Sunday, August 12, 2018

Epilogue: So, what have we learned?

First, a few words on traveling to the Kruger Park. If you want to make the most of it, and really, you DO, you need to realize it is not strictly speaking a very relaxing destination. Looking for game is more or less a full time occupation, and to me, some of the fun of Kruger is to see what I can spot next. Endless hours of the aforementioned kidney rattling gravel roads and long, slow drives through tall grass and bush along the paved roads, where the speed limit is 50 km/h (30 mph) will test your mental stamina. All so that you might get a glimpse of a lion or a leopard that may or may not be within miles of you.

In addition comes the physical challenge. You're sitting in a car, driving for most of the daylight hours (appx. 6AM to 5:30PM in the winter) and it can be hot, hot, hot in the day; my last full day in Kruger saw the temperature creep up to 32C (90F) in the middle of the day, and that was in winter down there. During their summer, it can easily reach 40C (104F). Of course, the cats will be resting in the shade during most of those hours and you're driving on the tiny chance one will cross the road in front of you.

I bought a t-shirt in Kruger that said, "Lust for dust". Well, I've swallowed enough dust to give a Welsh miner lung cancer ten times over. Both the car and I were dusted in fine sand and I suspect it will be weeks before I have cleaned the last of it out of hair, eyes and mouth.

Lastly comes the stress of dealing with South Africa as such. Unless you travel on a luxury budget (and if you read this you're probably not), there are challenges of incompetence, carelessness and neglect or simply people wanting a monetary reward for doing what is their fucking jobs in the first place.

Internet connection can be extremely spotty to say the least, and there is so much of what we take for granted about Western infrastructure that is just not present in rural South Africa. Additionally the crime rate and the accident rate are still much higher than in the west, although if you stay inside the park, you won't notice at all; it is probably the safest place in the country. Well, so long as you stay in your car…

If you're ready to deal with all of this, going there can be immensely rewarding. South Africa is an endlessly fascinating country with its recent Apartheid history and the current fragile balance between the races and the numerous ethnic groups. The problems seem to be manageable in the areas around Kruger, which is in the extreme northeast, and where there are no major cities. Most of the black population there now has electricity and indoor plumbing and seem more or less content to live an existence "separate but equal" to their white compatriots.

The vast majority of the people you will encounter within the park will be nice. Either they're tourists with the same goals as you, which will give you an automatic connection, or they're natives working in the hospitality industry. The latter will be among the most well-meaning, friendly and just plain nice people you'll ever meet. The vast majority take pride in their work and you'll find that both your lodgings and the public facilities are spotlessly clean.

And then there are the animals. Oh, the animals. From the funny little radio-antenna warthogs to the goofy looking giraffes; from the black furred hyena babies to the ginger haired zebra foals; from the playful but lethal hippos to the log-imitating crocodiles; from the peaceful but highly territorial rhinos to the (mostly) gentle giant elephants; from the sleek and beautifully colored leopard to the mighty, muscular lions, kings of this world… the animals make it all worthwhile.

Nothing can fully prepare you for the sight of a sleek leopard slipping out of the forest in front of you, only to fade back into the bushes on the other side of the road or the sight of a battle scarred old lion idly strolling through the grass a few meters away from you. Or the intense cuteness of a baby hyena, a baby elephant, a baby baboon or, well you get my drift… But don't take MY word for it, go there yourself. You'll see, it's everything I've written about and then some.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

South Africa Day 10: Going in one last time

Thursday, I got up at the ungodly hour of 4:37AM, hopefully for the last time this summer. I'd set the alarm for 5AM, but woke up sooner. Gah. Shirley was waiting outside reception and we headed for the Numbi gate, which is usually a little less crowded than Phabeni.

We first headed south, to do the loop roads around Pretoriuskop. We visited the hyena family, which was in the exact same place as the day before. They probably use a shallow hollow right beside the road (but under some bushes) as their den. After that, we saw nothing so I headed north to Shabeni, where Shirley saw her first elephant. Then followed a quick break at Pretoriuskop camp.

