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The life lessons I learned on safari in Africa

Jet-lagged but brimming with enthusiasm, Rachael Russell slaps on her akubra and takes to the African veldt in pursuit of the ‘Big Five’.

By Rachael Russell
He picks me off at the gate, separated, tired and vulnerable. I've just landed at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg after a 19-hour flight from Auckland and am desperate to make my connection to Durban. I'll be travelling through South Africa with other journalists, but we don't know each other yet, so there's no safety in numbers. An airport 'employee', in blazer and lanyard, spots my anxiety. He grabs my passport and boarding pass, tells me I'm going to miss my flight, but he can help. For a price...
At the next gate I find the others and realise my mistake – the plane hasn't even boarded yet. Two others were similarly scammed. It didn't cost me that much – a few hundred rand, which is about $60, to 'make' a flight I had plenty of time for. Still, I'm so angry I have to fight back tears. So here's the first lesson of South Africa: be wary. But don't let that put you off, because I'd pay that money 10 times over for the experience that was about to unfold.
We've travelled to this country for the stunning landscapes, the sunsets… but most of all, to go on safari. After a few days of city sightseeing that serves to get us over some major jet lag and in peak holiday form, we hop a federal air service plane to our bucket-list destination.
Rachael ready to take on Africa
There are many game reserves scattered throughout South Africa and neighbouring countries such as Tanzania and Kenya, catering to a range of budgets. We're living life to its fullest with a stay at Madikwe Safari Lodge, in northern South Africa on the border with Botswana.
This is an all-inclusive experience where the rooms have individual plunge pools, the door handles are carved African figurines, and the minibar includes fresh lemon for your afternoon G&T. My deck looks over the bushveld, albeit with an unobtrusive fence for safety. From the outdoor shower, I can scan the horizon for giraffes.
Madikwe is one of the game reserves that contains the 'Big Five' of the bushveld – lions, leopards, elephants, rhinoceros, and Cape buffalo. They are the chosen ones because they're the most difficult to hunt on foot, but since the majority of visitors don't do that kind of thing any more, the Big Five have become a game of safari bingo. It also serves to add to the expectation. Will we see what we came all this way for?

Before sunrise

A knock on the door at 5.30am ensures we're up in time for a light breakfast served in front of a roaring fire before heading out for our first game drive.
Our guide is Mitchell, a bird-loving outdoorsman whose happy place is this bushveld with its ochre-coloured earth and danger around every corner. He has the reserved nature of a man who admits he could happily live alone out here with the animals, but politely answers our endless questions (including whether the rangers ever 'get together' with the guests. "It's a grey area," is his careful response.)
The horizon takes on a peach blush as we set out before daybreak. It's cold. Second lesson of South Africa: forget the safari-chic beige linens. I'm huddled in a borrowed Zara puffer jacket, and when we pick up speed I wrap myself in a blanket and hold on to my wide-brim hat. I'm thankful for the blanket; regretful that I have an old iPhone to capture this.
I look up at the sky, at Venus fading in the morning light, and decide it's probably a blessing. I'll just have to live in the moment.
I had expected more greenery, more jungle, more grass. This is a flat, scrubby land. Everything feels open – the Jeep, the bush. We're still moving, searching, when the sun breaks out, a giant red orb hanging above the horizon. It looks like Mars. But then, this feels other-worldly.
Mitchell stops our vehicle suddenly. It's not a beast, it's a snake. A Mozambique spitting cobra rears up in front of us before disappearing into the undergrowth. Mitchell says he once had one of these bad boys spit directly into his eye. "Not permanently blinding, just incredibly painful," he reports.
We stop beneath two birds perched on a wire carrying electricity to the lodge. I don't note the type of bird, but I take a photo. We all do. Later, we will laugh at ourselves for this – the picture could be two pigeons on a suburban street. The early enthusiasm and the excitement to be here has us photographing everything that moves.

Circle of life

Our next sighting is a rhino, recently deceased. We find it by following the vultures now feasting on the carcass.
The birds are only briefly scared off by our appearance, before returning to their meal. The rhino had hurt its leg, and it was only a matter of time before it became breakfast, says Mitchell. This is nature – there's no stepping in to fix an injury. Occasionally the smell of decay reaches us and I huddle further inside my jacket.
We move on, peering into the scrub, searching for the so-far elusive Big Five. What looks like sand to us mere mortals is essentially a series of signals to Mitchell. He stops to show us where a baby elephant has rested, swiping its trunk through the dirt.
We look on in horrified interest as he rummages through a pile of dung with his hands to establish that a white rhino is nearby. Eventually he traces his finger in the sand around the imprint of a lion's paw. Bingo.
It's a member of our group – a wildlife photographer with eyes as sharp as her lens – who spots the lions, some distance off. Two males, known by the rangers as the Chimbro brothers, are heading for a nearby watering hole. We race ahead and wait. When the brothers stalk past us, just metres away, it renders our usually chatty group utterly silent.
For the first time I realise how exposed my arms are inside the jeep. My camera phone's faint click sounds raucously loud.

