A Rare Sighting of the Big Five at the Five-Star Tau Game Lodge
When it comes to making it to the top of my bucket list of the animals that I would most like to see in the wild, it would have to be the Big Five: lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos, and Cape Buffaloes.
Ironically, the term Big Five does not refer to their size but was originally coined by hunters who considered them to be the most difficult animals to hunt. They are not aggressive towards humans, unless provoked, but each of them deserves their reputation for being the most dominant, independent, and impressive animals to see.
Fortunately, hunting is strictly prohibited in the Madikwe Game Reserve where Tau Game Lodge is located but if you want to shoot the Big Five at Tau Game Lodge, you can shoot them on your camera.
When I first visited Tau Game Lodge, four years ago, I divided my time to create an overview of the property as a travel destination, but unfortunately only had enough time to go on one game drive. I never saw any of the Big Five, but I did spend twenty minutes watching cheetahs, so I was more than thrilled with my experience.
Visitors are allowed two game drives a day as part of their package when visiting Tau Game Lodge. When the opportunity presented itself to return to Tau Game Lodge, I immediately knew that I was going to make the most of every opportunity to enjoy as many game drives as possible. It might seem excessive, or obsessive, but the beauty of nature is that it doesn’t run according to your schedule.
One never knows what one might see, or miss, on a game drive, as different elements can change the behaviour of animals: hungry and thirsty animals will seek food and water, animals feeling threatened will seek shelter, while animals who have had all their needs satisfied are more inclined to relax wherever they feel comfortable. Which is why I appreciate Tau Game Lodge’s ‘no hunting’ policy: animals that associate humans as a threat are not going to allow a game ranger to get too close to them.
Game drives at Tau Game Lodge are leisurely and luxurious expeditions through the Madikwe Game Reserve. Ours began with a 5 AM wake-up call from our game ranger, Declan Morris, to meet in the lounge for coffee and biscuits to sustain us for the three-hour drive ahead. Despite it being bitterly cold; and bitterly early, I squeezed in a quick shower and I was there!
Safari drives at Tau average about three hours, so you are advised to dress accordingly as the weather can change dramatically within a short space of time. Layered dressing works best so that you can peel it off as the temperature rises, or pile it on as the temperature drops. The temperature can shift quite dramatically as the sun rises or sets. Don’t forget your sunblock, lip balm, water, and anything you might need – and your camera!
First Game Drive: Africa Opens With A Bang!
Our first game drive was an instant success as we sighted a mother rhino nursing her young calf. It was a blessed sighting to witness the tenderness of the nursing mom as the rising sun streaked across the sky. The rhino was indifferent to our presence but guarded her calf’s youthful curiosity. Rhinos may have a reputation for being aggressive, but the last thing this mother wanted was conflict, especially with the future of her calf at stake, but we knew that did not disturb her bonding moment from our safe distance. Maybe we were an unwelcome intrusion but certainly not a threat.
Further on our drive, we encountered a pride of lions who were chaperoning their cubs through the thick bush. The males were less concerned about our presence as they circled our vehicle, but the females were very protective and threatened to go on the offensive if we got too close for comfort. At no point were we under any real threat as Declan explained that the lionesses’ posturing was simply a warning not to come any closer. Unlike many cats in the wild, lions form close family ties and will defend any threat to their pride. We were allowed to observe the lions for a good half an hour before we continued our safari, during which time I was impressed by the quiet confidence that the lions possessed as they sauntered around us. When you’re king of the jungle you don’t show fear or scare easily. They also blend easily into the tall grass, so they’re more likely to see you before you see them.
Declan’s keen eye spotted a caracal hiding in the grass. The chances of seeing a caracal are once in a lifetime; as their numbers are declining and are on the threatened list of endangered species. It too was less concerned about our presence as it emerged from the grass, shook the dew from its paw and meandered off in search of a meal.
While an animal’s survival in the wild depends upon its ability to forage or hunt for food; often with more misses than hits, our safari was put on hold for a quick coffee break that included a decadent splash of Amarula liqueur, and South African rusks!
A lone rhino observed us curiously but retreated when he realised that his presence had not gone unnoticed.
Upon our return back to the warmth and comfort of the lodge we encountered herds of zebra and assorted buck who were braving the morning chill in search of food and the warmth of the sun.
For some inexplicable reason, game drives can work up an appetite, even though you’re not doing anything more strenuous than sitting in the back of a Jeep. I arrived at Tau Game Lodge famished, and I’m not ashamed to say that I indulged in a breakfast where the food threatened to exceed the limitations of my plate. Not only had I served myself an inelegantly large portion of everything, I finished it.
More importantly, I enjoyed it!
Second Game Drive: A Meditation Reveals the Soul of Africa
Our second safari of the day began with a rustic high tea before heading off to explore a different route in the Madikwe game reserve.
Our first sighting was a motionless crocodile basking in the dying rays of the sun – or its own reflection in a pool. It was not moving for love, money, or even the threat of an easy meal.
Along our drive, we encountered more rhino, giraffes, buck, and Cape buffalo. Each of them proved to be more elusive than the next as we could see them emerging from the thick bush and disappearing again.
Ironically, it was the Cape buffalo which proved to be the most skittish despite their formidable physique and reputation. Cape Buffalo will attack lions if threatened, yet they were timid and shy, preferring the security of the bush when we stopped to observe them. We glimpsed some elephants minding their own business as they pursued their path through the bush. Unlike our earlier sighting in the morning when the animals were gracious with their time, our afternoon safari was barely punctuated with the briefest sightings of wildlife. We saw a lot of wildlife, sometimes in great numbers, but only briefly.
