Kruger National Park, South Africa

How cool is this – you’re getting pseudo-real-time updates from the middle of the African bush. Pseudo, as I’m typing this on my laptop, and will upload as soon as I have some sort of connectivity – I’m assuming at either the Jo’burg or London airports.

So my first day in the bush is done. As I type this, the coals on my braii (BBQ) are burning down; I’m finishing off my last glass of wine; I’m sitting outside under the southern stars listening to the sounds of the African night. Life just doesn’t get much better than this.

The day didn’t start off well – the rental car company was late; they gave me the wrong class of vehicle and I had a hell of a time at the mall in Centurion, getting my shopping done. Which all added up to me leaving Centurion at 11:30, rather than 9:30 as planned. Ah well – doesn’t really matter. In the end, I was still through the Melanie Gate to Kruger Park by 4:00. 6 hour drive, yeah right… 

The game viewing itself wasn’t all that great, but the quality of the experiences made up for the quantity. Here’s the tally of species so far:

Mammals          Birds                        Repitiles/Amphibians
Impala              Lesser Egret                  Gecko
Kudu                 Saddle-bill Stork           Toad
Warthog            Grey Lourie       
Lesser Spotted Genet

As usual, the first thing I saw after entering the park was a small heard of Impala. It’s amazing how many people over look them, since they’re so common. This tie of year is especially good, as they are breeding, and there are all kinds of young ones around.

The kudu were an amazing encounter. I came across a same herd of females and young males on a secondary road. They were grazing on both sides of the road, and I had lots of subjects right close to the car. One young male in particular strayed right up to the side of the car, trying to figure out what I was. It was great.

I had 4 elephant encounters with solitary, young bulls. It was nice to get that many quality elephant encounters during the first few hours. It’s always amazing to sit just meters away from them, and watch their activities. I can sit there for hours… Sadly, there were no cat sightings today.

My cottage tonight may end up being a highlight of the trip. I think I scored the best location in the whole camp! I’ve got cottage #27 at the Berg en Dal camp. The cottage is furthest away from all the others, and the camp facilities, and is right on the perimeter fencing. I walk up to the end of the camp, and look out over the surrounding bush. I’ve wandered over a couple of times, but haven’t seen any eyes in the dark yet. I may go for a walk before I turn in. The gates open at 4:30, and I plan to be on my way at that time…

PS – just as I was about to head off to bed, I gave the trees one last scan with the flashlight – and there were eyes! I had a genet up in the tree over the patio. What’s a genet you say? Think of a small house cat, but with an over sized tail, striped like a raccoon. They’re very agile, sleek beautiful creatures and I was thrilled to see it. It was a perfect ending to my day.

December 1, 2006

Happy Birthday Natalie! I realized last week that your birthday card was going to be very late…

Day two in the park, and what can I say but “wow”. The day started early – the sun was up at 4:00 a.m., and I was out of the gate by 4:30. I had all these amazing plans to get out, and get some fabulous pictures in the early morning light. The animals didn’t really stick to the plan. Other than a lone hyena and few elephants, the early morning light faded before I could take many pictures. But that’ OK – the rest of the day more than made up for it. Since I’m having so much trouble with where to start, maybe I’ll start with the end. After getting to camp around 4:00 (and completely exhausted I might add…) I signed up for a night drive. I had a bad experience with the last one I did (thanks to some very drunk, obnoxious Afrikaans South Africans), so I was a bit hesitant. What a decision. Within 10 minutes of heading out, we were blessed with a mother cheetah, and her five cubs! These things were tiny – the guide estimated them at about a week old; and they were having some fun running around after each other. Seeing cheetah had been a major desire for me this trip, as I had yet to see them in the park. Took care of that one early. Not that it could be outdone, but we also saw a big, mature male lion, hippo, rhino, genet, hyena and a whole series of different species of buck. It was a jam-packed 3 hours! Unreal.

