Lion Eyes

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Themba the white lion
Jim Freeman

JIM FREEMAN visits Pumba in the Eastern Cape

We spot the distant splash of white in the bush at the same time.

“You see it?” whispers Gladman Malusi as he muscles the game-viewing vehicle around a corner.

“Yeah.”

Cheetah on the hunt. Picture: Jim Freeman

The people behind us pick up on our excitement. “Do you think it’s him?” asks Freddy Gustavsen from Sweden.

Gladman nods.

Tuesday morning and the weather is grey for the first time in the three days. As we lurch along the pitted tracks, there is just one thing on everyone’s minds – seeing a fabled white lion.  The problem with five-star game reserves such as Pumba Private Game Reserve and Spa is that you get greedy. The previous day, our shepherd had guided us into the deep bush until we were nose-to-nose with a trio of surly buffalo in dense thickets. Then there was the cheetah group that lucked out twice in the space of an hour, the second time with spectacular and potentially fatal consequences.

First we’d watched them from across a valley, belting down a hill in pursuit of some blesbok … only to be put off their stride by a full-grown Burchell’s zebra that crossed the line of their charge at a critical moment. Greatly miffed, they stalked back into the shade to catch their breath.

A dominant bull elephant. Picture: Jim Freeman

Just before we move closer, Gladman spots a prowling lioness about 500 metres from the sulking cheetah. Between the predators another group of blesbok have seen the lioness but are unaware of the lurking cheetah. Nervously, the blesbok keep backing away until two spotted blurs erupt from the bush, bringing down a fawn and choking it to death. Right in front of us.

The cheetah don’t know about the hungry lioness in the vicinity while we, with the advantage of the height offered by the vehicle, can watch the drama unfold. The cheetah retreat with their kill to a shady thicket. The bush, though, provides cover for the stalking lioness as the soft breeze carries her scent in the opposite direction.

“These cheetah had better be careful,” breathes Gladman. “She’ll kill them if she can … they’re competition.”

But something tips them off a heartbeat before she storms out of the long grass and the cheetah bombshell in alarm. The lioness glares at us – not more than a dozen strides and a leap away – before settling down to the easiest mid-morning meal of her life.

Baby elephant mock charging us. Picture: Jim Freeman

Later that day, we’re face to face with a mighty bull elephant, Nick, who bears the brunt of breeding responsibilities. One of his progeny treats us to a comical mock charge.

There is a dark undertone to our enjoyment of these majestic tuskers … as there was the previous evening when we skootched alongside a massively horned white rhino … the growing threat of poachers. In fact, there was a moment of alarm during my stay when we heard a small helicopter.

A two-seater chopper is the local rhino poacher’s hunting platform of choice. Manned by a pilot and a rifleman/horn-stripper, it is also the perfect getaway vehicle. “Ten minutes. That’s all it takes from the time they’ve darted the rhino,” says Gladman.

Escalating, ever-more sophisticated poaching activity is the reason Pumba will not disclose its exact rhino numbers.

Impala at sunset. Picture: Jim Freeman

Then there’s the fear – what if the poachers target one of the rare white lions, one of whom is now lying about 20 metres from us?

We have his photo-negative features and killer blue stare all to ourselves for about 15 minutes. White lions are a sub-species within which a recessive gene predominates. They need to co-exist within a pride environment with “normal” lions if they are to survive in the wild. The reason is practical – their startling colour makes it difficult to blend in with the veld during a hunt – as well as genetic.

Therefore, while there is a white lioness (Nomathemba) at Pumba, the female who cheated the cheetah of their meal the previous day (Nthombi) also reduces the risks of in-breeding. At the same time, she is capable of bearing white cubs … albeit at a significantly reduced level of certainty than if both partners in the pairing are “white”.

The bulk of the 7000-hectare Pumba Private Game Reserve and Spa comprises the farm Kariega, originally owned by Voortrekker leader Piet Retief who, in light of later developments, should probably have stayed there. The reserve features 45 mammal and 300 bird species.

Pumba Water Lodge is the larger of two opulently appointed lodges with 12 thatched cottages that overlook Lake Kariega. It is the more child-friendly of the two five-star facilities.

Our room at Msenge Bush Lodge. Picture: Jim Freeman

Msenge Bush Lodge’s 11 cottages are all glass enclosed, so residents can raise all the blinds and be cocooned in nature. Each chalet is private, so you can get naked in your plunge pool or outside shower while watching nyala, elephant (and warthog) on the plain a few metres away.

Catering is completely within context of bush. I couldn’t resist the impala and kudu steaks, reminding my international companions of how cute they looked in the veld just a few hours earlier!