Joe’s bright eyes pierced into mine. “If he charges the fence,” he said, “You need to stand your ground. Don’t run away. You got it?” I nodded. We were standing knee deep in the bush, alongside a thin wire fence where, just beyond, a massive male African lion was thoughtfully sniffing the air. But this patriarch of the savannah had nothing on Joe Viljohen—the patriarch of ChaZen Game Reserve, and our guide for the day.
ChaZen was meant to be our first stop on our three-week-long road trip through South Africa and Namibia, but it wound up being our last. And to be honest, we wouldn’t have had it any other way. At this point, we’d seen multiple other parks—both national and private reserves. Though it’s a private, family-owned park, ChaZen stood out because of its focus on the natural, their commitment to the circle of life and sustainability, and the intimacy of their environment. As Tim put it, “it’s a real and honest safari”.
That intimacy started as soon as we started our tour. Joe took us out of the main welcome area onto a rough trail towards the predators. They keep the predators in controlled environments so that they can breed to release. This keeps the animals from getting too comfortable with humans. One by one, Joe introduced us to the spotted hyenas, African Wild dogs, leopards, servals, lions, and other cats. The African lions and leopards were largely concerned with mating season—I felt the grumble of the female leopard in my chest yards before we even got to the fence.
The white lions were a little more assertive—hence the lesson in lion safety. When they did charge the fence, Joe threw up one tanned arm and the lions cowed back.
Around the animal enclosures, the grass grew high and wild, and the overwhelming smell of wild game stung the air. Though other parks might have trimmed and neatened the areas, Joe told us that ChaZen is committed to giving the animals the most authentic experience they could—leaving nature as intact as possible. We were lucky; during our visit the animals were all right beside the fences, eyeing us with a mix of disdain and wariness as they stole our breath away.
This natural feeling continued when we hopped into the Land Rover—it was the only guided tour we took that had a Jeep without a cover. It left us open and exposed to the full experience: the sting of low branches, the full heat of the late afternoon sun, and later, a wild and very wet summer storm. It felt somehow very freeing to ride in the open as the Land Rover trundled over what was barely a road (and in some places, in fact, we were simply off-roading through the grass and over the rocks).
As part of the habilitation process for setting the predators back into larger reserves, the guides at ChaZen will start them in the wild here, where they can grow back into their instincts. At the moment, however, the prey were the rulers of the bush. We saw a beautiful sable antelope, gingery hartebeests, bellow-y blue wildebeests, and herds of springing springbok as we wove in and out of the trees. Around a small dam, we saw the wet head of a hippo sink slowly underwater. (Hippos, it turns out, are responsible for more human fatalities in Africa than any other large animal.)
But the most magical moment came right at sundown when we encountered three dusty rhinos at the edge of the park. One had gotten stuck in a small, fenced area (“He knows the way out,” muttered Joe as we maneuvered the jeep around to guide the animal back to the gate). Once he was loose, he trotted over to two other rhinos, and, with their entourage of oxpeckers, the three curiously approached us. I’ll never forget the spellbound moment of the three of them facing us, red dust rising around them, their little grunts and snorts filling the air.
I’d been hyped to see elephants and zebras and lions—but what captured both my breath and my heart the most turned out to be the rhinos. They had such sweet innocence, such timid curiosity, especially given their immense size. I would love to write about how many we saw on the trip and where we saw them, but in talking to rangers at all of the parks we visited, we found out just how real and traumatic rhino poaching is. Rangers will refuse to tell even the most innocent and well-intentioned guests where to find the rhinos or how many the park has due to the level of poaching in the area. Rangers are not allowed to say the exact numbers of the Big 5 (rhinos, elephants, buffalo, lions, and jaguars) because of poaching incidents. We learned in our visit to Pilanesberg that last year five rhinos at that park alone were killed for their horns. And Joe told us that they’d lost three in the last year to helicopter poaching, where the poachers shoot the rhinos from the sky and then drop down to saw off the horns. Because of this, all of the ChaZen rhinos had their horns removed for the animals’ safety.
After seeing the rhinos, we enjoyed our last sundowner overlooking the hippo in his pond. The mood was relaxed, the sunset long and languid. We laughed and savored the twilight, the food (a champagne-y Rosé cocktail and warthog sausage bruschetta), and best of all, the gift the rhinos had given us—a sense of awe at nature, a gentle but unforgettable humbling.
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