There are two things you can pretty much guarantee about a safari guide. One, they’ll have a selection of stories that’ll blow your mind. Two, you’ll have to all but prise those tales out of them.
Taciturn, guarded, conditioned to receive information rather than transmit — these are the hallmarks of top guides. Frankly, I’d be terrible at it.
So it proves with Julius. I work on the 46-year-old Zulu for a full two days before he cracks. Then, in a mellifluous voice barely audible over the thrum of the Land Cruiser, he begins to dispense nuggets from his illustrious 25-year career.
A Tiger encounter on the open plains of the Eastern Cape (the world’s greatest-ever golfer, on the trip in which he got engaged to poor Elin); driving Brad Pitt around the bush; chaperoning the Thatchers on safari (“I made sure to pack a second bottle of gin on the sundowner drives for Denis”). And, most eye-openingly of all, the big-game encounters.
Julius has been a safari guide for 25 years
Such as the day he found himself in a face-off with an adult male lion pounding the dust 15ft away. Sitting in the out-of-reach bakkie (four-wheel-drive vehicle) were his weapon — and a group of clients who suddenly found themselves ringside at the type of match not seen since the Colosseum was in its pomp.
Or the time he inadvertently came between a fully grown female elephant and her offspring. She flipped the game-viewing vehicle as if it were a drinks tray, sending the occupants scrambling up the hill towards the illusory haven of the nearest tree. Warning shots were fired but the furious, four-tonne beast kept coming. “I was running out of options,” Julius says softly.
Both near misses, for the record, happened years before and some way from Klaserie Private Nature Reserve, the exuberant swathe of the Greater Kruger that I’m exploring in Julius’s endlessly capable hands.
Lions inhabit the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve
The “greater” here is quantitative rather than qualitative — referring to the super-park created when the fences of the 695 square miles of private reserve to the west of the Kruger National Park came down in the early 1990s, swelling a natural sanctuary to roughly the same size as Wales.
But in safari terms, the experience in these exclusive tranches is indeed a step up. Strict limits on lodge and vehicle numbers; no day-trippers; no demoralised guides in stagnant coaches passing off distant silhouettes as big-five sightings, as per my previous Kruger trip.
The Klaserie, rather, is the bush of a thousand Out of Africa-style fantasies: golden grasses stirred by warm, fragrant breezes; elegant, flat-topped acacias; more space than you can fathom; and extraordinary biodiversity.
Five hundred bird species alone inhabit the Kruger, nearly two-thirds of South Africa’s total. There are more than 150 different mammals.
Camp George’s smart lobby area
In such a setting, our graspingly avaricious, tick-box obsession with the big five can appear infantile.
Fixate on sightings of lions, elephants, buffaloes, rhinos and leopards and you’ll have no eyes for the martial eagle perched atop the rigor-mortis-stiff fingers of a dead leadwood tree. The dazzle (easily the best of the collective nouns) of sturdy zebras hurtling past like a psychedelic rugby team. Or the herd of impalas, as beautiful and skittish as supermodels, springing away through the bush as hyenas stalk the shadows behind.
Disproportioned, scrubby of coat and heroically ugly, hyenas look through you with the dead-eyed indifference of creatures with few dietary qualms and a set of jaws that exert phenomenal pressure per square inch.
“They’d snap through your legs like pretzels,” I lean over in the vehicle and tell the kids, a little overexcitedly perhaps. Both go quiet.
You’ll also probably miss the kudu, with its chicken-like gait; the chameleon in the acacia, glowing lime-green in the torchlight before fading, almost apologetically, to black; the golden orb spider, its fist-like size and dazzling colourings tempting tiny, insignificant males to try to mate with it for the dubious pleasure of being eaten alive post-coitus. A-list divorce courts in arachnid form.
And you’d possibly not make time to properly observe the hippo, its comedic dimensions at odds with its status as the biggest killer in Africa after mosquitoes. “Ahhh look, it’s yawning,” says my youngest, as a bull bares its teeth in a Kim Jong-un-like show of force while we watch at a safe distance from the watering hole.
“No, it’s not,” says Julius, quietly.
One morning we leave camp, huddled in ponchos against a pre-dawn cold that will soon seem miraculous. The scent of wild basil drifts across the rapidly warming bush. The inky silhouette of the Drakensberg mountains looms on the horizon. All is calm, peaceful.
Then we’re given a stark reminder of the raw savagery of the Kruger.
