Our safari itinerary
said we would be picked up between 5 and 6 a.m., so we set 2 alarms
for 4:15. At 5 o'clock we were both showered and dressed, and our
bags were packed. Near enough. On the stroke of the hour a horn
tooted in the road outside.
“Is that Jobovic Safaris?”, I asked. As if it could have been anyone else at that hour. “Yes” a voice replied. “I don't know how to open the gate.” It had not occurred to us when we arrived the previous evening that the security fence might prevent us from getting out as well as dissuading burglars from getting in. Luckily the manager appeared soon, opened the gate, and we dragged our bags out to the safari bus.
Luggage stowed, we were given a free choice of the 16 passenger seats. Of the two guides the one with “Piet” on his shirt was clearly in charge. “There's just one thing”, said Piet. This sounded ominous. “The other people who booked this trip have cancelled. They are going on our next departure. You are the only clients.” He closed the door and returned to the driver's seat while the news sank in. We had a 16-seater bus and 2 guides all to ourselves for 13 days. We're tough. We can take it. ;-)
It was, of course, a departure well before our normal breakfast time, but (see the last post) we had missed dinner, so we were quite hungry. Piet had a particular breakfast stop in mind and it wasn't close to Johannesburg. It was the best part of 2 hours, through staggeringly heavy dawn-tide traffic, before he pulled off the main road at a service area. And before we ate he had to show us why he had stopped there. The service area is located just outside a private game reserve. Until recently we had the chance of seeing rhino at the water hole, but they had been relocated to somewhere less accessible to poachers. We admired some ostriches and eland, while our stomachs kept asking, “Where's the food?”
In reality it was probably pretty ordinary fare, but seldom has coffee and a fry-up tasted so good.
Piet tries to organise an itinerary so that we don't have more than 500km to drive in one day. Day one was one of the longer drives, but we could hardly be bored while seeing so much new country. We decided the best view was from the front row. Eve took the left side and Bill spread himself on the right.
We tried to work out what crops were growing. We saw large fields planted with small trees almost hidden inside white protectors. Maybe they have rabbits or hares in South Africa, too.
Eventually we worked out that they were citrus trees of some kind – probably oranges.
Seedling trees in the foreground. Hail protection in the back. At least the hail netting is white.
Mature orange trees
Eve saw a monkey. Bill didn't. Grrr!
The route to Kruger National Park took us close to the Drakensburg Escarpment. Piet grumbled that there was only one place where he was still allowed to park without having to pay. Presumably this was not the best view of the Blyde (pronounce the 'e') River Canyon, but it was a pretty good place to exercise the camera. The Blyde River Canyon is the third biggest canyon on the planet, and the biggest 'green' canyon with vegetation growing down the sides.
Along the way
It's a big, deep, green canyon
A glimpse of the escarpment
An unidentified autumn-flowering plant
At the entrance to Kruger we had to stop for formalities like paying park fees. Piet told us to look out for wildlife now. It could appear anywhere. If we saw something we should shout “Stop” and he would.
Almost immediately we saw some antelope beside the road. “STOP!” we yelled. Piet drove on. We didn't see anything else before we arrived at the camp. When the bus stopped Piet explained that the antelope were impala and we would see thousands of them. He wasn't going to stop just for 4 or 5. Didn't he understand they were our FIRST impala?
There was also the matter of time. Piet wanted to be sure that there was enough of the day left for us to be coached in putting up our tent before we went on a sunset game drive. He and Meshack, the other guide, demonstrated how the tent went up. It was a modern design and really quite straightforward. Sorry, we won't be giving readers a good chortle over a collapsing tent. We were often quite slow, but we never made a mess of it.
There was no rush and we were at the pickup point early. Bill had vaguely imagined a “game drive” was something like cowboys driving the steers towards the railhead, but it's the tourists who are driven, not the game. We sat in an open-sided vehicle, so that glass would not distort our photographs. The ranger explained that if we kept ourselves completely inside the vehicle, the animals would not identify us as separate creatures and not bite us. Are lions really that stupid? We dutifully stayed within the perimeter of the vehicle and nothing attempted to bite us. We didn't even see a lion.
Our first drive was a great success. Within the first minute or two Bill was amongst those who saw a warthog. Eve wasn't. Grrr!
The ranger, cunningly photographed in his wing mirror.
