Friday, May 21, 2010

Kruger: A Grand Finale of African Wildlife

Day 110: Kruger National Park, South Africa
Wednesday, we left Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary in the morning and drove past the Swazi capital of Mbabane on the way to Pigg's Peak in the north of the country. We had a last chance to buy some Swazi crafts, and then we drove half an hour to the border, where we said farewell to Swaziland and entered South Africa yet again. From the border, it was a short drive to Malelane at the edge of South Africa's star attraction, the world-class Kruger National Park. We stocked up on food and drinks at the supermarket and crossed the gate into the park, where we would spend the next two nights. We arrived at the Berg en Dal Rest Camp in the early afternoon, where we guarded our lunch from the cheeky vervet monkeys who like to sneak off with anything they can get their thieving hands on. We kept a close eye on them as they sat like vultures on top of the truck.

We split up into two groups for our activities in Kruger. That first night at Berg en Dal, I went on a sunset game drive. The vehicle was one of the nicest safari trucks I've been on, and it was equipped with spotlights that passengers could shine into the bush to look for animals hiding in the darkness. We did not stop for the park's ubiquitous impala, but before the sun had even set, we made our first major sighting: a huge male lion lounging by the side of the road. We photographed him as darkness crept closer, and then we drove off to look for more wildlife, spotting several scrub hares bounding through the grass and across the road. It was soon pitch black, and I switched on the spotlight that sat next to my seat, looking for any reflecting glint of eyes in the darkness. One of the passengers yelled at the driver to stop. He had spotted the reflection of a single eye high above the ground: it was an elephant silently walking through the forest. It was difficult to photograph animals only by the illumination of the spotlights, but it was a rare and fascinating experience to be able to view wildlife at night.

What happened next was a quickly fading dream of mine since I arrived in Africa over three months ago. With only two days of game drives left, I had almost given up all hope of seeing a leopard, the most elusive of Africa's "Big Five". The Big Five is traditionally defined as the most dangerous game to hunt on foot, although nowadays most people photograph these animals rather than kill them. These five dangerous animals are the elephant, rhinoceros, buffalo, lion, and leopard. For a fleeting moment, the vehicle's headlights illuminated the hind end of a leopard as it crossed the road and stealthily vanished into the dense trees on the other side. I had finally seen the last member of the Big Five, that beautiful and ever reclusive spotted cat.

Our game drive was not over yet, however. As we drove on, we stumbled upon an impressive group of six lionesses and three absolutely adorable cubs on the side of the road. The cubs played, tumbling over one another just like domestic housecats. Minutes after we left the group of lions, we spotted yet another member of the Big Five: a rhinoceros. We had now seen four of the Big Five in the course of two hours!

Lionesses and cub in Kruger National Park, South Africa © Matt Prater
Lionesses and cub at night near Berg en Dal in Kruger National Park, South Africa

The next morning, we went on a game walk similar to the one I had done in Matobo National Park in Zimbabwe. The guides were incredibly knowledgeable and informative, and they described the behavior of rhinos in detail as we tracked a group of them. We stumbled upon a large pile of dung that marks the territory of a dominant male. If another male rhino walks into this area and leaves a pile of dung away from the edge of the big pile, he is showing respect to the dominant male. If the outsider instead leaves his dung directly in the large pile, this is a direct challenge to the dominant male rhino, and the two will fight when they meet. We did not find any rhinos before breakfast, so we scrambled to the top of a koppe (rocky hill) to eat and survey the area. We spotted four white rhinos in the distance, so we climbed down and headed towards them. We eventually found them, but they stayed further away from us than the rhinos in Matobo.

We headed back to the campsite at Berg en Dal, where we met the Nomad truck and departed for Skukuza, a major center in the park. On the way, we saw an elephant, numerous types of antelope, and a red-throated Southern ground-hornbill. Then we came to a jam of vehicles stopped in the road: two cheetahs were reclining by a nearby watering hole. It is even rarer to spot cheetahs in the wild than leopards, so we couldn't believe our luck!

