...then she looked directly at us and said "Are you ok sleeping with lions & rhinos or you would you rather be with the giraffes & zebras?"
A couple of hundred kilometers from anywhere you might have heard of on the tourist trail, we continued on as the pavement faded to gravel, then faded rocky ruts with dust clouds following us. After opening and passing through the second gate with no signage to indicate we might be going the right way, Angie finally asked if I was sure I knew where we were going?
Actually, no, I wasn’t. Though I had read that pre-pandemic, there was a wildlife reserve somewhere down this road where we might get the "opportunity" to sleep with lions, I had no evidence to suggest this might still be an option. I can feel the physical weight of Angie's eye roll when I throw these great ideas in her lap.
Without trying to call or email anyone about our potential arrival, without any reconfirming signage en route to the supposed location, and armed with nothing more than a 2-year old post I'd read on a travel app, we continued down the dusty road as cell service & radio signal finally faded away with the pavement.
At the 3rd gate, there was a button to push to allow the gate to open automatically. The previous two were similar, except the button didn’t work and they had to be manually opened. I rolled down the window, pushed the button. Instantly a loud voice came booming down over us.
"Hello! Can I help you? Hello!"
It was so abrupt and instantaneous, I jumped in my seat. I looked up for another speaker and again I heard this loud "Hello, hello there!"
It wasn’t coming from above us, it was coming from behind us. I looked back and standing in the settling dust was a lady dressed in rugged backcountry clothes like that of a bush guide with unsettling fresh scars all over her arms that gave the impression she had either been playing with lion cubs a lot or hanging razor wire.
I nervously laughed and asked her where she'd come from?
She said she spotted us just after the last gate & had been following us flashing her lights, but added I likely didn’t even see a vehicle with all the dust. She asked if we were going to kaKhulu Karoo? I couldn’t repeat the name like it was said but said yes actually, we are.
The lady, Carmen, of many arm scars, explained that she was the manager of kaKhulu Karoo and that it was a complete fluke she spotted us as she had just been returning from a rare trip to town. As there was no cell service, the previous website they had didn’t work and no one had been there since before the pandemic, it was impossibly perfect timing to have met her here at this moment. Sounds like my kind of timing!
She radioed ahead to her husband Dekland at the lodge that she would be arriving with a couple of Canadians, and off we went behind her dusty lead. Three minutes later she stopped to show us a pair of rhinos resting by a watering hole, things were looking more promising by the minute.
kaKhulu Karoo is over 20,000 heaters of nature reserve in South Africas Eastern Cape, located in the Greater Karoo with a variety of big game animals. From their website I had read there was the Big 5, spa package options, a zip line in the works, an area to rock climb, guided tours, self-catering lodges, a nearby landing strip for private flights, and all that you might expect from a big-ticket game lodge. However, two quiet COIVD years with no income meant most of these options had been erased along with any signage about the place. Today’s option was to bring your own tent and go camping in the bush.
We’d soon learn that kaKhulu Karoo was for sale and this was why Carmen had been in town, to get groceries for the potential buyers arriving this week. Later we’d learn from the ranger that the price tag for kaKhulu was around 43-million Euros. I wasn’t sure if that was a good price or not, the ranger said it was a bit steep.
After a brief meet & greet with the husband who was wearing equally as rugged outdoor gear of dark green and sporting a handgun, Carmen finally asked us…
Are you ok sleeping with lions & rhinos or would you rather be with the giraffes & zebras?
Speaking on behalf of the group, I blurted out "Lions please".
Carmen then got us a radio in the event we needed help and said she would drive out to show us a good camping area in a dry riverbed before the sunset, which was coming fast.
She gave us the radio with the warning it was not fully charged and not to turn it on unless it was an emergency, as we would only have about enough power to say "Help. Over…" before it would die. This was a side effect of not letting anyone know we were coming, otherwise it would have been charged for us.
We followed her through a doubled gated electric fence up and over a small mountaintop and through endless bushy backcountry. After getting stuck in one sandy riverbed, she explained that it hadn't rained in a while, but the area was prone to flash floods. If we felt so much as 10 raindrops we should pack up our camp and move to higher ground, but at the same time avoid any lion encounters if it was the middle of the night.
Eventually, we were left to fend for ourselves in a beautiful sandy riverbed with lions somewhere under the same stars and a rescue radio with just enough power to say "Help. Over..."
We cooked dinner, packed everything up, and were tucked into bed by sunset, roughly 7 pm.
With the sun setting at 7 and coming up around 6, I knew at some point I'd need to venture outside for a life-threatening pee. Sure enough, around 1 am with some extensive scouring of the terrain with my headlamp and spotlight, I eventually scurried down the ladder from the tent to the sand, stood with my back to the truck, headlamp on, spotlight in hand, and well, you know what in the other, and I nervously peed.
After a night of constantly waking up whenever we’d hear the wind rustle the bushes outside Angie and I awoke early, ate a quick non-meat breakfast of odorless oatmeal, and awaited the arrival of the resident ranger Warren, who was meant to stop by to see us during his routine search for the lions.
Sure enough, right at 8 am we heard the low gears and the tractor-like engine of an old Land Cruiser come barreling through the bush.
Warren, the resident ranger certainly looked the part in this old 4x4 sporting an outfit of dark green ranger gear. He was accompanied by his 18yr old nephew, Brandon who was at the reserve for a week learning what ranger life was all about and in the hopes of putting as many career options in front of him as possible to decide what he might do with his life.