I resigned myself to the fact that time could have been better spent at the lodge by the pool with a cocktail or a few but I was soon to learn how wrong I could have been.
It was at sunset when I witnessed the most magical interaction between animals that I have ever seen.
The sun was setting low and radiated shades of crimson, magenta, and gold, behind a silhouette of the Dwarsberg mountain. The dramatic setting was mirrored in a nearby pool. As the shadows blanketed the ground, and the temperature dropped, so too did any of the familiar sounds of the bushveld. The landscape was sterile in its silence.
In the distance, we heard the sound of the bush clearing as two young elephants emerged to drink and bathe in the settling light. They were soon joined by a third elephant. I watched with amusement as the young elephants quietly attended to their evening ablutions as they showered themselves and each other with water. The intimacy of the moment reminded me that we were intruding on their privacy, but I couldn’t help but take delight in their undiluted joy of sharing meeting each other at the water’s edge.
I couldn’t imagine life getting any better, but it could, and it did.
Thirty elephants emerged from the South while another thirty elephants emerged from the North. The two herds approached each other in single file formation and respectfully greeted each other with an extended trunk, a pat on the head, or a body rub. They greeted each other with the familiarity of close friends but with the ceremony of two African dynasties meeting for the first time. It was a sacred moment as they first paid respect to each other before settling together to share the water by the pool.
I was humbled and awed by the gentleness of these giants.
The most sacred moment at #Taugamelodge was watching two herds of elephants converge on the waterfront at sunset.
— JoziStyle (@JoziStyle) June 5, 2018
We returned to the camp in silence, mindful that what we had just seen was not something that could be explained with words. A leaping leopard caught us by surprise as it jumped from a rock to a tree, but nothing could eclipse the memory of the elephants for me.
Third Game Drive: The Africa That I Know, I Will Never Know, Remains Elusive
Our third game drive revealed the polar opposite side of life in Africa and was a bleak reminder of the unpredictable struggles that animals face in the wild to survive.
It was bitterly cold and for some inexplicable reason continued to get colder as we circled the mountain in search of game. A cold front was approaching. Clouds covered the sky and mist rolled down the mountain. I expected it to lift as the sun rose but the clouds remained ominous and reluctant to retreat. We all grabbed any spare blankets to insulate us. An added exasperation was that the moisture in the air tormented us by dampening our clothes.
I mostly wished that I had stayed back at the lodge in the warmth of my bed until I realised that the beauty of Africa is not in the expected but the unexpected. I was expecting the sun to come out in all its glory and to see an abundance of wildlife but circumstances beyond anyone’s control prevented this. If I was inconvenienced from the comfort of our Jeep, swathed in multiple blankets, I cannot imagine what it be be like out in the wild.. While you cannot change your circumstances, you can change how you react to circumstances. I decided to appreciate the beauty of the game drive for what it was and not what it wasn’t.
Despite the cold, I could appreciate the silence of Africa. The clouds and mist had blanketed the landscape in monochromatic shades of grey. Despite any physical needs, it was strangely soothing to sit in silence and appreciate the calmness. It was time to reflect and realize that life moves at its own rhythm, and you either move with it or you learn to live with disappointment.
A crackle on Declan’s walkie-talkie alerted us to a lion sighting. They had made a kill the night before and had returned to finish the feast. Declan hit the peddle and raced towards the sighting as if we were in a race against time.
By the time we got there, the three lionesses had eaten their fill of the carcass and were reclined in a state of inanimate stupour. They were so content that they didn’t mind us parking less than a few metres away from them. They might be the king of beasts but their demeanour was no different from a household cat as they curled on their sides to sleep. Not even the sounds of a dozen camera shutters clicking could get their attention. After we had satisfied our trigger-happy photography we realised that the lionesses weren’t about to move, we decided to move on our way.
Along the way, we found a lone cheetah who had been separated from his brothers following a skirmish with lions. In addition to the damp and cold, the cheetah was the epitome of misery, he was visibly lonely. We also passed some wildebeest, kudu, giraffe who didn’t seem to enjoy the cold but at least they had the security of their herd to accompany comfort them.
Fortunately, our game drive included a South African couple who had immigrated to the States, a British couple on honeymoon, and our #TravelJoziStyle winners, who agreed that an Amarula spiked coffee was the order of the day. We found a secluded spot where we could enjoy our coffee without disturbing the peace. It was good.
In fact, life was good. I had seen Africa’s Big Five – even if the leopard sighting was so fleeting that if I’d blinked I would have missed it. We also saw ostriches; and a multitude of buck that included Impala, Springbok, Kudu, Waterbuck, Wildebeest, Eland, Blesbok, and Nyala. Among the 250 different bird species, my highlight was spotting an eagle as it regarded its territory. The only things that I don’t recall seeing were the spotted & brown hyenas or the endangered wild dogs – but I am definitely more of a cat person.
It would be impossible to do any game drive at Tau Game Lodge justice in a review, but it is safe to say that everybody will leave with their own personal highlights. My personal highlight was realizing that there is more to life than the sum of our experiences, but every sentient being’s experience is equally important. We need to be conscious that the survival of Africa lies in protecting her natural resources. That protection extends to conserving her assets and protecting our indigenous wildlife. We have more to learn from them by observing them in their natural habitat than we ever could by hunting them.
That’s what makes Tau Game Lodge so special: they’re committed to the conservation of animals with minimal interference. Animals are comfortable around humans but have a healthy sense of self-preservation to mind their distance. This allows you to get close enough to observe them in their natural habitat without impacting their natural behaviour.