I had to be back at the hotel around 11, so time was running short. I headed for S65, with quick stops at Shitlhave, which held lots of zebras, impalas and some waterbucks. One of the zebras was running around trying to scare away the impala and largely succeeding. I'm not sure if he had anything against them or just chased them because it was fun, but it was an amusing sight. The followed Napi Boulders and Transport Dam, which were both devoid of anything interesting. The road from Numbi to S65 was also strangely empty this day, only a few zebras and impalas were to be seen.

We took the S65 and at first, I drove at a normal pace. The road is not as bad as Voortrekker, but it is still kidney rattling in places. Then we met some people who told us there was a leopard in a tree, with a dead impala, a few kilometers back. I put the pedal to the metal, even zooming past the waterhole, which was empty; par for the course that day.

We managed to make the leopard, but he had descended from the tree and was lying on the ground. Three or four cars were jockeying for the best position, and after a couple of minutes, he'd had enough. He got up and crossed the road to disappear in the tall grass on the other side, but not before leaving us with another memory of the wild beauty of Kruger. The road back to Phabeni was devoid of anything but impalas, some far off ellies and a huge herd of hippos at the waterhole. Still, Shirley was very happy when I deposed her at the staff's quarters about 20 minutes after exiting the park.

The leopard.
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My last picture from inside the park.
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I packed, checked out over half an hour late and finally got going toward Johannesburg. I took a couple of wrong turns in Nelspruit and had to ask for assistance, then I hit roadworks a couple of times on the way. The final challenge came just outside Johannesburg, where it looked like a big truck was partially blocking the road and traffic stood almost still for about 20 minutes. For a while there, I feared losing my flight, but I made the plane with plenty of time to spare.

The flight to Frankfurt was long and boring and, sadly, as sleepless as the trip down. I had a brief moment of panic when a woman with a baby sat down next to me. She assured me that the baby was calm and mellow, which in my experience are famous last words. However, she was true to her word. The little one made a few gurgling noises but otherwise slept the whole night through. I had almost five and a half hours to kill in Frankfurt before the final flight home. I felt tired and stiff and in sore need of a vacation from my vacation, if you know what I mean.

I was deeply, deeply skeptical of Oliver Tambo airport.
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Wednesday, August 1, 2018

South Africa Day 9: Consolation prize: Baby hyena

I never did get that cheetah. I left Pretoriuskop shortly after opening time, and then took the loop roads to the south and west. After a few minutes, I happened upon a family of spotted hyenas; endlessly fascinating animals. I quickly grabbed my small cam and shot a little movie, to make sure I had something, but I needn't have worried. I spent the next 20 minutes in complete, wonderful silence with this little family, except for the little growls and whines they made to communicate with each other. Mama hyena kept a watchful eye, but these animals were probably so used to cars and humans she didn't perceive me as much of a threat.

Morning fog over Pretoriuskop.
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Keeping a watchful eye.
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The group consisted of two or three adults, a few youngsters and three cute, wittle babies. One was hidden from view almost the whole time, but the other two were out and about, and the biggest one was high and low, running around from side to side, crossing the road several times and sniffing family members' private parts.

Young Mr. High-and-low.
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So adorable.
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This one was old enough to have lost most of his black fur.
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Here, one of the older hyenas have bullied the scrap from one of the yonger cubs.
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He tried to retreive it, but to no avail.
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He was also very, very curious about the car and me. He sniffed the tires and tried to bite them with his little teeth and I could hear him bumping against the car as he was walking around it. He came all the way up to me and it took every ounce of willpower in my possession not to reach out my arm to pet him. I'm sure he would have let me, he was that trusting and curious. Or maybe I would have gotten a hook for a hand; either way he was the cutestest little fur ball ever.

Big momma.
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Sniff, sniff.
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Sniff, sniff.
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So damn cute.
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Sigh.
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Aw, look at his little hind paws. So cute.
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Finally, the peace was broken by the arrival of another car, and since I'd already gotten a gazillion pics I decided to move on. I took pics of a water buffalo that came trundling up the road, and two little birds sitting on the back of a kudu. I swung by Pretoriuskop to use the bathroom and to stock up on soft drinks, then drove to Skukuza for lunch.

