Joined: 09 Oct 2007
Location: South Africa
|Posted: Tue Oct 30, 2007 9:32 pm Post subject: A trip to Kruger National Park - South Africa FINAL
|This is an account of one of my short trips there. There is no place like it on earth!! It is quite a long story, so I will post it in parts, adding another every few days. Please enjoy it with me and feel free to ask any questions you may have.
HOME AWAY FROM HOME
Left home at 4 am on the way to a few days out of the rat race to find sanity again in the bush. It is warm and all the windows are open to allow the fresh breeze to circulate. Everything is packed, food, cameras, camping gear and most importantly, binoculars. An hour down the road, the sky starts to lighten and an hour after that, the sun peaks over the horizon. Another glorious day in Africa, but best of all, no work today. No cars, no telephones, no noise! A short stop along the way for breakfast (and the toilet of course) and arrive at the entrance to our most popular game reserve. Ah! What a feeling of peacefulness! It is like coming home after a long time away. The cameras are placed in a special foam on the seat next to me. Each camera has a different size lens and it is specially cut out in the shape of each camera so that they are close at hand and will not fall or bump each other. Coffee is made and put in a thermos. Now I am ready to begin my day.
The first thing I see is impala. They are a medium size antelope and there are about 28,000 of them in the park. They are the favorite prey of cheetah and leopard and it is good to watch the herds as they will give you a good indication if predators are around. The females all gave birth in November and December, so there are plenty of young ones around who are very actively jumping and running around in the cool of morning. Later on, they will be under the trees trying to find a cool shady spot to stay in until the sun goes down. But for now it is amusing to watch their antics. I feel very sorry for the males as they only have a six week period in June/July when they mate with the females, then they run around most of the time chasing other males away and this does not allow them much mating time. However, they seem to get the job done eventually, but by the end of this time, actually have black rings around their eyes from fatigue! What an advantage us two-legged creatures have!
I spot two young males play fighting and I grab my camera to record the fight, and it reminds me of the first time I brought my parents to the park. We had stopped to admire a huge herd of impala on either side of the road. “What a lovely herd of impala” I said. “Where” asked my dad. “Here, all around us” I said, impatiently indicating the herd, thinking he was mad not to see them. “Oh” he replied “all I see is biltong (jerky)” I had to laugh at that. I see some blue wildebeest close by and across the road, zebra. These all live in harmony with one another. They eat different things and each species increases the others awareness to danger.
The zebra walk in single file wherever they go. Like horses, they have a gestation period of a year and can calve at any time during the year but with a peak in the springtime. No two zebra have the same markings and this is used by the young to identify their mothers. Some are grazing peacefully while others roll around in the dust to get rid of ticks and fleas.
I pour some coffee, start slowly down the road again. It is too late to look for predators as they like early mornings and late afternoons to be active and so I will look for them this evening. At the moment I am looking for elephants. They are my favorites and always the first animals I look for.
There are more warthogs and impala, with a small herd of waterbuck grazing nearby. They are one of the larger antelope species with only the male having horns and standing at about 1,7 meters tall at the shoulders. I move on and see zebra. The earlier settlers in South Africa tried to use them in place of donkeys to pull their carts, but they were found not to have enough stamina as they can only run for about ten kilometers. They are fairly dependent on water and are never found far away from it. My eye catches sight of a rhino. It is a white one with a square lip for grazing grass. Rhino horn is made up of a very hard fiber similar to our fingernails. If they have babies with them, black and white rhino can easily be distinguished as the white rhino herds her young in front of her, while the black rhino baby trails behind. The white rhino also holds its head close to the ground while the black, leaf eating rhino, carries its head higher. They are Africa’s third largest mammal and their only enemy is man who has hunted them in large numbers. This one is quietly grazing and comes very close to me. They are extremely short sighted but make up for it by having a very good sense of hearing.
I see beautiful Starlings feeding and come across some ground Hornbills. They are the largest of the hornbill species and stand at about a meter tall. They are black with a bright red crop. The crop is yellow (almost white) when born, turning orange and then red as they grow older. They walk along the road looking for insects, snakes, centipedes and I have even seen them trying to get at a tortoise. Stunning creatures with very long eyelashes, they are wonderful to see.
(sorry, this is a very old picture)
Part two coming soon………
Nearing midday, and not having seen hide or hair of an elephant, I am about to follow the example of the animals and head for a shady spot. One of my ideal camps is nearby and I head in that direction. The camp is situated on the banks of a river with a lot of game feeding there and at night, if I am lucky to get a camping spot near the fence, I can hear the animals walking past. There is also a handy pool in which I can lie and soak in like a hippo. But just before reaching the camp, I stop at a waterhole. There are hippo, crocodile and many species of water birds. The crocs are mostly lying on the sandy banks with their mouths open in order for the slight breeze to cool the mucus membranes in them and so cool them down. Crocs are fascinating creatures which can slow their heartbeats down to four beats per hour and this allows them to stay for a long period underwater. I learnt long ago not to trust quiet looking pools in the middle of nowhere. These would be ideal bathing spots in areas such as Botswana where there are no showers or other water. I would sit watching the pool for a long, long time before venturing into the shallows of one to have a VERY quick wash. Mostly I would try to find a place where water runs over a fairly large area of shallow, rocky surface as this would be safest. The alternative is to remain stinky for another day until a suitable place is found or else make do with a portable shower which has hung outside in the sun while driving. A grassy spot, shower hung in a tree, stripped naked, and wow! The luxury of being clean again!
