Day 708 – 6 February, 2017
Perhaps the most famous game park in all of Africa, Kruger National Park lies on the border between South Africa and Mozambique. It’s home to the Big Five (lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino, and elephant), as well as just about every other creature that is associated with African safaris. I would be spending four days and three nights camping under a star-filled sky (when it wasn’t raining anyway!) with grunting hippos and roaring lions on my playlist. The campgrounds at Nkambeni Safari Camp were located at the far side of the property of a mid-scale resort. There was a large open-air dining room, opening out to the pool deck, which overlooked the hippo pools. The entire property was fenced in, shutting us behind the perimeter and allowing the exterior wilds to remain as such. At any given time, there would be several hippos submerged and blowing bubbles in the murky pond. Just when they would begin to get active, a wave of swimmers would jump out of the swimming pool, cameras ready.
Unlike some of the other game parks I have visited, Kruger is the most accessible from an international airport (Johannesburg) and therefore, the most visited and the most well-equipped. Activities are mostly well-organized, but they pack the visitors in and you are rarely alone while game-viewing. You can book a tour or self-drive and as long as you pay the entrance fee, everyone is welcome. Sidenote: I am a strong supporter of a guided tour, budget notwithstanding. On nine safaris, I have rarely spotted an elusive animal without the help of my guide. Scanning the tall grass or dense bush for the flick of a tail or a triangle-shaped ear can be exhausting after a few hours, but the guides are trained and experienced with finding the big ticket items. And when all else fails, they have a radio so they can ask another guide if they have found anything good. Don’t self-drive a safari unless you have a really good eye!
Right at 4:00, we were holding on to the roll bars as our jeep joined the parade of other jeeps that were all bound for a sundowner in the park. A sundowner, as defined in South Africa, is an African tradition that mostly centers on imbibing a cocktail in a jaw-droppingly picturesque location while watching the sun go down, obviously. Fun fact…the drink of choice in colonial times was a good old-fashioned gin & tonic because the quinine in the tonic is a natural mosquito repellent. True story. It really works! If you drink enough so that you are sweating through a G&T hangover, it will even work for days afterward. I mean….or so I’m told…
A pride of lions had been hanging out in the area of our sundowner for the previous few days so we went straight there to see what might be found. We were joined by several more jeeps that all had the same plan in mind. Radios were on fire as guides checked in with other guides as to the whereabouts of the lions, but no one had seen them in more than 24 hours. We drove up to a rocky lookout where our guide set up a small table of bubbly and the option for a shot of amarula, a cream liqueur made from the marula tree. Because elephants love to eat the fruit of the marula tree, this liqueur is often associated with elephants and sales go toward conservation. With an alcohol content of 17%, I could only stand a sip, but it warmed my throat with a sweet caramel aftertaste.
As the sun began to set, we were warned to stay close to the jeep in case the lions were about. The sky changed from orange to fuchsia to dark purple. With colors that vibrant, we were enchanted and warmed with bubbles from the sparkling wine before we loaded back in the jeep. The park has a strict policy of closing at 6:00pm and we were due to be stamped out on time when we heard on the radio that the lions did turn up exactly where we were looking for them earlier. This was a huge disappointment as we were too far away to turn back. But then something else…a few meters ahead another jeep was parked next to the road as the sky grew darker and darker. They were shining a spotlight in the grass. Only meters away two males lions did not seem at all bothered by the light in their eyes. In fact, they seemed rather bored by it all. Turns out the lions we missed were the females that belonged to this coalition of two. It would have been dangerous (and rude!) to use a flash so mostly we just watched them lie there while they waited for us to go away. Definitely unforgettable to be that close to such big cats in the dark. It wasn’t until we drove away into a black void that you realize how vulnerable we, as humans, are out there in the bush. Our headlights were on low and you could barely see a shape a few meters in front of your face. We received a scolding from the park ranger when we finally exited the main gate. “It’s dangerous out there!,” he said. Duly noted.
The next day the climate was sunny and warm. It appeared the weather was going to cooperate for our full-day game drive. We began early and expectations were high. This was Kruger, after all, one of the best places to safari in the entire world. We drove up and down some paved roads and then turned on to dusty tracks, then gravel roads and then more rutted dusty tracks. And we got nothin’. Maybe there was an antelope or two or some birds, but the landscape was almost entirely barren of life. I refused to give up and stayed alert with my eyes peeled on the horizon the whole time. I was determined to get better at this wildlife-spotting skill. Most of my safari companions were either dozing off or flipping through their photos.
