I’m going with the theory that a picture speaks a thousand words today, as you may have noticed. Above are about 30 pictures Dave and I took in Kruger Park over the last four days, and there are about 800 more where those came from. I don’t know if I’ll ever sort through them all. And don’t ask me to explain why there are 2-3 pictures of all the major animals and about 7 pictures of jackals because I really don’t understand it myself. I just really liked them. Maybe partially because I didn’t actually know they existed before. I’d heard the word but I guess I thought they were fantastical creatures like unicorns or jackrabbits, the latter of which might also actually exist come to think of it. But, I digress…
If the pictures don’t say enough, we’ve just come off a few of the most amazing days of my life. I can’t think of a more perfect day than spending sunrise to sunset on an open air vehicle, scanning the African savannahs for the animals I grew up looking at in books, or zoos when I was lucky. Who cares if it’s 100 degrees out? Not me anyway. Now, for the details…
We were told that the ride from Johannesburg to Kruger would take about 5-6 hours so, leaving at 7am, that should put us there around lunchtime easily. We hopped in our transfer mini-bus with 3 Argentinians (a father and 2 sons) and made ourselves comfortable. A short while in the driver announced we would be arriving between 5 and 6. 5 or 6 hours you mean, right? 5 or 6 pm. We’re taking the Panoramic Route. Dave’s proclivity to sea-sickness also translates to cars, so this is not great news, but there are 3 other passengers so there’s not too much we can do. The drive is beautiful, past many looking points, waterfalls, an old gold mining village, and the third largest canyon in the world.
However, as we’re moments away from pulling into our lodge, something amazing happened that made the long drive more than worthwhile all by itself. As we’re driving through a wooded area, I see a leopard, the most elusive of Big Five (and all of the other African) animals, just sitting there, staring at me, as if it’s the family dog welcoming us to the lodge! It was insane, and I couldn’t find my tongue fast enough. I’m stumbling over the words, trying to get the driver to stop until I finally just start pleading for him to reverse. Confused, he does so anyway, until everyone sees it-I wasn’t imagining it, it is indeed a leopard only meters from the road!! He’s walking away now, but everyone in the car has checked off the hardest portion of their Big Five list. The driver himself is ecstatic, telling us that he has never seen a leopard, and it’s a sign of good luck! He then starts thinking in a different direction, pointing out that we’re mere moments from the lodge and we’ll be participating in bushwalks through that area and leopards are also one of the most dangerous of wild animals. Evs, I’m on Cloud Nine for the rest of the night. Our lodge is on a gated off private sanctuary, but this leopard is not a full time member of the sanctuary. Since leopards can climb trees, jump high fences, and dig under fences no private game reserves actually house leopards. They just stop in from time to time and eat an impala as they see fit. Needless to say, I wasn’t even remotely prepared for this sighting and my camera was so deeply buried that I didn’t even attempt to get it out. Maybe that’s for the best though, I just got to enjoy the moment without the anxiety of trying to capture it. I’d kill for the picture to share with everyone, but at least I can see it with amazing clarity in my memory!
So, we hop off the bus, off to a great start. The lodge is very intimate with about 6 nice rooms, all of which face a courtyard with a small pool. Our room has AC which is hard to come by around here, but no TV, which turns out to be no problem at all. We’re told dinner is on the deck at 7:30 every night, so we grab a couple of showers and head up. I’m not going to detail every dinner but they were very nice with all the guests and the lodge guide seated around a dinner table sharing stories from their day each evening. It had a family feel to it, and the food was delicious. As with so many places here, it was a 3 course meal every night. Again, the food was absolutely delicious (which was part of the problem), but if I never see a 3 course meal again, I will be delighted. It’s just too much, especially when chased by an English breakfast.
On the two full day safari mornings though, you’re out the door by 5am with a reasonable brown paper bag for brunch. We got to Kruger around 6:30am on the first day and the heat of the oncoming day made itself clear pretty early on that morning, so it was a race against time to find the animals. That morning we managed to find impala (everywhere), wildebeest, warthogs, baboons, buffalo, giraffe, and elephants. The afternoon was extraordinarily hot and relatively unsuccessful, outside of some submerged hippo and crocodile heads and our first rhino that we almost missed at the same watering hole. Oh, and the most feared snake on the planet, the black mamba. We come across one dead and one alive. Both were on the road, where I can study them from a distance, assuming my open air vehicle will keep me safe. Alas, it was that day that I learned that they can rear up and carry 1/3 of their body in the air as they move. Awesome. Oh well, I’m still probably safe from the dead one. By late afternoon, the hunt was on for the lions-the only member of the Big Five (lions, leopards, elephants, buffalo, and rhino) that we hadn’t yet seen. The pressure was a little more intense for the Argentinians though, as this would be their only game drive in the Park whereas Dave and I had signed up for two. Try as we might, we simply could not find one. We found an adorable gathering of monkeys and baboons playing about, but not a single lion. The park gates close at 6pm so eventually we had to throw in the towel and call it a day, much to everyone’s disappointment.
