Kruger National Park, South Africa
17.09.2010 - 22.09.2010
Kruger National Park is a transfrontier reserve straddling the borders of Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe. It is reputed to be one of the best game parks in the world, and it did not disappoint. Susanna and I left Maputo on Friday, put up with the normal border hullabullo, and arrived at the Berg en Dal Rest Camp on the Southern edge of the park just before dark.
Susanna did some research and found that the early morning and evening game drives were highly recommended. These canopy vehicles take about 9 people out for 3 hours at a time to different sections of the park. They are organized at the days' end and beginning in order to spot animals at their most active times. The advantage of these rides over guided walks is that the animals supposedly see vehicles as just another animal. The human scent is overpowered by the smell of gasoline, and due to the traffic in the park, the animals have become rather accustomed to and unafraid of vehicles. As long as you stay in the car, they are more or less apathetic to your presence.
The first night drive was definitely exciting. The guide gave a disclaimer about how we might not see anything and that all of the sightings were largely dependent on luck. After 15 minutes of driving, we heard a lot of noise by the side of the road and shined the spot light to more clearly witness the commotion. A pack of about ten rhinos were trotting through the grass right next to the road and were within about 20 feet of the vehicle. I considered this my first true sighting in the wild of one of the “Big 5.” The other four of this group include the leopard, lion, cape buffalo, and elephant.
After about an hour without any more sightings, our driver was flagged down by another truck that was approaching from the opposite direction. They pulled up side by side, exchanged a few words in a local dialect, and then our driver suddenly peeled out. The car had been racing down a network of gravel and dirt roads for about thirty minutes when I heard Susanna gasp. We came to a screeching halt and observed the fruits of our conquest. Sitting just off the side of the road were a male lion and his lioness. We stared in amazement, and they just looked at us quizzically and resumed relaxation. Within 5 minutes of our arrival, the male stood up to proposition the female. He approached her from behind and commenced with his mating attempt only to receive a series of growls from his mate which I took as an indication of rejection. After all, I am very familiar with this concept and the opposite sex! Once we had our fill, we traveled back the same way and actually stumbled across another lion pair. The male lion also attempted to mount his female companion, and his quest was a bit more successful than that of his peer. After the deed had been done, the male lion slowly sauntered up to the side of his companion, sat down and gently placed his paw on hers in a display of affection. I had made it to the bush.
We got up early the next morning and went on another game drive which was very different from the first. We saw a pack of elephants, a few giraffes and cape buffalo from a distance. The best part was the end of the drive when one of my fellow passengers used his binoculars to spot a leopard having an early morning snack from the bough of a nearby tree. We were not able to get that close, but we jockeyed for position with the other motorists, and I was able to get a few good shots.
We got back to Berg En Dal and migrated with our faithful Kia Picanto to Lower Sabie at the Eastern edge of the park. Our accommodations at this camp were much more luxurious as we occupied a beautiful chalet on the banks of a river full of hippos and crocodiles. The night game drive was initially uneventful. We saw a few cape buffalo here and a few hyena there, but there was nothing substantial. Towards the end of the drive, everyone in the truck collectively gasped as our roaming spot lights came upon one of the rarest animals in the park – the African Wild Dog. There are less than 2,000 of these in the world, and the park estimates to only have about 250. If a visitor sees one, they are considered incredibly lucky. We were fortunate enough to come across a pack of 5!
They were relaxing by the road, and like the lions, did not rise to meet us when the truck came a halt. We watched them for about 30 minutes play with one another and scamper about. As we got ready to leave, one saw a jackal in the distance and started off in hot pursuit. Although these dogs look benign, they have been known to take down both antelope and impala. After we saw these dogs, I knew that I would be satisfied with the trip even if I didn’t see another animal for the rest of my time in the park.
Susanna dropped me off at Skukuza in the central part of the park the next day and we said our goodbyes. She headed back to Maputo, and I prepared to go off deeper into the bush for my upcoming wilderness trail. We saw a lot of cool animals on the way including a pack of about 50 baboons with their newborns and a few street savvy giraffes with some not so aware drivers.
The wilderness trail was completely different from the previous game rides that I had taken. We were taken by two guides to a camp about an hour’s drive. The camp was definitely Spartan in that it only had 4 A-frame huts and a very modest kitchen and dining area. The area was surrounded by an electric fence to keep the surrounding animals from any late night snack searching. We sat around a small camp fire, and one of our guides told us what the next few days would have in store.
We got up at about 5 AM and set out when the first rays of sun shot across the horizon. Our two leaders, rifles in hand, opened the fence and one by one we stepped outside the wire. I was nervous at first because I had a car to protect me before. Now, I had to pray that the guides were great shots if we came across anything daunting. We had been hiking for about 3 hours when the guide alerted us that he had spotted an elephant and we were going to go in for a closer look. He informed us that elephants have a great sense of smell, but they don’t see very well. He reasoned that if we moved downwind and then approached it, we would be able to get relatively close before it felt threatened. I got within 30 feet of the noble animal before it seemed to notice me. It starred at me inquisitively and I looked back with equal curiosity. It was initially terrifying because of the sheer size of the animal and my defenselessness, but I eventually relaxed and was able to marvel at the fact that I was standing so close to such an amazing creature.
A few hours later we saw vultures circling overhead, and the guide gathered us around and indicated that there might have been a kill. Lions typically eat about once every 3 days, depending on the size of the pride, so it is a rare event if one actually got to witness a feast. We used the flock in the sky as our compass and found lion tracks on the way, but the lions had departed by the time we arrived. Lions have an excellent olfactory system, and we were told that it is rare to even get close to them on foot. Despite their reputation for ferocity towards humans, they actually tend to run at the sight of humans unless they feel that their young are being threatened. So we didn’t see any lions on foot, but it was a thrilling chase.
The next day was a lot of walking without a lot of sightings. We were walking up a fairly steep grade single file when the person in front of me stopped abruptly. I looked up a bit disoriented and saw the guide frantically motioning with his arm to move in the opposite direction. Still confused, I looked passed the guide and saw a white rhino about 20 feet ahead examining our moves. He had been eating and was not entertained by our sudden arrival. We retreated quickly and periodically looked back to observe his movements. The rhino decided we weren’t worth his time, and he resumed his meal.
The walking trek provided me with a lot of time for reflection. I realized a lot about myself, and I was finally able to process some of the events that had transpired in the past two and a half months. I reflected on who I was when I had arrived and what I had now become. I knew that my life had been affected, but I didn’t realize the profundity of the effect until I had that time in the bush to walk and contemplate. And then, before I knew it, I was out of Africa.