Our vehicles were all open Land Rovers with stepped seating and a canvas roof for shade.
Some clients never gave this a second thought.
Others, though, expressed their misgivings at essentially being out in the open, unprotected, in big-five country.
I had to explain that the animals become habituated to the vehicles and tend to ignore them completely. The sound and smell of the vehicle effectively masking the scent of the human passengers.
The Landy was fitted with a tracker’s seat out in front on the left of the vehicle, and a spare wheel on the bonnet.
The tracker’s seat was for Msomi’s exclusive use and woe betide anyone who attempted to usurp his position. After all, this is Msomi we’re talking about, the self-confessed ‘world’s greatest tracker’.
As luck would have it, we had two very close encounters during the drive, raising the clients’ adrenaline levels by a startling amount.
The first encounter, which scared the hell out of the passengers but had no effect on either Msomi or me, was when Khankhanya decide to join us. She’d been out doing her own thing, heard the Landy, and came for a visit.
We had stopped to look at some giraffe.
Out of nowhere came a flash of gold and black, culminating in a spectacularly graceful leap up onto the bonnet.
A collective gasp of shock and a couple of barely suppressed screams came from the passengers, each and every one of them pushing themselves back into their seats, trying to look as small and insignificant as possible.
Khankhanya, as usual, ignored them completely, giving me a head-rub and a rasping lick on the cheek, purring loudly, before greeting Msomi.
Courtesies out of the way, she sat herself on the spare wheel and had a good look around the vehicle, before climbing up onto the roof, using it as a convenient observation point.
She looked intently at me, the inference clear. I started the car, driving slowly on for about two kilometres, Khankhanya scanning the area.
Nothing took her fancy though.
I stopped to let her off.
She gave me ‘the look’ before loping off to try hunting on her own, obviously of the opinion that I was totally useless.
Msomi confirmed her opinion by confidently stating that the trip with Khankhanya was doomed to failure because “you know nothing”.
With the clients now feeling a bit more comfortable after their close encounter, we had a really good morning, seeing all manner of wildlife.
It was mid-morning when I elected to stop for a while for snacks and a drink.
It was a fairly clear open area, chosen so that Msomi and I could keep an eye on our surroundings.
At the fringes of the bush, a group of four adolescent lions made their appearance, wondering what all the noise was about.
Cameras produced a cacophony of clicks as the clients took advantage of the sighting.
Young lions are extremely curious, as are all cats, the sound of the cameras causing quizzical expressions, much ear-twitching and intense curiosity.
They decided to investigate a bit more closely, padding towards us with that relaxed, loose-pawed walk so typical of the cat family. The frequency of camera-clicks died away to silence as four extremely interested young, healthy and very powerful lions advanced.
By now they were very close indeed. Msomi slid back over the bonnet and eased his way over the windshield and into the passenger seat, keeping low and moving slowly. He glanced back at our passengers, giving me a grin as he turned back, amused at the expressions of concern on the clients’ faces.
Clients were instructed, in no uncertain terms, to always stay in their seats. Under no circumstances were they to stand up, as that would break the familiar outline of the vehicle and could make the animals uncomfortable and unpredictable.
This was advice that was clearly not really necessary as six people were trying to make themselves look very small and hoping that they wouldn’t be on the lunch menu.
Msomi and I were quite relaxed, though, mirroring the attitudes of the young lions who didn’t even look at the human cargo, being much more interested in the smells they were picking up off the tyres and the lower parts of the Landy.
They had a good look around, sniffing intently, but soon lost interest.
During the day, lions tend to sleep a lot, lazing around and expending as little energy as possible. Sometimes, like these guys, it was because they were stuffed full from the previous night’s feed, or because they’re conserving energy for the coming night’s activities.
These four, having closely inspected the vehicle, moved to the right side, in the shadow and flopped down in the relative cool, making themselves comfortable.
I let the clients know that there was a great photo opportunity right beneath their eyes.
A couple peered tentatively over the side, cameras ready and took a few quick pictures. The sound of the shutters barely reqistered in the minds of our sleeping beauties. One eye opened then slowly closed, one of the lions rolled onto its back, limbs outstretched, sleeping deeply without a care in the world.
We finished our drinks and snacks and got ready to move on. I had a good look at the slumbering teenagers to make sure they were well out of any danger, and, with plenty of space available, I started the engine.
Even the noisy clatter of a diesel engine coming to life didn’t intrude, our little bunch of shadow-hunters sleeping peacefully through the noise. Only a slight body-twitch being the only discernible reaction.
It was only as we moved away and the hot sun hit their bodies did the lions come to the realisation that something had changed. All four rolled right side up and lay balefully looking at us as we drove slowly away. With a look of resignation and disappointment, they got to their feet and padded back to the edge of the track, swiftly disappearing into the bush.
On another occasion, the intelligence and opportunistic adaptability of a cheetah was amply demonstrated, much to the delight and amazement of my passengers.
We were crawling along an overgrown track, abreast of a small herd of impala grazing placidly on the sweet grass sprouting all over the place after some good rain.
One of the passengers happened to glance in the other direction. A hand gripped my shoulder and a very tense voice informed me that we were being stalked by a cheetah, orange eyes blazing as she slowly moved towards us.
Knowing that cheetah don’t attack humans without intense provocation, I reassured the clients, watching to see what this beautiful animal was up to.
She moved right up close to the side of the Landy, her pace matching ours, head low, shoulder-blades prominent, peering under the vehicle, watching the impala with total concentration.
I maintained our low speed, no faster than a slow walk, the cheetah stalking along beside us.
The impala were totally unaware that a cheetah was using the Landy as a mobile hide. The buck had become a bit spread out, all intent on the new grass, only occasionally looking up to scan for danger. The vehicle was ignored. The impala was used to seeing vehicles in the bush that they considered them to be a noisy annoyance that offered no cause for concern.
Our stalking cheetah hunched down even lower, the penetrating gaze having spotted an opportunity.
I looked to the impala. Sure enough, one young impala had lagged behind the others, grazing a few metres away from the Landy, level with us. A straight line could be drawn from the impala, through the car to the cheetah. We traveled about another five metres, putting us and the cheetah slightly ahead of the impala, when suddenly, with the most impressive display of almost instant acceleration, the cheetah shot in front of us, curving around the front of the Landy with perfect balance, and streaking in a golden blur to cut off the laggard who reacted much too late, being caught with ease.
The cheetah dragged her prey off to a safer place, the surviving impala having dispersed with spectacular leaps and bounds, disappearing in a flash and a blur.
The bush was quiet again apart from the excited buzz of conversation from six awestruck clients.