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Into the African Wild

Shaun Tolson

From my perch on an elevated bench seat behind the cab of a Toyota Land Cruiser, I watch as my guide, Egene van Niekerk, stands on the side of a red clay road loading his .375 caliber rifle—an insurance policy he carries with him at all times when out in the bush. In this particular case, he explains that it may come in handy, since Cape buffalo frequent the area and are known to be aggressive. The sun is high overhead, and the ever-present cacophony of birdcalls fills the air. It had taken us an hour of tracking to get to this spot; and though my ever-worsening sunburn had captured a bit of my attention during that journey, it now is the furthest thought from my mind.

With his rifle loaded and the stock slung over his shoulder, van Niekerk sets out into the bush, boldly pushing his way through dense foliage. In a matter of seconds—no more than 20 yards from the Land Cruiser—van Niekerk disappears among the highest trees, leaving me and the driver, Samuel Kata, alone on the dirt roads in the South African heat, accompanied only by the chatter of various birds nesting in the surrounding savanna.

Fortunately, Kata does not have plans to stay here long, and soon he’s driving down a path in a wide arc that takes us in the same general direction that van Niekerk had trekked off to only moments before. We’re seeking a close encounter with a white rhinoceros, and van Niekerk, a full-time professional hunter and the head guide at Ekland Safaris (www.eklandsafaris.com)—a sprawling 35,000-acre resort in northeast South Africa—knows where to find them. Turning the corner, we see the first rhino lumbering across the road no more than 30 yards ahead, and in an instant, Kata steps hard on the gas. The Land Cruiser charges forward while I do my best to hang on, gripping with one hand—and with white knuckles—the reinforced, black steel bar in front of me as my other hand clutches a Nikon D40.

All the Trappings of Luxury

When Ekland was built in 2001, the seven-cottage property was intended to be a family retreat for its owner, a Spanish hunter and chief executive of an international interior design company. Within a year he decided to open the resort to guests, but he took an unwavering position to maintain the property’s homelike atmosphere. Absent are the bellmen, the check-in protocols, and the concierge desks that are synonymous with most hotels and resorts. All of that has been replaced with a philosophy best articulated by a single phrase that staff members use in response to any guest’s request: “It is as you wish.”

“From the initial development of this project, it was developed to the standards of the comforts that we’re used to here in Spain,” says Rami Shahab, a director with Euroamykasa, the company that manages the resort. “You’re still in nature, but we wanted to bring all the comforts that you’d have in the city.” To that end, the property’s main lodge consists of seven two-bedroom bungalows ($950 per person each night for hunting safaris, $650 per person each night for ecotourism safaris), each with en suite bathrooms equipped with soaking tubs, as well as indoor and outdoor showers. Private terraces, natural hot springs, an infinity-edge swimming pool, wireless Internet access, and a fitness center and spa, which the company expects to complete within a year, all illustrate the everyday comforts that the colonial-style resort offers. Three additional lodges and camps are spread out over the property and provide a variety of accommodation styles, which assures that, during hunting season, hunters and environmentalists never intermix. “The place is yours. You’re at home,” Shahab says. “We want to give you an experience that you’ve never had anywhere else.”

From a service standpoint, Ekland delivers on all fronts. The larger national parks in Africa, such as Kruger—a 7,300-square-mile game reserve three hours to Ekland’s east—may overshadow Ekland in sheer numbers of animals, but it is Ekland’s diversity of wildlife, and the proximity in which all of those species live, that distinguishes it from all others. “If you go to Kruger, you see hundreds of lions or rhinos or elephants,” Shahab says, “but you don’t see the variety of species and animals in one place the way you do here.”

That diversity is something that adds to the quality of a safari experience at Ekland, whether the guest is seeking to shoot wildlife with a camera or a rifle. For the hunter in particular, van Niekerk says that the mere presence of every species of the Big Five—elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion, and leopard—brings greater excitement to the hunt, whether the guest is after one of those or any of the other 26 species that roam the high-fenced property. And while those high fences may deter some hunting purists, it should be noted that over the course of my first two full days of tracking different species with van Niekerk, I did not catch even a glimpse of the property’s outer perimeters.

As a native South African who notched his first kill at the age of 8, the 32-year-old van Niekerk is most proud of an eland trophy, since he says a hunter must possess refined stalking skills to get close enough to the skittish animals. As a guide, his greatest accomplishment to this point involved helping a client bag a leopard, the most elusive and solitary of the Big Five animals. Van Niekerk uses all of the same tracking skills on a photographic safari as he would on a hunt; the only difference, he says, is the pressure to find the perfect animal. “You can be out and see 80 animals in a day, and with a photographic safari, you’d photograph all 80 animals,” he says. “Any animal is beautiful on camera. But on a hunt, you always want a bigger or better one. For a hunter, you only want a trophy.”

