Never underestimate a sleeping cat. Picture: Peter Berg-Munch

  CAROLINE HURRY  reports from Sabi Sabi’s Selati Camp

Caroline Hurry

A leopard’s urine smells like buttered popcorn. It does? “Yes Ma’am,” KG assures me in his southern drawl.  He also does a passable Cockney, cut glass Chelsea, US chat show host, and Chinese accent. Three parts Cuba Gooding Jr, two parts Forest Whitaker, and equal measures serious ecologist and animal behaviorist, Katlego “KG” Maduse, senior ranger at Sabi Sabi’s Selati Camp is a riot.

It’s late afternoon and we’re peering into the branches of a large acacia where a male leopard stretches out, eyes closed, sweetly dreaming.  On the bough above, his glamour puss girlfriend snoozes fitfully, using her fresh kill as a pillow.  Their legs and tail dangle over the branches, the rosettes of their hooker-chic coats rippling with the rise and fall of their replete bellies.

Three hyenas circle the tree peering up periodically in the hopes of a meaty morsel falling their way.  “Hyenas give new meaning to window shopping,” says KG.

Opportunistic feeders, they’ll eat almost anything. Like some humans I know.

To enable them to hoist their ready meals into their arboreal pantries, leopards first disembowel their kill, removing offal to lighten the load, explains KG. Being solitary hunters, they avoid fighting.  He segues into mafia mode. “But animals don’t read da rulebooks, Tony.”

Glamour Puss has a full bladder but even if the male does appear to be asleep, she’s loath to take a bathroom break. She snarls a warning in case he’s planning to muscle in on her trophy but Leopardo Di Caprio doesn’t bat an eyelid. Glamour Puss isn’t convinced, but what’s a girl to do? She begins piddling from the branch, an expression of relief playing across her feline features, as the hyenas skip nimbly out the way.

“Mmmmmm, just like being at the movies,” quips KG.

“I can’t smell anything,” I respond, and KG edges the Landy closer, all the better to sniff her urine.  I have an inkling of how a Peeping Tom lurking near a ladies lavatory must feel – dry mouth, thumping heart – so many what ifs … Hang on, I do smell something. Could it be popcorn? Actually, it’s fear. In one fluid movement, the male has yawned, stretched, and leapt onto the female’s branch where he grabs her kill. Never underestimate a sleeping cat.

The hyenas surge forward as the leopards tussle with the carcass but the male snatches it from her and forcibly hoists the kill a few branches higher, carefully hooking the horns into a fork to balance his meal. Like a broken marionette, the hapless impala’s limbs jerk in a macabre dance every time he rips off a hunk of flesh. The furious female bounds down the tree and into the bush, her evening ruined. Now and then slivers of meat and bone tumble into expectant hyena jaws. In the bush, one creature’s loss is another’s gain.

Later, after dining even more sumptuously than the leopards, my husband and I repair to Selati’s Ivory Suite where antique furniture, Persian rugs, and sepia shots of James Stevenson-Hamilton and Harry Wolhuter, early Kruger rangers, conjure up the late 1800s, but with all the 21st century trimmings.

Our bathroom is a cross between a hammam and a chapel; the bathtub nearly as big as our plunge pool. Burrowing into the warmth of our king-sized bed, I spare a thought for the bush-bashers of yesteryear – Harry Wolhuter, who fought off two lions with just a hunting knife, and the ordinary folk using the old Selati Railway Line. One evening, close to where Selati Camp is today, waiting passengers had to climb trees to evade a pride of hungry lion. The driver peered into the darkness but seeing nobody, steamed on towards Komatipoort.

Eventually railway management provided ladders and train drivers were instructed to look for passengers in the branches. Some night that must have been, I reflect, lulled to sleep by the distant rumble of lions.

In the soft grey light before sunrise, I hear hyenas celebrating the night’s hunt. It is a harmony joyous as a tabernacle choir on laughing gas.  Hysterical giggles announce: “A scrub hare for me!” Hee! Hee! Yippeeee! An answering high-pitched chortle lays claim to a guinea fowl or rainbow skink. I hope the hyenas laughing loudest are boasting about their venison that fell from a tree. Maybe.

