As usual, the alarm woke me at four in the morning. I pried my sleepy eyelids open, drank some coffee and made sure my rifle and equipment were in position. After picking up my trusted back-up, Mishack Malatjie, I headed towards Sefapane Lodge in Phalaborwa, where our three Norwegian guests were expecting us. They had already seen many animals and birds on safari but said they would love to see some big cats on this morning walk.
The morning walks from Phalaborwa gate take place in the Phalaborwa section, which covers more than a hundred thousand hectares and provides many options on where to walk. Hunting for lion tracks that I had spotted the previous day, I headed towards Sable Dam. What awaited us was fresh buffalo spoor just behind the dam, where the animals had been quenching their thirst the previous evening.
With backpacks, rifle, radio, first aid kit and our fully-briefed guests ready, we headed off! We followed the buffalo spoor and along the way saw many small creatures and birds, termite mounds and the golden brown baboon spider's burrow. We managed to lure him out with a piece of grass. Although these spiders are not venomous, they are enough to send any arachnophobe over the edge but the guests were decidedly calm during the encounter.
Then, just as I was explaining about a mopane tree and the worms that live on it, Mishack noticed some vultures in a tree about 800 metres away. As I had already spotted the lion spoor the day before, and we were on the trail of a buffalo herd, I had an inkling that there was a lion kill close to those feathered scavengers. We headed off in the direction of the buffalo spoor and the general direction of the vultures. Even if the vultures were hanging around a kill, they can be known to be more than a kilometre from the carcass and this could be a kilometre in the wrong direction!
However, the buffalo spoor were soon covered with lion tracks which seemed to move towards the vicinity of the vultures. As we got closer to the vultures, I noticed some of the birds uncharacteristically low down in a leafy tree; a sure sign that a kill is close by. Proceeding with caution, and with my guests' safety uppermost, we took a loop around the area in order to be downwind of the lions. As we approached we saw that it had been the last day of one of the five hundred or so buffalo.
Alongside the carcass was our well-known Sable Dam pride that consists of fifteen lions. Our approach obviously startled some of the cats and the pride male suddenly sprang at us from just thirty metres away. Instructing the guests not to run, my shouts at the lion made him come to a stop. It was made very clear, however, that we were unwelcome guests as growls and glares were pointed in our direction.
Our party observed the male for a short while longer but we did not want to disturb the lions or jeopardise our safety. Edging slowly backwards, one step at a time, we retreated until at a safe distance to turn our backs on the carcass and its keepers. It was my intention to get back to the original buffalo trail in the hope of finding the herd.
We were still bantering over the wonderful encounter with the lions when I heard a noise that I recognised as the bellowing of buffalo. As we got closer, it became clear that it was not a herd of buffalo making the noise, but a solitary animal in distress. The noise got louder and eventually we were in eyesight of the animal creating it - a buffalo calf, less than two weeks old. What a rare treat. The calf was young enough to be unafraid of humans and walked right over to us.
It was obviously very hungry and in need of mother's nourishment as it came right between my legs looking for a teat. The calf seemed to share none of the bad manners of the lions, and promptly introduced herself to each member of the group, still looking for the elusive teat. As we walked on, our new friend did not want to be left alone and trotted happily along with us. Knowing how important it was for her to be quickly reunited with the herd, I radioed the Section Ranger, Evans Mkansi, to discuss the best solution.
We decided to walk to the picnic site at Masorini, three kilometres away, to meet Evans and his field rangers there. The walk to Masorini appeared to be too much for the youngster and, unable to resist her sad eyes, I lifted her onto my back. There I was, in the middle of the bush with a buffalo calf draped around my shoulders like a sack of potatoes.
The forty-odd kilograms, in turn, appeared too much for me and Mishack had to take over the responsibility. What a sight we must have looked as we approached Masorini; five hikers with a buffalo calf! The visitors there were more than happy to participate in this spectacular happening and offered us some milk they had with them.
The instrument we had that most resembled a teat was a mineral water bottle which she accepted greedily. As if a carefully rehearsed script, Evans arrived just as the milk was finished. The buffalo calf was put onto the bakkie and Field Ranger Samuel Mashimbye was dubbed 'guardian' of the calf. Driving on one of the firebreaks in the vicinity, we found the herd's spoor quite quickly and agreed that the vehicle would wait on the tar road for the herd to cross close by and then drop the calf off. The rest of us got out of the vehicle to find the buffalo herd and try to steer them towards the road. The buffalo had their own plans however and were headed towards another firebreak. We carefully followed them, getting as close as twenty metres to some of the animals.
The vehicle arrived at the firebreak just before the buffalo herd. Samuel, the guardian, dropped the calf, still calling, off the back of the vehicle and we had to say our goodbyes. We withdrew from the area as we did not want to disturb the herd or the calf may have been lost all over again. We did, however, notice that shortly after the calf had been left, the calling stopped. Did she ever find her mother? We can only wonder....It was obvious that the Norwegian family, who hoped to see some lions that morning, really got far more than they could have dreamed of. So when are you booking your next walk in the Kruger National Park?
Editor's Note: Although it is against SANParks regulations to interfere with nature, the guide believed that there were other incredible circumstances to warrant this action. Andrew Desmet is Senior Guides Co-ordinator for the Northern Region of the Kruger National Park, based at Phalaborwa Gate.