Fransje van Riel was born in the Netherlands, but at the age of 13, she moved to southeast England with the rest of her family. Even from a very young age, Fransje revealed a great sense of passion and compassion for animals and the natural world; a penchant she would optimise In 1997, after resigning from her job as a cabin crew member for KLM Royal Dutch Airlines to make the permanent move to South Africa.
Cape Town became the base from which she began contributing wildlife-related feature articles for various media outlets, including The Cape Times, Africa Geographic, Premier Magazine, Leadership Sport and the Sunday Times. Fransje is also the author of three non-fiction books. Her second book, The Crowing of the Roosters was long-listed for the 2006 Alan Paton/Sunday Times Literary Awards. Her latest book, My Life With Leopards, is currently re-published in the UK by Lume Books.
With our guide Emile Laubscher at the wheel, the olive green safari vehicle trundles away and picks up speed as we leave Mabula Game Lodge behind us and head off into the game-rich bush. Was it really only this morning that we ordered a hurried cappuccino and shared a toasted cheese and tomato sandwich at the Mug and Bean at Cape Town’s domestic departures? A two-hour flight to Johannesburg and an almost equally long two-hour road transfer later we have arrived; it suddenly, and rather curiously, seems a lifetime ago.
Excited about our first afternoon game drive in the Greater Mabula Private Game Reserve, which comprises of three farms on the north, west and south sides of the 12 000 hectare property, we sit back and admire the stunning backdrop of the Waterberg landscape. Several wildebeest are coursing along the veld to our left, along with a bobbing line of adult zebra. In the nearby distance, a number of impalas with shiny brown velvety coats are gently browsing upon the abundant grass. The scenery is quintessentially African, with sweeping, rolling vistas, acacia dotted grasslands and mixed bushveld. It is the perfect habitat to sustain the Big Five, along with many other iconic wildlife species, including cheetah, warthog, giraffe, a wide variety of plains game such as kudu, waterbuck and sable, and crocodile and hippo.
It is a beautiful autumn day and, since recent rains have been plentiful, the bush is vibrantly green and fresh. The distant mountains allow for an infinite sense of perspective while we meander along the sandy track that winds through stands of silver cluster trees and wild Seringa trees.
On our right, we pass the stables, from where Mabula guests can opt to explore the bush on horseback. A couple of zebra are peacefully grazing a short distance away from the horses. Continuing along the road, we head towards an area with thick bush before eventually resurfacing on the southern side of the reserve, where the resident lion pride resides.
The bright light has softened as the sun gradually lowers her vast body towards the west, allowing for beautiful colours to spread across the grassy plains. Natal spur francolins are pedalling at top speed criss-cross in front of the vehicle until finally giving up on their frantic road running to dash into the undergrowth of yellow thatch grass. Emile stops the vehicle and peers down at the ground on his right-hand side of the vehicle and points to a definitive large spoor. There are big cats around, and the tracks are very fresh!
The problem is that the grass is very high; shoulder-height at least; is there truly any chance of seeing the big cats in the now golden rays of the slowly setting African sun? We move slowly, scanning left and right, right and left until Emile stops the vehicle and almost, as if himself in surprise, exclaims: LIONS!
Jaws drop as three magnificent lionesses are calmly and distinctly unhurriedly padding on the road, right in front of us. The oldest of the three, at the remarkable age of 17 years old, brings up the rear. She is keeping up, but we can see that her body is showing signs of her advanced age. She stops to lap at some water from a small puddle in the road and as we slowly draw up, we notice a wound close to her right temple, which Emile tells us he will call in.
Having quenched her thirst, she resumes her way, following the other two lionesses for about half a kilometre along the road, where they turn a corner. All three lionesses keep to the road, offering us an exceptionally close and intimate experience before they eventually veer off into what seems a dense curtain of tall thick grass. Within seconds they have completely vanished; not even the smallest of movements any longer discernible to even the best trained eye.
As if perfectly orchestrated, the setting sun languished stretches her pink and golden rays down across the safari landscape and we head back to stop at what feels like a magical place. A scattering of ancient rocky boulders, strewn across the ground amidst fig trees is the perfect spot for sundowners and the chance to express our excitement at what we have just seen.