We stopped for a bathroom break at a super touristy canyon with a restaurant and a museum complex. Many of the other patrons seemed to be recounting the same story from the morning. The park was almost vacant. A Swiss woman on my tour expressed some harsh words to our guide as if she was blaming the guide for the lack of sightings. The mood of the day was quickly deteriorating. As we left the tourist complex, I noticed that our guide was no longer even looking for animals, whether this was because she was jaded by the Swiss woman or whether she knew it was too late and too hot in the day I don’t know. I stared at the horizon even harder, thinking it was perhaps all up to me to salvage this safari, when there was a traffic jam in the road ahead. Several jeeps parked in the same spot seemed promising, but it was only a pair of vultures, the most exciting sight anyone had seen all day.
We prepared to drive around the other cars when someone motioned our guide to look the other way. A female cheetah, in plain sight, was scanning the row of cars with unapologetic boredom. She was lying beneath an acacia tree to shelter from the harsh sun; she yawned while the passengers of our jeep were immediately on alert. When questioned why a cheetah is my favorite of all the African wildlife, it must be because I appreciate their vulnerability and how difficult it is to thrive in their harsh environment. They are constantly on watch for lions and leopards, who wouldn’t hesitate to take out the competition. Because of this, they must hunt during the day when it’s hot and when their prey can see them coming. Built for speed and not stamina, they must be within a close distance before even attempting a hunt so even best-laid plans can be thwarted by warning calls from birds or baboons or a breeze that carries their scent in the wrong direction. And because of this, many of their hunts fail. If they do catch their prey, maybe a tasty gazelle or youthful hartebeest, they must suffocate it first before eating because the kicking hooves of an antelope are dangerous weapons to a fragile cheetah. And THEN if they do catch it and kill it unscathed, they must eat quickly for fear that a hyena, wild dog, lion, leopard or even a baboon may steal it away. Not to mention human conflict with farmers and local communities…all this stress for an adult cheetah and, obviously, a cheetah cub suffers even worse odds with a 70% mortality rate in the wild. It’s a rough life and it would be difficult not to appreciate those who persevere.
We watched our cheetah in the tall grass for a good beat while many of the other vehicles grew bored and drove away. Suddenly, she sat up and, looking to her right, seemed slightly nervous. Then she would look to her left, shoulders hunched, with binocular vision trained on something in the distance. Glancing back to the right, cautiously, then left, hunching again. She repeated this a few more times before she finally committed to her hunch, drawing her slender legs into a full crouch, moving forward. We surmised that perhaps she had a cub to the right and she was waging an internal struggle against leaving her cub versus a possible meal to the left. However, our human eyesight could see neither of these things. She began a wide arc, creeping through the bush while we inched along in our jeep, trying to follow her progress until she disappeared. Effortlessly, she glided like a ghost and occasionally, we could see her spots if only in our imagination. Several hundred meters ahead, some impala were grazing next to the road, completely oblivious to any potential danger. Our guide was impressed. She was sure that our cheetah had seen these impala and was planning to circle around in order to force them onto the road. Hooved feet are not meant for running on asphalt so if our smart girl could force a chase on the road, then she could gain an advantage. We had lost sight of her, but we pulled forward to wait.
New cars were arriving on the scene, but because the cheetah was out of sight they thought we were only admiring the impala. One car drove around us and honked at the impala to get out of the way. Other cars that were more patient going the opposite direction waited for the impala to cross, but without any interest. We didn’t know exactly what to expect, but whatever it might be, we were hushed and ripe with anticipation. First, one impala picked her head up, ears perked, sniffing the air. Then, several impala stood perfectly still trying to detect what was happening. Suddenly, everyone was running. Straight across the asphalt, gangly limbs were fleeing for their lives just before the graceful gait of our cheetah appeared out of nowhere. One impala slipped when trying to make a tight turn on the road, but was able to recover in the chaos and the chase continued out of our sight in the bush on the other side. We don’t know if she actually caught an impala that day, but the thrill of the hunt and the chase gave every witness a boost of adrenaline that will be difficult to match.
Two cars that were driving the opposite way pulled forward after the last of the animals were out of the road. One older couple pulled next to us and made a snarky comment about us scaring the impala. We were still breathless and a little in shock after having seen such a lucky sight and they were puzzled by our excitement. Even though they had actually been closer to the chase than we were, they had entirely missed the cheetah because they weren’t expecting her. When we told them what had happened, their jaws hung open in unadulterated disappointment.
Our day was almost over, but from that point on, the landscape came to life. Elephants and a troop of baboons were the standouts on what turned out to be a remarkable day at Kruger National Park.
The next day we drove our safari truck outside of the park on the Panorama Route to see South Africa’s famous Blyde River Canyon, Three Rondavels, Bourke’s Luck Potholes, God’s Window and Berlin Falls. The Canyon, marked for its stunning views over the Klein Drakensberg escarpment, is crowned by the Three Rondavels, which are pillars of dolomite rock rising from the far wall. Their domed peaks dominate the landscape and it is impressive to be sure.
