Tracking lions in Tswalu

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Tswalu-Kalahari-Jan-2017-079One of the best places to see Kalahari lions is in Tswalu, South Africa’s biggest private wildlife reserve. Brian Jackman went to look for them

It’s early morning in Tswalu, the Korannaberg summits sharp-etched against the sky, and a set of fresh paw prints in the soft red sand. Each one is as big as my outstretched hand – the unmistakable signature of a male Kalahari lion.

Tswalu began life in the 1970s as a hunting preserve owned by Stephen Boler, a Lancastrian entrepreneur who bought 35 run-down farms in the southern Kalahari. When Boler died, the ownership passed on to Nicky Oppenheimer, the former chairman of De Beers and a passionate conservationist. Oppenheimer dreamed of creating a refuge where people could re-connect with nature in a malaria-free environment.

He immediately set about re-wilding the Kalahari, introducing rare antelopes such as roan and sable and providing a sanctuary for cheetahs and black rhinos. Despite the size of the accommodation which is limited to a couple of lodges, Tarkuni and the Motse, both are five-star deluxe oases offering the highest levels of cuisine and comfort. The greatest luxury is having your own exclusive vehicle, guide and tracker to seek out Tswalu’s wild residents.

These lions of the Kalahari are like no others. They are not especially big but the males are renowned for their magnificent black-as-midnight manes. They do not offer themselves up in full view like the lazy prides of Kenya’s Masai Mara. Instead, spread out across a wilderness twice the size of Norfolk, you must work harder to look for Tswalu’s emblematic carnivores. But that only redoubles the pleasures of finding them – especially when you know there will be nobody else around.

There are a presence of rarities seldom seen elsewhere, such as aardvarks and pangolins. But I was eager to see Tswalu’s lions, so I set out on the first morning while it was still dark. At the wheel of our Land-Cruiser sat Rudi Venter, my guide, and his Tswana tracker Ari Leoow, perched on the jump seat of the bonnet. The barking geckos were still calling and a spotted eagle owl drifted past us in the starlight. But as soon as it sun came out we found lion tracks, and soon came upon a lioness with seven small cubs.

There are two main families, Rudi explained, the North and South Prides. This lioness belonged to the South Pride and four of the cubs were hers. The others were her sister’s offspring, but she had died a month ago, leaving the orphans to be raised by her sibling. The lioness was resting when we caught up with her, and the cubs had cornered something under a bush. On closer inspection it turned out to be a pangolin, lying curled up tightly into a ball. Their scaly armour had defied all the cubs’ efforts to break into it.

Watching cubs is always a wonderful experience, but I was still hoping to find the pride males that had so far eluded us. The following morning we set out to look for them. “They are brothers,” said Rudi, “two 10-year-olds with huge black manes, who divide their time between both prides.”

What followed was a master-class in the arcane skills of lion tracking. It took all day. We followed their trail through the tangled acacia thickets that cover much of Tswalu’s red rolling dunes, and in the end we found them. It was worth every minute. They rubbed heads and lay down, roaring in unison. Then off they went. Their guttural bellows reverberating among the echoing hills, out into the deep emptiness of their desert kingdom. It seemed as if the whole world was listening.

Brian Jackman travelled with Journeys by Design (http://www.journeysbydesign.com/)who can arrange a five-night stay at Tswalu, including economy flights with BA from London to Jo’burg and return domestic flights into Tswalu.

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