Part of me wondered if we’d see animals up close. We had four days in the Greater Kruger National Park but these were wild animals and the park is more than 20 000 square kilometres. It seemed theoretically possible for all animals to be distant from our vehicles. (Mathematicians, what say you?) When wandering around our lodge, Tremisana, in Balule (one of the private game parks adjoining Kruger without fences), the BB found photos taken by visitors. One showed lions next to the road 50 metres inside the front gate. ‘If only,’ I thought.
Twenty minutes into our sunset drive that evening we encountered a herd of impala almost on the track – one male and a number of females. What a thrill! I later discovered that most people quickly tire of them because they are so prolific but I find their daintiness, clear colouring and relationships captivating.
Then, elephants! (And another ‘!’ if I may – terribly naughty grammar but it was terrifically exciting). The tusks had moon-lustre in the gloaming. Quietly the herd threaded its way past us, in front and behind. A youngster trumpeted half-heartedly but his raised trunk indicated he was not perturbed enough to charge.
Our sharp-eyed driver located lime green chameleons curled up in little packages, eyes swiveling. We were spotlighting by this time and I wanted to wrench the light from the 11-year-old boy who was operating it. (My childhood farm nights were surging to the fore.)
The night was teeming: spotted Lincolns stuffed in a row; jackals; an orb spider; a lone wildebeest with a herd of impala; and a scrub hare, looking rather like a common old rabbit. Possibly the highlight (no pun intended) of spotlighting was the bush baby two nights later. Its eyes reflected as a single entity, masking its body. From its roadside bush, it bounced onto the ground then sprang immediately back up, 1.5 metres, into the bush. With no hesitation, it launched down to the road, then continued to the other side and disappeared. The effect was of a small, rubber, bouncing ball with an attached reflector.
It’s not just the sights that make the African wilderness. Even during the day, one can feel the damp cool near water. Mint and sage-like aromas plus dirt and the tang of urine add to the complexity of the air. And there are the sounds. Our driver that first night stopped the vehicle and asked us to guess the origin of the rustles, snaps and thuds emanating from the bush. Deductions based on height of the sound and the nature of the footfall lead me to buffalo and then they appeared; dangerous as hell to the walker but disinterested in our vehicle. They moseyed on and the night once again enveloped them, visually, if not aurally.
Dinner was a brai (bbq). The boma was a picture of (tourist) Africa: a circle of rocks about 40cm high – insufficient to deter a big cat, I thought – in the open bush. We sat beneath a spreading marula tree at tables covered, incongruously and invitingly, with white tablecloths and lit by lights in jars. Beef steaks, sausages and corn roasted over the coals. Salad and dessert beckoned from the serving table. A rifle rested against the tree. That rifle, in the hands of one of the men from the lodge, accompanied me to the ladies – protection against woman-eaters.
The following morning, after a large and tasty breakfast, (they “fed us like fighting cocks”, as my grandmothers used to say), nine of us tourists zipped down the highway in an open safari vehicle (plus driver in the cab) to a Kruger entrance.
A few hundred metres inside the gate we chanced upon lions – a male and female plus the security guard lion whose consequence for losing the fight for the female is to keep everyone away while these two mate every 15 – 20 minutes over three to five days. (Yes, you read that correctly.) The event we witnessed was brief and low-key – as you might expect with that sort of schedule.
The day filled with sighting after sighting of animals, most so close I couldn’t have used my zoom lens if I’d wanted.
Wildebeest frolicked on the verge and filed across the road. They are elegant, sleek creatures who do not deserve their place amongst the so-called Ugly Five. (Show me an animal that does.)
Also in that group: warthogs. They are not ugly so much as…unexpected, and endearing for it. How sweet they are, humphalumphing and trit-trotting through the belly-high grass. (The other uglies are hyenas, vultures and marabou storks.)
There were ostriches with plumage like the great, wide mourning dresses of Queen Victoria; a mongoose, which brought a childhood story to life; half-hidden kudu; a leopard tortoise (representing the Small Five); baboons with their playful babies who sat still just long enough to plot their next caper (in some odd way, their large, pink ears seem to emphasise their thoughtfulness at such moments) ; giraffes adorned with birds; delightful, decorative birds.
Zebras teased our eyes like a knot of striped jumpers and stockings – an utter treat.
Twice we were surrounded by elephants. Later, I emailed my mother with that bit in capital letters. She loves elephants. I watched for her too.
At lunchtime a fellow passenger bought rhino bracelets for a honeymooning Irishman and his wife, so keen was he to see a rhino. By mid-afternoon we had all embraced his desperation. The driver took us to rhino hangouts. Nothing. As we criss-crossed the bush, the woman next to me acted as a periscope or meerkat, upright and pivoting. We wouldn’t miss anything on her lookout. By 4pm the shadows were taunting us by forming remarkably rhino-like shapes. Spider webs glistened in the slanting rays, marking out large territories as children mark out play homes with stones.
We did not see a rhinoceros. I didn’t expect a leopard – the final member of the Big, ie dangerous-to-hunt, Five – since they are largely nocturnal.
As we zoomed home in the dark, huddled against the cold air, I wondered about cheetahs. I had heard tales of semi-tame ones at a nearby lodge. Oh, to see one!
We had one and a half days plus an evening drive remaining…