The wake-up call at Kwafubesi is impossible to sleep through, even in the predawn hours and in the warm embrace of a comfortable bed. First comes the pounding of footsteps on the platform’s wooden steps. Then the rustle of the tent flap.
“This is your 5 o’clock wake-up,” calls out Greg Mayer, bush guide and designated dream interrupter. “So sorry.”
Kwafubesi is a tented camp, but visitors are far from roughing it. In-tent telephones and central heating and air are about the only amenities missing from the site, located in the foothills of South Africa’s Waterberg Mountains. The five tents each have power, teakwood furnishings and a full bathroom, complete with hot running water for the tub, shower and sink. A short walk down a dirt path offers an alfresco bar and dining room, fire pit and swimming hole.
Yet for all the glamour of camping here, the true thrill comes from what lies beyond the camp’s cozy confines. Kwafubesi is part of the Mabula Game Reserve, a 25,000-acre property home to Africa’s most renowned wildlife, including the “Big Five” game animals—lion, elephant, rhinoceros, water buffalo and leopard. From the moment of arrival at Kwafubesi, visitors feel a part of this rich ecosystem.
“There is just so much to experience here,” says the reserve’s head guide, Isaiah Banda, while brandishing a high-end camera complete with telephoto lens. “I have been going out for two or three hours at a time, twice a day, for almost 10 years, and I still carry this with me.”
The long lens is the long gun of shooters in the reserve. Conservation is the overlying theme at Mabula and game reserves and national parks throughout the region, which includes the Waterberg, Kruger National Park to the east, and the arid plains of neighboring countries Botswana, Mozambique and Namibia. While the reserve and park operators don’t protect the animals from each other—the concept of “do not feed the wildlife” is assumed—they do safeguard them from Earth’s deadliest predator, mankind.
Guides carry rifles on game drives but will only use them if they or visitors are in mortal peril. And the guide trainers spend significantly more time teaching wildlife scare tactics—standing tall, yelling and screaming—than marksmanship.
“You’re not to shoot them until they are within 10 meters of you,” Banda says. “The training here is such that the only shooting we do is in practice. What people don’t understand is most of these animals aren’t very much interested in man, either as a curiosity or as food.”
One With Nature
The rhino’s anxiety is clear to see. Her massive head swivels back and forth. Her hooves scratch in the hardscrabble earth. Her companion, standing a few feet away, keeps watch in the opposite direction.
“She’s pointing you toward the lion,” Banda tells his clients while he sweeps his eyes over the same area as the angst-ridden rhino. “Do you see him?”
Banda does, his focus a mere 100 feet from the rhinos. Only when he points out the king of the beasts—an adult male with a full golden mane and paws the size of saucers—do the others on the game drive see him, laying in the shade of a copse of trees. He shows no interest in the rhinos, knowing they are well beyond his weight class.
“He’s still a predator, and a pride of lions have been known to take down juveniles,” Banda says. “The other lions are about close by.”
Thoroughly spooked, the rhinos take drinks from the watering hole that brought them to the spot and move on. Almost immediately, a lion cub, no more than 6 months old, comes out of the bush and begins playfully chasing birds around the oasis.
Banda moves in close. His vehicle, like the rhinos, is much too big to interest the lions. As long as the truck, a retrofitted Toyota Land Cruiser, does not approach the beasts head-on, they will ignore it.
Like many of Mabula’s two dozen guides, Banda has held a lifelong fascination with African wildlife. He grew up on a farm in nearby Bela Bela and began studying animals in primary school. He enrolled in his high school’s wildlife program and took several university courses before joining the Mabula staff as a trainee.
The proudest day of his career came shortly thereafter, when he earned the shoulder epaulets for his uniform, signifying guide status. The experience is one Mabula guides remember vividly for the rest of their lives.
“There is a ceremony,” Banda says, “and it involves rhino dung.”
Graduates must go out on the property and collect the droppings. Guides smear the up-and-comers from head to toe with the dung, then drop their epaulets in a reservoir. The graduates swim to the badges, washing themselves clean in the process.
“It’s disgusting but worth it,” Banda says. “I’ve enjoyed every day since.”
Guests get all the enjoyment without the mandatory bath. Kwafubesi campers wake to predawn magic—the early light turns the ridges of the Waterbergs into prisms, the orange of the mountain rims blending to reds, purples and finally blues—and retire after several hours of mesmerizing stargazing.
In between, they enjoy game drives, fine cuisine and even traditional African dances performed by many of the reserve’s staffers. The reserve is located in an area heavily populated by the Tswana, a tribe native to southern Africa. Howling voices, hand clapping and leg stomping, all accentuated by the rattles made from animal bones and dried cocoons and worn around the ankle, marks their rhythmic dancing.
