Monday, 12 December 2011

the amazing “tails” of kruger

Since our flight into Johannesburg had been delayed by 2 hours we were cutting it close to make it out of Johannesburg during daylight hours.  We’d read that it was not a good idea to drive at night as both locals and animals tend to cross the road and often are hit.  During our drive from the airport to Waterbovan (3 hours) we finally understood what everyone meant - the locals hitch-hike all along the freeway and randomly run out to cross the road if they think a car might be slowing down.  It made driving stressful as you always had to be very alert and wary about whether someone was about to dart out in front of the car.

Thanks to Dave’s safe driving we arrived no problems to our accommodation, Aloeha Guest House, which turned out to be a fantastic find.  A tranquil get away, massive bedroom with a kitchen and a veranda that overlooked a bubbling brook.  We were happy to have arrived and slept early as we wanted to make an early start the next day to get into Kruger as soon as possible.

birdOn the way to Kruger we stopped in Nelspruit at a massive department store to stock up on all the much needed camping supplies (e.g. a camping mattress for Sarah as hers was stolen before even getting to Malawi, and also some cooking utensils and fuel for all the ‘Braai’s’ we planned to have).  After spending much to much time shopping (it seemed a bit surreal to be in a massive department store again as it had been months…) we were finally on our way – in proper road trip style – 2 take away coffees and meat pies sitting next to us.  We entered the park at the Crocodile Gate, the furthest gate to the South, as our first night was to be spent in the Lower Sabie camp ground.

As soon as we entered the animal spotting began.  We drove passed a huge white rhino sleeping in a dried up river bed looking not nearly as enthusiastically at as us as we were at him... and then giraffes wandered by and we did the courteous thing and signalled to next drivers about our finds, yet they all seemed to be rather disinterested. Crazy people, don’t they want to see a a beautiful giraffe standing next to the road munching on a tree? It was one of the most amazing things we’d ever seen – but after seven days, even though it was still amazing, we knew why they weren't jumping for their cameras!

elephantsWe spent 2 nights in Lower Sabie camp, which uninventively gains its name from the fact that it sits on the lower part of the Sabie river. The camp itself was very nice with all the facilities you could ask for while camping (including electric stoves, so no need for wood/charcoal if that’s not your thing), or if you prefer some luxury, you could also stay in a hut. The restaurant and terrace had beautiful views over the river with hippos wandering around in the distance at dusk, while herds of buffalo meandered past on the opposite side.

During our first full day at Lower Sabie we made the mistake of driving away from the river (i.e the water source for the animals) and set out west which only really produced kilometre after kilometre of dry river beds with a few lonely giraffes and the odd rhino. We stopped by the hippo pools to see a few lazy hippos sleeping and checked out a cave painting, but it was a bit hit or miss there for viewing too. The lesson we learnt quickly was – don’t stray too far away from water in the dry season!

cheetahOver the next few days we saw a cheetah and her cubs feasting on an impala – it was amazing to see them all eating together while being slowly being surrounded by a massive herd of buffalo! We thought there was going to be a stampede but the cheetahs just picked up the impala carcass and started running around playing with its various exposed organs and torn limbs without a care in the world, despite the audible grunting and snorting sound coming from the surrounding buffalo (which we could hear over 100 metres away!).It was a surprise to us that predator and prey could be in such close proximity and not seem to fazed….

lion and killAmongst numerous sightings of elephants, heaps of birds (we had fun trying to identify them all from our guide book), lions in the far distance, herds of buffalo, hippos fighting and farting in the pools, crocodiles lazing next to the hippos  and the odd rhino, we took the time to do a famed sunset drive from the camp. It lived up to the hype as within 10 minutes we sighted two lionesses guarding a buffalo carcass they’d killed that morning.  The lionesses had just finished taking another snack from the body (it can and did take them over a day to finish it as there was only two of them) and managed to drag themselves onto the sun warmed road to rest their fat bellies and digest the last portion of their meal.  They didn’t look terribly pleased that we’d interrupted their siesta as they were panting heavily, almost wincing from indigestion.  They were extremely beautiful to see up close and, after a reminder a hasty from the guide, David withdraw his arm from outside of the truck where he’d been focused on taking photos as they could still easily bite off an offered piece of meat in the blink of an eye!

sercatOn the same trip we also saw a rare sercat (a miniature leopard-like cat), a baby rhino and its mother walking around in the dark and two gigantically fat hippos (one was a baby) who were a fair distance from the river bed, which apparently is quite common as they protect their skin in the water by day and wander around at night (sometimes for several kilometres while looking for tasty grass).

