Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Shongololo's African Adventure: Part 2 (Kruger)

Joseph's face was as black as the night, and the pale yellow moon shone in his eyes. His path was marked by the stars of the southern hemisphere, and he walked the length of his days under African skies.

I arrived at the Paul Kruger Gate just as the sun was setting behind the Drakensburg range that girds the western boundary of the Kruger National Park. Travel in the park is prohibited after dark, for reasons that became increasingly obvious as I made my way to Skukuza. Although the distance was only about 12km, the speed limit of 50km/h on tarred roads and 40km/h on gravel roads is rigorously enforced for the safety of animals and drivers alike.

In the dimming light, I rounded the first bend in the road, just as a herd of buffalo came marauding across it. I put on the brakes and waited patiently as they plodded across, in no apparent hurry, and really rather inconsiderate of the fine that might await me if I got into camp after hours.

Eventually I pulled into Skukuza Camp and made my way to my own little round chalet. The first thing you notice in the bush at night is the sky. No picture can really do it justice, it takes a while to grasp the sheer expanse of it, with shooting stars, a gigantic yellow moon, swirling galaxies and no noise but the sound of elephants trampling the undergrowth and the occasional vervet swinging in to try and work the monkey-proof bins.

The next morning I woke up at 5am (AllanS, Freedmans, Corhamites, I do not lie), and hopped on an organised "morning ride" out into the bush with guides from the camp. Firstly may I point out just how damn cold it was. I had 2 jumpers, a coat, hat, scarf and gloves, and they provided a blanket on the truck, and I was still shivering. We pottered around for a couple of hours, seeing giraffes, an eagle, some glimpses of hyena, zebra and buffalo, but nothing particularly up-close and personal. I was beginning to wonder what on earth I was going to do to entertain myself for 4 days of this.

Then after a brief nip back to camp to collect my own car, have a warm cuppa, take some stuff for lunch, and check the noticeboard which shows where fellow guests have spotted anything good, I drove out. First port of call, Skukuza Golf Club, just to see if it was really possible that there could be pristine greens and men in silly trousers moseying around in the middle of a park stuffed with the most ferocious animals on the planet (the Big Five are chosen because they are the deadliest if you don't nail them stone dead with your first shot).

Turned out to be a good idea. As I drove up the track to the club, I came over a small hill and down below, trotting across the road, was a freaking leopard! I slowed right down and had a little look in the surrounding shrubs, but could only see what it was probably about to snack on - some ruddy impala. After a quick stop at a very nice wetland walk alongside the golf course (replete with said men in silly trousers looking unperturbed by the leopard in their car park), I decided to take my first real off-road drive, down a little track west of Skukuza.

It proved to be a super decision, as I came across a small watering hole and was able to get within a few yards of my first elephant:

He was all on his own having a merry old slurp from the waterhole and also giving himself a bit of a spraydown. He didn't seem at all perturbed that I was sitting there watching him. Also in the vicinity I saw my first warthogs, which are totally hilarious. They are like really gay pigs, with their prancing ballet feet somehow supporting some very portly midriff.

Later on that day, I decided to take a little pre-dusk circuit not too far from camp. As I headed down the dusty track, a big daddy rhino came storming out of the bush into the road, turned to look at me, did some major head-lowering and dust-kicking, and generally made me wish I'd have upgraded to a car that was at least somewhat similar in size to him.

I sat very, very still for what seemed like an eternity, while he sized up the threat. Eventually he decided my nippy little Hyundai wasn't the ripping through his hide with  bare teeth kind, and he gave a little nod to mummy and baby rhino to come trotting out into the road:

While they stood around having a natter, I started to think about the setting sun and the need to get back to camp, or certainly off the smaller track and onto a proper road, before dark. The rhinos were blocking the way ahead, which led within 1km to a tarmac road, whilst behind me was over 10km of slow going through some woods that would not be fun in the pitch black. So I waited.

Just as they looked ready to shuffle off into the grass though, another car came skidding to a halt pretty close to them from the other direction. We must have been the only two vehicles on that track all day, and now the rhinos were blocking both of us. After being startled and holding their ground at first, they eventually got bored and harrumphed off into the undergrowth. I waved at the other car and we gave each other the Kruger hand signals for "that was cool" and "bit of a close shave" before heading our separate ways.

Not long later, and I was speeding along the tarmac road back to camp, though it was now very dark... when I heard a loud crashing sound just ahead of me and stood on the brakes, just as a very angry pair of elephants in "musth" wrenched a whole tree off the side of the road and swished it from side to side. I stopped about 20 yards short of them and backed up veeeery sloooowly. They eyed me and carried on shredding the shrubbery, completely blocking the road. As I sat in the car wondering if I would ever get home, I called the camp and told them I was delayed due to elephants and rhino on the route. I await TfL trying that excuse for cancellations on the Met Line.

