Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Kruger part 2

Day 3 got off to a charging start again. At around 3am, the first Woodlands Kingfishers begin their shrill calling to one another. It is such a fantastic sound, the perfect sound of summer, and when it wakes me, I just lie in bed and listen to them, a smile on my face and a slight flutter of excitement in my heart. Inevitably I fall asleep again, and struggle to find my phone to switch the alarm off when it begins to ring at 4am. Once the coffee is ready, it’s off to the gate, spotlights at hand.

After driving an hour or so, I spotted a huge herd of sleepy buffalo at a dam. It was overcast, so I gave them an obligatory look, before driving on. Not 20 metres later, out of the corner of my eye I saw a tail flick, and there lay a cheetah - unbelievable the 5th of the trip, in only 3 days! This was a serious surprise; if it wasn’t for the photos I would think I dreamt it. Almost at once said cheetah raised his lanky form up from the ground and walked over to a small rock, which he climbed on to get a better view of the area. There were some impala rams grazing infront of him, and a small herd of females behind. He just sat, biding his time, with the patience of a cat. When he deemed the moment
right, he began to stalk them. After about 10 minutes, the ones on the road behind spotted him, which gave rise to a cacophony of snorts as they all alarm called as one.  This didn’t seem to disturb him, and he continued on his way towards the bachelor herd until he was within about 20 metres and each impala in the vicinity had his or her eye trained firmly on the cheetah, emitting a deep snort every couple of seconds. It was quite an experience to be in the middle of all the snorting impala, and, but for the safety of the car doors, I may have felt just like one.

Claws with a purpose

With the excitement over, the cheetah cut his losses and trotted off down the road. All this time, we had been alone at the sighting, over half an hour of private game viewing in Kruger…  A while later we were joined by a few other cars, but had a great position at the front when the cheetah came upon a broken tree, and climbed it to scent mark and scan through the trees.

Fantastic Vantage point

We did virtually a full day in the park, having a breakfasty lunch at Nkhulu Picnic site. Nkhulu is known for its ‘buffalo pies’, but I can inform you of a far better kept secret on the menu: Chicken burgers. We discovered them last year, and to this date I have eaten no equal. I don’t know whether it’s the sauce, the onions, or the basting, but they are incredible! We drove all the way there from Pretoriuskop just to enjoy one, and it did not disappoint.

On the way back, we had a pleasant surprise in the form of a leopard lying completely relaxed in an open tree rising above the bushes below. There was no ‘light’ to speak of, but it was great viewing, with hardly any other cars for company. This meant we had seen the ‘Super Seven’! (My big 5, plus Cheetah and Wild dog).  Not a bad start at all, with 39 nights still to go…

Day 4 dawned overcast, to match my mood. I had just found out that our Exam marks were out, and I was certain I had failed. In fact, I had resigned myself to some serious failure, and was not looking forward to finding them out. That aside, from this evening I was to be alone, as Dan was flying back to Cape Town. Poor Bart was also due at Landrover Nelspruit, to have his new handbrake lining fitted, and I was concerned.

My day improved relatively quickly when we found a few hyena pups playing outside their den. If you know me, you will know I have quite a thing for hyena, I think they are powerful and strong, and the pups are just gorgeous. If you have seen a small one, you will understand. They behave just like puppies, with naughty eyes that melt your heart. They have not yet developed the patchiness of their parents, nor do they have missing ears or scars all over. They are just plain cute. These 2 came right up to the car, sniffing around out of curiosity.  It was very difficult to restrain myself from reaching out and ruffling the hair on one's head, as he was in easy reaching distance. They then began to chew on the tyres, and we spoke to them just as you would a badly trained puppy, with phrases like ‘I told you not to do that’ and ‘next time you’ll get quite a smack’. Each time they would jump a few feet backwards, as if they knew they had done something wrong. When the talking failed to work, a gentle tap on Bart’s side did the trick.

Cubs at play

In your face cuteness!

Going for the tyre!

