Going on safari in South Africa is without a doubt an experience of a lifetime. Simply seeing the animals in their native habitat is something you never forget, even if they aren’t doing anything other than walking around. But sometimes you get to see something truly incredible out there in the bush. Something that you will remember in detail for the rest of your life. Mother nature opens up and lets you in for a brief moment that you will never forget. A cheetah safari and following along on a hunt is definitely one of those experiences.
We were staying at the absolutely incredible andBeyond Phinda Forest Lodge. The place is ridiculous. They describe it as “sophisticated seclusion deep in the heart of the forest” and they couldn’t be more right. You’re out in the middle of nowhere and suddenly there is this modern, comfortable five star lodge that comes out of nowhere with all the comforts of home. Floor to ceiling windows on all sides you are isolated only by space as you watch monkeys play while you get ready for the day. To make things even cooler, the lodge is situated in what is called a “sand forest”. Basically the terrain is lush forest growing straight out of the sand.
Once out in the bush we came across cheetah sitting out in the plains. Actually it was three cheetahs, a Mom and two adolescent cubs. The trio of cheetah were laying about 20 feet from our vehicle relaxing and playing with each other like house cats do. The cheetah were so spectacular that simply seeing them so close was one of the most rewarding animal sightings I have ever experienced. But that’s when things got interesting.
The two cubs were still too young to hunt for themselves but our ranger could tell by how thin the Mom looked that they were overdue to eat. It was time for the cheetah to hunt.
The plains appeared to be endless but occasionally there would be a raised area built up around a tree or small hill. The cheetah would move between these higher vantage points looking for prey down below and we would follow along in our Land Rover. The cheetah would look out in the distance for awhile, then lay down, roll around with each other, lick each other’s faces and act like cats again. Then move to the next elevated area and we would follow. We did this for hours and all remained entranced by the cheetah.
Finally the cheetah zeroed in on a reedbuck and were moving on foot low through the tall grass towards it. Our ranger was briefing us saying that if the chase is on, we were going to drive as fast as we possibly could in an instant so we all had to be ready to hold on tight. Lots more walking for the cheetah and more driving for us. The reedbuck slowly getting closer and closer. Then in an instant the cheetah breaks into a sprint! She immediately leaves us in her dust. We can’t even come close to keeping up with her – our ranger tells us that she can accelerate faster than a Ferrari. She’s going after the reedbuck and we’re driving as fast as possible in the open vehicle holding on to our cameras best we can. She reaches the reedbuck and lunges for it but the reedbuck is also running fast. Just as she’s about to pounce, the reedbuck reaches a huge ravine and leaps over it. If the cheetah’s skill is running, the reedbuck’s is definitely jumping. By the time the cheetah runs down the ravine and back up the other side the reedbuck is long gone. Chance missed. The cheetah had failed.
Now regrouped with her cubs mamma cheetah needs a break. She goes to take a seat off to our left in a small patch of grass basked in sunshine. The cubs remain active however and are wandering around their new area exploring. Ahead of us through some trees is a very large clearing and a large group of buffalo approach along with some juvenile buffalo. We are sitting just outside the clearing in the middle of a sort of open corridor in the bush. Mamma cheetah is off to our left on her own and the cubs we can’t currently see. A few of the buffalo move through the clearing into our view and are grazing off to our right. I can’t stress enough just how many buffalo in the area.
We’re sitting there watching the buffalo graze when there is a a sudden commotion in the clearing up ahead that we can’t make out. The buffalo to our right immediately rush into the clearing to see what’s going on. It turns out that while mamma cheetah was resting in the sun, one of the cubs made a move on one of the young buffalo. This is a rookie move. A cheetah has no business going after a buffalo. Buffalo take care of their own and would not take this lightly.
Now as a collective the buffalo are chasing all three cheetah around the clearing. We can’t really see what’s happening from our vantage point but we can tell by the sounds that there are a lot of pissed off buffalo. The cheetah flee the clearing down the path we are sitting in and sprint around our Land Rover putting as much distance between them and the buffalo herd as possible. With the cheetah disappearing behind our vehicle we now all look forwards again down the path where an entire herd of buffalo is barreling towards us in hot pursuit of the cheetah. With no time to move the Land Rover the herd is upon is in seconds. Dust is being kicked up in all directions as the ground is shaking beneath us and we all sit motionless in the open-air vehicle in awe of what is happening around us. It was basically exactly like this.
We were all blown away by the sheer power of the herd rushing towards us. The way they parted around us in a fog of dust as they chased after the cheetah was something none of us will ever forget. Sadly in the end, the cheetah had failed once again. Vanquished from the area by the buffalo the cheetah return to the plains and continue their routine of scouting out high area, licking and playing like cats. This is the life of a cheetah and although our time hunting alongside them had to end, we would leave here with much greater respect for these beautiful animals and what they must endure in order to survive.
andBeyond Phinda Forest Lodge is just one of several andBeyond camps in the KwaZulu-Natal Province of South Africa and hunting alongside cheetah is just one of many experiences we enjoyed while staying there. We also came face to face with male lions, saw dozens of elephants taking a bath, zebras fighting, had a picnic in the bush and saw countless other rhino, giraffe and other animals.