Back to the start of the day. I think the easiest think is to try and capture the sheer variety of creatures I saw today:

Mammals                     Birds                            Repitiles/Amphibians
Impala                          Lesser Egret                 Gecko
Lion                              African Fish Eagle       Leopard tortoise
Warthog                       Grey Lourie                  Crocodile
Giraffe                          African Jacana
Elephant                        Bateleur
Lesser Spotted Genet  Egyptian Goose
Blue Wildebeest             Red-billed Oxpecker
Buffalo                           Helmeted Guineafowl
Hippo                            Cape Glossy Starling
Klipspringer                  Lilac-breasted Roller
Plains Zebra                 Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill
Bushbuck                      White-breasted cormorant 
Tree squirrel
White rhino
Lichtenstein’s hartebeest 
Spotted hyena

Here were a few of the highlights of the day:

  • Seeing four of the Big Five today.
  • Watching a croc catch, and eat fish from about 10 feet away. He was only a small one – maybe four feet or so.
  • Elephants giving themselves a dust bath.
  • One waterhole where there were warthog, impala, zebra, wildebeest and waterbuck all at the same place, at the same time.
  • Getting charged by a bull elephant. Apparently he felt that my 100 odd yards wasn’t enough space. He had me going in full reverse for a good 20 seconds before he decided I was far enough back. So I’m sitting there with my reverse lights on, and some ass decides that going around me was a good idea. The elephant almost got them.
  • Adding four new species to my list.
  • Oh, did I mention the cheetah and her FIVE cubs?

I’m off to bed – 4:00 a.m. comes early…

December 2, 2006

Today was a different day. The amount of different animals was less, but I got to spend some time with one of my favorites. The day started badly. It was pouring down rain when I left. I almost went back to bed (and maybe I should have, but the day would have gone very differently…) but decided to head out despite the rain.

The morning started slowly, but the first couple of encounters were memorable. After about ½ an hour, I came across four young bull elephants, all within a few hundred yards of each other. Two of them were using smallish trees as scratching posts – it didn’t go well for the trees. About 10 minutes later, I came across a flock of ostrich. Last year, I only saw them from a distance – this year, they were right beside the car. Very cool – there were even a large number of baby birds. Traveling with the ostrich was a small herd of zebra. Amazingly, it looked like one had managed to avoid becoming dinner for something last night. It hard two huge, open scars on its right flank. How it got away, and managed to survive given the size of the injury was amazing.

My success at water holes came to a crashing halt today. Yesterday, I had the most amazing sightings at the various water holes. Today, not so much. Can’t win them all I guess.

The rest of the day was mostly consumed with a lot of driving, and more of the same. That all changed just after lunch. I was on a bridge over the Sabie River, taking some hippo pictures when a man in a passing truck mentioned that there was a pack of Wild Dog about a kilometer up the road! So long hippos. My goal this trip was to see cheetah (check) and wild dogs. Sure enough, five minutes later I was snapping shots to my heart’s content. There was a small pack of 8-10 dogs, snoozing in the shade of a car pull-off. Luckily, I managed to get there during a lull in the action and was able to take pretty much all the pictures I wanted. After about 20 minutes, it got pretty busy, and people started doing stupid things. One jackass even pulled right up (i.e. within 5 feet) of part of the pack so his stupid, fat wife could take a picture with her $99 digital camera. Unbelievable – I really don’t know how people can be so stupid.

The good thing was that later in the afternoon, just before camp closed up I circled back and managed to get another glimpse of the dogs, before they headed off for their evening hunt. Truly, one of the best experiences yet!

December 3, 2006

I started off early again – 4:45 and I was on the road. I’m not a huge fan of the Skakuza camp in general – it’s a bit too big – but the location is great. There is a huge amount of game in the general area, provided you can find it. The bush is also very heavy, especially this time of the year.