After learning we were from Canada Brandon explained he'd really love to go to Canada as it was colder there and he wanted to experience what it was like to live someplace where he could wear more stylish clothes. Brandon explained that if he was living someplace with colder temperatures he could wear pants and jackets and really diversify his style outside of the shorts and t-shirts he was being forced to wear in such a hot country for his entire life.
Ohh man, I almost died with internal laughter. It's been a few years since I've been blessed with the perspective of an 18yr old. I could feel his 40-something-year-old uncle biting his lip and choking on his words as he had him here with the idea of instilling life skills. Brandon’s main concern however was his look. I might add, he was dressed rather stylish even for ranger wear. The rest of us could see that he might get the chance at learning a new culture, better financial opportunities, having a life-changing experience, and on and on. These boring ideals were beyond him. It was all about the clothes. I think all the 40-somethings were envying the concerns of the 18yr old.
Warren had loaded us all in the old Land Crusier and was driving us out of the sandy riverbed and over the scrubby brush with the sound of the low geared tractor engine grinding away.
Eventually, we hit an open spot on the side of a hill and Warren stopped. Warren got out, turned on various switches on little electronics, and explained he was searching for the lions with radio telemetry. Radio telemetry uses radio signals, which are made up of invisible and silent electromagnetic waves, to determine location. Basically, they look like an old home television antenna hooked to a device that would beep if you were were close to the lions.
Warren explained that to have lions on a wildlife reserve you had to have a double fence and one of them had to be electric. If one fence got a hole from a flood or a rhino or what have you, the idea was the second fence would hold up until you found where the hole was and could fix it. As well, one of the members of your lion pride had to wear a radio collar. Hopefully, your lions were social and would stick together, therefore you could typically find where they were to ensure they were still on your property. With a little tweaking and change of direction, Warren pick up the lion signal and off we went.
As a Canadian who had at most driven around in a pickup truck in winter with a pair of binoculars, board out of his skull looking for signs of a white-tailed deer for someone else to shoot. This whole old backcountry bush drive with my head bouncing off the roof, authentic South African ranger, old Land Crusier, and beeping radio telemetry to track down real live lions experience was all rather exciting. I'm pretty sure I could even see Angie's pupils dilate a few centimeters when the lion beeps got closer.
As we rumbled off towards the beep, eventually we were close enough Warren whipped out the binos and started to survey the hillside. The rest of us stared off into dry grasses, bushy outcrops, and the rising sun looking for any sign of movement. Moments later Warren stopped, pointed with his free hand, and said, look there's the "Simba Pride".
All of us looked towards the bushy hillside and saw nothing. One by one we took a turn with the binos as the experienced ranger pointed out what to look for. Sure as shit, tucked under a shady bush about a half kilometer away we could see one full-maned male and a couple of females.
Warren handed the binos to Brandon and off we went bouncing over bush while Warren picked out a route that would bring us up and behind the pride. En route, Warren explained they named this pride the Simba pride led by Gorgeous Geroge and his harem of pretty ladies.
Within 5 minutes, we made the final ascent over the hill and popped up within about 50-feet of the pride. Warren said, “There they are.” Then he laughed and said. “This is less than a kilometer from your camp, how did you sleep last night?
Angie and I both knew we hardly slept, though I responded with some ego-saving comment like; “Ohh Warren, it was no big deal, we sleep with lions all the time in Canada.”
Instantly it was obvious where George got his name. I've seen lions in the wild before, and they did not look like this lion who had a steady supply of food running around and didn’t need to fight for his territory. George had an impeccable shimmering gold coat, a full mane that ruffled in the wind to show the streaks of black and gold. He looked fresh from the salon as though someone had spent the morning back combing his mane with an oversized brush, a blow dryer, and just the right amount of mousse. Wow, he was indeed gorgeous. If Alex from Madagascar would have seen a photo of him, he'd be on the phone with his stylist booking an appointment the next day.
Warren inched the Land Crusier closer and closer until we were within 30-feet of the pride. Then George turned and looked at us. After a lifetime of watching Nat Geo wildlife shows one always assumes if you were ever faced with danger in the wild of Africa you might instinctually run, play dead, climb a tree, or punch something like a shark in the nose like that crazy bitch did who fought off the shark attack. The reality is when a big badass lion stares you right in the eyes at a distance too short to even piss yourself before you think you might make a run for it if he decided to attack, you freeze. You literally take a big deep breath, stare back at him, and can't move a muscle. Your whole body freezes, it's like a trance, you’re hypnotized into a stare-down you will never win by an animal that doesn't lose. The feeling can hardly be described, you need to live it. Suddenly you are aware of how fast your life could end, why a wildebeest can be drug to its death by a cat, and how the king of the jungle came to be. An almost indescribable feeling.
For a few minutes, we all just started, even ranger Warren who does this a few times a week held silent letting us all take it in. Knowing the powers of the trance, Warren split the silence by starting the grumbling Land Crusier and moving us ahead more. He then spent about ten minutes answering a few of our tourist questions before spinning us around to pick out a rocky path down over the hill and back to our camp.
The remaining days were filled with rhinos, zebra, giraffes, foxes, and a buffet of other animals. We even spent one 42oC afternoon hiding under a tree with the AC blasting for 2-hours before heading back to the empty lodge through the giant elephant tusk entrance (not real) to seek reprieve in the pool for a few hours.
If you find yourself with an extra 43-million Euro, I might suggest buying a game lodge. If your budget doesn’t allow for it, I would also offer up the idea of sleeping in your rooftop tent in a dry riverbed for closer to $25/ night and hoping a ranger picks you up to experience the penetrating stare of George going right through your soul...