Half a ton of bad mood on the move.
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Kudu w/birds.
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After lunch, I took a trip up to Lake Panic, where I saw a crocodile try to imitate a log, as is their wont. This one had a small box fastened to its back, and a woman told me some of them were radio marked. There were also some vervet monkeys playing along the lakeside and some hippos off in the distance.

Nom, nom.
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Drinking with the utmost care.
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More nom-nom.
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Hippos off in the distance.
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Fish eagle.
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Croc w/box.
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A ridiculous attempt at camouflage.
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I then went back to my beloved S65, but there were no cats out today. At the waterhole, I first watched three ellies drinking, then a fourth came through the woods and in a completely unwarranted display of might makes right, he scared off one of the three who took a little round before he started drinking again from the other side. Then three more came from the other side, but again I watched, as the smallest one was very careful and submissive when drinking next to the bully.

Might makes right.
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I also watched a couple of them sucking up water in their trunks and spraying it over their heads or under their bellies to keep cool. For some reason it was just one of the big bulls and the little newcomer who did this. I don't know if they do this naturally or if it's learned behavior and the little one was just copying the big one; one would think the former.

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The site also contained a family of warthogs, who all kept a respectful distance to the seven giants. Naturally, there were innumerable impalas around and one solitary gnu, who was rolling around in the mud seemingly very content all by his lonesome.
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At the junction, I then took the paved road all the way back to Numbi gate. The only thing interesting was two rhinos lying in the shade of a tree, quite close to the road. As with so many other animals in the park they didn't seem much bothered by cars and humans at all, something I found to be parts endearing and parts sad. On the one hand, I instinctively and emotionally like the idea that animals can feel safe around humans; on the other hand, these animals should be wilder, hence more afraid of us than they currently are. Thoughts to ponder, I guess.

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Back at the hotel, I was the victim of a prank that was so unusual for South Africa that I took a double take. You may remember that when I'd stayed in my hotel in Hazyview on Saturday, I was given a room somewhat inferior to my expectations. It wasn't by any means a bad room, it just wasn't what I'd expected (and hoped for). I'd asked for an upgrade, but they were completely full that night.

When I checked in this afternoon, the lady at reception, who I'd noticed on my first stay as very cheerful and bubbly, said "we put you I the same room as before". At first, I suspected the all too common African incompetence was at play, but then she said, "We downgraded you, since you liked it so much". Then she burst out laughing and explained that they'd noticed my request last time and decided to poke some fun this time around. It was such an un-African display of wit, I can only assume the English owner has rubbed off on them.

The joke was somewhat ruined when it turned out that even though I'd gotten a superior room, it didn't have a detachable showerhead, which was what I'd been wanting and was what the picture on the webpage had shown. This "superior" room was therefore completely wasted on me. She went to check, but everything of the type with a detachable showerhead was already booked.

I spent a few pleasant hours talking with Shirley, as she was named, and the rest of the staff. They really are the nicest people, friendly and helpful. I learned a lot about the local living conditions and about the various nations that make up this big country. She also explained some of the language differences and the insane ts, zs and clicks-sounds that make up the local dialects.

I feasted on one of the best chunks of beef I've ever had, then as I was about to leave for bed, a thought struck me. Earlier on, I'd shown Shirley a couple of my pics and she told me she'd only been to the park once, years ago and hadn't really seen any animals. So I asked her if she wanted to come with me as I made one last venture into Kruger on Thursday morning. She immediately accepted and we agreed to meet in the reception at 5:45.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

South Africa Day 8: Ah do lubs me some ellies

The day started as it had done yesterday; with me roaring to get out of the gates at 6AM. I drove slowly north on the gravel road to Matjulu Dam. I crawled through the early morning twilight, desperate for a sign of cheetahs; even wild dogs at a pinch. Nuffin'. There was also nothing at the dam, but on the way back I spotted a small rhino sleeping not far from the road.

This little guy was the embodiment of "just five minutes more". His eyes were open, so he was awake. His ears were going back and forth, so he knew we were there. A big safari coach parked and blocked my view when he finally got up, but they soon left. He stood for about five minutes, freaking out a couple of times at the little birds that accompanied his every move. Then he slowly keeled over in the grass, determined to get a few more winks.