An elephant in Klaserie
The radio crackles: a pack of three dozen African wild dogs has been spotted to the west. Charcoal faced and Tipp-Ex tailed, these lean hunters are the middle-distance runners of the bush, killing with exhaustion as well as aggression. Today it’s an impala. Or rather, was.
By the time we arrive all that’s left is a flattened area of crimson grass and a backbone clasped in the jaws of a hyena that scurries away guiltily like an opportunistic pet at a family barbecue. The dogs swarm around the bakkie as we hold our collective breath. But they’re sated, and so they retreat to a nearby dry riverbed to sleep it off.
Our breakfast is altogether more refined. Camp George, our base, is a fenced, moated sanctuary that ranks among the very best in the African bush. Everything — from the inventive, ever-changing menu, to the immaculate service and attention to detail in the eight air-conditioned, high-ceilinged suites — belies the remote setting.
It’s supremely comfortable without lapsing into look-but-don’t-touch luxury. Handpainted headboards of a dipping, yellowy-red African sun; industrial-chic lamps; deep tubs and outdoor showers; sheets as smooth as the bark of the camp’s towering fever trees.
Duncan’s daughters with Sisa, a member of the team at Camp George
Between morning and evening game drives we spend long hours in the pool, dappled by an immense Natal mahogany, as low-flying red-billed hornbills swoop soundlessly overhead like elaborately decorated paper aeroplanes. Innocent, the barman, takes palpable delight in our appreciation for his signature rooibos iced-tea concoction (“Innocent’s smoothie” we name it, inevitably).
Ever-smiling camp manager, Inneke, buzzes around productively while her husband Manie — lock-forward build, pre-school shorts — is patently in his element out here.
“The other day I was reading about an historic migration of springbok that took three days to pass. Three days! I think I was born 100 years too late,” he tells me.
One day, dinner is taken on the lawn; another, around the boma fire pit. Most memorable, though, is the evening in the bush — camp fire blazing in the centre of a perimeter of predator-proof (we tell the kids) candles.
Julius joins us as we eat, explaining something of the Zulu traditions and the role of the sacred buffalo-thorn tree in transporting the spirits of deceased relatives to ancestral resting places.
Big-five sightings, although not obsessed over, duly materialise. The following day we see a quartet of lions dozing in a dry riverbed, their breath hanging in the air. We learn how everything in their predatory lives is a brutal prioritisation exercise: they must weigh up calories on the packet versus the cost (in energy) of purchase, because the bush is no place for an empty tank.
A suite at Camp George
Buffaloes — or “daka boys”, as the Zulu fondly know them, “daka” meaning mud — also leave a big impression. These giant, snorting, fly-blown beasts have the tenderest of hearts, sharing an unbreakable bond that will see them return to help a stricken member of the herd, deploying a kick that can shatter the skull of a lion.
And, finally, thrillingly, leopards. Revered by the African kings for centuries, these creatures are among the most advanced and adaptable hunters on the planet, combining stealth, guile and deadly efficiency. Bush lore tells of an inexperienced guide who once left the vehicle at dusk to answer the call of nature and met his end with a leopard’s jaws clamped round his throat. Those with the unfortunate individual heard nothing more than the thud of his rifle hitting the dusty track.
None of which I relay to my eldest as, bakkie bucking, we swiftly react to rumours of a sighting several miles to the east on our final evening. I feel my pulse quickening; leopard sightings are vanishingly rare these days.
We arrive in what passes for dusk: that brief window in the bush between warmth-on-your face sunshine and cicada-ringing, grass-rustling blackness. And there — partially concealed on the fringes of a waterhole — is an unmistakable white-tipped tail: flicking up, hanging in the air, then falling.
The creature rises, a duck-shaped entrée having caught its eye, and we watch, transfixed, as it stalks its prey — its lean-hipped, rosette-adorned elegance all the more arresting, somehow, for its ruthless lethality.
“Can we get out?” asks my nine-year-old. Julius and I spin round incredulous, then share a smile. “Er, no, love. I think perhaps not.” That’s not a tale I want adding to Julius’s canon.
For 15 minutes it’s just the three of us and this preternatural predator, this ghost of the lowveld. Then, as a faint breeze stirs the treetops, it seems to segue into the grassy gloom and we’re left doubting that it was ever really there at all.
Duncan Craig and family were guests of Cedarberg Africa, which has a four-night all-inclusive stay at Simbavati Camp George (simbavati.com) from £2,220pp, including flights, car hire from Johannesburg, drinks and all activities and game drives (cedarberg-travel.com). For more on visiting South Africa, see southafrica.net