A few of my more suspicious friends have asked me if the animals we photographed, which seemed so cooperative, were cooped up in a special area for tourists to see; sedated so they wouldn’t eat people; or so used to seeing tourists with cameras that they’d become essentially tame.
None of the above. Kruger National Park is immense, more than 7,500 square miles, in addition to the private reserves surrounding it. It has a relatively large population of lions, leopards, rhinos, African elephants and African buffaloes, so called the Big Five because they are difficult to hunt on foot, though Eric and Donald Trump Jr. managed to bag some in 2012 and proudly posed holding what seems to be a dead leopard. What a family!
Both places at which we stayed had outings to see the animals a little before sunrise and then shortly before sunset that lasted about three hours each. Most of the outings were aboard an open Land Rover, with a guide who also drove, and a spotter who sat on a jump seat on the left front bumper. A couple of times we drove and then walked for a few miles.
After the morning outings we retreated to Camp Letaba for breakfast, or a round of drinks and conversation around the campfire in the afternoon, before dinner.
|Brunch al fresco.|
At Kings Camp things became more elaborate, borderline extravagant. For the sundowner, out came a cooler with a variety of drinks, cheeses and canapes, to be served over a tablecloth laid out on a pop-up shelf built on the front grille of the Land Rover. After one morning outing we were treated to a full-blown buffet brunch at a clearing under some trees, with waiters and a full pewter service and cloth napkins. No paper plates or plastic forks, please.
At all times the guides carried rifles in case some animal was having a bad day. While aboard the Land Rover, the instructions were just to stay sitting down and avoid shouting or other commotion.
On foot—and we must have heard this a dozen times—we were warned, “Whatever you do, don’t run.” To a predator, seeing a fellow mammal screaming, waving a camera and running away is like yelling, “Dinner!” And no matter how fast you run, you’re not going to outrun a leopard or a lion. Aside from that, we were told to remain quiet and walk single file.
|John Adamson, one of our guides.|
Our first Kruger Park ranger, John Adamson, from the Letaba Camp, told us how he’d had to shoot five animals since 2010, including an elephant, when two women started to bother it and then ran away screaming when it came after them.
The elephant picked up one of the women with his tusks and tossed her in the air. Adamson then shot the elephant which dropped dead on top of one of the woman, who miraculously, was not seriously injured. In another case he had to shoot a charging buffalo. Even on sunny afternoons buffaloes are not pettable, koochie-koo types of critters.
These incidents shook up Adamson. Though a expert shooter, he said he’d never had killed an animal before, even a bird, and these situations were tough on his nerves.
On another outing, aboard a van, we ran across a huge male elephant that was blocking the road. Charlie, who was driving, stopped and then inched up to the elephant, expecting it to move aside.
Not so. Instead the elephant started to walk slowly, but very deliberately, toward the van. Wisely, Charlie put the van in reverse but the elephant kept walking toward us. Most worrisome was that the elephant was wrapping his trunk around one of his huge tusks—a sign of aggression. Charlie also said this huge male seemed to show signs of being in musth, pachyderm lingo meaning “horny and angry.”
|Elephant vs. van|
This game of chicken went on for fifteen minutes, and some of the people in the van were scared. I didn’t quite realize what was going on because I was taking photos.
Charlie kept going in reverse and then backed up onto a dirt sideroad, turned around and got us out of there. The elephant began to follow us but then walked away, as if satisfied he’d made his point.
This elephant was part of a group that included several females with year-old calves, and maybe that’s why he adopted a protective/ aggressive posture. Indeed as we left, a young elephant by the side of the road began honking, waving his trunk and making unfriendly moves as if to tell us that visiting hours were over.
Other than those we didn’t run into any dangerous or threatening situations. One lion, which seemed to be enjoying an early-morning amorous moment with a mate right in the middle of the road, finished his business—lions are fast operators and a lioness in estrus can mate every ten minutes or so, often with different males—just got up and walked away slowly to the bushes by the side of the road.
|A hyena pup comes out of her den,|
Other animals seemed thoroughly indifferent to our presence, at least if we stayed twenty or thirty feet away. A leopard lay by its half-eaten prey, and a lone lioness ambled by indifferently.
The early-morning/late afternoon timing of our outings worked well: The animals were up and about presumably after a night’s rest, and the sunlight—soft, warm and casting dramatic shadows—was perfect for photography. By midday, most the animals had retired somewhere and the harsh sunlight was not very flattering.
The guides communicated with their colleagues by walkie-talkie of any sightings. One morning, moments before the sun came up, we witnessed a tender maternal moment as a hyena played roughhouse with her litter of three or four yipping pups. The scene belied hyenas’ reputation for bloodthirstiness and ferocity.
|Hyenas often “laugh” while they eat.|
Then again, later the next day, we ran into a pack of hyenas by the side of the road, fighting over the remains of an impala. The hyena’s supposedly sardonic or hysterical “laughter” is more like a series of creepy shrieks that supposedly can take on different tones depending on the situation—a warning to the rest of the pack that danger looms or that a potential prey is nearby. At any rate, it’s not a ha-ha type of “laughter.”
Squamish as I am, the sight of the hyenas eating or hauling away the remains of an impala, or in another occasion, a leopard placidly lying by a half-eaten warthog, didn’t bother me perhaps because the victims were already dead. But I’ve read that watching a pack of hyenas disembowel an old or lame buffalo that’s still alive and struggling for its life is tough to watch.
|Looking at you, babe.|
There didn’t seem to be any lucky or best time to spot animals during the dozen or so outings we went on. One of the biggest aha! moments came as we were headed back to the camp and it was already pitch-dark. Somehow either our driver or our spotter caught sight of a flap-necked chameleon, bright green, about seven inches long perched on a branch of a tree about twenty feet away.
The driver turned off the Land Rover and the headlights, walked over to the tree and brought this startled creature, its nervous, bulging eyes casing the scene, and brought it for us on his palm to photograph and admire. Small and immobile except for his eyes, this fellow was as beautiful as any we saw.
|Behold the dung beetle at work.|
Our driver and spotter at Kings Camp, Neil and Donald; and John at Letaba Camp displayed a fascination and excitement about their jobs, nature and animals undimmed by daily repetition or routine. Every creature we ran across, from huge to insignificant (look! a dung beetle!); plain-looking to magnificent; exotic to commonplace was an occasion for discussion and even a few photographs.
The Rotarians’ Charlie Hardy and his wife Lois also were taken by this perpetual enthusiasm, particularly for birds in his case. When stopped to see the mother hyena and her pups, I asked Charlie if he had any favorite animals or species he thought were the most beautiful.
After a short pause, he said, “Not really. To me they are all beautiful and exciting.”
Of all the delicious South African dishes we sampled, the best ones prepared by the Rotarians’ hospitality team, was one called Cape Malay Bobotie, which is a baked ground beef dish. Here is the recipe, directly from Charlie Hardy’s wife Lois:
4 thoughts on “Into South Africa (Part 3, The animals)”
Such a wonderful adventure. Your photography is awesome as is the story telling…
Fantastic! Next best thing to a vacation review party, altho I still wish you would do one of those. You might not love it, but we sure would! Lydia jane
Thank you Peter. I think we're caught up in our sleep by now!
Lydia: Your talk about “we” scares me, as in a dozen strangers showing up at my front gate!al