Sunday, May 05, 2013

South Africa 2: The Wildings of Kruger

In continuation from: South Africa 1: Reaching Johannesburg

The pride
A nice 7 hour sleep was all that we needed after the long and tiring journey. This much needed sleep set us up well for our 5-6 hour drive to Kruger. By 6:30 am, we were on road driving our hatchback on the smooth roads of SA. Anxious as I was regarding finding our route, I was carrying printed maps from India, Google Navigation on my phone and a GPS device to avoid any mistakes. Another reason for carrying so many devices was our fear of being robbed/harmed if we try asking for route from any local on any deserted road. However, that ended up just being an overcautious approach as we never felt threatened at any point during our entire 10 day trip. But carrying navigation devices helped as sometimes we would drive for miles without seeing any human to help us.

Brilliant setting for dinner
The drive was comfortable and we reached our lodge in Timbavati Game Reserve of Greater Kruger Park around 1 pm. Considering that our 500km drive was completed within 7 hours with couple of stops in between speaks greatly for the roads and traffic in SA.For most part, we drove through beautiful South African countryside with lush green hills and dense woods to keep us company. The only place where we struggled was when we entered the control gate and were trying to find way to Gomo Gomo Game Lodge. While we were looking for the lodge, we managed to see a zebra and a few impalas in the bush.

Vampirish looking white lion cub
At the lodge, we were received by HJ who was to be our ranger and host during the stay at Gomo Gomo. Some short formalities were completed while we sipped the welcome drink and tried identifying some birds and animals hanging around in the waterhole behind the lodge. Then, we were shifted to our chalet facing the waterhole made mostly by green building materials. Just like last night, we crashed in the beds immediately only to be woken by the smooth sound of drums which was the alarm call for lunch. As we were hanging around at the porch after lunch, we heard the sound of tree branches cracking only to find a herd of elephants making its way to the waterhole. This herd had 5 adults and three young ones. The youngest of them all was negotiating his way to the water through the legs of the bigger ones and still managed to loose his footing only to be helped by the big lads. Our safari vehicles were readied while we were busy photographing these pachyderms and we were called to hop onto them.

A sub adult male lion walks away from us
A pregnant looking white lioness
As soon as the safari started, we looked for the trail of the elephant herd that we saw from our lodge. Finding an elephant herd isn't all that tough as you can always follow the direction in which tree branches have been damaged by these huge animals as they brushed past them. Also, as elephants digest only about 40% of what they eat, their excreta can also help in trailing them. As soon as our ranger, HJ had an idea of the path that the elephants had taken, we were off-roading in the powerful Land Cruiser riding over several bushes and small plants as we moved. Soon, we caught up with the herd who kept on moving while munching on some juicy leaves. We kept on moving besides them with our ranger maintaining caution to not go too close to the herd as the herd can get aggressive when they have young  ones with them. We were with the herd for about 30 minutes and then moved away to let other cars have a closer look at them. In this part of Kruger, the rangers ensure that no more than two vehicles are closing on the animals at any point. This allows the animals to not feel surrounded while also leaving space for the vehicles to move out quickly in case the animals charge at it.

A male Kudu
Leopard turtle
Next, we moved further deep into the forest where our ranger last saw a white rhinoceros. South Africa has two rhino species: White Rhino and Black Rhino. These names could be a bit misleading as these two rhino species have no difference in color with the basic difference being in the shape of their lips. Also, white rhinoceros are the biggest species of rhinos. Once in the area, the vehicle was stopped near a waterhole where the rhino was expected to come for drinking. A few silent minutes passed when an adult male white rhino approached the water. Even after their bulky bodies, these animals can move pretty quickly and HJ maintained comfortable distance from him as this rhino didn't seem all that comfortable with our presence around him. Once we were enough far from him, the rhino started drinking water which continued for quite sometime. After drinking, he posed for sometime to our cameras and then moved in the other direction. We had only moved a few hundred meters when we saw a movement in the bush. As we stopped, a female white rhino with two cubs moved past us with one of the cub's nervousness in our presence made obvious by the twitching in his tail. Interestingly, rhinos are known to fart when they get too nervous.

Run with your tails up, Warthogs
A giraffe in its most vulnerable position
After this, we moved to a different part of the forest where we got off the vehicle to have some snacks and a drink in the heart of the bush. It got dark by the time we moved from there, and a flashlight was brought out to give us a slight feel of a night safari. A half an drive with the light kept us excited with the hopes of sighting a leopard who tend to come out during the dark. However, all we sighted was a Mozambican Spitting Cobra sprinting across the dirt track. This snake spits venom into the eyes when it feels threatened. Having enjoyed our first game drive in Kruger, we reached back at the lodge where dinner was being readied. As we had informed the chef, that all of us were vegetarians, she took special care to prepare meals for us. For dinner, a number of tables were joined to create a huge circular table with candle lights on each table. Here every group of guests was joined by their ranger for meals and this setting also helped guests interact with each other. After dinner, the rangers escorted the guests to their rooms to ensure their safety in case any wild animal had managed to squeeze between the electric wire fencing. Even though it was Christmas eve, but we slept early to be able to wake up for our early morning safari.