Then behind me I saw a pair of headlights on full beam, bearing down towards us at a pretty breakneck speed. I whacked on my hazards and even waggled the gearstick in reverse, but to no avail. I thought wow, this guy drives like an Israeli! The speeding car was almost next to me when it saw the beasts and jammed on the brakes. It neatly passed the first ellie but was blocked by the second.  As the two turned around and threatened to converge on the car, the driver very gingerly backed up and stopped alongside me.

Winding down the window, he said "eeehhh, dat was a close one! End deed you see the two lions fAcking back there?" I said "ain lanu matsav midai im hapilim ha'ele?" He said "eeehhh, how deed you know I was Israeli?" Dunno, could it be the attempt to run two elephants off the road?!

I got back to the lodge at least an hour after sunset and set about making some decent bush bolognaise for dinner. Now my little chalet kitchen was actually built into the terrace outside, and I was perplexed to find a loaf of bread had migrated out of the fridge and onto the table, and appeared to be half-eaten. I was more taken aback to find the chair propped against the fridge door. Then I found the monkey-prints in the butter, and it all began to make sense... it turns out the vervets are clever enough to raid the camp, undo the fridge door, grab a quick sarnie and scarper, so the maids had to close the fridge door after the monkeys had bolted.

The next morning I was again up bright and early at about 6am, and took a ranger's advice to retrace my steps and find those mating lions. Lo and behold, they were by the side of the road, and unperturbed by the cars building up next to them, proceeded to put on a show which I can best describe as a very adult-rated version of the Lion King. Here is my arty and less X-rated shot of the couple post-third-coitus-in-a-row:

Well, that was certainly a buzz, especially the bit where I was sitting with the window open and a chicken sandwich on the front seat when they decided to come up and sniff the car...

After that excitement came a repertoire of buffalo, giraffe, impala, steenbok, eland, duiker, impala, hippo, kudu, impala, wildebeeste, caracal, impala, mongoose, vervet, impala, impala, damned fucking impala that make you stand on the brakes because they jump right in front of the car, sodding impala that you get a glimpse of in the bush and think they might be something exciting, impala that later I had as a rather nice marinated minute steak, you little bastard.

Best of all, on a road in the middle of the Kruger, a zebra crossing:

I pottered my way down one side of the Sabie River to Lower Sabie, where I was planning to enjoy my by now standard can of Appletise, Peartise or Grapetise (available everywhere in SA, lush). After a slight delay due to a bright green baby lizard on the road, which I just managed to avoid and then backed up to escort over the road so it wouldn't get splattered by speeding Israelis (it took 10 mins to cover 3 yards, and then a funny old Saffer lady stopped her car, hopped out, picked the critter up, and just carried him over!), before heading back up towards Skukuza in the afternoon sun.
Along the banks of the river, a whole herd of elephants was sunbathing and playing. As I stopped to take a good look, a family decided they had had enough for the day, and crossed one by one right in front of me in perfect size order:

That last one is sooooo cute! I thought Julien might make a lovely wallet out of him.

Just after the ellies, I attempted a turn across the bridge that crosses the river, but found it had been shut down for a military operation. Baboon Platoon had landed. They systematically lined the sides of the bridge with young males, then the older males took front and rear in the middle of the road, stopping the cars, and marched the ladies, whi carried the kids on their backs, straight down the bridge to the other side:

After returning to base camp, I joined a night drive that was heading out, hoping to get a better sighting of a leopard we had been told was up a tree a few miles out. Not only did we find it, but it had a friend, and they were guzzling an impala together. On our way back, we also attracted some other interest:

Next day, again I was up bright and early for a scenic drive on my way out of the Kruger. Firstly I thought to myself "shit I'll have", and make a commemorative pile at a nice high point on one of the peaks in the park. Turns out someone beat me to it:

An hour later, and I was cruising down the road to the Phabeni Gate:

After dropping off my bags at the lovely Hippo Hollow Hotel, I drove up into the Drakensbergs and visited God's Window (too misty to see much, sadly) and had a little hike around Blyde River Canyon, which is pretty spectacular. I made it back to the hotel shortly before nightfall to take drinks on the terrace and watch a couple of hippos wallow in the river that runs past the hotel, before waddling onto the lawn to bask in the last rays of the day. Bliss.

Having enjoyed a superb kudu carpaccio and springbok stew for dinner at the hotel, I was looking forward to a decent breakfast on the terrace before beginning the long drive back to Joburg, and it did not disappoint:

The white thing on my plate is indeed hippo willy sausage.

Next up in Part 3: Jozi-Cape Town.

This is the story of how we begin to remember
This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein
After the dream of falling and calling your name out
These are the roots of rhythm
And the roots of rhythm remain

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