It’s chilly. Dark still too. But since an African safari is synonymous with early risings, I extricate myself from the warm comforts of the delicious king size bed and stumble towards the small table to put the kettle on. Anne, my niece and travel companion, grumbles that she needs an extra 5 minutes and gets up groggily once I have made her a cup of coffee.

Shortly after 05.30 am and we are out of the room. Clad in jeans, warm jerseys, shawls and windproof jackets we head into the darkness towards Mabula Game Lodge’s reception area.

The restaurant, which provided the setting of last night’s fabulous plated dinner, looks a little forlorn in its emptiness, as does the foyer. From the looks of it, we are the first ones out.

“Morning, Fransje”. Emile is already waiting for us beside the game drive vehicle and helps me to unload some of our stuff on the first row of seats while Anne is tucking into another quick coffee and a biscuit at a specially laid out table in front of the lodge.

With the crepuscular light lifting, the bush reverberates with the sweet sounds of birds as we start our first-morning safari. Cape Turtle doves are cooing at the dawn and, as we snuggle beneath a warm blanket, we contently watch the sun’s bright burly body ascend from the depths of the horizon.

Leaving the open plains with the various species of ungulates, Emile manoeuvres the vehicle along a sandy track and through a beautiful forested area before negotiating a very steep, stony track up the slope of a mountain. Holding on tight to the metal handrail in front of us, we are bouncing along with our seats until we reach the plateau where, as word has it, Mabula’s elephants have been active for the last few days.  Unfortunately, despite Emile’s best efforts, we only come across numerous piles of dung.

The sun has risen high in the sky by the time we stop for a coffee break at a  stunning viewpoint. A little stiff, I clamber out of the vehicle to admire the exquisite panoramic vistas, soon learning that there is another reason why this is such a special place. Veiled by a green canopy of bush, a small remembrance construction overlooks the pristine valley below, allowing guests to commemorate loved ones they have lost by simply placing a small rock onto the ledge. The serenity of what almost feels like a little chapel is tangible, and we too choose a special stone and place it beside the others in memory of my late mum, Anne’s grandmother, who we unexpectedly and tragically lost six weeks ago.

After our coffees, Emile heads down the mountain where, at the foot of the green belt, we draw up beside a white bakkie to meet Preller Human, one of Mabula’s field ecologists. Preller has been studying the reserve’s resident cheetahs for a number of years and, with telemetry set in hand, he is waiting for us so we can accompany him to track the reserve’s resident cheetahs on foot. We are close to the adult female and her four almost fully grown cubs, and as we walk, Preller explains the important role these cheetahs play in the long term conservation of this species. Cheetahs are Africa’s most critically endangered big cat and the four cubs, three males and one female, will eventually be relocated to other protected areas in Southern Africa to boost the number of free-roaming cheetahs in the wild.

Naturally, we are very excited to partake in this adventure. I drape my camera strap securely around my neck and shoulder and, with Preller in front and Emile at the back, we venture into the bush.

We have probably gone less than twenty metres or so when Preller hand signals us to stop and points to a tree ahead of us where, in the dappled shade, I catch a glimpse of a tawny spotted coat. Eyes wide, we let out a little gasp of delight; there they are! Although all five cheetahs are completely relaxed, we maintain a fair distance to respect their personal space. One of the male cubs sits up after a few minutes and looks my way before flopping down again, allowing me to snap a much-coveted photograph. When a large warthog wanders onto the scene all of them sit up, looking extremely alert and, although staring at the seemingly unperturbed pig, they do not move. Preller laughs softly. “Warthogs are not their favourite prey”, he says. “their hide is simply too tough. Looks like this guy knows that he is not at risk”.

True enough, the five big cats merely watch as the warthog saunters past before they settle down again.

It is time for us to take our leave too. It has been yet another thrilling experience and, grateful for the opportunity to learn more about one of Mabula’s conservation projects, we return to the lodge for breakfast.