The small family
The darker the colour of the patches, the older the giraffe
Christmas morning came to us with a brilliant gift that a lion pride with two white lions was sighted somewhere near. HJ told us to prepare our cameras as we drove to the area where the lions were sighted. On our way, we saw a solitary hyena which bolted into the bush on seeing us. Soon, we saw about 8-9 lions moving/lying/sitting in the bush. As we approached and crossed the lions, each of them crouched to prepare to attack in case we threaten them. According to HJ, this pride had about 25 lions in all and we were seeing 9 of them here mainly females and sub adult lions. The adult lions are normally patrolling their territory to ensure that their harem remains safe. The two white lions were a female and a cub. This sighting became really special when we got to know that there are only about 7 white lions in the wild all over the world. So, we were actually sighting 25% of all white lion population in the wild. As usual, we were with them for sometime while other vehicles waited some distance away and then we moved out to let them see these majestic animals. Next, we headed to another place where the two adult males of this pride were resting while on their patrol. As we took a turn, we saw a vehicle with the guests and the ranger looking into the bush. On reaching close, surprisingly we saw a leopard moving from one bush to the other to avoid being noticed. We tried to track him for sometime, however it was a really tough task as leopards can literally disappear even while. After a few short glimpses at the leopard, we moved towards the lions. 
View of the waterhole from our chalet
This was all that he came out of the water for us
The lions were pretty far from where the rest of the herd was as it took us almost 30 minutes to reach them and found them lying under a thorny bush. We also saw a single wildebeest, a few baboons, some impalas while we were moving towards the lions. These two were much larger from the rest of the lions in the herd and had that perfect mane that we expect from male lions. As we were photographing them, suddenly the lions growled and got up to take notice of us as a slight movement by one of us disturbed them. After this, we moved some distance away from the lions to have our customary snacks and drinks in the middle of the jungle. While we were having it, we saw a giraffe a long distance away from us. As our eyes adjusted to the distance, we noticed that there were more than one giraffes there. Thus, we had our next target to which HJ duly obliged as he expertly took us to the waterhole around which the giraffes were munching on juicy leaves and having a drink. It seemed like a family of three with one male, one female and one sub adult giraffe. While the adult giraffe was drinking water, I noticed how vulnerable these lanky animals feel while drinking water. This giraffe took almost 2 minutes at the water's edge  looking in all directions and adjusting his long legs before he finally took a sip. After this, we went back to the lodge feeling well gifted on this christmas morning having seen a lot of wildlife in this drive.

The prey: Impalas
The predator: Leopard
Back at the lodge, we had a light breakfast and then went to our chalet to sleep for a while. The usual sound of a small drum being played(sign of the meal being ready) woke us up after some time. A filling lunch of pasta and some boiled vegetable was followed by another short nap before we left for the evening game drive. When we woke up and came out of our chalet for the evening drive, we were told that the elephant herd was at the waterhole again today and we missed it. We hoped to be able to compensate for that in the drive. This time we moved to the area where we saw the leopard in the morning hoping to see it in the area again as the big cat seemed to be out for a hunt earlier. If successful, we should find the leopard still enjoying its meal somewhere there. As we moved towards that area, we crossed a waterhole where we could see the grey skin and nostrils of a hippopotamus emerging out of the water. Hippos spend most of their time inside water because their legs aren't strong enough to carry their weight for long and the buoyancy provided by water puts much lesser weight on their legs. As our vehicle engine revved close to the waterhole, the hippo emerged slightly more out of the water with his entire upper body visible and then went back to the earlier position soon. 

The apex predator
Stop disturbing me you humans
Lemme do the Cat Roll
Close to the waterhole, a family of warthogs was grazing which ran with its tail up as soon as they saw us. Further ahead, we saw a vehicle stopped towards the side as another was behind the bush. We understood that this vehicle is waiting for its chance to see the animal inside when the other vehicle comes out. Once we got inside, we saw the leopard was sitting behind a bush with a half eaten warthog near it. HJ told us that this was a female leopard as the male is much bigger in size. On our way back, we saw four lions resting in what seemed like a rain fed river which was completely dry at this time of the year. Of these four, two were adult females and two were sub adult males. We find lions resting most of the time during the day because it takes more energy to move during the day. As these big cats sometimes have to go without being able to hunt successfully for even a week, they try to conserve their energy by avoiding much movement during the warmer part of the day. 

