Unsuspecting Visitors in the South African Bush

Angela Dansby

Think of South Africa and your mind may first go to wine. But it also is amazing country for safaris and the wine comes in handy for them …

About 15 years ago, after a business trip to Sun City – a mini Las Vegas oddly surrounded by wildlife contrasting fake and natural worlds – my friend Felicia had arranged to meet me in South Africa for a safari at two private game reserves (Mali Mali and Tanda Tula) near Krueger National Park. About a month beforehand, my sister Melanie (aka Mel) decided to join us following her own business trip to Japan. I was pleasantly surprised by her spontaneous safari sign-up considering she normally dislikes tents and is an arachnophobe.

But because we were staying in “luxury tents,” meaning it contained an actual bed of sorts and an adjacent toilet, Mel thought she could rough it. She came equipped with an electric curling iron and nail polish to impress the animals. Meanwhile, the bush camps provided some tools of their own: a can of DOOM insect repellent and a whistle in case of urgency.

As the tents only fit two people, I rotated between my friend’s tent and my sister’s in the spirit of inclusion. Upon check-in, Mel had a tent to herself … so she thought until she spotted an interloping spider. She swiftly sprayed DOOM on him, practically asphyxiating herself in the tent due to lack of ventilation. Thankfully, she quickly unzipped some windows before dooming herself.

This miniature wildlife encounter was a foreshadowing of extraordinary ones. We got up close and personal to animals in ways that exceeded my expectations and, in some instances, even that of the bush camp staff.

For starters, the first animal we tracked was a leopard on the porch of the head ranger’s home. That’s right, I had a staring competition with a leopard looking at me through a glass window on one side of the house and me on the other while taking his photo. His paws were on the window and his breath fogging up the pane. 

“Hey, can you please send us those photos?” the accompanying ranger asked. “This is a first. Normally, leopards are scaredy-cats and shy away from people. But this leopard is young and curious.”

Nonetheless, our guide convinced us it was safe to track this cat around the house since it had room to run. He said it was only dangerous if the cat felt trapped. So, in linear fashion, we followed our fearless leader (who was armed with a pistol just in case) onto the patio where the friendly leopard had just gritted his teeth at me through the window.

Predictably, when the cat saw us, he dashed off into the bush. We joked that he might return to give the homeowner a goodnight kiss or perhaps one of us while staking out his territory on our bush camp. Insanely enough, the cat came back.

It was our last night at this camp. We had stayed up late drinking South African wine talking to the staff. Around midnight, we were accompanied by a young, armed ranger to our tents. This was the usual precaution taken with guests because anything can be lurking in the middle of the bush. We walked single file with me behind the ranger, then Felicia and Mel. It was out of an episode of the cartoon “Scooby Doo” where eyes pop out in the dark.

Just as we arrived at the back of the tent in which Felicia was sleeping that night, the ranger stopped short in his tracks, turned white and pointed his gun in front of him, with his arm visibly shaking in the dark.

“Oh my God, it’s the leopard,” he said. “Please back up slowly without turning around.” 

In a state of shock, my first instinct was to photograph this amazing, curious leopard. I could not see how close he was because of foliage. 

“Can I take a photo?” I whispered as Felicia and Mel gasped in terror.

At this point, the ranger probably wanted to shoot me, but he kept his eyes and gun on the leopard.

“No, this is a highly dangerous situation,” he said. “Move back now! But slowly, slowly …”

It turns out the leopard was less than 10 feet from the ranger, trapped between him and Felicia’s bathroom. It was exactly the type of situation that our tracker said on day one could lead to disembowelment.

It turns out the leopard was less than 10 feet from the ranger, trapped between him and Felicia’s bathroom. It was exactly the type of situation that our tracker said on day one could lead to disembowelment.

We backed up our “bus” and made it safely to the lodge, where more South African wine was poured and the head ranger was woken up in a state of alarm. He scoured the grounds armed in search of the leopard. But that smart cat was nowhere to be found.

“Well it’s now safe to return to your tents,” he proclaimed at 3 am, all of us bleary-eyed from the drama and too much wine.

We were accompanied by both rangers back to our tents where we barely slept a few hours before getting ready to transfer to our second bush camp. Felicia, the odd woman out that night, called me to her tent to make sure the leopard wasn’t lurking in her bathroom so she could use it. Mel rested relatively easy given that she had safe company in her tent.

But not so days later at another tented bush camp. This is when Mel utilized the second camp tool. Felicia and I had gone to sleep in an adjacent tent. The sounds of nature had lulled me into a deep sleep when suddenly a foreign sound began … like the sound of a whistle. At first, I wasn’t sure as it was soft and sporadic. Then it escalated into a fast and furious pitch. Sure enough, it was Mel blowing the hell out of the emergency whistle.

I heard the local night watchman run to her tent and talk to her. The conversation was ongoing but all quieted down and I quickly fell back asleep.

The next morning, being the younger, antagonistic sister, I sneaked over to Mel’s tent in my leopard pajamas and started scratching on her tent. I heard a gasp, so I laughed out loud, revealing my identity. A red-eyed, panicked Mel with crazy hair poked her head outside the tent. 

“That’s not funny!” she gasped. “There were two hyenas outside of my tent and I was up all night getting the night watchman’s life story because I was so scared. I didn’t sleep a wink.”

Hyenas? This was no laughing matter. They have the strongest jaws in the jungle! They must have sensed Mel’s fear since they gravitated to her tent. Ironically, the night watchman, who was armed with nothing but a stick, had more to fear but the hyenas scattered when he approached them. He identified their paw prints with his flashlight. Suffice to say this news was not taken well by Mel.

Feeling sorry about her white night, I apologized for scaring her and slinked away in my leopard skin with my tail between my legs. But notwithstanding the hyenas, I did have the last laugh.

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