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April 1. Kruger National Park. Still trying to catch up (actually, I have been doing all right, but I have had to type most paragraphs more than once. I am trying to do my first Draft on a new tablet computer and the program says it has saved, but has dropped work). Our days have almost become routine. We drive our van to relocate among the camps and settle in for a couple nights. “Game drives” to view wildlife are centered around dusk and dawn when most animals are most active and each lasts about three hours.
During one drive, we startled a young elephant that was standing very close to the edge of the road (and it startled us, too). The large cow and the others rose to the defense. Lots of bellowing and flapping ears but things quickly settled down. Later we encountered another herd. This time they were not so close but the bellowing and agitation were more intense. Then some charging. Not at us but at another herd member. This was a late adolescent male that the lead cow was trying to chase from the herd. It ambled off a short distance, stopped, and threw dust over itself.
Impalas are encountered frequently and often so we try to ignore them. But they are hard to ignore. So petite and pretty and mature males are so photogenic. We encountered one herd, I would guess numbered around 200. They were all around us. Some warning barks passed around the crowd but there was no panic, only some quick jumps and short bursts of speed. It is easy to see why they are snack food for predators.
Last evening, we went for another drive. We saw a nice variety of animals and birds, some with nice poses. After dark, we use spotlights. It can be quite boring trying to spot things of interest in the dark. It is a lot more interesting if you get to operate one of the spotlights. We found a scrub hare... A true hare and a spring hare... which is not a true hare but a rodent. These are beautiful little creatures that apparently get their name from their locomotion which consists of hopping and springing forward on their long hind legs. Like a kangaroo. And, like a kangaroo, their front legs are rather feeble. They have a long slender tail with a bright fluff at the end. They are about the size of a little red squirrel and strictly nocturnal.
We were out again this morning before daylight and we're back again in time for breakfast. We had several interesting sightings. One bull elephant was close, about two car lengths away. Ready to breed. And agitated. Trunk up. Ears waving. It took three or four steps toward us. Our driver started the engine, ready to go. But it stopped, and turned. A good look.
We watched a large group of hippos doing what hippos do best. Loll around in the old swimming hole. These guys spend most of their day underwater. They sunburn easily so they use water and mud baths for sun protection. There must have been at least a dozen in this pond. Dominant males defend their territories in a pond but females are free to come and go. In nighttime, they leave the water to forage away from their water haven. Last evening we saw one on the left side of the road and only a few meters up the road, we saw another approaching from the right.
We had some good looks at cheetahs, some hyenas, and some warthogs near to the road. Both groups included a female and half grown young. The hyena had two young, the warthog had five.
But still no leapard.
Melba, Karel, and I will go on a guided walk later this afternoon. Maybe then, but probably not.
Tomorrow we go on a long ride back to the south end of the park. The next day, we are scheduled for a long day tour of a scenic canyon area, the Blyde River. Then we leave the park to fly to Victoria Falls in Zambia.
I should say that we have spent a lot of time in trucks bouncing along paved and unpaved roads. Always scanning and straining to spot something new or something special. These things are essentially flatbed trucks outfitted with r strong railing and an overhead framework covered with a heavy canvass. From front to back, there are rows of 4 seats, two on each side with an aisle in the center. No side windows but there is a rolled up clear plastic that could be lowered as needed. During our off time, laundry, writing, typing, shopping, or sleeping. Much like the predators we are trying to see. Active early and late or all night and rest in the daytime.
April 3. Last full day in Kruger Park. Today, we will actually leave the Park but return for the night before we relocate to Livingstone, Zambia and Victoria Falls. But I have some news from yesterday. Mavis, Melba, and I went on a sunset drive. We had traveled less than 5 kilometers when the driver shouted, excitedly "leopard, leopard". The cat had bounded across the road about a hundred meters distant. The driver gunned the vehicle and slammed on the brakes. We scanned the grass and bush anxiously for another glimpse. A voice cried out, "Back up! Rhino!" Not one, but six. One was not more than an animal length from the edge of the road.
