The only man I envy is the man who hasn’t been to Africa, for he has so much to look forward to – Richard Mullin
“Right. Who wants to see a predator?” Legend of the wild and renowned safari guide Graham Cooke of The Wild Insight Safari Company turned to the six of us in the back of the vehicle and advised us to keep all limbs inside and, most importantly, not to stand up. It was the first bush drive of our trip through the Manyeleti Reserve, South Africa, an undeveloped region where animals move freely across from Kruger National Park and Sabi Sands. And now, as the vehicle slowly moved through the bush, we fell upon a pride of 14 lions just meters away. The Talemati pride – lionesses resting in the shade, their young cubs crawling over each other, vying for their mothers’ attention.
This was just the beginning of our six-day South African safari experience that was to be defined by intensely personal wildlife experiences and a sensory awakening to the surrounding wild environment. Thanks to the unique approach of The Wild Insight Safari Company, I very rarely ever saw another vehicle (or other human beings, for that matter). Instead, by the end of the week we would see over 20 lions (including two males feasting on a wildebeest), 4 rhinos, 3 leopards (one mother commencing a hunt), a cheetah and a gorgeous breeding herd of elephants who re-appeared frequently (and even seemed to send us off as they stopped us on our transfer out of the park). And that’s to name only a few! The bush gods had blessed us on this trip with the Big Five and more and every drive seemed to outdo the previous one.
This was my first safari and I think it’s fair to say that I am now completely hooked on the wonder that is an authentic safari experience. Myself and some other lucky guests were staying in meru-style tents at Pungwe Safari Camp, a rustic site with a splash of luxury – the perfect setting for the authentic safari experiences that The Wild Insight Safari Company aims to create. The lack of electricity meant that our meals were hosted in a lodge ambiently lit with candle lanterns and, crucially, that there was no WiFi – disengaging from media at home meant engaging entirely with our surroundings and the other safari adventurers in our small group, discussing the noises we’d heard the night before over morning coffee and reflecting on what we’d seen that day around the dinner table.
The camp is also the only one in the Manyeleti Reserve without a fence. Our evenings stargazing around the fire (or ‘Bush TV’) were accompanied by prowling hyenas not five meters away and, on one occasion, an elephant munching on a bush in the dark (these huge animals move so silently we hadn’t even heard him approach). More than once we saw an elephant strolling past our tents after awaking from an afternoon nap. While there may have been some initial paranoia at night amongst the group (myself included), as our senses and instincts became alert to our surroundings, we became strangely comfortable with the odd rustles in the bushes, the call of a leopard in the distance, and the eyes that appeared in the dark.
In fact, despite the potential dangers of our surroundings, I felt an overwhelming sense of calm throughout the entirety of the trip. There is something to be said about getting back to nature – to breathing clean air and hearing nothing other than the wild animal calls in the distance – that relaxes the mind and allows for pure enjoyment of the wonders that the South African wilderness has to show you.
However, it is the guide and host Graham Cooke and his obvious 35 years of experience that makes The Wild Insight Safari Company one of the best safari organisations in the industry – he certainly made the trip unforgettable. An author and photographer, he’s known in the local Shangaan tongue as Xikwembu, meaning ‘God’. His love of the bush began at the age of four and, since then, he has gone on to be the only individual to have successfully hand-reared leopard cubs and release them to the wild – he’s even been adopted by a family of baboons.
Point to any plant, insect, creature big or small and he could tell you facts and stories in abundance that are not just being recited from a script. For instance, standing on a termite hill on the side of the road, he instructs us to feel the warmth of the mound and tells us that these small insects maintain the interior temperature of their home at 32-33 degrees for optimum farming conditions. He also points out the pregnant impala and wildebeest, telling us that they wait for the rains before collectively giving birth to ensure the best chance of survival for their young. And, did you know that giraffes are the only land mammal that can’t yawn?
He leads us in bush walks – an entirely different way of experiencing the wild. They say game drives are like watching a movie, whereas bush walks are like reading the book – a far more engaging (and rewarding) experience. Grounded to the level of the animals, we travel at a slower pace and learn to follow the narrative that the animal tracks in the dirt create. Graham refers to tracking as “the oldest science in the world” and by the end of the trip, we can distinguish between the paw prints of a hyena and a lion (amongst others), can identify the size of an animal using only their tracks and know how to use droppings to establish how long ago the animal passed through the area.
Graham’s passion for the wildlife and the environment is infectious. Mimicking their calls, he communicates with the creatures that we meet, stops the car in the middle of a drive to pick up litter and keeps a record of all the birds he sees (we made it to over 90 species by the end of the trip). His enthusiasm for ornithology has us all captivated – especially when he stops a drive suddenly (despite being on the trail of a lion) because he has spotted a rare bird species.
Always stressing how important it is that the animal is in control, to treat them as you would like to be treated, our animal sightings with Graham are never engineered. In fact, it is key to The Wild Insight Safari Company that there are very little fixed plans on their trips – they simply follow the signs of the wild. And it is Graham’s familiarity with animal sounds, behaviour and body language that enables us all to have the best and most unique South African safari experience, to come away with truly impactful animal experiences. I don’t think any of us will ever forget seeing a young male elephant moving at speed down the hill towards us, slowing only when he reached our vehicle and giving us all an inspection and a smell with his raised trunk from less than a metre away. Standing so close to us, you couldn’t help but gaze into this magnificent creature’s eyes. Whilst Graham had identified no sense of aggression in the young bull (his head was not reared up high – the young teenager “just wanted to introduce himself”), the six of us in the back of the game vehicle sat alert and still, never taking our eyes off him. When the young bull eventually sauntered back to his herd, we collectively breathed out a sigh of pure disbelief, driving away with an unforgettable life moment and an incredible story to tell.
The Wild Insight Safari Company specializes in promoting a traditional yet genuine safari experience, tailoring their safari trips specifically to smaller groups across a number of locations throughout East and Southern Africa. Their guiding expertise sets them apart and, together with the depth of experience they bring, makes them one of the best safari companies in the industry, their high level of insight enabling richer experiences and a greater understanding of the wild surroundings. Highly recommended for those with a safari on your bucket list!
All words by Carly Jennings and the photos and video by Gary Nunn. Gary and Carly were guests of the Wild Insight Safari Company but all their opinions are their own. Check out Graham Cookes Book on Amazon here. You can experience your own authentic Safari Wild Insight Safari Company Also find them on Facebook.