Almost immediately after that we saw our first elephant. Everyone on board saw the elephant. It was very close to the road and seemed quite unmoved by the excited (but quiet – we remembered the ranger's briefing) tourists.
Our first elephant
There wasn't an animal around every corner, but there were plenty.
Our first hippo
This group of spotted hyenas was occupying space on either side of the road. We parked almost on top of them but they completely ignored us. The youngsters were being fed before the family group set off for their nightly hunt.
The very young cubs are black
We weren't yet in the tropics, but the twilight didn't last long. However, darkness didn't mean the end of game spotting. One of the first animals to appear in the headlights was an African wild cat. It's about the same size as a domestic cat, with very attractive markings. This one was also too nippy to be a good subject for a photograph.
But this critter hardly moved at all. Puff adders appear very sluggish, and are not sprinters. But they can strike extremely fast, according to the ranger. They curl up where they will not be seen and ambush their prey.
We saw two puff adders during the drive
This silly animal moved straight on down the road. The ranger had to stop the vehicle before the porcupine ended its straight ahead flight and trotted off into the bush.
"Porcupine by Night" - Rear view
We saw several night birds; spotted eagle owls and thick-knees. The latter, also known as the spotted dikkop (Burhinus capensis), is a medium-large plover. We saw several standing in the road and looking very offended that we had interrupted their meditations. Attempts to photograph them were less than successful.
Back at the campsite Meshack gave his first demonstration of cooking skills. It was immediately obvious that we would eat well on this safari. Since he cooked on a 2-burner gas stove the dishes were not complex ones, but they were well cooked and the portions were very generous. The bus was equipped with refrigeration – it would freeze if given long enough, but it needed an outside power source – and we were invited to chill our beer in it.
All the campsites were on level ground. Usually the soil was sandy and it was seldom difficult to hammer in the pegs. Some days we pushed them in by hand. We had mats under our sleeping bags. They weren't very thick, but they were very much more comfortable than sleeping directly on the ground. Our inflatable pillows (only R30 each in Cape Town) were not very thick, but comfy. We each had a torch for night-time trips to the toilet, and were very disciplined about zipping the tent up behind us when we set off, so that no snakes or scorpions could sneak in while we not looking.
The itinerary for Day 2 was to drive from the South of Kruger to the North, watching for game all the while. It was not a trivial journey, since Kruger is almost the size of Wales, and the speed limit is 50 km/h everywhere. From time to time Piet would use the PA system to let us know “Buffalo on the right” or whatever he and Meshack had seen. Later on, Meshack came out of the cab and joined us inside the passenger section. He was nearly always the first to spot an animal. He could make out a buffalo in the deep shadow under trees at 300m or more.
Yes, we did see more impala, and sometimes Piet stopped so that we could admire them. They have a black stripe at the top of each hind leg and down their tail, making an M shape. Piet pointed out the similarity to the Macdonalds logo. “Fast food for lions.”
Our first zebra in Kruger
Probably the same hyena family as yesterday evening.
Piet is not particularly sympathetic to birding. He wants to show clients the big mammals. When you come across a vehicle that has stopped, you slow down and check out what the passengers are looking at. They may have seen something interesting lying in the shade. Piet is probably not the only one. We saw a car with a bumper sticker, “Please pass. We are watching a bird.”
This was a shame because Meshack was very knowledgeable about birds. At least Piet stopped if the bird was especially large or colourful.
Woodland kingfisher - tick!
One of the Park's game drive vehicles
Yet another elephant!
He also stopped for toilets, which were available sufficiently frequently to avoid discomfort in the bladder department.
Our safari bus/truck
Bill didn't need the toilet so he studied the lizards. Piet would not have stopped for a lizard, even one with a lovely blue tail like this.
This is a large enough group of impala to stop for. Aren't they lovely?
The impala buck
Our lunch stop was at Olifantskamp. The kitchen and dining areas were infested with beggars and thieves. But very colourful ones …
A Greater Blue-eared Glossy Starling
There was a large family of vervet monkeys alert for any food that wasn't closely guarded. We even saw one steal a bread roll from a picnicker's plate.
Saddle-billed stork. Bill spotted it before Meshak.
Nest of a Red-billed buffalo weaver colony
Our first giraffe
Did you ever wonder why it's called thornbush veld?
We've forgotten the name of the river. This is dry-season.
Our first Nile crocodile
We like this safari!