Not much is happening here because of the heat and I will return later, so I head into camp and check myself in for the night. An hour by the pool, a hamburger and coke, and I feel like a million dollars again. I set up camp in a suitable spot next to the fence and need to go for another swim. Four o’clock and I head out to find those elusive elephants. They are here somewhere, I know they are!
Two giraffe are bumping heads in a sparring session. Once again I get fabulous shots as the bush is fairly open here and good for photography. Giraffe have the second longest gestation period of all land mammals, eighteen months. Giraffe and camels have a distinctive walk. Unlike other animals, they move the right side two legs then the left side two legs, where as others use alternate sides. One giraffe is chewing what looks like old buffalo bones which are an additional source of calcium. There is a baby of about a week old. I know if I sit quietly for long enough, it will come closer as they are very inquisitive. Anyone who does wildlife photography knows that the greatest asset in this line of work is patience. I get into position where I am comfortable (using a window mount for my camera), and prepare to wait. The only thing moving are my eyes as I keep track of the youngster and also watch the continuing battle between the two males. Forty five minutes goes by, they have forgotten I am here, but the baby has started to edge closer and is now halfway between its mother and the car.
Then I smell it…….the unmistakable smell of elephant! They are so quiet, walking on their toes, that one always smells them first. The giraffe are forgotten and I whip around looking for the elephants. The giraffe flees back to the comfort of mom’s side and I see a small movement behind some bushes. Yes, there he is. A big bull about to pull a branch down off a tree. These mammals must eat in the region of 300kg per day, this includes bark, leaves and grass. What an enormous male he is. I get the camera going. He is about 20 yards away. His tusks are huge and he must be at least in his 60’s. I try to see if he has mates but cannot find another one, but that does not mean they are not there, just that I cannot see them for now. The males are usually loners or with two or three other males. They only join the female herds for mating periods and believe me when I say this is quite a sight to see. On the rare occasions when I have, I actually forgot to take pictures!! He finishes his branch and reaches up for another coming more into the open and closer to the car. I hear something in the bushes on the other side and turn to find another bull not ten yards away coming straight in my direction.
This elephant is HUGE. My car almost fits under his belly! I sit as still as I can, camera forgotten (again) he is closer. I look up into his mouth as he passes right in front of me to join his companion. Camera! Grab the camera! At last I get the shots I am waiting for. He joins the other elephant and the two start grazing on the grass not ten yards away. Thank goodness I have a quiet camera! They sure do smell and as fast as they put food in their mouths, it all comes out at the back. They move slowly away and I start to breathe again. Ten minutes later they are gone from sight, but I know they are still close by. The giraffe have all but gone too and I decide to move on. My first sighting of elephant has been good and hopefully there will be many more before this trip is over.
Part three coming soon……..
Now is the time to start looking out for predators, especially leopard. This is one animal which is extremely hard to photograph as you always only see glimpses of them and before you can pick up a camera, they are gone. The only photographs I see of leopard are where people go to see tame ones. But I still live in hope of that exceptional shot. Also, in a place like this game reserve, if a car sees you stopped at something and it is lion or leopard, within ten minutes the area is packed with cars and you cannot get that shot anyway with everyone talking and people leaning out of their cars. But we all have our dreams. I drive very slowly, at times taking an hour to do two or three miles. Game has to be found and a lot of it is being in the right place at the right time. A trick I learnt years ago was to keep on checking my rear-view mirror. Some of the glimpses of leopard I have had have been like this as they lay in wait until you have passed and then dash across the road. Someone has ridden over a large ten foot python. It is on the road and I can see where a tire has gone across its neck just below the head. There is an eagle next to it having a good meal, and I get some good photos of the scene. By morning the python will have disappeared altogether, taken by jackal or hyena. Now is the time for them to start scavenging as well and I keep a sharp lookout for any small movement. It has cooled down and the animals are starting to move down to waterholes to drink before it gets dark.
Something!! Yes, a slight movement caught my eye. I back up slightly and get out the binoculars. What was it I saw? I scan the area. Nothing…no…. look again… another small movement. Lion! I see him now. He is lying down and the movement I saw was his tail twitching. I switch off the car’s engine and he raises his head to look at me. He is perhaps 40 yards away. I snatch up the camera but he is hidden by the grass. His head goes down again and I train the binoculars on the spot. Is he alone? Are there more hidden in the undergrowth? Lions are found in three categories: a mating pair which will stay together for three or four days, mating every twenty minutes and not going hunting during this time; one or two males with their pride of females and young; or two to four youngish males, having been kicked out of their pride, roaming around looking for a territory of their own or one to take over. Males taking over a territory will usually be related to one another and will kill any babies in the pride they take over in order to establish their own offspring. The mane of the males is there to protect him during this fight for dominance. I spy more movement to the left of the male I saw and see another tail. I am determined to get a couple of good shots and wait patiently for some movement. A car with four people comes along, slows down and tries to see what I am looking at, but decides that there is nothing of interest there and passes along. There is game in the area not far away. Some impala are grazing some distance away. I see a small herd of waterbuck with their distinguishing white ring around their rumps, heading for the river. Still I wait. More cars, which look, and move on. Everyone knows this is the time of day for predators and are out in force. An older couple finally asks me what I am looking at and I explain about the two tails and one head I have seen. They strain to see where I am pointing and eventually are rewarded by seeing a tail movement as well. It is now getting late and almost time to head back to camp. More cars arrive and the area is piling up. The one male has raised his head again and now decides to stand up and show himself. Cameras are clicking, (even a few with cell phones taking pictures) but for me it is already too dark and I leave to get back to camp.
