SABI SABI, South Africa -- A silent, moonlit night in the African bush. Out of the gloom, vague shapes emerge: lions.
They are in a V-formation: intent, looking for their next meal. It is the end of winter, hard times out here. They are lean, not to say skeletal, inasmuch as you can see their ribs. Hungry, certainly.
They follow the lead of the dominant female. One by one, they settle down for a moment, then get up, advance, settle down. It is the rhythm of remorselessness. They are stalking. But what?
It is impossible to see them all in the gloom. One is simply aware of moving shapes. Binoculars afford a closer glimpse: fierce, focused eyes, a deadly game plan of follow-my-leader. There is no prey in sight, but the movements are orchestrated, disciplined. You wouldn't want to be the center of their attention.
The ranger has told us that the only predictable thing about wild animals is their unpredictability. It somewhat undermines her assurance that we are in no danger, seated in a 4x4, which the lions identify as neither threat nor food.
One by one, the pride of 17 pass within yards, sometimes feet. Perhaps it is the fervid imagination of the timid, but one would swear some are only inches away. Not a sound is to be heard -- from us, at least.
This is safari.
There are many ways to go on safari. The cheapest is to camp in your own tent in fenced areas, and sally forth into the wild in your own vehicle. A camping site can cost as little as $15 a night, and South Africa has as many well organized camp sites as leopards have spots.
You can hire a self-catering tent or cabin, and drive yourself around the national parks that boast the Big Five -- elephant, rhinoceros, lion, leopard and buffalo -- taking pot luck on seeing what you may from the road. This will cost you anywhere from $30 to $60 per person per night.
There are also lodges, which charge around $100 a night, with meals included. Or you can take the luxury trail.
No barriers to the wild
Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve is at the top end of the scale, and Selati is the best of the three camps it has to offer to guests, who can also choose River Lodge or Bush Lodge, the largest.
Selati is part of Sabi Sands, the teeming terrain that is home to a handful of exclusive reserves abutting Kruger National Park. There is no fence between the park and the reserves, but the financial barrier is high.
Accommodation at Kruger is in the middle price range. Selati is unabashedly expensive.
In high season -- the October to May summer here, when most foreign tourists visit -- Selati will cost you $400 per person per night sharing. But in winter, when, paradoxically, the game-viewing is better because the greenery is more sparse, the rate drops for local residents to around $200 a person.
For your money, you get all meals, including a full buffet breakfast, lunch with hot or cold main courses, and a gourmet dinner, presented personally by the chef and served at a candlelit table under the stars. You also enjoy two game drives, lasting three or four hours, at dawn and dusk when the animals are most active.
Selati is unfenced, which means that anything that roams the wild has access to the camp. Elephants might wake you up, breaking the branches of a tree outside your cabin or taking a drink from the swimming pool, edged with pink bougainvillea and shaded by lofty trees.
Warthogs constantly sample the succulence of well-watered lawns in an arid area, going down on their front knees to nibble as if in thanks for such an oasis of abundance.
More ominously, lions sometimes visit, and, you are told, should such an unwelcome encounter occur, that the best thing is to make yourself look as big as possible, walk slowly and steadily backward, all the while looking it or them fearlessly in the eye. This is not the sort of blink-first game one wants to play on vacation.
Happily, there is an ever-ready ranger, gun at hand, should you not be a born Ernest Hemingway. He or she will escort you to and from your cottage to the main lodge with its overview of the water pan, where impala, baboons and water buck are just a few of the regular suppers.
But fear is less the prevailing emotion than excitement, even perhaps romance, on these outings.
Selati is gaslit, which makes for a softer world, reminiscent of yesteryear. The accommodation is styled after the turn of the century -- dark wood and wicker furniture, and old leather traveling cases as decorative features.
Sepia photographs speak of the early efforts to conquer this wild frontier.
There are the railway workers who risked their lives to lay the local "man-a-mile line" -- reputedly, one man died of disease or attack by predator or native for every mile of track laid -- that has long since fallen into disuse.