I know it's morning, but I want to sleep longer.

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Awake, but not liking it much.
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Just a few winks more...

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Zzzzz...
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After this, I went east on the S110 for a while. I soon found myself in a big herd of ellies. I stayed with them for at least twenty minutes, taking pics of them; especially the three babies I saw. They were the cutest thing, especially the first one I saw. He was rubbing himself lovingly against mommy's leg and stumbled forward every time she moved. I'm a sucker for cute babies, be they dogs, kitties or ellies. I loathe the bald, stinking, ugly little human versions; they're hardly even amusing until they're at least ten. Ugh.

Totally adorbs.
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This little one was as tired as the rhino.
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A bit camera shy.
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Sometimes you gotta get down to find the good stuff.
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Anyways, the rest of that road was taken at a very slow pace, but the only things I saw were impala upon impala. Oh, and some more ellies far up on a hillside. The road was bumpy but went through beautiful, hilly terrain. At a junction, I took the S120 north to enter the H3.

I decided to take a late breakfast/early lunch at Afsaal again. Delia greeted me with a big grin and even remembered my drinks order from yesterday. The mixed grill was good and we talked some more. I told her I was leaving the park tomorrow and going home to Norway. She said two of her siblings had gone there on a brief visit during school; apparently, she was in kindergarten back then. She didn't say if her siblings had gone during high school or university, but I gathered they'd gotten some form of scholarship or stipend for the trip. As I paid my bill, I tipped heavily, gave her my email address, and told her to contact me if she ever got the chance to go to Norway.

Delia dropped a tray of leftovers and the residing birdbrains were thrilled.
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Now, I thought there were fewer vervet monkeys around this year so I asked Delia, and she told me that one had bitten an employee and the authorities had put down seven or eight (monkeys, not employees). As I was leaving, I noticed a couple with two kids who were having fun putting out little biscuits for the cheeky little fuckers (again, the monkeys). Now, I fully understand the impulse to do so, and they're cute and funny little critters (really?), but there is a reason why there are rules in place.

This one fed himself.
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Feeding a wild animal makes them connect humans with food and when that food at some later point is not given freely, they may become aggressive and bite or worse. That ensures the animal's death. I explained this as politely and friendly as possible and the people nodded and put away the food, praise Jeebus.

His table manners leave a little something to be desired.
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This picture could have been used in an ad for the youghurt producer.
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One of the babies soon took over.
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Nom, nom.
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After a good photoshoot with the monkeys, I traveled on. Soon I came to a small waterhole. Here, everything was a pastoral idyll. Not a predator to be seen, impala and nyala grazing. A family of warthogs crossed the road with their little radio antennas straight up and off in the distance, two elephants were drinking from a concrete dam. As I was leaving, one of the elephants started walking towards the road, so I followed at a slow pace. Halfway, he stopped to have a good scratch against a tree, which shook vigorously.

Pastorall idyll.
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Radar love.
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First one side.
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Then the other.
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Then behind the ears for good measure.
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Later, at the road to Numbi, I photographed a klipspringer, then took the S65 north again, desperate for predators. At the waterhole, there was a giraffe and an elephant, so I dutifully took some pics. I think maybe I've found the reason why there's sometime a drought on this continent. The amount of water an elephant wastes every time he takes a sip is astonishing. Speaking of water, at the only waterhole along this road, I photographed a big group of hippos. They were mostly sleeping, but every now and then one would emit a loud snort or bellow, followed by some replies before everything fell silent again.

Klipspringer from behind.
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Oh hai!
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Sleepy hippos.
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I checked in at Pretoriuskop, had a so-so late lunch at the accursed Wimpys, then set off for one last desperate attempt; this time to find cheetahs. Sadly, none was to be found anywhere. I even passed a small traffic jam where they apparently had seen a leopard somewhere in the grass; it didn't matter. Nothing mattered now; I'd already gotten my lions and my leopards but it felt as if I wouldn't find happiness ever again until I'd bagged a cheetah. Sadly, I once again had to go to bed without so much as a whiff of one.