Southern ground-hornbill in Kruger National Park, South Africa © Matt Prater
Southern ground-hornbill in Kruger National Park, South Africa
Cheetah in Kruger National Park, South Africa © Matt Prater
Cheetah in Kruger National Park, South Africa

We ate lunch in Skukuza and then continued on to Satara, our campsite for the night. We had already seen quite a few rare animals in Kruger, but our lucky streak continued, and we were actually treated to a "dancing" baby elephant! The calf was disturbed by our truck and was trying to act big; it actually charged us and lifted its trunk straight into the air, sounding a deafening trumpet that was quite impressive for such a small elephant. It retreated to the comfort of its mother, who was standing further back from the road among the trees, but on the way, the cute elephant became tangled in some low brush and "moon-walked" backwards to try to free itself. After clumsily crossing its legs and stumbling around for a while, the calf finally danced itself free from the tangle and stood next to its mother. If elephants can look embarrassed, this one surely did.

Young elephant in Kruger National Park, South Africa © Matt Prater
Young elephant in Kruger National Park, South Africa

As we made our way towards Satara, we saw a zoo's worth of animals, including impala, kudu, wildebeest, giraffes, baboons, vultures, lions, and – finally – buffalo. This buffalo sighting finished off our Big Five within one day of being in Kruger, quite a rare feat, and one that I had not accomplished in over three months of game viewing in Africa.

At Satara, I left with half the group at 8 p.m. to go on a night game drive. We saw some unique animals that I had not seen before, including a porcupine and a small cat called a gennet. We also spent some time with a clan of spotted hyenas, including an adorable cub. One of the hyenas was chewing on a bone: hyenas crush and eat bones and horns with powerful jaws and specialized teeth, and their dung is white from all the bone they consume.

Lioness in Kruger National Park, South Africa © Matt Prater
Lioness in Kruger National Park, South Africa
We finished our drive at ten o'clock, ate a quick dinner back at the campsite, and were in bed by 11:30. We had to rise at four o'clock this morning to meet our vehicle at 4:45 for another game drive. As dawn broke, we came across three lionesses who were hungrily eyeing a group of nearby impala. One of the lionesses even stood up slowly and assumed a stealthy stalking position, but she would not attack because it was daylight. Lions rely on the element of surprise in tackling prey, and these impala were definitely aware of the danger nearby. They crossed the road near the lions methodically in small groups. Before each group crossed, an impala would give a loud barking sound as a warning reminder. As long as there were no stragglers, the impala were safe.

Vulture in Kruger National Park, South Africa © Matt Prater
Vulture in Kruger National Park, South Africa
We returned to the campsite to meet the truck and make our way out of Kruger. But our luck had not run out yet. On the way out of the park, we saw impala, waterbuck, wildebeest, zebra, buffalo, warthogs, giraffes, baboons, elephants, ostriches, an African fish eagle, and an African Scops owl. We also saw a large group of imposing vultures feasting on a carcass. These huge birds have a wingspan of almost eight feet and are at their most impressive when swooping overhead. Then, the grand finale: our driver slammed on the brakes and pointed out a rare sight on the side of the road. A massive Mozambique spitting cobra was reared up in an alert position with its hood flared out. When the snake relaxed, its hood flattened imperceptibly against its sleek body, and the serpent slithered gracefully into the long grass. To make the sighting even more entertaining, a mongoose that had been watching the cobra crawled into the grass after the snake, sheepishly looking around as if it didn't want to share such a huge meal.

African Scops owl at Skukuza in Kruger National Park, South Africa © Matt Prater
African Scops owl at Skukuza in Kruger National Park, South Africa
Mozambique spitting cobra in Kruger National Park, South Africa © Matt Prater
Mozambique spitting cobra in Kruger National Park, South Africa

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