From Zambia to South Africa: Rivers to Dust

The Little Karoo region of South Africa, north and east of Cape Town, is where Kathy and I fly for the second week of our trip. While Zambia is celebrating rain, the landscape we are driven into here has been stripped by mountains of its water and is semi-desert — as scrubby as Arizona.

We’re here to see the dry side of Africa. The lodge where we are booked is deep inside Sanbona Wildlife Reserve, a privately-run park that, thanks to conservation efforts, is home to the only free-roaming white lions in the world.

Just before our vacation, Sanbona announced the birth of two white lion cubs, one male and one female, though they’re being raised at a veterinary center until strong enough to be returned to the reserve.

The first animals we spot are not predators. Springbok, showing off brown and white stripes, look like giant chipmunks. Kudu stare at us as we watch them, sometimes giving us a shake of spiral horns. “Notice the fine markings on their flanks,” says Marco, our guide, just as the herd decides to make a run for it. It’s hard to sneak around out here since our safari vehicle throws up puffs of dust wherever we drive.

No sign at all of the rare Riverine rabbit. According to Marco, this mystery mammal is the 13th most endangered in the world — and Little Karoo is its only known habitat. But we get lucky with rhinos. Two white rhino males are scuffling and sparring, raising at least as much dust as we do. Kathy, who seems to have a talent for spotting game, points out a mother rhino resting with her calf — a perfect miniature — right at her side.

On other game drives, there are cheetahs and baboons. A solitary hippo in his private plunge pool. “Banished by the other males,” says Marco.

White lions seem to be solitary, too. They are somewhere around here. We are positive. Marco is sure. One evening, just as it is getting dark, there’s something — a luminescent head and forepaws — by the side of a road. “A female white!” whispers Marco. “Two tawny lions on our other side.”

The vehicle moves slowly. White and tawny are tense. We crouch. When someone creaks in a seat, there is a lion reaction, a paw lick that shoots Marco’s foot to pedal. Our gauntlet is run.  And we are euphoric in the dark.

Back at our lodge next morning we discuss what we saw. We think of our own small cats, Betty, Emily, and Cecil, and the way they behave near prey. Desert birds zip in and out of the thatch and from the dining room terrace you can see a nearby watering hole and distant purple hills.

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