|Well, here it is, finally: my safari report. Better late than never. On Monday, as the sun rose, we headed East on the N4 towards East Pretoria. The scenery was flat, bleak and boring to start with, with bumper-to-bumper commuter traffic (luckily all going the other way).
We stopped to fill our Volkswagen Kombi tank and came across this road sign. Crime is very rife in Johannesburg. Almost all rural homes, like the one in which I stay, have electrified fencing, huge spike-topped electric gates to impale aggressors, and razor wire surrounding the property – seriously! Apparently if a driver goes to sleep in his truck at this truck stop, he’ll wake to find all his tyres gone – hence the warning.
“When do we see some real African scenery”, I complained, as we continued to speed across this flat, dry land. Suddenly things changed, hills appeared, and dry plains gave way to more exciting terrain.
This sign gave us a laugh. It’s actually the name of the local river. We crossed them all – Snake River, Crocodile River (below) and the Jungle River – they are all famous waterways of the region. As you can see, there’s no rain at present. It’s dry season.
Our team of three entered Mpumalanga province around mid-morning. If none of these place names sound familiar, it’s because these are the ‘new’ names that replace the ‘old’ Afrikaaner names. Mpumalanga (meaning ‘a place where the sun rises’) is actually not a ‘new’ name at all, but simply what the original inhabitants used to call it. This used to be known as East Transvaal. Got it? Most of South Africa is undergoing this name change phenomena.
We stopped at the famous Sudwala Caves. The series of subterranean caverns are one of South Africa’s major attractions. The caves are purported to be about 2,000 million years old and contain not only stalagmites and stalagtites, but also the fossilised remains of ‘collenia’, a form of algae that (it is believed!) life on earth evolved from. Mmm…so the tour guide said.
As the morning progressed, the scenery became quite magnificent. Flat dry plains gave way to subtropical ‘low veldt’ – orange orchards, sugar cane farms, lychee plantations, mango groves, and lush fields of vegetables, including some more unusual crops like Cape aloe (the leaves are used to make snuff) and these prickly pear farms that are cultivated for their fruits.
We took another break in a cultural centre and had a browse around. The place was full of monkeys who scampered and leaped everywhere.
Here I am, posing with an old and wizened local inhabitant.
And me again, in a traditional grass home. Apparently these thatch cottages are very cool in summer, and warm in winter.
Our van pulled in to our accomodation for the night, a wonderful old mango plantation, just as the sun started to dip low on the horizon. We quickly unpacked and rushed off for our evening game drive at Kruger Park. Don’t let the name ‘park’ fool you. This is serious countryside, and it covers an area the size of the United Kingdom. The Numbi Gate was our closest entrance.
There we met our driver for the night, Thomas from Limpopo Province.
Apparently it is not common to see all the big five African animals in any one day – Lion, Buffalo, Leopard, Elephant and Rhino – in fact, very rare. And what to speak of at night. Thomas reckoned he had not seen a lion for 2 weeks. He was trying to not raise our hopes of seeing anything other than the ubiquitous Impala.
We set off down the sandy tracks in an open but safe flatbed vehicle with seats. Impala hopped and grazed everywhere. The moon, almost full, was beautifully situated in the sky, gracing us with its cooling rays that replaced the sun as it sank below the vast horizon.
Suddenly some Kudu, strikingly beautiful antelopes, came into view. Our driver, almost salivating, explained how they are delicious to eat, a statement that we chose to greet with silence. Then more antelopes, Elands, and Gazelle bucks clashing horns in territorial fighting.
Our first big animal sighting was from the top of a hill. We looked out onto a expansive water hole below and saw a large group of Hippos wallowing in the water, almost submerged. Hippos are not part of the ‘big five’ but they are big nevertheless. I didn’t take this photo, but the scene was pretty much the same.
All the while our driver was communicating by radio with other drivers. Suddenly he put his foot down on the accelerator. Apparently there was a lion sighting. As we sped down a track we almost collided with a massive White Rhino Bull that suddenly burst out from some bushes, hurtled across the road like an armoured car, and disappeared into the scrub. He must have weighed a thousand kilos. Number one of our Big Five sighting.
It was almost nightfall as we slowly approached our second Big Five member – a pregnant lioness marking her territory as she looked for a spot to give birth, occasionally yawning and stretching out on the warm evening road. She was cautious of our vehicle, but relaxed enough to allow us to come within one metre. We followed her for about 45 minutes until she sauntered off into the dense grasses, looking for her evening kill. All my photos of this event were not suitable since the light was so poor.
A herd of black buffalo wandered down the roadside towards us. Make that sighting number three. Our driver told us that we were fortunate to see so many big animals in our first 2 hours.
By now it was pitch black, and the only way to see anything was with the aid of our powerful spotlights, scanning the bush for tell-tale eyes staring back. By the end of the night we had sighted a Mozambique Nightjar, a massive Fish Eagle, some bats, a Bush Baby jumping from thorn tree to thorn tree in an amazing display of acrobatic finesse, a Scrub Hare, some grazing Duiker Bucks, a Spotted Genet (cat-like, but in the mongoose family) and a lone Jackal.
Next morning we drove back to the park in our own vehicle for some early sightings. Sunrise over the parklands was quite a awesome experience.
Our first morning fauna were many herds of Zebra, who were grazing in still-smouldering burnt grasslands. How’s that for a warm brekky?
All that grazing was making us hungry! We pulled over to the side of the road and whipped out our warm haloumi, cream cheese, lettuce and tomato ‘Kurma Subs’. We had a chuckle as other cars pulled in behind us, thinking we were in the midst of a sighting. But as it happens, they were not going to be disappointed. As we stared out at the dense scrub, munching quietly, we suddenly saw what appeared to be a big grey boulder move. It was a huge elephant, indulging in his own large-scale munch-a-thon! And that was sighting number four.
Mid-morning heralded our reluctant return to Johannesburg, but not before another almost fatal (for us) collision with an even bigger Rhino, and a herd of leaping Eland.
Mission accomplished: a break from all my cooking, a chance to appreciate the beautiful handiwork of Mother Nature, and an encounter with some of Africa’s oldest inhabitants. Four out of five ain’t bad!
Posted by Kurma on 11/8/06; 5:25:32 PM