A handsome beast: the male white lion.
A handsome beast: the male white lion. SHIRLEY SINCLAIR

Travel: No one sleeps when the white lion hunts for a mate

WE HEARD him long before we saw him.

The deep, reverberating roar followed by several huff, huff, huffs woke us from our light slumber.

He was close. Very close.

No, the lion doesn't sleep tonight. And, apparently, neither do we. In fact, he was right behind our Gondwana Lodge suite, calling for his female mate, and wasn't going anywhere.

By morning, talk around the South African Sanbona Wildlife Reserve breakfast buffet was that the male white lion had only just left our area.

Our safari ranger Marco Fitchet soon confirmed the night's excitement, pointing out the lion's paw prints in the sand by the road, heading west out of our lodge. Within minutes, we had heard about a sighting on the communications radio and headed with haste past the big dam and towards the hills.

We could see him from afar - his white coat unmistakable against the green of the low-shrubbed, semi-arid Succulent Karoo landscape. As we drew closer, we took up position on the road in front of him. And waited. He was on a mission, having already covered just over 3km in about 50 minutes. While not running or bounding, he kept a steady pace: every step was measured and determined.

Then - safari gold. He came up the road and crossed right in front of our Toyota LandCruiser. I was seated on the right side, directly behind the driver, and couldn't believe my eyes when he walked right beside me. Only the body of the open vehicle separated us.

He nonchalantly passed by, deeming the familiar vehicle and its seven occupants no threat. I was snapping away so quickly that my digital camera couldn't keep up and was giving the "busy" signal.

Lean, strong, with a beautifully coiffured mane, the bold big cat indeed reigns over this kingdom. As one who grew up with the Kimba the White Lion cartoon on TV, this meeting of human and big cat seemed surreal.

Sanbona, in Barrydale, offers one of the closest safari opportunities to Cape Town - about a three-hour drive away, in the heart of the Western Cape's Little Karoo.

With the spectrum of majestic Karoo landscapes within its boundaries, the privately owned wildlife reserve is reached from Route 62 - the world's longest wine route - and lies at the foot of the Warmwaterberg Mountains. At 54,000ha, the massive property is as large as Eungella National Park near Mackay and boasts the big five (a hunting term given to the five most dangerous animals hunted on foot). The big five in this case also includes a pride of lions, made up of members with the recessive white gene as well as the tawny variety.

Over three nights and four days at our all-inclusive lodge, we managed to encounter four of the big five: African elephants, lions, rhino, and Cape buffalo. We only missed the leopards that generally live in the mountains.

Another favourite with tourists, the cheetahs, also proved elusive - an unusual occurrence since they aren't shy and tend to keep to favoured territory.

But our six safari drives (including spotlighting at nightfall) and boat cruise more than made up for that with hippopotamus in and out of the water plus a prolific number of eland and springbok, giraffes and zebras (Cape Mountain and Plains), Chacma baboons, small dassie (its closest living relative is the elephant) and oryx.

A black-backed jackal, a large grey mongoose and red hartebeest were a bonus, along with the rare thrill of seeing relocated kudu bound out of their transport vehicle towards freedom.

The experience of sitting on our first-floor balcony with a glass of wine, watching giraffes and their companion zebras nibble away at the trees and undergrowth, will stay with me forever. The white lions, however, were what I came to see.

Ranger Marco wittily describes female white lions as being like "Scandinavian supermodels: blonde, blue eyes and long legs". But for me, the male white lion rules. What a handsome beast he is.



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