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Destinations

Lion around: South Africa's Kruger National Park

On a two-day walking safari through South Africa’s Kruger National Park, Mike Dolan can’t rid himself of the thought that he could end up as a tasty snack for a lion.

Five of us stand under a giant Marula tree where a bull elephant has feasted on its fallen fruit. Joseph and Jesus, our guides, lean on their rifles as Jesus lectures us on how to behave on our walking safari.
“If we are charged by a lion, don’t run. The lion will give chase. Stand behind the rifle.” The newly weds, who make up the rest of the party, look as if they’re having second thoughts about their honeymoon of choice, but Joseph continues.
“If it’s leopard, look down and back away. Stare and he’ll crush your skull before you have time to swallow.” The honeymooners’ eyes are the size of saucers. Joseph is doubled over with laughter. “I’m sorry, he says, tears streaming down his cheeks, “Just do as you’re told and everyone will be safe, including the animals,” he adds lifting his rifle
For two days, we have been pampered at the Rhino Post Lodge. Today, we are swapping the safety of the lodge for a walk on the wild side and, if all goes to plan, will be sleeping in a tree house tonight.
We set off in single file. Joseph and Jesus lead, the honeymooners follow and I’m at the back … feeling like lion bait. Every 10 steps, I swivel around expecting to see a lion crouch back into the knee-high grass.
Casually, Jesus tells us we are about to enter the territory of two lions, brothers called Itchy and Scratchy. “They are both as ugly as each other,” says Jesus. “Scratchy has only one eye and a scarred face and Itchy has had his tail bitten off by another lion. They have no wives and this means they have to hunt for themselves.”
Suddenly Joseph raises a hand. There’s something in the scrub ahead. The sound of thickets being trampled is approaching us. Then a dozen curious buffalo calves trot towards us, leaving their 650kg mothers behind. They stare at us intently, toss their heads before beating a retreat.
An hour later five war-torn male buffaloes appear. The most battered of the mob has a missing horn – he looks like an old prize-fighter with a grudge against the world. Within seconds we’re scrambling into a dry river bed and up the opposite bank. “We’re safe here. It’s too steep for those bad-tempered old men,” assures Joseph.
The honeymooners don’t look convinced. “Why didn’t we climb a tree?” asks the husband. “Because we don’t want to bleed to death,” replies Jesus. “Look at those pencil-length thorns …”
The honeymooners look crestfallen. During lunch on a hillock with a view, we eat sandwiches. It’s surprising how a little altitude can calm the nerves.
In a ravine below, Jesus catches sight of a leopard and her cub playing tag. They are oblivious to us and that’s the way Joseph wants to keep it.
An hour later we arrive to find a troop of baboons in the branches around the tree house. There’s a comical stand-off before the troop beats a retreat. Our home for the night is a rambling Robinson Crusoe creation with very few right angles. We sleep on platforms under mosquito nets next to a bathroom hut with shower and porcelain toilet with brass fittings.
That night, we feast on barbecued meat and yams around a log fire. Everyone sleeps badly. Hyenas howl and the tree house rocks like a cradle as an elephant rubs itself on a big branch below, but as we get up and set off in the morning, our spirits lift when we spot a “tower” of giraffe, a “dazzle” of zebra and four white rhino.
Just before we get back to the lodge, I glimpse an animal in the grass behind me. “Ah ha,” I call out loud, “I am being stalked by a lion. Then an animal the size of a Jack Russell breaks cover. “It’s a jackel,” says Jesus. And for the first time in two days, the honeymooners burst out laughing.
Travel essentials
SAFARI:Rhino Post Safari Lodge (1800 447 164; www.rhinoafrica.com) offers spectacular game viewing and walking safaris on a private concession in the Kruger National Park. Rates from $330 a night, inclusive of meals and two game drives each day.
FLY: South African Airways (1300 435 972; www.flysaa.com) flies from Sydney to Johannesburg six days a week and daily from Perth.

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