Bright sun knocks me out on the road from Johannesburg to Pilanesberg National Park. We have two nights and three days to find The Big Five-lions, buffaloes, elephants, rhinos, and leopards. Tshukudu Game Lodge will be our home: six stone and thatch luxury chalets 153 steps up a steep rock outcrop.
Steve, our guide and driver, is in love with the bush and seems to know about everything that lumbers, flies, or scampers across the continent. He hauls us around in an over-sized open-air jeep, across wide-open grassland interrupted by clumps of trees and rock-strewn hills.
The drama begins immediately. As we pass Steve's tiny cottage, a huge elephant calmly munches the top of a tree in his front yard.
Our chalet sits high in the air supported by stilts anchored in rocky terrain fifty feet below. Perched on our private deck, we sip fine South African wine and watch a herd of Burchell's zebra amble slowly downhill to a watering hole. When they head home, colts frolic behind, striped motion in a cloud of red dust.
Our evening game drive begins when the sun is low in the sky. Suddenly Steve stops, pointing wordlessly. Just fifty feet away, two lions are mating. We watch in silence as Steve whispers details of the week long ritual that will leave both lions weak from lack of food and sleep. No wonder they are nearly extinct.
The lions eventually separate and move a few paces away before sprawling on their bellies in the dirt. Then, glaring straight at us, the female rolls her head to one side and bares her teeth as she hisses a loud, raspy warning from deep in her throat. Steve eases the jeep into neutral and gravity pulls us quietly away.
It is completely dark when we head back to the lodge and come upon swaying silhouettes of broad-sided monoliths filling the road. It is a family of White rhinoceroses. We watch and wait until they move on, massive and snorting.
Well past midnight, I am wide-awake. Moonlight washes the landscape in pale blue light that lifts the elephants' distant braying and dumps it at my feet. Lions roar, hyenas squeal, and crickets yell loudest of them all.
I unfold into the sunken tub until my chin rests on a sea of bubbles. Flickering candlelight bounces back from the wall-to-wall window now at eye-level. Beyond it, I imagine the animals that I watched by day, watch me by night.