Night is falling fast, time for a piece of steak on the barbeque, a salad then shower and settle down to listen to the night sounds.
The moon is only half and I am glad as this means the night sky will be full of stars. Time to reflect on an altogether fabulous day and wonder what tomorrow will bring. As long as I have worked there, no two days have ever been the same, with something new to learn and wonder at every day. The steak is doing fine, and I count satellites in the sky. I hear zebra and baboon barking in the distance. Predators on the prowl. Monkeys and baboons live high up in the smaller branches of the trees as they know leopard cannot get to them there. Supper over and I curl up on my mattress to listen. When it is warm, I tie my mosquito net in a tree, put my mattress under it and sleep under the stars. In the moonlight I can see a hyena walking up and down the other side of the fence hoping that someone will throw him some bones, but he is out of luck as most people know that they are not to feed them, but he still paces in hope. Hyenas are nocturnal. They have enormous front paws to carry the extra weight of their head and shoulders. In many areas they are hunters but here they are mostly scavengers, taking the leftovers from the lions and cheetahs. If something should cross their paths, they will kill it themselves but this rarely happens. They have exceptional sense of smell and have been know to detect a carcass a mile away.
Part four coming soon……
Owls are calling and I decide that it is too early to sleep, grabbing the torch, I go for a walk around the camp to see if there is anything interesting about. This is a great time for finding owls, spiders and bushbaby’s. All of these have eyes which reflect in the light and so are easily spotted. I hear the screeching of an owl and head in that directing. He is close but I cannot find him instead I see a quick glow of eyes as something jumps from one tree to another. A bushbaby! They are so quick. He has found some loose bark and is busily digging around trying to find grubs or any other creepy crawlies to make a snack of. I am too close for his comfort and like a shot, he is gone. I am close to the fence and I see movement in the moonlight. What can it be! Another movement. Lioness…she is moving quietly and disappears almost as soon as she is seen. They are hunting and I am sure tomorrow there will be a kill around here somewhere. I continue but so not see much else of interest and head back to bed.
4:00 am To the showers, coffee and rusks (a traditional South African hard bread cut into fingers which are dipped in coffee to soften them) and I am at the gate waiting to be let out like a flock of sheep. I heard the lions during the night, with a lot of agitated barking of zebra, I wonder if they managed to bring something down. It is still fairly dark and once out the gate I spot impala, blue wildebeest and zebra grazing. I head for the river road. A beautiful herd of kudu are grazing a little distance off the road. The males are extremely graceful with their very long spiral horns which the use to bring down branches close enough to feed on. When they are in flight, they will lay them along their backs in order not to get them entangled in the trees. They are fascinating to watch whilst feeding. They will browse on a bush for a time and then suddenly jerk away and go on to the next bush. All trees and bushes when damaged start to put out a lot of tannin, and it is this bitter taste which makes them go on to the next bush.
I am driving slowly as usual, while other cars zip passed. I am looking for predators so early in the morning. There are baboons and monkeys, I see a hyena and many birds. The road twists and turns along the river. I stop at a lookout point and decided that this is a good place for coffee but first scan the area with my binoculars. There, lying on the lower branch of a tree across the small river is a leopard. Without the binoculars, he would never be seen as he is partly shaded and is lying very still. Coffee is forgotten. I wonder how many people have passed and stopped here without spotting him. Another car pulls in and is gone. He continues to sleep until the next car comes, jumps down and is gone. I sip my coffee and watch if I will see him reappear in the bushes near the tree but nothing. Female leopards have been known to kill their young in times of drought. This ensures that she survives and can have more little ones at a better stage. If already pregnant, they can actually stop the progress of the fetus until things are better and food is available again. Both males and females are loners, but a female is sometimes accompanied by her cub which stays with her for about two years.
