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Published September 16, 2012, 12:00 AM

A picture of wildlife bliss

S. African game reserve offers chance to get up close with animals in natural habitat
HLUHLUWE, South Africa – The whole point of spending our honeymoon in the South African bush was to get as close as possible to the animals, especially the wild and possibly dangerous ones.

By: By Matthew Craft, Associated Press

HLUHLUWE, South Africa – The whole point of spending our honeymoon in the South African bush was to get as close as possible to the animals, especially the wild and possibly dangerous ones. I imagined sneaking through the tall grass to spy on hippos splashing in the water, lions tracking their prey and chummy elephants bathing each other with sand.

Within minutes of entering the Phinda Private Game Reserve for our first safari, I learned an important lesson: Elephants need plenty of personal space.

Somehow, my wife, Joyce, had agreed to make a four-day safari part of our honeymoon trip in South Africa. We picked Phinda because of its widely praised conservation efforts and work with the local Zulu community, but mainly because the reserve’s animals can go pretty much anywhere. Phinda has leopard, lion, elephant, rhinoceros and Cape buffalo – the Big Five so important to the tourist trade – and they’re all perfectly free to wander right up to your front door and watch you unpack.

The drive from the Durban airport to Phinda began uneventfully but turned out to be a memorable part of the trip. We passed long stretches of pineapple and sugar cane fields, thatched huts scattered in dusty clearings and locals selling bananas. Between the rolling green hills, I caught glimpses of the Indian Ocean.

Then our driver turned onto a dirt road, honked and hollered at cows clogging the way, and stopped to ask for directions. His “shortcut” put us through a back entrance to Phinda, one guarded by the region’s anti-poaching unit. The guard told us to wait for an armed escort, but our driver went ahead on his own, picking up speed until we saw two elephants, the little one the size of a small school bus, the larger bull a good match for a two-story building.

Our driver paused, then laid on the gas and horn, aiming to pass behind the larger elephant. That seemed like the wrong move, I thought, but what do I know? Maybe maneuvering a van through elephants is an everyday thing here.

The bull saw the oncoming minivan as a challenger and spun to face us. The younger elephant sprinted to our right. Our driver finally hit the brakes, and the bull rocked back, then began its charge. “What do I do?” our driver yelled.

The elephant flared its ears and rumbled closer, on course for a head-on collision. Our driver tried to slam the clutch into reverse and the engine quit. During a long minute, the notion of once-in-a-lifetime trip had an entirely different meaning.

For whatever reason, the bull stopped short of the minivan’s hood and shook his head, giving our driver time to reverse and speed backward.

A few wrong turns later, we encountered a ranger, Sam Mdluli, taking guests out for the afternoon game drive. Our driver, still trembling, handed us over.

We were assigned to Mdluli for the rest of the trip, and quickly grew fond of him. Game rangers are a combination of tour guide, older brother and real-life action hero. They wake you up in the morning, answer all your ridiculous questions and steer their Toyota Land Cruisers off-road through bushes and branches with a loaded rifle just above the wheel.

Flying down the road one morning, the vehicle skidded to a stop and Mdluli bounded from his seat and into the tall grass. He walked a few steps, took a deep dramatic breath, and turned to us with a big smile. “Dung!” he said, holding his palms over what turned out to be black rhino dung. “Ah, it’s very fresh. We’re in luck. You’re going to see some black rhino today.”

With Mdluli at the wheel and a tracker perched on the hood, we saw the park’s animals, from the endangered black rhinos to dung beetles, usually at a safe distance. The highlight was watching the big cats. We’d pull up near cheetahs or a lion pride and shut off the engine; then our group would sit in silence, staring and snapping pictures for hours. One afternoon, two cheetah brothers struggled to wake up, passing a good 30 minutes yawning, stretching and wiggling on their backs before finally getting up for a hunt as the sun set.

Another morning, a pride of lions sat in the forest pulling apart a wildebeest. Each one found something to gnaw on – half a rib cage, hind legs – and the sharp cracking of bones filled our ears. The gory scene eventually appeared cute, the picture of domestic bliss. A towering lion played with his small female cub, prancing from side to side and sprinting in mock fright when she gave chase. Cubs tumbled over each other, while a lioness finished eating and settled down for a nap.

The animals just went about their business, oblivious to the people piled into the vehicles surrounding them. As long as you kept quiet and seated, you were supposedly safe. The explanation went like this: The Land Cruiser is neither prey nor predator, and the animals see the vehicles often enough that they’re not alarmed when one pulls up close. (Of course, that doesn’t apply to the brainy elephants.)

Phinda’s no-fence policy means it’s possible to stumble into a peaceful nyala antelope chewing on leaves in the daytime or hyenas out looking for food at night. So starting the day means a guy with a pistol walks you to the main lodge for a quick snack before the four-hour morning game drive.

You return to a full breakfast, starting with a dollop of local yogurt and perfectly ripe mango, pineapple and papaya slices, none of which tasted like anything we’ve eaten in the U.S., followed by pancakes or omelets. Lunch was an hour or so later. High tea came next, with just-baked cakes and tarts plus the usual clotted cream and scones. A four-course dinner followed the afternoon game drive.

It was too much but also too good to turn down. We staggered from meal to meal, jet-lagged and overfed, and ran out of Rolaids fast.

The trouble with living like this is that you get used to it. Our stomachs expanded to meet the food supply, and the novelty started to wear off. After the first night, it wasn’t a surprise to enter our cabin, with its swimming pool carved into a cliff, and find the floor covered in lit candles, a steamy bubble bath and a chilled bottle of champagne. This was in contrast to our usual vacations spent in rental cabins with nightly rates in the high two-figures.

So how did we afford the luxury trip? First, we trimmed at least $140 off our nightly bill by avoiding high season, December-March, during the Southern hemisphere summer. Prices drop in April. Locals kept asking why we’d picked that time of year, but the weather – that region’s fall – seemed perfect to us.

Still, the trip wouldn’t have been possible without help from family and friends. My wife used an online registry called Traveler’s Joy to describe our honeymoon plans, and the website offered our guests the ability to pick, say, a game drive or a night at the lodge as a wedding gift. Those gifts paid for more than half the trip and made writing thank-you notes a breeze.

They all followed a similar theme: “We hung out with a lion pride, got pretty close to a black rhino (they look prehistoric) and got charged by an elephant the size of a house. We’re already planning our next trip back.”

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