“C’mon, Mum!” – The rhino baby, just four months old, shoulders his mother, just like my nephew does when he wants to go and play. She doesn’t move. He nudges her again and then does a little dance in front of her.

Sitting in our Land Rover with our safari guide, we are charmed. Such a cute mother-son moment! So anthropomorphically like exhausted human mothers and their ever-energetic offspring! And then the mother rhino lets out the longest, loudest and, we realize a few seconds later, smelliest fart you can imagine.

Yes, it seems sometimes you can get too close to nature.


A South African Safari

We are in Thornybush Nature Reserve, a private game park right next to Kruger National Park in South Africa. As a photographer and animal-lover, I am initially thrilled by how close our guide is able to get us to the animals.

We’re surrounded by zebra on the road, and I completely understand the collective noun for a group of zebra – a dazzle. Giraffes are grazing so close I can hear their teeth grinding leaves. We watch elephants play at a waterhole just a few metres away. I might be a bit nervous if I were Oscar, our tracker. He sits on a specially-designed seat just above the front bumper, with nothing but his feet and his rifle to protect him, and us, from anything that gets too close.

Getting close to the animals is marvelous. But there are certainly some drawbacks to be aware of, and not just of the malodorous kind.

Can you get TOO close to nature? A South African Safari

The Widowmakers

On the next day’s game drive, our guide enthusiastically steers our vehicle – our open Land Rover, with no roof, no sides and no doors – right into the middle of a herd of Cape buffalo. They’re smelly too, and a few give us annoyed looks (perhaps we don’t smell so good either, from their perspective).

Stopped within the herd, the ranger describes the characteristics of Cape buffalo to us in a low voice. They weigh up to 900 kg and their horns grow to over a metre and a half wide. A mother carries her fetus for 11 ½ months. After she gives birth, she uses her horns to prod her other calves to keep them away from her and the newborn. Like hippos, Cape buffalo have terrible tempers. The animal’s nicknames are “black death” and “widowmaker”, as they are highly unpredictable and kill over 200 people every year.


Why are we sitting in the middle of a herd of “widowmakers”? Or killers of any kind, as I imagine an angry buffalo isn’t going to first establish the gender or marital status of safari-goers before it chooses to attack.

I reassure myself that the ranger wouldn’t put guests into any real danger, but my breath eases once we’ve driven out of the herd (yes, because of the fresher air too).


Getting Close-Ups

We drive on, and discover the rhino mother and son are more awake, now standing photogenically beside the waterhole. Next we discover three lions. They’ve just eaten – they have blood all over their faces – and they don’t mind in the least that we drive right up to them. The biggest challenge with this close encounter is figuring out how to frame the lions since I only have my telephoto lens. Oh, and trying not to make the photos look too bloody.

Can you get TOO close to nature? A South African Safari

Hello, Leopard!

At Thornybush, we’re only really in danger once. Oscar, our tracker, is always with us. He has the sharp eye and quiet demeanor of an expert sharpshooter. He sits calmly in the front of the vehicle throughout our three days of safari.

Except one evening when we’re returning to the lodge after enjoying our sundowners.

Oscar is suddenly extremely alert. His head is on the swivel and he holds his gun ready, instead of resting across his knees. The ranger tells us that the road we need to drive down for the next two kilometres is overhanging with trees, and that a leopard was spotted hanging out in them. Though it is unlikely, it can jump down into the Land Rover, right onto our laps, which are protected only by warm blankets on this cool winter evening. He asks us to watch the trees ahead and beside us, and shout out if we see the flash of animal eyes. His laughing demeanor is gone. He is very serious.

Can you get TOO close to nature? A South African Safari

I don’t think I blink a single time, but we safely get through the two kilometres leopard-free, and soon arrive back to a barbeque feast at Thornybush Lodge. Once again, perhaps a little bit too close to nature for my taste. I suppose the answer to that question is a personal one. 


What do you think? Do you have any safari experiences of your own? Let us know in the comments below.

This is a guest post by Johanna Read.

Johanna Read_ cheers from Lima, Peru. TravelEater.netJohanna is a Canadian freelance writer and photographer specializing in travel, food and responsible tourism. She’s hoping to repeat her six-continents-in-one-year travel feat in 2016. Follow Johanna on Instagram @TravelEaterJohanna and on Twitter @TravelEater. Links to all her travel stories are at www.TravelEater.net.