The day dawns full of expectation, wild sage, aniseed and lavender scenting the air, as we head out on our morning drive.

First up is a crash of four rhino – a young male, two females and a youngster. As we watch, the young male tries to mate with the female but she shrugs him off.  He retreats, lowering his head to the ground in a classic rhino sulk, even though he’s barely old enough to start a midden. The female wants a dominant male who can offer her good grazing territory and water, the rhino equivalent of a big house and pool, explains KG. Beta males are tolerated so long as they don’t kick their dung about or flirt with the girls.

Rhino are still relentless poached for their horns, used in dubious remedies and the manufacturing of dagger handles in Yemen. “Some prize the horn as an aphrodisiac because the male mounts the female for 45 minutes at a time,” explains KG.  He adopts an excitable Chinese accent. “We, ah, want to make love like lino. Take, ah, long, long time.”  Stick to the Viagra, guys!

So game rich is the Sabi Sands that we saw at least three of the Big Five on every game drive, finding ourselves in the thick of grazing buffalo one minute and a herd of elephants the next, thanks to the skills of our tracker, Zeb Hlatswayo.

The pachyderms browsed so close we could feel the air every time they gently flapped their ears. KG always ensured we had a quick escape route.

“Mock charge? Doesn’t exist,” he said. “Just a warning, then the real thing.”

At least 50 000 muscles in an elephant’s trunk enables it to pick a flower or even paint intricate studies as I saw in Thailand. Further on we happened on a pride of 16 lions, so close I could have reached out a hand and fondled their ears. I did not reach out a hand.  Body parts are best kept to oneself in Sabi Sabi territory.

A guided walk with KG is to be highly recommended, however. You stop being an observer seeing everything through a camera lens and take your place as a part of it all. It’s a far more intimate encounter with the bush. Did I mention KG’s preoccupation with hyena dung?  To be fair, I never met a ranger who didn’t share his obsession. David Livingston and other missionary do-gooders used petrified hyena poo as chalk. And tortoises eat it to strengthen their shells, thanks to its high calcium content. “The only thing a hyena can’t digest is hair, “ says KG, pulling some apart to show us the hair inside it.

A journey of five giraffe amble over the undulating grasslands dotted with thorny acacias to drink from the watering hole.

“Gee Raff,” says KG in his American crawl. “The world’s tallest animal. Like cowboys walking into the sunset, they look as though they’re on a perpetual journey, hence the collective noun.

Lions won’t pounce on a giraffe since it can kick like a horse but will chase it onto uneven territory hoping it loses balance and falls, thanks to its slightly shorter hind legs.  A giraffe gives birth standing up. “The two-metre fall to the ground jumpstarts the baby’s heart and lungs and also snaps the umbilical cord as giraffe don’t have scissors,” explains KG. “Like a failed bungee jump.”

We saw the giraffe licking a vertebra for the calcium, a process KG called osteophasia.  We saw zebra, impala, kudu, waterbuck, warthog, chameleons and even a genet leaping off a branch.

Living close to Delta Park, we have a resident genet that periodically helps itself to one of our chickens. I admire its ability to survive in an urban environment but the last time it attacked, my housekeeper, the sharp-tongued Becky Lelaka, said: “She thinks she’s Genet Jackson!”

When we weren’t out spotting game we had lunch and a blissful spa treatment at Earth Lodge. Internationally acknowledged as the most environmentally sensitive lodge in Africa, its elephant-dung look-alike walls sculpted into the earth make you feel as though you’re inside a termite mound, albeit one with candlelit driftwood sculptures and a magnificent view.

Threatened by the financial recession, some travellers may retreat to their burrows . The more adventurous will see this as an opportunity to bag some of the best safaris going. And, Sabi Sabi is still one of the best South Africa has to offer.