Herds of animals are along the river bank, there are crocs and hippo in the water. Waterbuck feed in the shallows. They love the water and are never far away from it. If they are chased by predators, they dash into the water as they know that the cats will not follow them in. Although they are scared of predators, lions will not kill a waterbuck. When they get a fright, the adrenalin causes a very bitter substance to be pumped into their blood and this makes them inedible. I see a beautiful pygmy kingfisher, they are tiny and can almost fit into ones hand. There are Spoonbills walking along turning their heads from one side to another while their spoon shaped bills gather food. Saddlebills stand for a long time in one spot in order to find fish or frogs, and a Hammerkop is collecting mud to fix his nest. This is always a good place to stop but not good for photography as most of the animals are on the other side bank and too far away for descent pictures. Time to move on before it gets too hot. There are a few cars parked up the road and I make a dash to see what they have found. Cheetahs! They are lying on a small hill of sand, probably dug up by antbears when they made their burrow. There are three of them. I think they are males. Excellent photo opportunity and I get a roll of film shot. They are very fast animals and are built for speed with their slim shape. The San people have a lovely story on why they are the only one of the cat family to have non-retractable claws. In the beginning of time the cheetah and the wildebeest had a race. The cheetah knew that he was not fast enough and went to the wilddog and asked to borrow his feet as the claws would help him win. The race started and the wildebeest was in front but cheetah was catching up and going past. Then wildebeest fell and broke his leg. Instead of going on to win, cheetah stopped to help wildebeest and because of his kindness, the gods let him keep the claws.
Part five coming soon……..
I spot some elephants crossing the road ahead and leave the cheetahs. It is a breeding herd of about 15 with a couple of small ones with them. Babies up to a year old can walk under the bellies of their mothers, but these look to be about two or three years old. They are heading for the water to drink. Their trunks can hold up to 9 liters of water at a time but they do not drink through them. Instead, squirt the water into their mouths. They drink up to 200 liters of water per day. The herd is led by a female which has a square forehead and can be distinguished from the males who have a round forehead. They are the only mammals which grow throughout their lives, even their eyes. I park on the bank and spend the next hour taking three rolls of film. They are great swimmers and in Zimbabwe are known to swim from one island to another on a regular basis when searching for food.
Now it is getting too hot and I go to a nearby picnic spot to sit under the trees and have some lunch. There is a very tame female bushbuck here which wanders around totally unafraid of humans. I watch her as she grazes. To me, they are the most beautiful of all our antelope species. She has white dots on her rump and seven or eight white stripes down her back with a white patch at her throat. There is also a yellow-billed hornbill feeding his female through a hole of a tree. At the beginning of the season, the male collects mud and seals the female into this hole. She molts completely and uses these feathers to line her nest for the eggs. After he has sealed her up, he feeds her through a small slit just large enough for his beak.
No swimming pool here so I immerse myself under a tap, I know that in this heat, I will be dry in twenty minutes. Moving on, I see giraffe. Strangely, they have the same amount of bones in their necks as we do, only MUCH larger of course. A few of them are getting a drink. They have special system of valves in their necks which stops the blood going to their heads when drinking. They are very cautious as they are at their most vulnerable in this position. There are wildebeest, zebra and more impala. Impala have been measured at attaining twelve meters in one jump. The brown patch between the horns of the male is actually a gland which they use to mark their territory. The females have what looks like a tuft of brown hair low down on her hind legs. This is a gland used in marking the grass as she walks through it so her offspring is able to follow her and also know by the individual scent, which mother is his. No matter how many impala I see, they are still fascinating to watch.
There are vultures circulating high in the air and my thoughts go back to last night’s lions and I wonder if they managed a kill, but these do not seem to be landing, so there cannot be any food nearby. I have spotted a pair of fish eagles in a branch over the river. To wake up in Africa and hear their call, is probably one of the best ways to start your day (no alarm clocks for me thank you). A small jackal is running in the distance and I watch him. Summer is breeding time and he is probably on his way to find food to take back to the female and young at the den. The male and female take turns finding food while the other stays with the cubs. They will kill smallish prey such as guinea fowl but usually can be seen at a kill after the lions and hyenas have finished. That is, if they can scare the vultures away. I am heading in the direction of the camp and start looking for lions again, instead I see a hyena stopping every now and then to sniff the air. Hyena cubs are pitch black when born and have a very high mortality rate. For every litter of four or five, only one will grow up to adulthood. By the time the cubs are about four months old, they have started to lose the black and by six months have all their usual markings. They have the strongest jaws of all animals, being able to crush the thigh bone of a buffalo. There is a Secretary bird searching for food in the grass. When they spot something, they will run over to it and stomp on it to kill it. They eat snakes, grasshoppers and any other insect they can find.
A family of warthog is grazing. Someone I knew always said that they are so ugly, they are actually beautiful. One is on his front knees digging up roots. There are four little ones who stick close to mother’s side and if you ever want a good laugh, just sit and watch them for a while. They have a cute habit of jumping around like pop-corn. I guess it is good practice for when being chased by leopard. Because they are so small and the grass is usually taller than they are, they erect their tails when alarmed and this allows the one behind to see where the others are running and so stay together. Warthogs can be very vicious and there is a case recorded where one ripped a leopard open with its tusks while defending itself.
Part six coming soon……
The day is drawing to a close and I head for camp, I need to pack my things tonight as I am going to another camp tomorrow. A troop of baboon crosses the road also heading for their sleeping tree and I spot a few babies amongst them. Babies up to the age of three months old hang beneath the belly of the mother while she walks. The next three months are spent hitching a ride on her back sitting at the base of her tail. The will eat almost anything, this includes insects, fruit and birds eggs.
