Doug doesn’t really have an idol, per se, but if he did, I’m fairly certain that it would be Neil. He gets to spend his day driving around a beautiful reserve, talking with guests and showing them his world. Every day is different as the animals move about, and he gets to use his sight, smell, and hearing to piece together who might possibly be where every single day. There are three guides employed at Makweti, two of whom are on duty for a 3-week stint while the other has a week off. Since they also manage the property, Neil and his girlfriend Jess live onsite in their own house and eat the same lavish meals we get daily, and when they are off they either venture into Johannesburg or camp at Kruger to look for animals. This is an example of someone who really just loves what he does, and we can understand why! For a fleeting second, we thought, “hey, we should totally do this,” except for the living so far from home part and also the fact that we would live on constant watch of lions or other predators living in our backyard.
Today, we set off looking for the cheetahs again and very quickly on, found a female cheetah roaming the very same area we drove through yesterday. Goes to show how unpredictable safaris are, and it really is about being in the right place at the right time. Being quite young, she was always seen with her brother but today she was roaming the area clearly looking for him. We followed her around for a while but neither of us found him, and went around a corner to wait for her to reemerge but she never did. Again, there were a few other vehicles helping look out for her but we lost her. She must’ve laid down or changed direction.
On our way out, we received a call that there was another cheetah sighting, this time mama with her three 6-month old cubs, fresh off a kill. In true Neil fashion, he knew every vehicle in the park would be rushing over and that there really didn’t need to be a rush as these guys would be too full to move and take some time to finish off an entire animal anyways. So, we patiently pulled over nearby and had our coffee and tea, and then eventually made our way over. This is why we trust Neil – we got there and not only were the cheetahs still there, but no one else was, so we had them all to ourselves. Mama had caught a young eland and even though her cubs’ bellies were extremely full, they still took turns snacking. Just like kids, once one sibling walked away from a toy, someone else would want their turn playing. She was an amazing mother, allowing her cubs to finish eating before she had any, and staying very attentive with cleaning her babies post-meal. They wore the look of a food coma (because I know that feeling!) so they lazily lounged under a tree several yards away from the carcass. All of a sudden, the cubs started to growl and we looked up – a jackal was making his way to scavenge on the leftovers. Not done yet, the cheetah family came running over to scare him off, then proceeded to rub it in by eating more, despite their full bellies. The jackal stayed there in the shadows, watching opportunistically and hopefully, the entire time we were there. I wonder if he ever got his share…
Back at camp, we had breakfast and took a super long nap before eating again and generally just relaxed. At 4pm, we were off again for our evening game drive, this time in search for leopard. By this point, I think the entire universe was trying to help us look for leopard before we left. Of course, Neil brought up a good point – if we found a leopard, we would have nothing to come back to. So, if they wanted us back, they would make sure to leave something for us to want to come back to. They must really want us to return, because we never did find that elusive leopard. But this afternoon, we still got to see a wealth of awesome sights. We ventured into a new area, a lusher, more verdant part of the valley. We found another herd of elephants, this time they were climbing the edge of a mountain. It was really quite impressive to see these beasts this large be able to handle balancing along the side of a mountain so gracefully. Doug asked Neil the same question he asked Holiday, whether he sees many snakes around the reserve. Neil’s response? “Yeah, we have three black mambas at our camp. In fact, they all live under the other chalet, the one Liana and Oscar are staying in.” We did end up seeing a black mamba track during our drive today, and at an average 6-7 feet in length, it is not only the most poisonous snake in the area but also the longest.
Winding through the valley, we came across a lone male buffalo who had been kicked out of his herd. He seemed angry so we left him alone. Doug found an eagle in a distant tree so Neil was quite impressed with his spotting skills. We saw a few baboons in the distance as well, who all of a sudden started alarm calling. There were only a few reasons why this would happen, so we stuck around, curious, to see if anything would emerge. Nothing ever did. Continuing onward to where the leopards might be, we soon reached an obstacle in our way – a giant elephant. It felt like he was intentionally messing with us because he stood in the path, looked like he would move over, and when we inched closer, he would move back to block the path. With no other choice, we sat. And waited. And waited some more. After 15 minutes, he finally relented. By now, the sun was setting rapidly, so we pulled into an open field next to zebras and wildebeest for our final sundowner. Neil joked that the elephant and leopard might be working together to prevent us from seeing the leopard, and lo and behold, we found out the next day there was a leopard sighting right by that spot, 45 minutes after we had left. Guess we will need to take that second South Africa trip now.
Neil seemed to be in a bit more of a rush during our sundowner which we found odd. Quickly getting back on the road, there were a few more odd behaviors like heading back towards where we came from, only to turn right back around. Nearly right where we had just stopped for sundowners was a male lion! No wonder Neil was rushing us. That man is always full of surprises, I tell you. The lion was walking – actually, strutting – right down the road towards us, so we pulled off, turned around, and followed him. He must’ve stayed on the road with us closely following for at least 15 minutes. In the far distance, night had fallen but we could make out those same zebras and impala running off as soon as they sensed the lion. What a sight. He must not have been ready for dinner as he didn’t pursue anything, just did his nightly walk to establish his territory and check in on things. Neil was hoping he would roar – a truly bone-chilling sound when you are right next to a lion – but he stayed quiet.
The adventure didn’t end there, as we had to hightail it back to camp and were quite far. Before we left, Neil asked if we could sit in the front row because he would need to enlist in Doug’s help with holding the light. Once we reached a narrow mountain road that had steep hairpin turns at every corner, Neil had to focus on driving and shifting, so Doug was on light duty! We always tried to find the teachers pet on each trip, I think Doug gets the apple this time. We were rumbling through these roads, Indiana Jones-style, when all of a sudden we slammed on the brakes. A porcupine in the middle of the road! He saw us before we did, and had already exposed his quills as a defense mechanism. So cool! We also saw a chameleon sitting on a tree in the middle of this crazy driving. How Neil saw it while driving in the dark is beyond me, but we loved that his enthusiasm for finding this creature was the same level as that when we found the lion. I credit Doug’s awesome scanning skills.
After an amazing final evening drive, we came back and had dinner with the other guests, including a big family from Denmark that had just arrived. Since it was our last night, we splurged on a bottle of wine from Makweti’s extensive cellar and toasted to a truly incredible adventure in the bush.
Animals seen: Red-headed Weaver, Warthogs, Rhino, Wildebeest, Jackal, Impala, Zebra, Cheetahs, a “Journey” of Giraffe, Denhams Bustard, Jackal, Kudu, Elephant, Chacma Baboon, Elephants, Black Mamba tracks, Waterbuck, Fish Eagle, Cape Buffalo, Bush Buck, Flap-necked Chameleon, Male Lion, Porcupine