Wild welcome to Camp JabulaniWOW, that Michael is a hunk. Cute too. And those contented noises he makes when you ruffle his hair and hug him close are so endearing. Michael is an adorable three-year-old cheetah who rumbles like an idling sports car when he licks your hand holding a heap of minced-up kudu. He’s such a pussycat that you forget he’s meant to be a dangerous animal.
It’s the same with the elephant safari I’d enjoyed the previous night. The animals are trained, the elephant master Paul Coetsee told us, but they’re not tame. So watch your step. But when you’re perched astride an elephant in true You Tarzan, Me Jane style, they also seem like overgrown pets.
That’s the magic of Camp Jabulani and Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre, which have created a world where the wild is accommodatingly welcoming. Not all visitors to the centre get to sit and play with Michael. Most can only ooh and aah at him from outside the enclosure. But Camp Jabulani guests get to go inside and have Michael eat from their hands because both establishments are owned by the same family. The R7000 per person per night you pay to stay at Jabulani ought to entitle you to special privileges.
The elephant ride is exactly that, with Paul telling us some elephant facts and fiction and encouraging the gang leader Jabulani to show us his skills.Jabulani raises his trunk and you fear he’s about to vacuum your face. “Blow gently into his trunk,” Paul says, “he’s just trying to get the smell of you.”
We feed him pellets, and his trunk wrinkles up as he takes the food and leaves a slobbery mess in your palm.Soon I’m standing on a scaffold then hoisting myself onto the saddle, one leg each side of the placid Jo. Sitting in front of me is Reuben, one of the original grooms who came to the camp with 12 elephants rescued from Zimbabwe when war veterans commandeered their farm.
We set off at a slow lumbering pace, and there’s a wall of sound as the cicadas greet the dusk, and the ball of sun melts down. A full moon comes up, glowing pink and huge. I close my eyes, enjoying the soporific rocking motion. Jo stops to rip a tree to pieces, and Reuben tells him to keep up with he rest of the troop. There’s a huge difference between an elephant ambling along and one putting on a spurt, and now I’m clutching the handgrip in front and behind to stop myself from bouncing off
I hear a roar off to the left and ask Reuben what it is. “It’s an airplane,” he says, twisting around to see who this weird woman is who doesn’t recognise a jet engine. No, the other noise, I say. The one that sounded like a lion. It was nothing to worry about, just an impala. They make a big noise for a little animal.
The smelliest area in the Endangered Species Centre is the vulture restaurant where all the bones are dumped once the carnivores have ripped the meat off. You watch vultures fighting over scraps with one hand over your nose. Nature may be pretty, but it stinks sometimes.
Back at Jabulani our ranger host Stefan du Toit is taking us on a game drive. He asks what we want to see, and we jokingly demand a lion kill. He almost manages it, too. He shines a light into the bush and we spot a lioness. There’s another behind her, on the prowl. We gasp as Stefan moves his light and illuminates the shaggy mane of a male. Behind him four cubs are cavorting.
They’re incredibly close, as if Camp Jabulani has even tamed the untamable and laid on this show as a highlight. The lions are totally unfazed by our presence; their eyes glisten in the light but they don’t even blink. They’re on a mission, in search of supper.
We circle back to a dam where we'd stopped for sundowners and make sure the staff have packed up and got away safely. Moments later three large lions pad into the area we had recently deserted. I’m loving this close encounter, happy to be safely inside a vehicle and not on the ground armed with only a swizzle stick.
A few minutes later a lioness begins to playfully swat a cub and the male flops down. No easy meat tonight. The hunt is off and the show is over.