Wow! A bonus! A very large herd of buffalo! There must be at least two hundred of them. The herd consists of males, females and young. They are moving to the river for a drink. I stop and watch them and once they are drinking manage to get some nice shots. Both males and females have horns and they are usually found not far from water in which they wallow to keep themselves cool in the heat of the day and also to encase themselves with mud to get rid of ticks. I get out the binoculars and scan the area. Two lionesses are following them. No, there are two more! They are definitely hunting. I watch as the two pairs join and lay down, then one walks away and starts to circulate to the other side of the herd of buffalo. A fully grown buffalo can easily be brought down by a pride of four females and I watch anxiously to see what happens. But it is almost time to get back to camp and wish they will hurry up as I would like to see the hunt. The single female has disappeared and I try hard to find her again. The road I am on it slightly raised from the level of the river so I have a fabulous view. If only I can see where she has gone! She is the color of the grass and eventually I spot her. She has crouched down and is eyeing the herd. She crawls forward on her belly still keeping out of sight. As yet the buffalo have not noticed the lions as there is no breeze to take the smell to them. Then a younger buffalo moves away from the herd and she is up and running. The herd starts to scatter in alarm and heads straight towards the other three females which are hidden away. Then these females are joining the chase. The lone female catches up with the buffalo and jumps on its back. It nearly falls with her weight but manages to keep running. The other lionesses catch up and all four are on the buffalo. There is a great dust cloud hanging in the air from the fleeing buffalo and I cannot see properly. They vanish behind a bush and although I sit and wait with my eyes straining to see, they do not come out. My goodness, that was worth seeing! But now I have to make a dash to camp, if I am late at the gates, I will be in trouble. What a pity I cannot watch anymore. The herd of buffalo have gone. I am sure there must be more lions in the pride and expect the male to join them feeding, but I have to go.
I get to camp just in time and decide to buy something to eat rather than making it, I pack most of my things and after a long cool shower, sit and watch the stars before falling asleep listening to the night sounds.
The night is uneventful, but after the lions the previous day, it is just as well. Enough excitement for one day! Packing in the mattress and mozzie net, I head out for my favorite camp. This is best of all for photography as it is not so bushy, but it is a long drive and will take me most of the day. I head past where the lions were. There are hundreds of vultures sitting in the trees in the area, a lot of jackal and a few hyenas. These are the cleaners of the veld. By the time they have finished, there will be nothing left but a few bones. There is no sight of the lions and I guess they got chased away by the hyenas. Some hippos are wallowing in the water. Their Greek name is derived from a word meaning “river-horse” (they do not look horse-like to me, but then, I am not Greek) Because of the sensitivity of their skin, they do not come out of the water to feed during the day. Mating takes place in the water and is a funny sight to see. They have a single calf which is born in the water. After mating, the female will chase the male away. They are found in two groups, females and young together, and all male groups. Hippo’s tusks are considered to be finer ivory than elephant and have been widely hunted for this reason.
It is a good place to have my morning coffee and I sit watching all the activity. The jackal, hyena and vultures are scrapping over the carcass, each one going in to grab a mouthful when it can. Naturally it is packed with cars so one can hardly move.
Part seven coming soon……….
I take a rest, and a coffee break at a lookout point set high up on a hill. Scanning the area, I see elephant, rhino, giraffe, impala, kudu and a pair of Klipspringers. Klipspringers are small antelope which are usually found in pairs, sometimes having a youngster with them. Their hooves are specially formed so that they actually walk on their toes. This enables them to get agilely around the rocks on which they make their homes. Males mark their territory by using a preorbital gland situated in the corner of the eye. A twig is carefully inserted into this, and a sticky black substance is left behind. Further down the road at a small dam, crocodiles are lining the sandbank. Adult crocs have no natural enemies except man but when born, they are preyed upon by Marabou stork, mongoose and eagles. There is a leguan walking along the banks, probable looking for crocodile eggs. It is our largest lizard and can grow up to two meters in length. I once saw two brown snake eagles trying to catch one of them and once again was so enthralled at the sight, I forgot to take pictures. There are banded mongoose on the rocks below me and I think of the time in St Lucia where we gave them boiled eggs. That was extremely funny! Mongoose usually shoot eggs they find backwards with their hind legs in order to break them on a rock. Can you imagine what was going through their minds when these boiled eggs would not break. They actually turned themselves in circles and over backwards trying to get them broken. Nasty aren’t I! But it was fun.
Lunch time and I stop at a picnic spot for ice-cream and something cold to drink. It is thirsty work being in the bush. When I go to places like Botswana, I usually take cases of Coke or Sprite with me as there is no fresh water for miles. What water I have turns green after the first week and is only fit for boiling, so I have learnt to drink warm, actually HOT Cokes. If I am lucky, I can find a stream to put it into for a while to cool it down a bit, but not most of the time. I decide to take bit of a catnap and settle down under a tree.
