopard and hyena tracks in the dirt. Giraffes and buffaloes and zebras had ambled past too. Even a lion – "a male, moving quickly," – had trotted by. If it had rained overnight, each of these tracks would have been washed away.
More than anything, the winds must be still for a walking safari to proceed. Blustery conditions allow predatory animals lying downwind to pick up human scents, potentially placing us on their menu. And rustling bushes mask telltale noises.
By their very nature wild animals are unpredictable, explaining why our two rangers are armed with rifles that are powerful enough to take down an elephant. When one talks about the mating rituals of rhinoceroses, or how to distinguish between adult and juvenile zebra prints, the other faces outwardly, scanning our surrounds for hints of danger.
"There are three things to remember," Given had told us. "The animals will not harm you. The animals will not eat you. The animals are more afraid of you than you are of them."
The funny thing is: we'd believed him. But given the nonchalant behaviour of the three lions that had just walked past us in the clearing, and the speed at which we'd scurried back into our vehicle, maybe it was time to reassess.
NATIONAL PARK OR PRIVATE GAME RESERVE? What to consider before booking a South African safari
• Unfenced borders allowing for free movement of wildlife between Kruger National Park and its neighbouring private game reserves means there's minimal differences when it comes to fauna and flora. Habitats may vary though, leading to some areas becoming better known for leopard or cheetah sightings, for example.
• Self-drive safaris are possible in KNP, at times making animal sightings similar to being at a zoo. Not so in the Greater Kruger region, where specialised safari vehicles driven by expert guides and trackers with keen eyes for wildlife offer knowledgeable insights of their surrounds. Not only can you see the Big Five, but you're more likely to appreciate the little guys as well.
• Most private game reserves permit only two vehicles on a single sighting, amounting to more intimate wildlife experiences that allow better photographic opportunities. This is the true African experience most of us imagine.
• Only private reserves offer walking safaris and night drives. Visitors to Kruger are restricted in where they can go and when they can do it, whereas private lodges make their own rules.
• Without a doubt, Kruger has bigger scenery than the surrounding private reserves. It's a larger area, leading to greater topographical diversity. At Kruger, campsites are often at pretty locations, such as overlooking rivers at Oliphants or Crocodile Bridge.
• Accommodation is certainly more luxurious in the private reserves. Chalets, bush lodges and campgrounds are spread across Kruger but none compare to the sumptuous, five-star lodges on the private allotments.
• Some private game reserves don't allow children. Greenfire Game Lodge, for example, is adults-only and therefore popular with honeymooners and empty nesters, whereas Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge (sabisabi.com/lodges/bushlodge/) in the Sabi Sands Game Reserve is more family friendly, even including a day-care centre.
South African Airways has daily flights from any capital city in Australia to South Africa. Passengers fly via Perth to Johannesburg with same-day connections to 29 destinations on the African continent. Go to flysaa.com
World Expeditions' 11-day Drakensberg and Kruger Walking Safari costs from $3190 per person (departing Johannesburg). See worldexpeditions.com or 1300 720 000.
Mark Daffey visited the Greater Kruger region courtesy of World Expeditions and South African Airways.