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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Tracking the Big Five

It's a short drive to South Africa's new game reserve

Posted: 03/17/2012 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

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As the jeep pulled up to the gates surrounding Mongena Game Lodge in the Dinokeng Game Reserve of South Africa, it felt just a little like Jurassic Park. Tall, fortified and electrified fences surrounded the compound. I wasn't sure if it was to keep me in or the animals out.

Over the next few days, I toured much of Dinokeng in open jeeps, by boat and foot, never worrying about predators. But the relaxed viewings of the many usually harmless species, including giraffes and zebras, was about to change. Within a week, eight lions that were resting in an enclosure would be released, followed in another week by 10 elephants, changing the balance and food chain on the new reserve.

Kruger National Park is the biggest and most famous of all the reserves in South Africa, offering sightings of the greatest wild animals, including the Big Five -- lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants and water buffaloes. But if you land in Johannesburg, it's a five-hour drive to see animals. Until now.

More than 20 years ago, the government of South Africa created the Blue IQ, investing millions of dollars in initiatives to develop areas of Gauteng Province. A significant Big Five free-roaming game reserve would provide employment and increase tourism.

Just an hour's drive from Pretoria and only 90 kilometres from Johannesburg, it will turn into a spectacular draw for tourists. Of the 280,000 hectares designated as reserve, only 18,000, are currently available for wildlife. Many of the antelope species, zebras, hippos and giraffes were introduced in the 1990s. The hunters and large mammals were left out until safety issues were addressed, and therefore, the Dinokeng Game Reserve initiative officially opened last September.

The best part for any tourist now is the lack of other tourists. The roads are rough, the foliage is dense and sightings of other humans are rare. The Dinokeng is not a self-drive reserve, but the tours offered by the lodges such as Mongena are rewarding.

On one of my excursions from Mongena with rangers Botha and Gary, I was impressed by their knowledge and dedication to the species within the reserve. At a watering hole, we were all down on our knees studying fresh tracks possibly left by a leopard not sighted for years in the region. A few minutes later, we were sneaking through the bush tracking the rhinos only 30 metres away. When the wind shifted and carried our scent, they spotted us and instantly were gone. The thrill of locating them on foot was a vacation highlight for me.

After returning to Canada, I had a chance to chat with Etienne Toerien, chairman of the Dinokeng Game Reserve Management Association and owner of Mongena Game Lodge, about the release of the lions and elephants. He was thrilled with the outcome.

"Surprisingly, both groups of lions made more than one kill during the first day after release, but have quickly settled into normal behaviour," said Toerien. "If they do kill when they are not hungry, they will go back and eat the carcass later. They hardly ever waste with food."

As for the prey, who didn't know they were prey, they were caught by surprise in the first few weeks but have adjusted quickly and are more alert to the lions. The rangers from Mongena will continue tracking the lions with radio collars for a year to monitor the kills and range of the lions.

As for the elephants, after only a few hours in a holding pen, they were released in their new environment, marking the first time in more than 100 years that elephants have roamed freely in Gauteng. The herd, relocated from Makalali Game Reserve, are part of a long-term immune-contraception program to study the effectiveness of contraception as a way to control herd sizes.

"With only the water buffalo to come, the Dinokeng has proven to already be a rewarding destination for tourists looking for the Big Five experience," said Toerien. "Our guests come back from every game drive with sightings of lions or elephants, along with the hippos, rhinos and giraffes."

Hiking is offered, along with bush picnics and barbecues, but with added protection.

As Botha warned me prior to our hike: "We want our guests to go home with stories, not be the story."

-- Postmedia News

Elephants are unforgettable playmates

ARISTOTLE once said the elephant was "the beast which passes all others in wit and mind." After watching Chishuru, a seven-foot-tall African elephant, find my shoe in a heap of smelly sneakers and pass it to me, I have to agree with Aristotle.

Adventures with Elephants is a combination rescue, rehabilitation, research and educational facility an hour's drive from Pretoria in South Africa. A few different excursions are available, from short visits to rides through the bush to the ultimate encounter of swimming with the elephants.

As the pack of six beasts came strolling towards the shady tents, it occurred to me that I didn't hear them coming. They seemed like a lazy group of teenagers lolling along the path with their pals, the guides.

We met all the elephants one by one and discovered different traits in each, but what made it so exhilarating was the chance to get up close and explore them. While touching their oddly soft feet, we learned the way they feel low sound waves vibrating through the ground from mates far away. We watched as their snout took single pieces of kibble from our outstretched palms, sometimes sniffing up our shirts to seek out more in breast pockets.

Like puppies looking for a belly rub, they lay down. We ran our hands along their big, barrel tummies as they rumbled on command. We touched their ears, rubbed their skin and took turns lifting their noses to see how they moved. All the while, it looked like they loved the affection.

Only the guests with quick feet were able to leap from the spray as 15 litres of water blasted from their trunks, again on command.

But then the encounter got interesting. As four of us took our position on equally spaced-out mats, we were given a handful of kibble to offer Chishuru. As he sniffed and snorted the treats, the guide repeated our names.

"Chishuru, this is Joanne. Joanne, Joanne." Then they'd repeat the process with Darren, Cindy and John. To our amazement, Chishuru would point at us on command. Then it got even better when we switched mats, took off one shoe and tossed it into a heap at his feet.

"Chishuru, give Darren his shoe," said the guide. Chishuru waved his snout over the shoes and pulled out the right shoe, wrapped his nose around it and extended it to Darren. He did it every time. Then to prove it wasn't a trick, we were told to change places and toss the shoe again.

"Chishuru, give Cindy Darren's shoe."

Yes, Darren's shoe went to Cindy. My shoe went to John (which I thought would be tricky with our names so close) and so on. Chishuru has been known to remember a visitor 16 months after a first encounter.

As we put on our shoes, the elephants were saddled for our hike to the pond. As I rode Moya through the bush, I learned how the elephants can be used like horses on the range, or with that keen sense of smell, for tracking and detection of landmines.

As we reached the pond, the elephants didn't care that they had riders on their backs; they meandered into the water and submerged until only a snout poked out.

A truck took the wet riders back to the shower hut, but I lingered alone to watch the elephants. After the harnesses were removed, the pack headed right back into the water and resumed those teenage antics. I'd been in South Africa a week and finally felt I was really there.

IF YOU GO

Adventures with Elephants is near Bela Bela in Limpopo province, just over an hour north of Pretoria. Excellent directions are available on their website, efaf.co.za

Excellent lodging facilities where warthogs, giraffes, antelopes, kudus and zebras roam free are available nearby at either Zebula or Mabalingwe Nature Reserves. zebula.co.za or mmabalingwe.co.za

IF YOU GO

For more information about Dinokeng: dinokengbig5.com or gauteng.net/attractions/entry/dinokeng-game-reserve

For more information about Mongena Game Lodge; www.mongena.co.za

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 17, 2012 D3

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