It’s impossible not to like giraffes. Their languid manner and slightly puzzled expressions have entranced us since one was shipped to a disbelieving Italy in the 1400s. It is an animal so peculiar in appearance that its scientific name - Giraffa camelopardalis - reflects its perceived similarity to both a camel and… a leopard.
Lions are one of the most sought-after sightings on a safari. The excitement of seeing them is somehow connected to our primal fascination with them. Thanks to their reassuringly feline name – Panthera leo – we know we are technically dealing with ‘cats’ but lions are startlingly huge, almost bear-sized. Their muscular, barrel-chested bodies and arrogantly jutting chins let everyone know who the boss is – and it’s not the 2-legged creatures wearing sunglasses!
The iconic images of African wildlife are typically of large, leopard-studded trees in rolling savannahs, sweeping vistas with wildebeest and zebra stretching to the horizon, silhouettes of baobabs and dramatic heart-wrenching depictions of animals battling it out against the elements in the continent’s harshest environments. Photographs of these scenes abound in the pages of magazines and coffee table books, and are spread thick and wide across the Internet. But there’s another part of Africa, a wild eden, which offers a different safari experience where fresh images can be found, even for experienced photographers and safari goers. That place is the Eastern Cape, in South Africa.
It is rated as one of the world's most spectacular natural events - every year over a million wildebeest, zebra and antelope migrate clockwise around the Serengeti/Masai Mara ecosystem, taking in two different countries and making time for birthing, courting and mating on the way.
You follow a narrow hiking trail through the lushness of a tropical rainforest, wiping sweat from your eyes and feeling grateful for your gaiters. Suddenly, a tracker returns from scouting ahead and excitedly halts your group - it's time to drop your backpack and move forward slowly with nothing but your camera and the thrill of anticipation. Grinning, your guide turns and whispers the words you've been waiting to hear: ‘There they are.’
Contrary to popular belief, bucket lists aren’t only for retired folk who are keen to SKI (‘spend the kids’ inheritance’). Today, youngsters are more switched on than ever before and after spending hours watching BBC or Lost Planet documentaries, many can’t wait to come to Africa and experience the thrill of seeing a leopard in the wild or elephant family at play for themselves.
It is the question safari guides across Africa dread the most: 'Will we see a leopard?' The answer is tricky because although Panthera pardus is found from the lush Cape Winelands in the south to the rolling hills of northern Kenya, the leopard's mastery of camouflage and stealth makes it extremely elusive.
Dawn on an African savannah and the impala are cautious. Ears swivelling, the wide-eyed antelopes move closer together, staring at the tree line where shadowy figures lurk. The reason for their distress is suddenly clear. Streaking out from the trees come Africa’s most efficient predators, putting the impala into instant flight.
She pushes her huge tail down, ducks under the waves with tremendous forces and then, with colossal power, launches her huge body above the water, coming down with a fantastic splash. Everything is quiet except for the chorus of ‘Wows!’ from my fellow boat passengers. There’s a shared anticipation and keen excitement as we hope she’ll do it again… Our luck is in as she once again uses her tail fin to propel herself like an aquatic rocket above the ocean off Kleinbaai, a tiny hamlet on South Africa’s Whale Coast, less than an hour’s drive from Hermanus and regarded as the whale-watching capital of the world.