The day started amazingly well – not ¾ of an hour out of camp I ran into a pride of five lions! The pride consisted of three females and a couple of good-sized males. They were crashed out on the tarmac, and not really all that concerned about the growing crowd of vehicles around them. Much like the wild dogs, I was fortunate to get there early, and got a prime spot before a lot of the other vehicles showed up. They stuck around for about half an hour, and then disappeared into the bush.

My second amazing Big Five encounter happened about an hour later. I noticed a fairly large waterhole on the map, and headed toward it. As I was pulling up, this huge herd of buffalo came over a ridge, and started down towards the water. This herd was massive – easily the biggest I had ever seen. There must have been three hundred of the beasts, easily! I decided to see if I could get close to the water, and drove down the last part of the road. At that point, more of the herd continued down, and eventually I ended up completely surrounded by buffalo. They were in the water beside me; they were in front and behind – there were buffalo everywhere. Fortunately, they really weren’t quite sure what to make of me. Every once in a while, one of the larger bulls would edge closer, trying to check me out. Once they got a scent, they’d move off again. After a good hour of drinking, and cooling off in the water the herd moved on.

After that start the rest of the day was pretty sedate. There were many sightings of rhino and elephant (four of the five again today…), as well as the usual herds of zebra, impala, giraffe and other antelope. The day started to get really hot. By 9:00 a.m. it was easily the hottest day I’d had all trip (later in the day, one of the people I met indicated it got up to 41 C). Check in policy at the camps was for a 12:00 check in, so my plan each day was to be out early, drive all morning until it got hot, then check in right around lunch time. After checking in, I’d have a nap for a few hours, and then head out again around 4:00. It was a nice little routine. Today was especially pleasing, as the cottage I was in had a really nice deck overlooking the river, and I had some vervet monkeys and tree squirrels playing “hide and seek” while I had a beer, and enjoyed the heat of the day. It’s amazing how much less of an issue the heat is when you’re sitting on a patio, drinking beer.

This camp – Byamitti was the best camp of the five I stayed at during my time in the park. It’s considered a “bush camp” meaning that it is smaller (only 15 cottages) and had no facilities - no store, restaurant, gas station etc. – you had to bring everything, and cook for yourself. Beyond that, it has all the amenities, without any of the crowds. Next time, I’ll stay at this camp for a few nights. After my nap we hooked up with two South African couples for a night drive. I was no where near as exciting as the one a couple of nights ago, but we did have a spectacular sunset, and did see a bit of game – most notably a hyena, a large herd of elephants and a bush baby.

December 4, 2006

Today, things came back down to “normal”. The day started with an amazing sunrise, but again you could tell it was going to be a hot one. Sadly, I ended up with no unique experiences. There were a lot of the “normal” elephant, rhino, and various antelope, but no encounters really worth noting. Given that tomorrow is my last day in the park, I hope that tomorrow is a better day.

Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not complaining! It was still an amazing day. Just driving around in the bush is (almost) enough. Given that that I only have one last morning, I guess I’m not going to get my Big Five this time. But that’s OK – the wild dog and cheetah more than made up for it!

December 5, 2006

Sadly, this will be my last day in the park for this trip. It’s certainly been a good one! I have to be at the airport in Johannesburg for about 7:00 – 8:00 p.m., so it still gives me a very full day in the park.

The day was pretty good – sort of half way between the amazing early days, and the past couple of “average” days. I ended up seeing four of the Big Five again (sadly, no leopard made an appearance – my first “failure” on a trip to Kruger), although the three lions were fairly far away. I’m a bit burned out on the travel reporting, and I’m sure you’re all tired of reading it. It’s time for me to go sync my work e-mail, and see what disasters await me back home.

30 hours of planes and airports are ahead of me… I can’t wait…

Off to Kruger

November 30, 2006

I'm off to Kruger as soon as the rental car is delivered. Can't wait! Seems like I've missed a ton of fun with all the snow in Vancouver. I keep getting pictures from friends, and the slide show on the CBC web site was pretty wild to see. Sadly, it looks like it will all be gone by the time I get home... Did I mention it's 25 degrees and sunny here in South Africa?