Billabong, a male white rhino in its prime
The herd crossing the tarmac
Next, we were just moving around the jungle tracks as we noticed a slight movement in the bush. As we brought it to the notice of our ranger, a huge male rhino emerged from behind the bush. HJ identified him and told us that this rhino was in its prime and they had named him 'Billabong'. This rhino had an injury over his eye which implied that he was fighting for territory with other rhinos in the area. Next, we saw a few female Kudus who seemed as interested in looking at us as we were interested in photographing them. A bit further, a male Kudu with its strong spiral horns crossed the track in front of us. These Kudus belong to the antelope family and are quite big in size for an antelope. Even after their huge weight of around 250-300 kgs, they are highly agile capable of jumping around 3 meters from a standing position. Back towards the lodge, we saw a big herd of African buffalos crossing the tarmac road while we were moving on it. African buffaloes are known to be born with a bad attitude with their moods highly difficult to understand. For this very reason, HJ maintained more distance from them than what we maintained even with the lions. A buffalo herd is generally led by a matriarch who moves the herd from one waterhole to the other while grazing on the grass around the waterhole. This evening, the weather seemed to be worsening and a thunderstorm seemed to be brewing with lightening all over the place. The beautiful setup for dinner was prepared even today with some contingency plan in case of rain I believe. However, it didn't rain while we had our meal under the cool african breeze and were then escorted back to our chalet by HJ. 
Don't be fooled by the innocent face: African Buffalo

As we woke up next morning, it was drizzling and even in the heart of summer, we felt cold. The seat gloves in our vehicle was provided with poncho for each one of us in them. Even the big cats are known to not like rains and we expected all of them to be hiding somewhere safe at least as long as the rains last. As we moved around the jungle with HJ and our tracker trying to spot some wildlife for us, we covered ourself completely under the poncho to prevent the cool winds from reaching us. After sometime, they managed to find us the four lions that we saw last evening snuggling up to each other while sitting in a tight huddle. The look on their face clearly said that we are not enjoying this downpour. As even we couldn't take much pictures under the rain, we took a few pictures and then sat silently observing the agony of the lions. As we had seen almost all of bigger animals in South Africa by then except cheetah and wild dogs, now I just wanted to see them. Even to this, HJ duly obliged as we were soon tracking a pack of wild dogs. Wild dogs are also fierce hunters as the pack chases the prey until it stops running or is surrounded and then they start to eat the prey even without killing it. Also, as we saw the pack in an area which belonged to some other lodge, so we couldn't go offroad to get any closer to the pack and tried to spot them using binoculars and the long zoom lenses only. As it was still drizzling slightly, we went back to the lodge a little early. While we were getting of the vehicle at the lodge, HJ received message over the wireless that a leopard was being sighted somewhere close to the lodge itself. He asked us if we wanted to go to which we immediately replied in affirmative. While we were closing down to the spot where the leopard was, we saw a lioness ambling around the area. It was clear that the lioness could smell the leopard but was unable to find its exact location. We finally spotted the leopard thanks to another vehicle standing there looking at it and helping us locate it. Leopards are much more reclusive than tigers or lions and rarely sit where you can have a clear view of them. Even this one was sitting behind a bush under a tree. We believed that it was also hiding from the lioness and planned to climb the tree in case the lioness gets any closer to it. The continuos downpour ensured that we didn't spend much time there and went back to the lodge soon.

Strength in Numbers: African Wild Dog
A rock monitor lizard
Today we were to leave the lodge for our way back to Johannesburg, so we freshened up quickly and checked out of the lodge as soon as possible. Before leaving, we thanked HJ and other lodge staff whole heartedly for hosting us well and fulfilling all that we demanded of them to the best that they could.
We don't like this downpour  

Tips to visiting Kruger:

Kruger is one of the biggest national park in the world covering almost 20000 square kilometres. Normally one has two options when visiting Kruger: 
First is to book himself into a lodge of a private game reserve wherein the lodge provides everything including meals, accommodation and game drives in the area that they own or share with other lodges. As these game reserves share the same forest with the entire Kruger with no fencing to stop free movement of animals, the probability of sighting animals is same in the private game reserves and the national park. However, the cost for these private lodges is quite high. 
Second option is to drive your rented vehicle yourself inside the park. In this case, you just pay the control gate entry fees and try to sight and track the animals yourself which is a fun experience. As you are doing this in your own car, you can drive for as long as you want but the only drawback being that you are not allowed to go off the road in this case limiting your sighting opportunities only to what you can see from the tracks provided. As you stay in government lodges or hotels outside the boundary of Kruger in this case, your total cost comes down tremendously in this case.

My Recommendation: Its very tough to say which option is better out of these two. My recommendation would be to do a little bit of both if you have time. Ideal trip itinerary would be to visit Kruger for a minimum of 3-4 days and distributing your visit between private game reserves and the open part of the park.

Continue reading the next part: The beauty that is Panorama Route

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