Up close and personal with Africa's Big Five

MIKE ZEISBERGER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:55 PM ET

THREE METRES FROM A FULL-GROWN LION, GAUTENG, S.A. - “I almost peed my pants, guys.”

The candid statement comes from our friend Louis, who is among seven of us sitting in a jeep at the Rhino & Lion Nature Reserve on Friday afternoon.

Don’t worry buddy. The rest of us feel the same way.

The reason for our near-bladder failure is understandable.

Just seconds earlier, as we marvelled at the majestic male lion lying within leaping distance of our vehicle, our driver started the engine.

Bad move, perhaps?

At the sound of the motor, Simba - or whatever they call him - jumped to his feet and began leering at us.

Cue the collective gulp from the occupants of the jeep.

Fortunately, the lion took no further action as we pulled away.

If it had, there would have been no one left around to write this column.

Awe. Fear. Exhilaration. Upon further review, it was all that. And more.

On this magnificent sun-splashed South African day, three Canadian journalists had escaped the trials and tribulations of daily World Cup coverage to come to the area known as the Cradle of Humankind. It’s a World Heritage site less than an hour away from Johannesburg’s Soccer City, host venue for Sunday’s highly-anticipated World Cup final.

For much of the past month, most of the South African experience had involved taking buses, often through seedy downtown Johannesburg, to media centres; waiting to board planes at airports at far too early hours; and sitting inside stadiums hammering away at keyboards.

For the most part, it’s been a great ride. But has it really provided us a true taste of this country? Looking back, the only real native animal seen by yours truly in the first three weeks of this stay was a monkey who scampered across the road while we were making our way from Johannesburg to Rustenburg for the U.S.-Ghana Round of 16 game a couple of weeks ago.

A very small monkey at that.

That would change Friday.

Thanks to the efforts of our new friend Megan, the charming lady who, along with husband Gareth, has rented out her home to five Canadian scribes for the World Cup, plans have been set for us to see Africa’s Big Five - lions, rhinos, elephants, buffalos and cheetahs.

Within a minute of passing through the gates of the Rhino & Lion Nature Reserve, we see rhinos and springboks grazing. Just up ahead, a car is stopped, its passengers foolishly having stepped out to get a closer look at a herd of buffalo.

“They are stupid,” Megan says. “Those are the most dangerous animals here.”

Judging by the foul looks on the faces of these beasts, it’s easy to see why.

We can only shake our heads as these no-mind tourists get back in their vehicles and drive past us, wearing silly grins on their faces.

Upon reaching the reserve’s headquarters, there is an area where visitors can get up close and personal with the animals.

The first thing we encounter is a pond. The sign in front of it reads: “Please don’t touch the crocodiles.”

Thanks for the advice but it really wasn’t in our plans.

Petting baby lions, however, very much is. And for the low price of 30 Rand - about $4.50 Cdn. - we do exactly that.

It’s a cool experience for most of us. For colleague George Johnson of the Calgary Herald, however, there are some complications.

Seems this one cute-as-a-button infant cat has taken a distinct liking to George, judging by the fact that it begins gnawing on his arm.

That’s going to leave a mark.

Then it decides to lock its jaws on his calf. After several seconds, an attendant comes to help pry it loose.

Thankfully George comes out of it relatively unscathed - other than a couple of small puncture marks in his flesh.

A personal souvenir from South Africa. Nice.

In the surrounding areas, there are hippos, tigers, rhinos, leopards and cheetahs, all in pens guarded by electric fencing. Watching them watching us is fascinating, to say the least. Thank goodness for the fences or we might be at the top of their dinner menu.

But the best is yet to come.

Megan has arranged for us to go in a jeep and tour the several square kilometre area where the lions, rhinos and zebras roam freely.

Our guide gets a key that leads us into the lion area. After a five-minute drive, we arrive at the gate. Once inside, all our heads are on swivels as we search for the big boys of the cat world.

Suddenly, there they are. Two full grown males lying on the side of the road. As one of our passengers puts it: “They’re the size of horses.”

Never seen horses with teeth like this.

They seem passive. Thankfully. Until the engine fires up, that is. Then it’s time to get out of there. Fast.

As the sun sets in a fiery ball over the western plains, we wonder why we haven’t seen any giraffes.

“ We don’t have any. There are no big trees here, so they would be in danger of being hit by lightning,” our guide says.

Is he kidding?

“Had it happen three times,” he responds.

You learn something new every day.

Earlier in the day, we get up close and personal with some behemoth pachyderms at The Elephant Sanctuary. At one point, you are allowed to grasp onto one just inside its trunk and take it for a stroll.

Not quite like taking the dog for an after-dinner walk, is it?

The highlight is getting to feed the biggest elephant in the place. His name is Amarilla. He weighs 6,000 kilos - the equivalent of about 12,500 pounds.

“If he tried to kiss you,” Amarilla’s handler tells one female tourist, “he could suck off the side of your entire face.”

No thanks. That’s quite all right.

There’s been more than enough excitement for this one day, thanks very much.

mike.zeisberger@sunmedia.ca


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