Rukiya – Wild Rivers Reserve

Having made the 3-hour road trip to the Hoedspruit we arrive at the main gates of the Wild Rivers reserve. Our camp is about 20 minutes into the reserve on a dirt track road. Straight away, we’re greeted by antelope and giraffe on our way to the banks of the Blyde River.

We round the corner into Rukiya Safari Camp to be met by Carris, our camp manager and head researcher for the INGWE Leopard research and conservation project. While the guides are kindly taking our luggage to the well-furnished and rather luxurious tented accommodation, Carris leads us to the lodge for our welcome meeting and safety briefing. 

I know many of you would have read the words ‘safety meeting’ and sighed. But a safety meeting in South Africa is like no safety meeting you’ve attended in the UK!

Key point, don’t go walking around the lawn area between the lodge and the river at night time. Why? Badly lit? Uneven ground? Nope, Hippos and Crocodiles hang out there at night! Carris has everyone’s attention as she introduces Dylan, our guide for the next three days.

Time for a spot a lunch, and to settle in to our new home before this evening’s game drive. We find ourselves in luxury tented accommodation, including en-suite bathrooms with fully plumbed facilities, hot and cold running water and a shower like no other. All tents overlook the lawn area which runs down towards the river and are raised off the ground. A thin canopy of trees edge the lawn and the trunks offer an ideal location to set up a camera trap. Hopefully, we’ll capture a Hippo or two exploring the lawn area during the night.

 

As our group of photographic adventurers gather in the lodge ready for the game drive, we place our orders for sundowners and set out into the Wild Rivers reserve in our open top Land Rover. There is a real sense of excitement in the game vehicle. A new camp and a new location to explore, with smooth dirt roads. After the mountain roads of Black Leopard camp, yes - even a dirt road feels smooth!

We follow the river road parallel with the Blyde river. The earth here is very dry as the beige lowveld waits for the rains to come. Wildlife is strongly dependent on a good water source and, even though there is a drought, the river offers the best option for our four-legged friends. Staying close to the river will hopefully have its rewards.

And it quickly does as we come across kudo and impala browsing through the branches for a quick snack. They seem relaxed at our presence and carry on about their business. Some crackling by a group of Acacia trees, a symbol of the African countryside, reveals a giraffe. Make that two - no four! For something that is almost 6 metres tall, these guys and girls are very well camouflaged.

We watch them for a bit, as they watch us. Completely relaxed in our presence, they turn back to the trees and continue eating the sweet green leaves. As we continue to watch, a young male giraffe steps out from behind his mother. He’s about 7-8 foot tall and shyly takes a peak at us while staying close to mum.

We head out to the dirt surfaced airfield to watch the sunset with a sundowner. A great viewpoint for the reserve but, judging from the variety of tracks on the ground, it looks like light aircraft aren’t the only thing using the runway. Some of these tracks are very fresh and the freshest are heading in the direction of the river. The river’s importance is becoming very clear to us.

With the sun behind the mountains, we’re back in the game truck. It gets dark quickly here, from daytime to nighttime almost at a flick of a switch. As we leave the airfield, Dylan pulls out a powerful battery lamp and shines its beam into the bush. He flicks the light from side to side, and up and down, explaining that he’s looking for the light to reflect back from any eyes that might be looking back at us!

Now, although driving around in the dark isn’t particularly photographically rewarding, there is a feeling of excitement in the game truck. A lot of predators hunt under the cover of night so the anticipation of an eerie stare from the bushes has got everyone hunting with their eyes.

Dylan hits the brakes, and we come to a stop. A pair of eyes is looking directly at us from inside of the bush. Dylan edges the vehicle slowly forward to reveal…an impala. Everyone on board was hoping it would be a leopard on the search for an evening meal; the impala was hoping that leopards hadn’t learnt how to drive! Talking of evening meals, it’s time to head back for ours.

The next morning, we are up and on the game truck for 5am. We are heading out of the Wild Rivers reserve to another private reserve that we have exclusive access to. This is our first visit to a ‘Big Five’ reserve, named not because they are the tallest animals in Africa, but because they are the five most dangerous animals in Africa – Lion, Leopard, Buffalo, Elephant and Rhino.

We’re not far into the reserve grounds when we see evidence of the largest of the five. Several large branches across the dirt road. The leftovers of our elephant friends pushing their way through the trees after they’ve stripped the leaves away for a snack. A few minutes further down the road and more Elly evidence. This time they seem to have taken offence at a tall metal marker pole by the roadside, most likely confusing the pole with a leafless tree. Not only have they knocked the pole almost completely over, but also bent it in half! The power of these seemingly gentle giants is quite incredible.

As we progress further into the reserve, we get a clear view of the river which runs the entire length of this wilderness. The river is flowing well because there was rainfall in this area last night. Across the banks, there are a couple of crocs warming themselves in the early morning sun. Dylan our guide points out every animal, bird and primate; his knowledge is as remarkable as is his eyesight!

We stop down by the riverside for a bush breakfast. Cheese and ham croissants, some muesli cereal mix and plenty of tea and coffee. As we stand outside the vehicle, Dylan casually points out a pod of hippos lazing in the water. Better still, we are in a great position to photograph these heavyweights as they dip below and pop up out of the water. Dylan is keen to remind us that, although these creatures look slow and sedate, they can actually have quite a bad temper and can sprint at quite a pace. He advises us to keep a close eye on them and, if they approach us, then it’s time to retreat back to the game vehicle.

We approach the river bank quietly and slowly. We’ve been spotted but everything is calm in the water. As we get seated into position and start taking the first few frames, the feeling of disbelief takes over. Are we really sitting here in the bush alongside a river full of hippos posing for their picture to be taken? We must remember how this feels as no photograph, no matter how sharp, how well composed, how bright and colourful can ever recreate this feeling of being in such close proximity to these amazing creatures. This is the very definition of that overused word – awesome!

With the breakfast table all packed away, Dylan tries to round us up to continue our trek through the reserve. I feel quite sorry for our trusty guide at this point as his task is similar to herding cats! And I might be the biggest culprit this morning. Normally the one to keep things on track, and to schedule, my undivided attention has been captured by the hippos and I would have been quite happy to spend the entire day at this spot. Dylan breaks the spell by reminding me that we haven’t even scratched the surface of this reserve yet.

As we press on through the reserve, he spots fresh rhino tracks. He hops out of the truck and follows them for a short while on foot. A few minutes later he returns with a slight look of uneasiness about him. There is a note of caution in his announcement, “The tracks are fresh black rhino”.

Great! Black rhino are very rare, and the reason I don’t name the reserve we’re on in this blog is to protect the location of these endangered creatures. Dylan reveals that there have been sightings on this reserve of two black rhino, affectionately known as Richard and Zulu.

He explains that black rhino tend to have bad eyesight and a very short fuse; they’ve been known to charge game vehicles (mistaking them for other rhinos) and guides on foot. Now, the ‘guide’ part of that sentence has tingled my spider senses. There’s a story here, and a possible explanation of Dylan’s unease. A little Q&A session, and it turns out that Dylan has previously been charged by Richard as they quite literally bumped into each other!

Dylan describes with manly vigour how he wrestled Richard to the floor, and how, through his dominance, trained this 2-ton behemoth to bring him a cup of tea and a biscuit on demand.

OK, I made that bit up! What actually happened was Dylan ran as fast as possible in the opposite direction, and up a tree as quickly as his legs could carry him, where he stayed until Richard got bored and left. 😊

Nevertheless, Dylan is a professional guide so we set off with him in the direction of the tracks…