The next day we went back to the scene of the lionesses crime to find a hundred vultures (of the tourist and bird variety), so we took our small car and wedged it amongst the various safari vehicles and 4WDs, resulting in a direct view of both the carcase and the lionesses wandering past our open window.  The lionesses would change roles from resting to guarding and then chase away the vultures and a nearby jackal who was also circling the kill. lionesseWhile Dave was photographing a comical vulture who was approaching the carcass by walking sideways and pretending he wasn't interested in it, a lioness had circled around the side of our car to Sarah's window and made a sudden run (towards the car) then circled around to chase off the Monty Python vulture.  Before the lion even reached the front of the car, Sarah was sitting in the drivers seat after giving out a rare girly scream in fear that the lioness was going to jump in the window. It took Sarah a good 10 minutes to relax and reopen the window again!

From Lower Sabie we moved onto Satara Camp, which was also well equipped, but a bit more barren than Satara.  We pitched our tiny tent and headed back out on safari to return later and find a French-Belgium family had pitched their tent pretty much one meter away from ours – and looked rather offended that we dared to come back and invade their space! Considering the camp ground was enormous and 90% empty, we “picked” up (the tent) and moved the next morning right next to the fence where we saw (unfortunately tame) hyenas and a few buffalo wandering the fence line at dusk. Sarah managed to accidently provoke a giant buffalo who rammed the fence in retaliation for daring to take a closer look at him.

buckWe were up at 4am the next morning in an attempt to go on the morning walk, but we ended up in the middle of a giant lightening storm – which while it was impressive, wasn’t really conducive to seeing a lot of wildlife and so we had to abandon the walk (but not before getting saturated).  Before the storm hit we did learn about the infamous dung beetles who are actually ‘controlled’ by symbiotic mites which ‘guide’ them to the dung piles that they then roll around into balls which helps it to decompose. Interestingly, our guide told a story about when the Australian Government (assumingly the CSIRO) imported a million or so dung beetles to control our ‘dung’ problem which was causing a fly epidemic.  (Apparently we have too much dung laying around…)  The problem was that the over zealous geniuses at our border put the beetles through a sterilising technique before releasing them into the wild. However, when the beetles were released they basically walked around in circles, not able to find any dung to roll up, and all died out. The Australians got angry and demanded to know why the dung beetles lost their appetite for dung. It turns out that our (again) genius’ in Oz had killed all the mites on the beetles when they sterilised them, so they lost their friends who actually steer them towards the dung.  Way to go Australia! They then politely asked for another million or so dung beetles, but this time left the mites intact.

elephantThe next few days were productive in terms of sightings, having learnt our lesson to stay near water we took the less travelled roads (if there are any in Kruger!) and managed to come across some amazing sights including enormous herds of elephants playing with each other in the water holes, with teenage bulls fighting ferociously causing audible cracks of tusks smashing together and a few underhanded (under trunked?) dirty tactics of splashing water in the others face before charging. It was like being on the set of a movie, the highlight being watching a baby elephant suckling from it’s mother and another baby who wandered frequently down to the water to stare at his own reflection.

lionOn our way back to camp in the afternoon we commented how disappointing it was that we hadn’t managed to find any lions of our ‘own’. All the lions we’d seen so far had been either hundreds of meters away, or the human to lion ration was so high it wasn’t worth staying to fight the hustle. We mused out loud that the road we were driving on, which had been full of animals was only lacking some lazy lions just sitting by the road – which was completely feasible since there were buffalo, impala and zebra in abundance with water nearby. After driving a little further we noticed something sticking its head of the grass curiously to see what animal dared to approach. Lions! Not one, but five of them.. and they were all BIG males.. Having not seen anyone for literally hours, we were confident we had these lions to ourselves and parked the car up close for some photos.