Refreshed, I buy another cold drink and on the road, the first thing I see is an elephant leaning against a tree fast asleep. These huge creatures cannot lie down after the age of about eight years old as their weight would crush their ribcages. They only sleep about four hours out of every 24 and then in short naps. The rest of the time is spent eating. Elephants have veins very close to the skin at the back of their ears which they flap in order to cool themselves. For their head size, one would imagine a very large brain but it is actually very small, about walnut size. Elephants teeth are replace six times during their lifetime and after the last set of teeth have worn down, they struggle to eat. The approximate age of the elephant can be seen by their dung, the finer chewed leaves mean a younger elephant. There are huge herds of impala, wildebeest and zebra around. Even in enclosed areas such as this park, they still tend to migrate in order to find food. Wildebeest look like cattle but are classified as antelope. A pedal gland situated on the front feet is used in marking their territory, the substance secreted from this smells like tar. The youngsters are very light brown when born, and on seeing one feeding from his mother, I once had someone with me exclaim “Look there is an impala feeding off a wildebeest”. Okay, we are not all rocket scientists! Ah! The stories I could tell! I smile in memory of some of them. I think one of the best was about the professor from Florida who came on a tour with me. Before going, he asked his two children what they wanted him to bring back for them from Africa. The six year old thought a bit and said “Daddy, please bring me a hippo to swim in the pool” The four year piped up and said “Daddy, please bring me a giraffe to pick the coconuts off the tree” and I can always imagine our customs officers faces when he turns up at the airport with these two animals in tow and tried to explain his gifts.
The heat seems to be coming off the road in a haze. And I think of cool showers and swimming pools. And ice cream! There is a huge area where no animals are to be seen and I gather from this that it is not sweet grass growing there. The sky is almost white in color and nothing much stirs. But it will cool down soon and I look forward to reaching camp. I eventually see a herd of sable antelope. What a magnificent find! They are not often seen and are definitely out most graceful buck. They stand almost as tall as a horse and have razor sharp back-curving horn. The males are almost totally black with white bellies, the females and young a chestnut brown. What luck! They are standing on a small raised piece of ground and I get some terrific pictures of them. This is definitely a bonus as I get to see them only once in about twenty trips. I stay there for about a half an hour taking more pictures but eventually I need to move on.
Part eight coming soon………
Nearing camp, there are giraffe standing perfectly still and I know they have see a predator but the grass and the bushes make it impossible for me to catch a glimpse of what they are looking at. I switch off the engine and wait. Maybe it will come more into the open. Still I wait. Eventually the giraffe go back to eating and I still do not know what they saw. In camp, I set up my mattress and mosquito net in a corner and head for the showers. I take a stroll over to the shops and decide to have a healthy meal tonight and stock up on grapes, peaches, cucumber, tomatoes and a nice pineapple and cheese. The bats are coming out of an old building and I stop to watch them. It seems as if there are thousands. Later one when it is dark and there are lights on, I watch them making a meal of the insects flying around a light near to me. I am picking on my food while watching them and after a trip to the bathroom, curl up for the night. I smell elephant, but it is too dark to see them. Hyenas are howling in the distance. I hear a rustling in the bushes nearby, but nothing is visible. It is good to relax after the hot day and I soon fall asleep only to awaken some time later by the sound of lions in the distance. Rising early to have my coffee and rusks, I decide to take a circular route which will put me at another camp by lunchtime. I wonder what the day will bring. There are small Steenbok. They stand as till as statues when danger threatens and hope that this will make predators miss them. They mate for life and will only take a new partner if one dies. They are small enough to be able to get all their moisture from the food they eat and so are found all over the park as they are not dependent on water. I watch the young impala again as they dash this way and that playing what seems to be a game of tag.
The male buffalo wallow in a small pool of water left over from the rain, and a herd of kudu graze peacefully on some bushes. The kudu have long twisted horns and there is a statue of two at one of the camps. They were found dead in the veld with their horn entwined. Probably during a fight for females, their horns got lock and they could not get them separated. There is very old male elephant, he is very thin and can hardly feed himself. I heard later that he died about three days after seeing him. In certain areas the elephants are prone to a disease which paralyses the muscles in their trunks, the common name being “floppy trunk disease” they then die of starvation as they are unable to feed themselves. A pride of lions are lying on the road but there are a lot of cars and I go past. People look at me as if I am mad. How can I possibly NOT stop for lions? Some people go there to see only lions and classify their day by this alone. Some will tell you that they saw nothing for the day, meaning “no lions” they do not take much interest in anything else. I stop to look at some spider webs which are highlighted against the background of the sun. It is fascinating to watch them spin these webs, each species of spider building theirs differently. They climb up a bush and let the wind carry them across an open space while dangling by a thread of silk. When the have built this first thread they can now complete their spinning. This one belongs to the beautiful Golden Orb spider which is black with yellow bands. There are huge balls of what looks like white cotton wool in some of the trees. This belongs to a family of jumping spiders which the baboons are very fond of eating. There are thousands of eggs in each ball. Coffee time finds me at a water hole and I decide to spend some time here watching the coming and going of the animals. I set up my camera and wait to see if anything interesting might happen. There are all kinds of animals in the vicinity. One elephant seems to think that the water hole belongs to him and chases the impala away. They wander around and try to come back but he squirts them with water. It is the first time I have seen such behavior and wonder where he learnt that trick. It is amazing when you watch animals to see how many things they do are in some way related to human behavior. Nothing too exciting and I set off to my lunch destination. This camp is built high on a hill with an excellent look-out point overlooking the river. There are a lot of elephant plus all the usual species of animal. I get a Creamsoda float from the café and sit watching everything going on below. There are many eagles flying around. I spot the v-shaped tail of the yellow-billed kite and watch as it floats in the air not seeming to ever flap its wings. There are Weavers collecting scraps of bread that fall from people’s lunches, Buffalo weavers, Starlings and sparrows. The one thing in the bush is that there is always something to see. I watch some ants which are careful to avoid antlion traps. These small bugs make a cone type trap and if the ants fall in, they cannot get out. The swimming pool is calling me and I go for a dip to cool down. It is peaceful here and the though of work does not even cross my mind. But tomorrow at lunch time I must return to civilization.
