Glass learns to track big cats in South Africa

ON THE SHORT drive to my accommodations at Tswalu, a private wildlife reserve in South Africa in the southern Kalahari, we pass a group of zebras, some giraffe, and two cheetahs. It’s a little unusual to see so much activity this quickly, says our guide, Quin, which I take as a good omen for our game viewing prospects during my five-day stay. 

Tswalu is home to 80 different mammals and 240 species of birds. But as South Africa’s largest private game reserve, covering over 100,000 hectares of land, guests need to be patient if they hope to catch sight of some of the reserve’s more elusive inhabitants.

Cheetahs at Tswalu Cheetahs at the Tswalu Private Wildlife Reserve

The yellow-billed hornbill (think Zazu from The Lion King), I soon learn, is not among the Kalaharis more bashful creatures. After checking into Tarkuni Homestead, one of several luxury camps available at Tswalu, I open the door to my room to find two of the territorial birds mid intimidation flight”. One after the other, they swoop towards my window, attempting to scare off their own reflections. The duo make for a colourful, if somewhat aggressive, welcoming committee — and are another early indicator of the incredible diversity at the reserve.

Tarkuni HomesteadTarkuni Homestead, one of several luxury accommodations at Tswalu

Patio at the Tarkuni HomesteadThe view from the patio at Tarkuni Homestead

Tswalu provides all guests with a private guide and tracker for the duration of their stay, who tailor the safari experience to each group’s interests. Early the next day, we set out in search of the creature at the top of my wishlist: the black-maned lion. There are only 20,000 left in the world, and Tswalu is home to several dozens. Quin warns it might take a while to locate the cats — but the journey provides an opportunity to see the tracking process in action.

Tracking, I learn, requires the ability to decipher meaning from the mundane. To me, a massive pile of black dung in the middle of the road is nothing more than a messy roadblock. To our tracker, Pete, it means a rhino is somewhere nearby — a white one, he says, owing to the dung’s dark color. Pete, who grew up on a farm near the reserve, picked up his tracking skills through a lifetime in the Kalahari. But Tswalu also offers a training program for youth from the surrounding area to learn the trade as well.    

Tracking academy at TswaluEnrollees in Tswalus Tracking Academy

Several hours into our drive, there’s still no sign of our lions. Then, suddenly, Pete gestures to a patch of red earth nearby. We’ve found lion tracks, Quin explains, as he circles paw prints in the sand. Lions leave behind large, distinctive tracks and travel in groups — making their tracks easier to spot than their big cat cousins, like leopards or cheetahs. These tracks are also distinct, so likely fresh, meaning the pride must be nearby.

Unsurprisingly, Pete sees the beasts first. He points a few meters away from our open-air vehicle, where a dozen lionesses and cubs are hiding in plain sight, camouflaged by their earth-toned coats. Driving a bit further into the brush, we find the pride’s patriarch lounging in the shade of a shepherd’s tree, scratching his mane like a lazy house cat — albeit one with claws up to 38 millimetres in length.

Lions at TswaluOne of two prides of black-maned lions on the reserve at Tswalu

With the sun starting to set, we part with the cats to make our way towards dinner. Meals are included at Tswalu, with most prepared by a personal chef in guests’ accommodations. But groups staying three nights or more are invited to ditch their safari wear for an evening of fine dining at Klein JAN — a restaurant by Michelin-starred chef Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen.

Klein JAN might be best described as a “dining experience.” The meal begins with cocktails and canapes on the porch of a century-old farmhouse, which has been carefully restored with historically accurate decor and furniture. Guests then travel down a spiral staircase leading four meters underground to reach a root cellar — kept cold thanks to an 18th century refrigeration system, for minimal environmental impact on the area.

At the other end of the cellar is an open-air dining room, cut into the hillside, where diners enjoy a seven-course tasting menu. The ingredients, down to the rainwater, are sourced from the Kalahari.

Klein Jan restaurantKlein JAN is located in a refurbished, century-old farmhouse

Root cellar at Klein JANKlein JANs climate-controlled food cellar, four metres underground

The next morning, we stop by the Tswalu Foundation — a visit which helps make explicit an undercurrent in all of the experiences on offer at the reserve: the future of the Kalahari is in doubt. The thrill I felt spotting a yellow-billed hornbill in the wild my first day, for instance, was tempered after I learned the birds may go extinct as soon as 2027 due to climate change. Anti-poaching helicopters, which take daily flights overhead, are a noisy reminder that some of the reserve’s most prized creatures, like pangolins and rhinos, have been hunted to near extinction.  

Rather than shy away from these realities, Tswalu encourages guests to involve themselves in its many conservation and sustainability efforts. This could include a simple chat with pangolin expert, Dr. Wendy Panaino, who is studying the impacts of climate change on the mammals. Or a more involved trip, such as a multi-day excursion helping researchers ear notch young rhinos to study their habits and combat poaching.

A stay at Twsalu helps to support this important work — and test a theory that, by the end of my stay, I left hopeful might prove to be true: that luxury tourism, long an exacerbator of threats to the Kalahari, might instead help to save it.

PangolinThe pangolin, coveted for its scales, is among the worlds most illegally trafficked animals

Ear taggingGuests can help researchers ear notch an anti-poaching tracking device on rhinos

by David Dodge

For additional info, visit Tswalu Kalahari: Private Wildlife Reserve