Mane event

A sudden squeal stops the lions in their tracks, their heads turned in unison. It's a waterbuck, warning the other animals that a couple of lions have dropped by. Having attracted the predators' attention, it bolts for safety. There's a long, frozen moment as the brothers consider their options. I realise the waterbuck put itself in danger just to help out its friends down the food chain. Another lesson: the law of the jungle isn't an entirely self-serving one.
When we stop for our morning coffee, spiked with a generous dash of the popular local liqueur Amarula, it feels as though a pressure valve has been released. We ticked the majestic tawny beasts off. Hakuna matata.
A stay at a game reserve conforms to the rhythm of the animals, hence the early start. By 11am we are back at the lodge for a full breakfast. The middle of the day is for resting by the pool, conveniently located next to a watering hole frequented by elephants, impala and warthogs.
For all their ferocious strength, the great surprise of watching Africa's animals go about their day is how meditative it is. The double vodka sodas I had on the sun lounger may have contributed to that state of zen.
Of the Big Five, we don't see buffalo or leopards during our stay – although Mitchell does hop out of the Jeep at one point, toting his loaded shotgun, to see if there's a leopard hiding in a tree.
"You can drive a manual, right?" he jokes to me as he walks away into the bush. But we do see many noteworthy animals, including the rare painted wolf (aka wild dog), two young cheetahs with post-brunch extended bellies looking for a safe place to rest, and my personal favourite, giraffes, which are pretty much everywhere.

Rhino encounter

One sign of a properly run safari is that you shouldn't get to 'pet' or get too close to any animal. It's not a zoo; and these animals are not in captivity. So I want to say in advance that this next part – where I put my hand inside a white rhino's mouth – is absolutely above board.
Not included in your lodge fees, but an added extra for those interested in conservation efforts, is the opportunity to join the Madikwe counter-poaching team. Rhino horn is extremely valuable on the black market. It's consumed as medicine in parts of Asia but, given it's mostly made of keratin, they might as well be chewing their fingernails.
Most consumers no doubt know that, but there is also a status symbol element to ingesting something more costly than cocaine. The counter-poaching unit aims to notch, microchip, and collect DNA from all the rhinos in the park. Their work recently assisted in sending three poachers to prison for over 20 years each – the DNA collection is what helps get the prosecution in court. Despite their efforts, poaching of the southern white rhino currently outnumbers births, so the species is classified as 'near threatened'.
We meet the anti-poaching team on the dirt track of a privately owned part of the reserve just after sunrise. They are dressed in camo and have a machine gun displayed prominently on the front
of their vehicle. Two of the team swoop in by helicopter, kicking up a dust storm and giving us a real MAS*H moment.
The head of the unit, Philip, is the only member of the squad we are allowed to identify. Poaching is a life-or-death scenario, and people are not spared in this bloody business. The helicopter lifts off again to scout for rhinos who haven't yet been notched. Very soon it's hovering and the pilot and vet on board report back: a mother and calf.
From the helicopter, the rhinos are shot with tranquiliser darts. We drive closer, in time to see the rhinos circling clumsily, before their legs give out and they slump metres from each other. When they're asleep, their eyes are covered with towels and their ears plugged to help keep them comfortable should the medicine wear off. Although you know this is in their interest – Philip estimates three rhinos are poached a day in South Africa – it's tough to watch.

African lessons

We are encouraged to touch the rhinos while the samples of horn and blood are collected. And that is how I know that the inside of a rhino's mouth is spongy and dry, its hide is rough on the side, but soft behind the legs and ears. I'm aware of how vulnerable animals are when faced with us, the top of the food chain. We're asked to name the baby rhino, and on the back of recent royal news we call him 'Archie'.
Throughout it all the counter-poaching unit have been gathering their samples. They remove the towels and ear plugs, signal us to get back in the jeeps. We back away and Archie wakes first, seconds later mum gets up, too. They briefly run in opposite directions, before turning and bounding for each other. Reunited, they trot off into the bush.
We've been in South Africa only a week, but it's a different group who gather at the airport for the flight home. We're elated, thankful and mindful of how lucky we are. And we're savvier. We empty our pockets of any remaining rand and pool it to order shots at the bar until our flight is called. One final lesson: South Africa will bond you. You should come here to learn these lessons too.

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