Part nine coming soon…….
On the road again, I go and check on a tree I know where there are a lot of brown-headed parrots nesting. At this time of year, they are many small ones and I watch the activity. I have seen snakes in this tree going after the eggs and babies, but there are none now. It is amazing how much noise they can make. The road takes me partly along a river and at a lookout, I stop to watch the hippos. They have a very thick skin of about 5cm and this accounts for one third of their body weight. For their size, they are extremely fast runners and in Africa, cause more deaths to humans than any other animal. In some of the central African countries, their dung is used to bait fish traps. A hippo can remain submerged for about five or six minutes. There are baboons sitting in the shade. They have larger canine teeth than cheetah and are estimated to live about forty years. The youngsters chase each other around and they are busy feeding on the flowers of a bush and grass seeds, but I also see then looking under rocks for anything that might be hidden there. There are a lot of kudu in this area. They have a distinctive hump on their backs and five or six vertical white stripes down their sides. In proportion to their heads, they have extremely large ears. I spot some female Nyala which do not look anything like the males. They are almost an orange color and also have white stripes down their sides and are sometimes seen amongst the impala herds. The males are much larger and are seldom seen but look more like kudu. At a waterhole, I find a hyena lying in the water to cool down. They are the largest of the three types of hyena found in South Africa, the other two being the brown and stripped hyena.
Many giraffe around feeding on their favorite food which is Acacia trees. This is eaten thorns and all. They have the longest tongue of all mammals and use this to strip the ends of the branches. It is always easy to see where there are giraffe, as the tree branches are bare at about the four / five meter height. It is estimated they can reach a speed of 55 km. Giraffe and rhino are not found in areas where there are Tsetse flies. There is a lovely bird hide overlooking a dam and I stop there to watch the Jacana, black Crakes, kingfishers, herons and Darters feeding. This is a wonderful place to spend a couple of hours. It is starting to get late and I head for the camp. I am looking for lion and leopard now and hope for a sighting of either before the day is out. But I reach camp not seeing either. I have decided to go on a night drive and hurry to get on the truck. We head out onto a side road not used by normal visitors in the park. We have spot lights and soon a Spotted Eagle owl is seen. He has pink eyelids and sits very quietly looking for prey. Next we stop to watch a Serval. They are large animals of the cat family with very long legs and big ears and strictly nocturnal. He is busily hunting for rats and guinea fowl. We come out behind a dam and see two white rhino feeding on the grass around it. Our light reflects in the eyes of impala, wildebeest and zebra and we see another hyena slinking off somewhere. Suddenly there is a loud cry of “Lions!” It is a huge pride, one of the biggest I have ever seen and count 22 of them. There are three males, many full grown females with their full grown daughters and cubs ranging from two years down to six months. Camera flashes are going off as we sit and watch them. They are not out hunting so I gather that they have eaten recently. Or maybe some of the pride is out hunting while these wait around looking after the cubs. They mostly hunt giraffe as this is large enough to feed the whole pride and they will not have to hunt again for a few days. The females do most of the hunting and then call the males to the kill. Males kick out of a pride because of old age or illness become man-eaters as they are unable to hunt successfully for them selves. One time when I had a group of people with me and we were at a small camp in a private game reserve, we had got back to camp and I dashed to shower and came out to go to the kitchen in order to see how the supper was getting on. There coming through the gates was this lion. No knowing what else to do and not wanting my guest to get mauled by a lion, I started to stamp my feet and gesture with my hands and said “Shoo, shoo” Luckily he turned and walked back out the gate. Some of the guests came out and saw him disappearing, called the others and we all piled back into the Kombi and followed him down the road. My camp help told me that this lion was shot by wardens two days later as he had become a man-eater and killed and eaten some people in the area. To this day I cannot believe that I had said “shoo” to him. I guess he could not stand the crazy woman making a noise and would not run from him and decided I would not be tasty anyway. Our night drive continued, but after spending so much time looking at the lions, we did not have any for other game viewing. I for one was satisfied with having seen the Serval.
I put some sausage on the barbeque and together with the fruit left over from last night, have a great meal outdoors. After a shower, I spend some time sitting on a bench watching the impala drinking at a waterhole just outside the fence. The young impala will reach there full height within three years, but I wonder how many will be killed by predators before then. A jackal comes down for a drink then I watch him disappear into the long grass. I head for bed and spend another peaceful night sleeping outdoors.