The following day was a little different. The schedule had us at a conservancy in the morning, a center where they rehabilitated injured animals. As we were being given the introduction, chaos erupted, with employees running all over the place (literally), lots of whispers, and general panic. I could no longer focus on the introduction so when the head of the place (whom I could best describe as a deliciously mad character) entered the scene, I was looking forward to an answer. Apparently there was a US celebrity on the scene by the name of Steve Martin…the animal trainer, not the banjo player. And the wild dogs were to be fed a whole impala for the first time in 3 years as a demonstration as to how quickly they kill. It’s unclear to us if this impala is going to be brought out dead or alive, but fortunately it’s just been killed. The whole purpose in this endeavor however is to make a point against those people that want to get rid of all of the wild dogs because of the “inhumane” way they kill a prey-the pack tearing it apart while alive. The mad character’s point was that the animal is dead within a minute or two, unlike other predators that play with their kill for fun. So the wild dogs start making an eery, high-pitched noise and then they’re off to the races for their prey. The 6 dogs immediately work together ripping the impala apart and within minutes it’s completely unrecognizable. It’s also interesting because the alpha dog in the pack decides how long each dog gets to eat for. So as time passes he’ll charge at a dog (starting with the runt and then working up through the higher ranking dogs in the pack) and announce to him in his aggressive way that their time at the dinner table is up. All in all, it was extremely gory, but fascinating to watch.
A few hours later we had an afternoon/evening drive at a local private game reserve which could best be described as somewhat boring. I enjoy riding around so it was fine for me but otherwise the animals were lacking and Kruger Park was only an hour away so it was a little anti-climactic. Our driver was pretty cool though, and straight to the point as far as only stopping for Big Five, so that seemed promising at first. Unfortunately the Big Five did not cooperate and materialize (or more specifically the Big Two cats that I was really looking for).
The next and last day though…that was the day we’d been waiting for. From start to finish, it was fantastic. We were joined by two South African ex-pats, Wayne and Doreen, who could not have been nicer. And, most importantly, our guide Sue was great. When you’re only at Kruger for a couple of days, the big animals are plenty to keep you occupied as a visitor. But, as with any guide that’s spent years in “the bush”, birds become more and more fascinating, a fact I was aware of and nervous about. However, the bird stops ended up being reasonable, quick, and informative. I actually found myself somewhat interested. Check that, a better way to describe it would be that I could see myself being interested at some point, if given enough time.
Our first sighting was four jackals which I’ve already discussed to some extent and who are rarely seen due to their nocturnal nature. Our next sighting was equally rare, two spotted hyenas, the largest of the hyena species, and the most random animal Dave had wanted to see in Kruger. That also officially completed our “Ugly Five” checklist which we had learned about on our first drive (hyena, vulture, marabou stock, warthog, and wildebeest-the last of which seems undeserved). As it was Wayne and Doreen’s first and only drive, we stopped for all of the usual suspects, giraffes, elephants, warthogs etc., and got some great shots. Then breakfast, then lunch…and still, no lion. We get back on the truck after lunch though and Sue is a changed woman. In her own words, “a woman on a mission”. She’s flying down the road, ignoring elephants, giraffes, us, anything that’s not a lion…and then it happens. We see about four cars in the distance and as we zero in, we see….two lionesses under the tree!!! It would have been better if we’d spotted them ourselves, but we FINALLY found the lions, and in the middle of the day no less! They were laying only about 20 feet from us in the shade of a tree which was not great for pictures but at this point, I was just so grateful to see them. Our Big Five were finally completed! At lunch Dave had bought himself a Big Five shirt which must have been the confidence we needed!
The rest of the day was just gravy. There were many more elephants, giraffes, zebras, warthog, and baboons as we drove. Probably the most notable sight was what I like to call the anti-poaching conference which consisted of a group of 3 elephants and 7 or so rhinos all drinking out of the same water hole. And while we’d already seen several hippos under water in the 2 days at Kruger, we actually came upon 7 or so on top of the land later in the afternoon. And there was still another lion in our future-a male lion in the distance of a dried up river bank, so that Dave could now say that we’d finally seen a “real lion” to try unsuccessfully to get under my skin! On our way out of the park, we followed some circling vultures to a buffalo that had just given birth and was now eating the afterbirth to destroy any evidence for predators. And it all ended on the long drive home with the most amazing sunset Dave and I have ever seen together…
I guess I didn’t trust the pictures to speak a thousand words, but I truly meant to…now I have to go to bed …off to Uganda tomorrow! But before I go, I highly, highly recommend a 7-10 day trip to Capetown and Kruger, these are now two of my favorite places in the world.