The Potholes are a geological marvel. Over thousands of years the swirling water has created cylindrical cavities in the red and yellow rock and it was a beautiful place to shield our picnic lunch from bold baboons.
The drive was strikingly beautiful and lived up to its name as the Panorama Route, although God’s Window was a little unremarkable. I guess I’ve found when a landmark claims such a title as God’s Window and your expectations are set as such, said landmark will rarely live up to a lofty name like this. Sorry for being a killjoy, but it was just ok.
The last morning we were scheduled for a bush walk. We were meant to actually walk with armed guards into the park itself, to be one with the natural environment. Nature had other plans. The rain came down in sheets. I could hear it battering the canvas of my tent as I was cozy in my sleeping bag. I was willing someone to tell me if they would be canceling the walk without me going outside. Reluctantly, I donned my raincoat, waterproof pants, and what I learned were not waterproof at all, my new hiking shoes. The only other two campers from my group had decided to skip the walk. It was still dark when I trudged to the lodge to meet the rest of my group that was nowhere to be found. Other people were milling about in various stages of rain gear when I spotted my guide, looking cold and wet. He assured me we would go on as scheduled and the rest of the group was coming. I waited and waited…and waited as other members decided to show up one at a time. Forty five minutes late we finally departed. This group of tourists was truly the worst, not bothering to care or apologize that the guide and me had been standing in the rain.
The heaviest downpour was beginning to subside, but new ponds and torrents of water blocked our progress into the park. We tried several different paths only to be turned around when the water became too deep to wade through. On foot, the bush takes on a whole new character and your senses are heightened with every sound and every movement in your periphery. We didn’t really expect to see any wildlife (or rather hoped we wouldn’t), but it was a unique experience to gain such an intimate perspective of the bushveld. Just before our time was up, we came upon a herd of Cape Buffalo. The Cape Buffalo maintains its place in Africa’s Big Five, but in my opinion, they are the least exciting one to see from a safari vehicle. Barely more than big mean cows, I’ve never been overwhelmed with spotting one, but from the ground and eye-level…that’s intense! I held my breath when the closest bull stopped grazing and stared us down, this gangly group of noisy humans. There’s no sneaking up on anyone when you’re wearing waterproof pants! The bull quickly decided we were too ridiculous to be dangerous and went back to chewing cud.
We returned to camp for a last breakfast of organic eggs and thick cut bacon. The rain had stopped and the humidity was starting to sink in. I had been sleeping in my tent alone for the previous three nights and I had chosen a nice patch under a tree for shade, but when my guide offered to help me break it down I gratefully accepted his help. I stood under the tree, holding up the lowest-hanging branches while he gave the whole tent a sharp tug to move it more into the open. A mere six inches from my feet a mildly venomous red-lipped snake was coiled in the dirt. I jumped backward, obviously, only to bump into the tree and rebound somewhat back in the direction of the snake. While I was being a klutz, the snake now realized that his shelter was gone and he started to stir. Adrenaline-pumping, I finally recovered out of striking distance while the guide was yelling to our other guide/cook to come and identify the snake. With all the commotion, a few people from other camps came closer with cameras ready. Wait…where’s MY camera?? The fact that I had been sleeping with a snake needed to be documented. I bolted back to the truck to get my camera and returned just in time for the snake to panic amidst the paparazzi and disappear into a hole in the ground a few meters away.
South Africa, with all its charms and all its beauty, had truly left an impression on me. It was the first time I felt truly heartbroken about leaving a continent. I wasn’t ready, but I assured myself I would be back one day. There are many challenges to traveling in Africa and dangers, real or perceived, but the previous 4 months with unmatched wildlife encounters and wild beautiful landscapes, friendly people and simple lifestyles made it all worthwhile.
My last two days in Johannesburg were spent working on some technical difficulties and ultimately, buying a new iPad when I couldn’t recover my old one. In what would turn out to be the most dangerous city I visited on my travels so far, I was commuting with the locals to the business district and camped out at the new modern iStore for nearly 8 hours in one day. A TV was turned to CNN International at the mall. I hadn’t watched (or even seen) a television in more than 4 months. It was the 10th of February. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had just unanimously voted to block Mr. Trump’s travel ban. Kellyanne Conway had just pitched Ivanka Trump’s clothing line as if she worked for Home Shopping Network. The Washington Post was reporting that US National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was privately discussing US sanctions against Russia with the Russian ambassador and then lied to the US Vice President about it. And there was also some Presidential tweeting. Thank you, CNN International, for reminding me why I don’t want to go home