African Adventures

The first rhino is now across the road and moving farther away from us, but our attention has shifted to a second one rumbling quickly in the bush parallel to the road. Still mostly concealed from view, the beast, which easily weighs a few tons, has quickly changed my perspective on the appropriate size of our vehicle. My thoughts briefly revert back to our first game drive three days before, where we came upon a bull elephant at unexpected close range. As it burst through the tree cover, the elephant dwarfed our Land Cruiser and—bellowing and charging toward us—made it abundantly clear that our company was unwanted.

Having escaped that first encounter unscathed, I felt more confident about our chances this go-around, though the two-foot-long horn protruding from the rhino’s snout gave me pause. When it finally burst into the clearing, our presence confused it, giving me time to snap a few up-close photos before it gathered its thoughts and quickly lumbered past us and across the road.

When we come upon van Niekerk walking nonchalantly down the road a few moments later, he climbs aboard and flashes a glance back in my direction. “So you saw a rhino,” he says in a manner that casts both a declarative and questioning tone over the remark. My unbridled and more enthusiastic response brings a smile to his face. A rhino sighting is nothing new for van Niekerk, I realize; after all, he was the one who calmly set out into the bush on foot to rustle them out of hiding—solely for my benefit. But it’s the excitement that such sightings conjure up in Ekland guests that never gets old for him.

As we head back to the lodge for dinner, the setting sun casts auburn hues across the countryside. With a warm breeze in my face and the baobab trees silhouetted against a sky painted in pastel shades of pink and purple, I’m awestruck by the grandeur of this place. For van Niekerk, however, today was a day like any other. He’ll wake up tomorrow and, with a cap pulled low over his brow and a rifle slung over his shoulder, trek out over the South African landscape to live out another adventure. Naturally, I’ll be thrilled to accompany him for as long as my stay will allow. And although my soft-spoken South African guide maintains a rather stoic disposition, he does share with me a brief reflection, which confirms that he, too, recognizes his own good fortune. “To have a job that’s your hobby,” he says, pausing only briefly, “you’re absolutely thrilled to have it.”

Wild Rides
With so many safari options to choose from, you’re bound to find one that satisfies.

A Hunter’s Paradise
In his research of the best African hunting safaris, Allan DeVore of Oklahoma City kept hearing and reading about one name: Barrie Duckworth. After all, Duckworth’s reputation was legendary among big-game trackers—the African-born hunter had killed more than 1,000 elephants by the time he was 25 years old. “Anybody who’s done that is really, really good,” says DeVore, “just by the fact that they were able to do it and that they’re alive to talk about it.”

Located in the Save Valley Conservancy, a sprawling, private wildlife reserve of almost one million acres in southeast Zimbabwe, Duckworth’s operation, Mokore Safaris (www.mokoresafaris.com), gives clients the opportunity to hunt all of the Big Five species, including the impressively sized leopards that live in the region. Duckworth also operates safaris for experienced hunters in the Zambezi Valley of northern Zimbabwe, an unfenced and famous locale for unmatched hunting of dangerous game.

A traditional camplike setting gives Mokore clients an authentic, African experience, albeit with gourmet meals and other amenities. But for serious hunters, it’s Duckworth’s reputation that seals the deal. “He has a larger-than-life personality, a larger-than-life reputation, and larger-than-life accomplishments,” says DeVore. “He’s the real thing.”

All around Africa
For those seeking added variety and a more-structured safari experience, Micato Safaris (www.micato.com) offers numerous two-week trips through Tanzania and Kenya, or through South Africa, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. The company’s Grand Safari is a 15-day journey with overnight stays at properties such as Tortilis Camp, a tented resort set within Amboseli National Park that offers grand views of Mount Kilimanjaro; Mount Kenya Safari Club, a 100-acre resort with an illustrious history; and Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, a 30-suite property perched on the edge of the world’s largest unbroken volcanic caldera.

A Micato safari is not for those with a fear of flying, and certainly not for those with a fear of heights. The Grand Safari mentioned above includes seven flights on various-sized aircraft, as well as a hot-air balloon safari over the savanna of Kenya’s Maasai Mara game reserve. The price ranges from $13,775 to $18,780 (double occupancy); for an additional $5,340, travelers looking to add more adventure can extend their trip with an eight-day climb of Mount Kilimanjaro.

Tiger Tracking
With 22 species of mammals, Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh, India—much like many regions of southern and eastern Africa—is a popular locale for safaris, although save for the occasional flat grassland, the area bears few similarities to the African veld. Composed of tropical forests, woodlands, and steep rocky hills, the area served as Rudyard Kipling’s inspiration for the setting of The Jungle Book, a collection of fables that the author penned in 1894. It was here that the maharajas of Rewa hunted tigers, and although some maharaja killed hundreds of the now-endangered felines in the early 20th century, the maharajas’ strong desires to keep these hunting grounds private also helped to keep the tigers from extinction.

At Mahua Kothi, the first safari lodge developed by Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces (www.tajhotels.com), guests board specially designed off-road vehicles and trek out into Bandhavgarh park twice a day in search of elephants, leopards, and tigers, approximately 50 of which are thought to inhabit the 111,000-acre park. At night, they return to 12 cottage suites, built in the traditional mud hut architectural style of central India but also including modern accents such as tapered walls and open rafters.

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