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Young Male Lion @ Munyawana Game Reserve. Photo: Håvard Rosenlund

Goodbye, said South Africa

It is now one month short of being a year since the last time I found myself driving alone on a dirt road in my trusted ’93 Jeep Cherokee. It was my last day on South African soil after having lived there for almost two years and a final adventure for the two of us. She had been my guardian, my ally, a trusted friend and my workspace for just over one whole year. We did have our problems, as do all relationships, but we worked through them and appeared stronger in the end. Our last drive together would be a happy occasion, but with a touch of sadness for it all to end.

It was a peaceful and warm, yet overcast, morning in the Munyawana Game Reserve, just north of Hluhluwe town on the South African east coast. A large fire had recently swept through the southern portions of the reserve leaving it wide open, but the early November rains had already made new grass force its way to the surface. A carpet of green covered the hilly landscape. I immersed myself in the scenery and decided to enjoy every inch of what the African nature would offer me this one last time. Knowing the rules of the bush, I knew not to expect anything. It was only my second time in Munyawana and I was happy with just enjoying an unfamiliar place and the peace of nature.

I went out early that day, but still not early enough to experience the first light of the summer sun. A herd of buffaloes greeted me at the very start of the drive, looking at me with curious and suspicious eyes. They’re not the friendliest of sorts, but always exciting to come across when driving. On foot, however, they are to be avoided at all costs. I left them behind to continue onwards, hopeful of getting a glimpse of a carnivore or two one last time before the heat of day would become too much for them to handle.

A couple of hours had suddenly disappeared in moments. I had come to expect a large number of game in this reserve during my brief visit, but this morning the whole park seemed to be in some form of activity. There were warthogs scurrying by the roadside looking for food in the dirt. Zebras, wildebeest and antelopes were all foraging enthusiastically side by side only to be slightly disturbed by the intruding presence of my Jeep. Giraffes stood graceful and tall in the road while eating leaves off acacia trees. No carnivores had appeared, but it was still a perfect morning in every way. I just sat there with my car, taking it all in, when I suddenly realized how lucky I was to be right there in that exact moment in time. It was just me, the animals and the peace of nature. After spotting a couple of big bull elephants walking off in the distance I felt that South Africa was now giving me its finest goodbye.

I was just about to turn around and head back to camp when I noticed a big lump of grey in a pool of mud next the road in front of me. I stopped the car when the lump all of a sudden stirred and stood up. A big male white rhinoceros was now standing in the road in front of me. We locked eyes for a brief moment before he decided to run off to the other side of the road. I just sat there and watched him in awe, amazed by the luck I was having. As he relaxed and got comfortable with me being there he began to turn his attention to the fresh new grass. I got to stay in the presence of one of Africa’s most magnificent animals one last time. Every moment with a rhino is a moment to cherish. With the current poaching crisis, who knows how long we still have them for? The day was now warming up quickly, and it was time for me to put an end to my African adventure and finally head back home. South Africa, however, was not finished with me yet…

I remember being at peace and filled with excitement for what the morning had brought me when I came up to a staff house next to the road on the way back. A movement caught my eye and I slowed down the vehicle. Something tawny disappeared behind the house. I slowly drove past the house, wondering what I would see once I passed it. There, suddenly, 30 meters from the road, four cats sat staring at me. A lioness and her three sub-adult cubs, all wondering what this burgundy noisy creature coming up the road was. I immediately stopped the car and could not believe what I was seeing. They then started moving; mother first, followed by a daughter, and at the very back, two sons lagged behind. I drove parallel with them for a while until the mother suddenly decided to turn and head straight in my direction.

I will never forget the moment when I parked the car in the middle of that road and four lions came up to share it with me. The mother walked past me to lay down in the grass immediately to the left of me. The daughter walked behind the car to lay down somewhere behind me. On my right, I had the two brothers, and one of them thought it best to lay down just in front of me. It was an incredible experience. I have a feeling the mother wanted to show the cubs that vehicles are not to be feared, and mine was the lucky chosen one.

There was a stillness in the air as we all sat there. The sense of their nearness gave me an excited tingling through my body, but not out fear, but out of joy. When you are all alone in the presence of such intelligent and magnificent animals, you can’t help but to feel a connectedness to them. Very few animals make me feel alive the way lions do. I could just look outside through my open window and stare straight into the face of a young lion big enough to tear me apart in seconds, but he did not care one bit. A brief glance at me and then he’d find something else to look at. The arrogance of lions. They graced me with their presence for over half an hour before the mother and daughter decided it was time to move. I watched them all move off into denser vegetation and after a couple of minutes they were gone. I’ve come across lions countless times during my time in Africa and I always enjoy a lion sighting, but this was really something special.

Just seconds later a car with tourists came driving down the road and stopped to have a look at something in the bush. It was the only group of tourists I had seen all day. I asked them if they had spotted the lions. “Lions?” They asked. “No, we’re looking at that weird bird of prey over there, none of us can ID it.” I had a good look with my binoculars and eventually told them: “That’s a juvenile brown snake eagle, look at the weird head shape and the yellow eyes. There were lions here just a minute ago, maybe you’ll see them if you drive a bit further down.”

I watched the tourists drive further down, hoping to see them stop at the sight of lions, but they never did. It is how the luck of the bush works, and this time I was the lucky one. As a parting adventure for me and the Jeep, I could not have asked for a better one. As far as goodbyes go, for me, this cannot be topped.

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Håvard Rosenlund

Wildlife lover, researcher and conservationist.

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