Part ten coming soon………
My last morning here! I hate the though of going home again. But I feel very relaxed in the bush and wish I could stay forever. I am going to a small dam where we saw the rhino last night. I know a family of squirrel lives in a large hole in a tree and want to get some photos. I get there and open my door in order to lie flat on my stomach in the car. This way I can get lovely shots without only getting the tops of their heads. They are looking for food and I get some excellent footage. I am taking a side road which will eventually end up at the gate I am going out of so the road is fairly free of cars. Just then I spot a tail hanging down from a tree. No, it can’t be! Yes, it is! A leopard! He is about twenty yards away and is looking around to see if there is prey in the area. I cannot believe my luck and grab my camera. He is so close and in the open I get some nice shots of him. He yawns and licks his coat. The camera is working overtime. I spend 45 minutes with him before another car arrives. He sits a few minutes more then jumps down and is gone. I cannot wait to get home now and have the slides developed to see how my shots came out. In each day I have at a game reserve, I have a highlight and this has to be the best sighting I will have today. It cannot get better. I move on to my favorite dam and get out the coffee and rusks (my staple diet while in a game park). The area is crowded with game and this early, before the heat, the animals are very active. Two waterbuck are sparing but not seriously. Tick birds sit on the backs of animals feeding. A fish eagle flies low over the water and goes to sit in a dry tree on the bank to look for food. This is the cycle and rhythm of the bush. Finding food (or being preyed upon) and sleeping. Living one day at a time. I sometimes feel us humans can learn a lot from the animals. We are always in too much of a rush, get stressed out at our hectic pace and always living by the clock. Here there is no time. Just feeding of stomachs when it is hungry. Warthogs are rooting for food nearby and I take some pictures. Both male and female have tusks and these are kept sharp as the bottom ones continually rub against the top ones. They actually develop calluses on the joints of their front knees from foraging on them. I have not seen any wilddogs on this trip although I know there are some in this area and have been looking out for them. They usually hunt during the day, preferring early morning and late afternoon. I watch the running around of young wildebeest. A calf is able to stand within five minutes of being born and can run as fast as the herd within twenty minutes. Nature is wonderful and fascinating and I will never get tired of watching animals. Vervet monkeys are scurrying around searching for food. They are the only type of monkey found in the park. They have cheek pouches in which they store food and unlike most monkeys, cannot use their tails for swinging from branch to branch instead, they are able to jump long distances. They are very social and so the size of the troop can vary according to the area, but usually there are about twenty in a troop. I move on and find a small herd of elephant with a tiny baby amongst them. Baby elephants weigh about one hundred and twenty kilograms when born and are always wonderful to watch. I have seen fetuses of them and they absolutely the perfect miniature of what they grow up to be. A few male buffalo cross the road and I spot a pair of Steenbok. Because of their coloring, they are often mistaken for young impala, but a closer look will show that they have only a short stump for a tail whereas impala tails are noticeable longer.
It is time to head out and I stop at a camp to have lunch before going home. This has been a fantastic trip, but then again, so are all of my trips here. I loved every minute of my many years working here, bringing visitors to the park and explaining to them the different habits of the animals. Each day was different even though we saw the same animals every day. What a wonderful place and a wonderful life I have lived and would gladly do it all again if I had to live my life over.
There is a story behind this story……It is strange how one small event can change the direction and meaning of your life, one that changes your whole perspective of the world we live in…… I had always liked walking in the veld. My pets were tortoise, chameleons and rabbits but there was never a great interest in wildlife and I had never gone to a game reserve. Then people who arrived here (in South Africa) from the States asked me to take them to Kruger National Park as they were not familiar with the roads and especially riding on the wrong side of them (we drive on the left hand side and not the right).
I did not want to go but after a lot of convincing, decided to take them. We had not gone 50 yards into the park, when we came across a mother hyena and her baby laying on the road and I was hooked. It was worse than one’s first love affair!! I wanted to know more, wanted to see everything. I had a million questions. We got back and I decided that I wanted to work there, but at that time, it was STRICTLY a “mans” world. NO WOMAN TRESPASSSES!!
I started studying and eventually saw a job as a courier advertised and went for the interview. Luckily the man was one of those who said to hell with tradition, and he gave me the job. So started a 20 year long dream job and I was the first woman tour guide in Kruger National Park. Make no mistake, it seems so glamorous and everybody wants to be a “game ranger” but the reality is that you end up working 12-14 hours (sometimes longer) a day, every day, 365 days a year, are out in the cold, hot, wet and dry. There is not time for husband/wife and family and you must cope with driving on average 8,000 miles a month, have the responsibility of looking after your guests and much, much more. Over the years, there have been VERY few people, especially not women, who have lasted more than a couple of months. (in SA, it has the largest turnover of staff in any job available).
I will always be grateful to those people who “forced” me to take them to Kruger.
I want to thank everyone who has taken the time to read this article of one of my trips. I hope that it will encourage someone else to follow their dreams and plan to visit Kruger Park for themselves, to experience some of the thrill and excitement of finding and seeing the animals in their natural environment and to find out what has made this love affair of mine last so long and start one of their own with nature.
Last edited by JoanYoung on Sat Nov 03, 2007 9:13 pm; edited 3 times in total