This Is Not a Zoo – This Is REAL!

In Denmark, where I live, we always say with a smile that people who travel to the same place again and again are old and living a boring life without much change.

I am a traveller myself, addicted to exploring wildlife destinations, and lucky enough to have the opportunity to travel all over the world to see what’s out there.

Over the last couple of years, I have been to see polar bears in Canada, orangutans in Borneo and tigers in India, and have followed on foot grizzlies in Alaska and komodo dragons in Indonesia.

But I am getting old and boring… or maybe I am just in love – in love with Africa, and especially with a fabulous place called Arathusa. I have gone back again and again and again…

The first time I went to Africa, in 2003, I went on a truck from Cape Town, through the Kalahari Desert in Namibia, to the Okavango Delta in Botswana, and ended my trip in Livingstone, Zambia.

A fantastic trip, but without seeing all of the Big Five. So next time I went in 2008, for a convention in Johannesburg, I decided I would try to see them all.

Son of the legendary female leopard Karula

Through a South African travel agent, I was introduced to Arathusa. The agent promised me there would be leopards – one of the most difficult to spot of the Big Five – and they were on my bucket list.

I remember that arrival day 10 years ago as it was yesterday. I flew in on a four-seater plane from Skukuza, and just before the wheels touched down, we passed straight over a big elephant bull hanging out at the beginning of the airstrip.

Jason, the ranger who picked me up, said: “Did you see the welcoming committee? Let’s go down and say hello.”

We ended up with the elephant so close to the safari vehicle that he touched the door right beneath my arm with his trunk! Seconds before he could touch me, Jason started the engine and we drove away.

From that moment on, I knew this place was special.

Arathusa’s waterhole was full in 2008, and had a resident crocodile and hippo. On that first day, we went out for an afternoon game drive and 10 minutes in, bumped into the male leopard Matimba relaxing in a marula tree.

My good friend Roy Mkansi, who is now a ranger at Arathusa, was a tracker back then, and later the same day, he tracked down the legendary lion coalition, the Mapogos.


The Mapogos sharing an Impala

The Mapogos were the kings and gangsters of the Sabi Sand bush – fierce, brutal, and always looking for a good fight and on the hunt. They even featured in several documentaries on Discovery Channel and National Geographic.

That evening, we were on a hunt with them. It is still one of the most memorable moments I have ever had on a game drive at Arathusa.

We were racing off-road through the bush, with these lions, just meters away, running at the same speed. Suddenly, they rushed into a thicket and stole an impala kill from a lioness that just caught it!

They roared and shredded that poor antelope to pieces. We sat there next to them, with the adrenalin boiling in our blood, after this very intimate chase.

Back in 2008, Arathusa’s walkways were gravel and every night, the staff would sweep them because they said: “Tomorrow morning, we want to see the tracks of the animals who are lurking around here during the night.”

People who have visited Arathusa will admit that you get close, VERY close.

I’ve seen elephants next to the Suites, hyena walking through the bar area, lions sleeping at the waterhole and, of course, all the common antelope – nyala, impala, waterbuck – warthog and birds roaming around.

The waterhole is a story itself: in 2013, it was massive. Thirteen hippos lived there and there was a lot of commotion going on 24/7.

Over the following years, it got smaller and smaller because of the drought. The hippos moved, and now in 2018 the water is gone but despite this, there is still a lot of life going on all around. It’s never quiet.

Rush Hour at the waterhole in 2016

Hopefully, the approaching rainy season will fill it up again. But anyway, sitting on the porch and looking out is still the world’s longest wildlife movie. You don’t know what is going to happen and there is a lot to watch.

I have visited Arathusa five times over the last 10 years. My most recent stay was in May this year, and I have now been on 40+ game drives with the rangers.

I could talk for hours about sitting in the middle of an elephant herd; hanging around with leopards, like Karula, Salaxye, Shadow and all their cubs; and watching hundreds of vultures sitting around a dead, stinking buffalo where the “Birminghams” are feasting.

One of the Birmingham males from the dominant coalition with a buffalo kill

Rhino, giraffe, buffalo, hippo, zebra, jackal, tortoise, mongoose, honey badger – Arathusa has them all!

I still haven’t seen African wild dogs, cheetahs, and lions taking down a buffalo, though. These sightings top my bucket list, along with many anticipated others.

So, despite the risk of my friends starting to call me “old and boring”, I must come back again and again and again, because this is not a Zoo, this is REAL! I love it, “BIG Five” time.

Kind Scandinavian regards,

Stig Nordskov Nielsen

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