There, in about the time it has taken me to type this we crossed two of the “Big 5” of the park off the list. Well, sort of. Only a few of the 20 plus people on board were looking at the road. I, for one, was concentrating my search efforts where I expected to see a leopard... In a tree, not on the road. The “Big 5” to see in Kruger Park: elephant, buffalo, rhino, lion, and leopard.
Our trip would end with a score of 4.5 for the Big 5.
This particular drive was perhaps our poorest, a sad way to end our experiences in Kruger Park. We did go and see a close elephant and giraffe and a bit more. The spotlight operators were quite ineffective. I think that all we saw after dark were a couple sightings in the headlights. An African wild cat, a spitting cobra, and Cape buffalo. In the 3 hour trip, all the action filled not more than about 20 minutes of the time.
The following day, we spent a long day with a driver, Mike, who seemed very knowledgeable about the people, the area, and the animals. The goal of the day was to view the Panoramic Route and the Blyde River canyon which were outside Kruger Park. About 2.5 hours one way. It was fascinating to experience the landscape and the villages, and, finally, the canyon. It was impressive but not enthralling. During the long trip back, Mike steered us through the park lands. It was obvious that he enjoyed driving on the gravel back roads of the park rather than the broad paved two lane Highways.
What else? The Weather. For the most part, the weather has been fairly consistent and almost predictable. Sunny. Daytime highs in the low 80s so but cooler in the shade, especially if there is breeze. Cool down begins in late afternoon and gets down to low 60s overnight. We had a good rain shower during the one off train excursion from the Blue Train and two nights ago, we were all jolted awake by a ferocious thunder clap and we had a lot of rainfall from that storm. Interestingly, as we left on our night ride, we thought it might rain but when we returned, stars filled the sky. Out here where there are no bright lights, the star filled night sky is so fun to just admire.
These camps. There must be 20 camps sprinkled across the vast landscape of the park. Each seems to be strategically placed to take advantage of some feature such as a particular habitat type that may favor one species or another. Here at Olifants Camp, where I am writing just now, for example, most of the main features of the camp are situated on a high bluff overlooking a large river with a narrow plain and a scattered forest on the far side. The river is home to hippos and crocodiles and all sorts of water birds as well as other birds and mammals. Another camp may tout the presence of lions. One camp claimed to host 2,000 visitors daily and a staff of 250. Each (or most) camp includes a registration center, a restaurant, shopping, laundry, and fueling station. Bungalows are for rent and camping spaces are available. Camps are connected with a network of good roads. And each camp is encircled by a secure and electrified fence with a gate that is closed during nighttime.
Bungalows are spare but adequate. A bed, AC, running water, shower. Cook on a hot plate or a charcoal grill (here, called a braai). Refrigerator/freezers were usually located outside in the covered patio. Here and in other areas, we are constantly reminded about the audacity and strength and inventiveness of especially baboons and also monkeys. And, in the camps, monkeys, baboons, and mongooses were not stopped by the security fence and we were instructed to keep the refrigerator turned sideways so these marauders could not access the refrigerator. Karel and I had one bungalow and the Australians, another. One early morning in the park, we discovered food garbage and cartons spewed all about and evidence that some had been consumed while atop the van. The ladies insisted that they had the refrigerator properly turned but the baboons and/or monkeys had pushed it out and raided it.
On another occasion, Mavis took a half banana and put the other half in the refrigerator. Abruptly a monkey appeared and charged. Mavis retreated and the monkey dashed to the refrigerator and plucked out the banana. Another came nearby and frightened Karel, but she shooed it off.
All in all, Kruger Park was a magical place for us. We saw such a huge abundance of birds and animals and a wonderful abundance in variety of the bird and animals and all in their natural habitats and interactions. It is impossible to list all of the different species or calculate the numbers. It seems that this diversity and abundance once occurred throughout South Africa but today, modern pressures and land uses have altered that dynamic and wildlife sightings are much more rare.