When lions woke me in the middle of the night, I thought someone in a nearby room was snoring…loudly. It was our first night in South Africa, and we were staying in a guest house outside the capital city of Pretoria. Snoring seemed a perfectly logical conclusion for what I was hearing. We weren’t living in a national park, and we had done our research before moving: there are no longer free-roaming lions in South Africa.
But the “snoring” continued each night at regular intervals: midnight; three a.m.; six a.m. By the time the manager asked if we had heard the lions, I had already figured it out: the gated community in which we were staying is adjacent to a game reserve, which have a pride of lion.We now have a house in that same community, and depending on the time of year, we hear them roar a few times each night.
When I would write family and friends about our nighttime serenade, I would quickly have to remind them that we’re safe, that those lion are no more a threat to us than if we were living near a zoo. But they were no sooner placated by this than I would excitedly announce that cat tracks were sighted at my husband’s worksite in Mpumalanga Province. Workers had a debate on whether the tracks belonged to a serval or a leopard, both still free-roaming predators in the country. While they concluded the tracks belonged to the more common (and smaller) serval, not a leopard, it caused excitement among those we told that it could even be possible to still encounter a wild leopard in South Africa.
While there are enough rural sightings of leopards and their tracks to generate great stories and interest, they are believed to be a weakening population outside of conservation areas. For our part, when we want to see South Africa’s wildlife, we take a Saturday and drive to a nearby reserve or park. Occasionally we have a cynic among our circle of acquaintances, asking “Are the wild things really as close as all that?” For them, it doesn’t seem possible to just get in your car, go to a park, and drive around solo until you come across a pride of lion, or an elephant, or a leopard.
Despite the contemporary feel of Pretoria and “Josi” (one of the nicknames locals have for Johannesburg), the country does still have a free-roaming population of cheetah, leopard and any number of smaller felines. But most wildlife to be viewed in South Africa is to be enjoyed in conservation areas such as national parks and game reserves.
Game reserves are so common and popular that even the estate we live in has its own game reserve of antelope species. On any given day I can walk, bike or drive through herds of kudu, blesbok, nyala, springbok, impala, and even tiny steenbok. If I want to see predators, those lion we hear at night are only a few kilometers from our neighborhood, along with hyena, wild dog, and a friendly cheetah named Anthony.
We heard tales of Anthony the cheetah, who is quite an in-demand celebrity for local weddings and graduation photos. We have heard rumors that he once escaped into our community, but that his capture was as easy as a well-placed saucer of milk and lots of petting.
The last of South Africa’s “wild things” are best found in the larger parks. Two of our favorites are Kruger National Park (called, simply, “The Kruger”, by South Africans) and Pilanesberg.
In any of the parks you have the option to self-drive or join a guided safari vehicle. Self-driving means you take your own car or rental and explore the park, searching for wildlife to photograph. You must remain inside your vehicle, with windows up, and follow safe viewing practices for the sake of both the wildlife and you. The safari option allows you to be chauffeured as part of a group, where you have better height to see over the bush, and the expertise of some great park personalities.
For me, the best part about the conservation areas of South Africa is that the wildlife have enough room to live naturally, so that you can’t be sure of seeing them on any given trip. Kruger alone is almost 2 million hectares (basically the size of a small country). That’s a lot of area for the wild to truly be wild.
On one trip to the park we might see giraffe and elephant, hyena and warthog, and the next time, we’ll see the fabled “Big Five” in a single day. We lived here eight months before we saw our first wild cheetah. It was during a self-drive in Pilanesberg, in that large wilderness of 572² km, that we were lucky enough to see their only two cheetah.
There are more “wild things” in South Africa than we will likely see in our expat years here. We have yet to see wild dog except in smaller enclosures, and the endangered African wild cat is almost gone from non-conservation areas.
There are still many free-roaming night animals, such as caracals, servals, civets and genets, and those we will consider a lucky sighting if we take a night safari drive and spotlight their reflective eyes in a tree. But some of the wildlife seems ever-present, particularly in rural areas. A recent visit to the family farm of a new South African friend saw us driving to the Limpopo Province where we encountered baboons, vervet monkeys and warthogs—each an exotic encounter for us, but all too common nuisances for local farmers.
The farmhouse was a picturesque one-story building, overlooking the Olifants River, and I remarked to our friend how I would love to enjoy a bit of home by floating down the river on an inner-tube. He replied with a grin, “The crocodiles would love that.” Nile crocodile and hippopotami are not limited to conservation areas, and water sports are not quite the same knowing that one or more of those ornery citizens could be just beneath the murky water.
Even those “wild things” that South Africans themselves thought were no longer free-roaming occasionally re-appear, to the surprise of even the most skeptical wildlife enthusiast. An example of this came as a shock in January of this year, when a wild elephant was discovered in the Knysna Forest. Once home too many of these giants, the Knysna has long been considered to have been emptied of free-roaming elephants. But a camera placed by scientists to study movements of leopard and other predators had a surprise cameo by a beautiful wild elephant. If an elephant can still hide in a popular forest, it begs the imagination as to whether a truly wild lion may actually turn up some day.
But one thing’s for sure: it won’t happen anywhere near the outskirts of Pretoria, where it seems the only predator making a cameo from time to time is Anthony the cheetah, who behaves more like a Labrador retriever than an African predator.
As I write the final lines of this article, I’m staying at a little guest house in the Province of KwaZulu-Natal, where a troop of vervet monkeys are playing on our roof and skittering across the balcony into the nearby treetops. While we won’t be hearing any lion roaring tonight, and I will again have to reassure family that we won’t be mauled the moment we step outside our hut, it’s nice to know that even as South Africa brings itself ever closer to western conveniences and modernity, the wild things really are still “as close as all that.”
Marla is a freelance writer and global explorer. She creates travel adventures for herself following in the footsteps of her favorite authors. An American expat, she currently lives in Pretoria, South Africa, where she blogs her adventures on travelingmarla.com and is revising her first manuscript.