The daily dance of Mabula’s elephants is not nearly so graceful as those performed around the Kwafubesi campfire.
Often times, you hear the gigantic pachyderms before you see them. The crack of a branch. The flailing of leaves. The snorts and grunts of a 12,000-pound animal on the move.
Then they appear, lumbering but not lingering across the road, their ears flapping and trunk tips brushing the ground. They stop on the other side and resume eating, consuming part of the 300 pounds of leaves, grass and other plant life they eat each day.
Banda loves the elephants but cannot hide his sadness over their plight. No predator will kill them. Instead, they will one day die from starvation, their sixth—and last—set of teeth ground away.
Such is the way of nature, however.
At Mabula, zebras and wildebeests graze together, not for camaraderie but for survival. Zebras have strong eyesight. Wildebeests can’t see well but pick up on the slightest odor, particularly that of predators.
Impalas emit a different odor. A favorite hunting target of cheetahs, leopards and lions, impala herds scatter when threatened but mark their location using the scent glands on their back legs. Once danger has passed, the herd members follow the smell home to each other.
One water buffalo is not welcome at home. The bull wanders Mabula alone, having been banished from his herd. He’s far outlived his species’ normal lifespan, Banda says, but is no longer strong enough to win the dominance fights of mating season. Hence his lonesome existence.
“But if he kicks you, you’ll flip six times and break many bones before you hit the ground,” Banda says.
For the just-sated cheetah, the hot, dry afternoon calls for a siesta.
He can’t sleep, though, not with the three interlopers crunching through the grass in the distance, desperate for a look at the svelte, spotted cat. The cheetah raises his head, flicks his ears and gives the trio a hard stare. They freeze in place, knowing the fastest animal on Earth can cover the 200 feet between them in seconds.
Minutes pass. Tired of the stare down, the cheetah stands up, stretches and moves to the far side of the tree.
“He says, ‘Leave me alone,’” Banda says. “He must have had a good lunch.”
Mabula’s cheetahs eat well. The five cats have decimated the reserve’s ostrich population, cutting their numbers from around 120 to less than five. The sleepy cheetah may have just reduced that community by one more, or he may have dined on what the guides call the “fast food of the bush”—impalas, small antelope that bear distinctive black stripes on their hindquarters that eerily resemble golden arches.
The lions favor the impalas as well. The female impalas reproduce frequently, consistently replenishing the food source. To the east in Kruger National Park, the impalas are said to number in the hundreds of thousands.
They make perfect prey for lions, lionesses and cubs. The cats cover 72 feet per second when charging for the kill. They weigh up to 550 pounds and eat up to 66 pounds of meat in one sitting. One meal can last them seven days.
The Kwafubesi guide, Mayer, gives a morbid chuckle upon encountering a small herd of impalas along an exposed strip of grass. According to his closed-band radio, the lion pride is nearby.
“This might as well be death row,” he says. “Those impalas are the inmates. The executioners are coming for them.”
The final hunt of each day at Kwafubesi is for the prey that will never be caught: the sun. From the top of Sunset Hill, the orb slinks slowly but steadily behind the crest of the Waterbergs, turning the mountains a dazzling shade of violet and setting the sky ablaze. Back at the camp, dinner, drinks, dancing and a soft bed await.
Until the next morning’s wake-up call anyway.
The Mabula Game Reserve is a two-hour drive from Pretoria’s Wonderboom National Airport (ICAO: FAWS).
Africa's Big Five
Professional hunters of the 19th and early 20th centuries dubbed these magnificent creature the “Big Five” both for their size and the mystique they carried as trophy animals. The name endures, even as hunting them has become taboo.
These big cats are renowned for their size, their beautiful golden manes and their standing as the “king of the beasts.” Approximately 25,000 to 30,000 lions remain in the wild, most in sub-Saharan Africa.
African pachyderms are the largest and heaviest land animals on earth. Their big ears, long trunks, white tusks and sheer mass—adults average 12,000 pounds—belie their surprising speed.
These majestic behemoths appear prehistoric and could soon go the way of the mastodon and saber-toothed tiger. Some cultures value the medicinal properties of rhino horns and the species has been hunted to the brink of extinction.
Cape buffalo live close to water in large herds and are among the most menacing beasts in Africa. They tend to challenge intruders, charging them and using their large curved horns as battering rams.
These solitary stalkers hunt after dark and spend the daylight hours relaxing high in the thick branches of large trees, often with the carcass of their latest prey. Leopards are extremely agile and protective of their hunting territories
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