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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Vacation: Kruger National Park

Standing atop the Topic of Capricorn.
One day shy of 14 months since we hugged goodbye, my sister Kathy and I were hugging at OR Tambo Airport in Johannesburg. It was her birthday, but I think the present was mine as we set out on a 23 day adventure in South Africa and Lesotho.

Kathy, fellow PCV Tracy, and I rented a car and headed out for Kruger National Park. Everyone we encountered along the way told us this was the perfect time to visit, and it turns out they were correct. In our days in Kruger, we identified 26 mammals, 1 reptile (plus an unidentified blue lizard), and 44 birds. By the end of winter, many smaller water sources have dried up, forcing animals to congregate in larger numbers. The visibility is also better as Africa's scrub and brush has not grown for a few months and has been eaten or trampled.

Regardless of this, I suspect visiting Kruger any time of year would be absolutely amazing. The national park is incredibly well run, their staff was always professional, the camps were always clean and fostered a sense of nature despite being in camp with hundreds of other people. As a resident of a small village in Lesotho, I found everything I read about the camp shops, however, to be laughable. Reports in books and online suggest the shops are understocked and do no have much variety, but compared to what I have access to on a daily basis, each of the small shops I saw was incredible with a variety of drinks, souvenirs, camping and barbecue supplies, and foods I can only get in Lesotho. And the animals...they are everywhere. We saw all of the “Big Five” (lion, leopard, water buffalo, rhinoceros, and elephant); in fact we saw all by the rhino two or more times!

Tracy's birthday
Tracy, Kathy, and I were a perfect pairing for this adventure, as we all preferred to cook in the communal kitchens or brai (barbecue in Africa) at our huts rather than enjoying fast food at the camp restaurants. We celebrated both Kathy and Tracy's birthdays, enjoyed a night drive, and shivered our way through a dawn drive. Kathy drove every day in the park, somehow still spotting most animals first and also managing to line up perfect photography moments for both the front and back seat. Both women were willing to accept and even support my bird nerd moments.

Our trip to Kruger was supposed to end after three full days. We exited the park as planned at the Phalaborwa gate with visions of visiting the Amarula factory and Blyde River Canyon in our heads. Unfortunately, this is Africa and nothing every goes exactly as planned. It turned out that Phalaborwa was completely blockaded by striking mine workers and it was too dangerous to try leaving, even via backroads. As a result, we found ourselves with a fourth and very long day inside the park before driving five more hours to get closer to Johannesburg our last day.

Here are a few of the most memorable animal encounters:

The Dawn Drive:
We were absolutely freezing in the early morning. I was thrilled to see dawn, but disappointed to realize that did not mean warmth. We turned down the road of the previous day's Great Elephant Encounter. Soon, our guide started acting differently; stopping and starting, craning his neck, opening his door, looking around, then slamming it again. Suddenly, in a tree on our right, I saw red. “Stop!” I yelled, finally alert and unaware of the cold. “There's something in that tree!”

As we backed up, it became clear we were looking at a fresh leopard kill in the tree. We spent the next ten minutes trying to spot the cat we knew to be nearby before I finally found her in some grasses 150 yards from tree. We watched her lurk her way back to a hidden spot behind the tree, admiring her grace but unable to get a clear shot. Even without a picture, the sighting was incredible and let us completely check off the Big Five.

The Great Elephant Encounter:
Moments before the excitement began...
We drove from Letaba Camp to Shingwedzi, arriving midafternoon. After settling in, we decided to head out for a bit. We drove North, choosing a dirt road that paralleled a river. We weren't seeing anything new or profoundly exciting-impala, giraffe, hornbills-and we were approaching the end of the road when we came upon a large herd of elephants.

The broached both sides of the road, dining. We sat patiently, watching while waiting for them to move on as the other herds we had encountered always had. As we watched, we noticed the cutest baby elephants. We were awed by the adorable foursome. They raced and played like children, which was fine until their race brought them close to our stationary car. Two large Mommas stopped eating and slowly approached, ears waved menacingly. Kathy put the car in reverse and backed up a dozen feet or so until the elephants relaxed.

As we began to relax too, an elephant that had been eating off to the right came running towards us at a 45 degree angle. Kathy noticed the charge first and flew into reverse as I watched her continue to charge. Like a champ, Kathy backed up faster than the elephant's run and far enough for the elephant to give up. We watched them a few minutes longer before realizing they were not going to leave the road and we would need to turn around to get back to camp before the gates closed.

On our way out, we warned two cars of the protective road block ahead. We toyed with two other dirt roads before reaching camp, but saw them blocked by large elephant herds so we gave up and went home. Kathy now has elephant induced PTSD.

Daily Dose of Lions:
-Day One-Weak Sighting
It was our distance day, driving 220km from Pretoriuskop to Letaba. On an open stretch of road, we saw 2-3 dozen cars parked; mostly SUVs and open safari vehicles. We craned our necks in our little rental and could just see the top of two lions, although they were virtually unidentifiable we saw so little.
-Day 2-Sleepy Couple
On a dirt road, we found a group of 4-5 cars and trucks, marking a male and female pair not 150 yards from the road. The female was hard to see well, but the male posed for a multitude of photos.
-Day 3-Two Boys-
We were still high on the leopard sighting when our guide paused to talk to some workers. Since they were not speaking English, I tuned out, but Kathy's ears perked up when she heard “Lions!” Sure enough, 2km later, we saw two males basking in the early morning light on a riverbank. We had apparently missed a pack of lady lions roaming the roads during our leopard moment but these two guys were clearly and easily spotted.
-Day 4-Bird Blind
We did not see any new birds species when we stopped at the remote bird blind, but across the river were two female lions just “lion around” (Thank you, Lion King) and sleeping.
-Day 4-Lion Jam
Lions, apparently, also bring out the worst in the people of Kruger. As we tried to head our towards the Orpen gate to start the long drive back towards Joberg, we found ourselves trapped by a dozen cars, campers, and trucks with trailers. Some were only trying to get through, but most had parked in an attempt to get a good look at a lion in a hard to see spot. We, however, only became frustrated and therefore did not even try to sneak a peak as we cursed at the cars and inched our way through the mess.

Leopard Modeling:
As I mentioned, there was not supposed to be a fourth day in Kruger. We were supposed to have moved on but the striking mineworkers changed our plans for us and thus we found ourselves with eleven hours of driving, six in Kruger on Thursday. The park, apparently, tried to make it up to us with some great animal sightings. The highlight of these was our second leopard.

Only a few kilometers from a rest camp (aka bathroom break), we found four cars stopped but saw nothing. We asked the first vehicle and learned they saw a leopard. We stopped, cameras at the ready. And the large male decided to grace us with phenomenal views. He walked on the right side of the road for a bit, to get clear of the brush. Then, he crossed directly in front of our car, paused on the left side, and continued into the brush.

As we drove away, we laughed at our luck and all the people who would be searching for leopard that day when one literally stopped us in our path.  

See More Photos from the Entire August Vacation: Kruger, Cape Town, and Lesotho.

August 24, 2015

1 comment:

Cheryl Freye said...

Beth, this trip sounds incredible! So glad you got to share it with Kathy.