Lions are truly incredible creatures close up, one lion appeared to the on guard while the four others laid around in various positions of sleep (including one who looked like he wanted his tummy rubbed).  The lion on guard was less than one metre from the car who didn’t seem too phased by the car but stared at us curiously and then quickly looked bored. We were so close we could see into his remarkable eyes, see the tiny scars on his ears and nose along with his giant paws resting with his claws retracted. Even now and again he would lay down after judging us not to be an edible treat…. until it was Sarah's turn to be on the ‘close’ side of the lions. After turning the car around so Sarah could have a closer look, the lion propped up and stared intently, direct at Sarah, opened his mouth to show his very, very sharp looking teeth and let out a very low but scary grow in her direction. He then sat there alert and staring at a nervous Sarah who had one finger on the power window button and insisted Dave kept the car in gear in case he made the lion decided she looked like dinner – Meanwhile, Dave was delighted at the new pose and just kept taking photos!

After spending 45 minutes with the lions by ourselves, we had to continue home as you have to be in each camp by sunset curfew – the sighting had been by far the highlight of our Safari with it being indescribable how it feels to be so close to a real, live lion who was considering us as a potential dinner dish.

6328634776_ae302c859aOn the way home we came across two giraffes in the middle of the road – and they seemed to be acting a little strange…  at first we thought they were getting in the mood for some spring lovin’, but we quickly realised they were both males and actually ‘fighting’. It was extremely funny to watch as basically,one giraffe would dip down really low and then with his neck swing up in an arc in an attempt to hit the other giraffe’s neck with his head. This went on for about 10 minutes in an awkward display of giraffe heads missing each other and necks getting tangled. We suspect they we both young and in training as they had no scars and their coats were very vibrant.  Feeling embarrassed for the poor giraffes “fighting” and running out of daylight; we pressed on, racing the beautiful sunset to our camp gate.

From there it was onto Skikuza camp (which is an enormous camp comparatively) where we braved another 4am morning to redo our previously failed attempt at a morning walk. The guide was equally as friendly and enthusiastic as the last attempt, and the driver seemed equally surly and standoffish! We also had a good group apart from one Dutch guy who thought he was Rambo (and dressed appropriately to afford this nickname) and his girlfriend who thought she was a BBC Safari Photographer, risking her life (literally) for photos… with her tiny point and shoot camera.

Before the walk even started we managed to spot three cheetahs from the jeep walking along the side of the road (we saw a total of eight cheetahs in a week – pretty cool!). The walk was interesting and educational.  Our guide explained that lions, cheetahs and leopards don’t eat thestork harder bones of a kill, for example the jaw bone, whereas the Hyena will eat everything, so you can identify what animal is in the vicinity.  After being amazed at the power of a Hyenas jaw, we walked straight into the path of one. He was quite large for a Hyena and slunk off once he spotted us.  Of course, Rambo and wife broke the protective formation again to get a photo and couldn’t understand the guide’s angry tone when he said he’d rather not shoot the animal if it charged them.

A little further we came across a white rhino, who was a dominate male guarding his territory…. and he was HUGE. We had seen rhinos inside the car from a distance, but standing in the bush staring at one was really intimidating.  Interestingly, the rhino ran off and then suddenly stopped, turned around and stared at us from behind a bush. The guide explained that he was waiting to see if we’d follow, as if we had been another rhino interested in challenging his territory we would charged him.  The guide also explained that rhino’s have excellent hearing but very poor eye-sight, so the sound of a 12 legged creature walking towards him (we were in a line) probably freaked him out a little!

zebraThe final night we spent in Pretoriuskop camp and feasted on damper and chicken surrounded by impalas (who we hoped wouldn’t decide our washing on the line was a tasty treat during the night).  The next morning we packed up for the final time, bid a sad farewell to Kruger – promising to be back one day – and began the next leg of our journey.  Onwards to Cape Town!

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