There are early hunters, puff-chested in khaki jackets and narrow-calved in puttees, their feet on the running boards of the spindly-wheeled predecessors of today's chunky 4x4s, their hands around blunderbusses with which they proudly blasted to oblivion anything on four legs.
There are "bearers" holding aloft leopard skins, which no sensitive woman of these days would be seen dead wearing. And there are the framed title deeds, in the Dutch-based Afrikaans language, of the early settlers of these dangerous lands.
Your bed, canopied with mosquito netting and laid with embroidered cream cotton, invites images of Robert Redford and Meryl Streep doing their "Out of Africa" stuff.
Perhaps surprisingly, netting is still the best nocturnal answer to the threat of the malaria-bearing mosquito that has defied science over the decades. For day wear, each cottage offers a modern repellent spray to ward off the pests, lest you have forgotten to take your malaria medicine.
Tracking the big five
But one comes here not for nostalgia, however enjoyable. This is about adventure.
Our first outing is at dusk. Within minutes, we are in the midst of a herd of dozens of buffalo, the only sounds their munching on the paper-dry grass and the plod of their heavy feet on concrete-hard clay. We sit mesmerized as, at the same time, they engulf and ignore us.
These are among the strongest and angriest of beasts, yet they pass us by in pastoral peace and quiet.
The leopard is certainly the most elusive of the Big Five. You can go weeks, months, without seeing one, even if you can go off-track to find them. In the national parks, on self-drive outings on designated roads, unless the leopards want to see you, basically you won't see them.
Here in a private reserve, you can at least go look for them, which narrows the odds of a sighting considerably.
Through the radio network we hear that a leopard has been spotted some distance away. The reserve has a rule that no more than three or four vehicles can be at a sighting at any one time to avoid pressuring the animal.
Word of the leopard spreads. Quickly, there is a lineup of throbbing 4x4s, a bit like jetliners waiting for takeoff clearance at a major international airport.
After 10 minutes, our turn comes. As we advance, lights from the other safari vehicles flicker through the black bush. Then, there it is, lithesome, muscular, telltale spotted, moving smoothly, at home in its habitat, apparently oblivious to the viewing vehicles.
It passes our 4x4, its tail brushing the feet of the African tracker perched on the hood of the vehicle. He later confesses that even for him it was almost too close an encounter on the wild side.
We follow it for perhaps 20 minutes, as it goes about the business of trying to find its evening meal. When we leave to allow another group to move in, the leopard is still unfed.
We have an uneasy feeling that we have done little to shorten its odds of a meal. Almost certainly we have lengthened its search. But, in all honesty, the leopard seemed totally oblivious to our intrusion.
"He's still very relaxed," we hear a ranger crackling over the intercom as we head back for a five-course gourmet dinner, followed by coffee and liqueurs around the campfire. Out there, the leopard, alone now, must fend for itself.
When the 5.30 a.m. wake-up call comes the next day, one wonders, once more, what waits out in the scrub, parched sienna by the winter drought.
We have a livening cup of brew in the lodge before departure. Then, with the African sun struggling, albeit briefly, to overcome the pre-dawn grayness, we drive off into the bush.
By the time the sun asserts itself, we have tangled with a bull elephant, which takes enough exception to our attention to force us to move rapidly on.
And we have ventured off-track for a close encounter with a mother and baby white rhino, accompanied at respectable distance by an awesome male, who seems, despite his woefully poor sight, to give us the evil eye.
But the big thrill is to find the pride of lions. They are tired after a night's hunt. By the look of them, they have had little success. We follow them through the bush until they find the dirt track less tiring and follow it for a while, before finally flopping down.
They remain there, resting, throughout the day. When we return in the evening, they are back on patrol. It doesn't take us long to meet them again, and we sit, in awe, as they pad past us, ominous shadows, on their nightly search for survival.
Within 24 hours, we have seen all the Big Five, and come too close for comfort to most of them.
WHEN YOU GO ...
Details: Bookings for Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve can be made through African Cultural Tours, P.O. Box 52665, Saxonwold 2132, South Africa. Telephone: 27-11-483-3939. Fax: 27-11-483-3799.
Pub Date: 09/26/99