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.

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