The duo then decided to chase each other around in circles, and try and inflict some of those scars I previously spoke of. The best part was that the whole time they appeared to be looking at us, almost as though they were making sure we were paying them attention! About two hours later, the mother wandered off and the kids disappeared down into their den. We said goodbye, and began the long trek to Nelspruit where Bart was fixed in record time…

Before I knew it, I was back in the park, alone. I may sound crazy, but I was a little sad, and already a little lonely. I have never done something like this before! A few kilometers from Pretoriuskop I got the call I had been dreading all day… “You passed!” I’ll admit that I cried and laughed, and screamed a little bit, all at once, and anyone who had seen me would have thought me insane. I was just happy beyond belief. And there is nothing like 2 minutes noodles followed by jelly to celebrate. That bottle of wine in the corner is eyeing me suspiciously as I type…

Hyena cub at densite

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Kruger (part 1)

Elephant at Biyamiti Weir

Finally back in Kruger, after what felt like an exceptionally long wait, and man, is it great to be back! On arrival, one friendly gate assistant, two vehicles having a fight (one man sitting on the others bonnet with a stone) and we’re in. I barely have time to register the sound of a woodlands kingfisher, one of the most vocal summer residents, before we spot a cheetah casually sauntering through the trees on the right. Its not a great sighting, but it certainly gets the blood flowing to my brain, and wakes me up after the 2 day drive up from Cape Town…

The first camp on my itinerary is Pretoriuskop, a camp I have always stayed at first on any Kruger trips, which I guess has become a kind of tradition. All I want to do is get out on an afternoon drive, so luggage is quickly offloaded and the meat put in the freezer… that’s the theory anyway. The reality is that the only meat to speak of was a packet of boerwors. None of my carefully packaged into individual portion Ostrich steak, chicken fillet, lamb or boerwors has made it to Kruger. Its still sitting where it was left in the freezer, waiting for the holiday it was promised, that never materialized.

This is not as much of a problem as it sounds, as of course Bart (a beautiful bush green Landrover) will at some point give issues, and provide me with ample time in a mall where I can re-shop to my hearts content. It was day 2 when this happened, quick even by Bart’s standards. One of the joys of owning a Landrover is that whenever a trip to the bush is taken, it generously affords you the opportunity to explore the nearest town mall. I know the Nelspruit, Windhoek and Upington malls very well, and the Bloemfontein ‘waterfront’ far better than I had ever dreamed.

Hyena falling asleep in the water and blowing bubbles
European Bee eaters near the camp

Other than this minor set back - which turns out is a result of the handbrake lining ‘not being there' (“It looks like it fell out!” said the service manager) - Kruger is just as wonderful as I remember. This is only the second full day in the park, but I have seen cheetah 3 times already, as well as plenty of hyena, including a den site with around 6 youngsters.  The woodlands are out in full force, filling the sky with their calls, each one bringing a smile to my face. There are also many impala young around, their over sized ears and long stick-like legs a delight.

This morning, I had a fantastic sighting of wild dogs. It was not long after sunrise when I called a halt to look at what seemed to be a white bush blowing in the wind. My first thought was vultures on a kill, but reversing, it turned out to be a pack of wild dog, quickly finishing off the remains of that morning's kill.  As soon as it was down, they skipped excitedly onto the road infront of us, and began to trot away down it. We followed, trying our best to photograph  the quick moving animals. There were about 8 in the pack, only 3 adults and the rest this years pups (around 6 months old).

All of a sudden they began to bark agitatedly, and their tails went up as they do when alarmed or excited. The continued yelping eventually revealed a cheetah, slinking onto the road ahead. He was closely followed by another! What luck, I could hardly believe my eyes, and this, almost to ourselves!!
We stayed with the wild dogs as they ran away, barking and jumping, before they left the road. Then we returned to the cheetah, who after some scent marking and a brisk march, came to rest on a sandy patch, as did we.

It has been quite a hectic first few days, and I am so looking forward to the next 40 or so before I leave! We even saw a couple of lions, and a couple of hours ago a Long Crested Eagle, which I believe is a first for me. Not a great sighting photographically, but a clear indication of where he got his name! It made me a little giddy to see him, scared I am turning into a birder :)  Now for some dinner…

Long Crested Eagle- proof!

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Dreaming of sunshine in South Luangwa

Since the first time I heard about it, South Luangwa has been one of those dreamy destinations for me. A beautiful old park, far enough from South Africa to add that bit of excitement, and never travelled to by anyone I know. Then I went there last year, and it just confirmed its status in my mind. It is one hell of a park!

Arriving there is enough to get anyone excited- as soon as you step off the plane in Lusaka you are greeted by a wall of hot air, and that busy disorganized feeling so typical of Africa. A few hours in a hot restaurant, drinking barely chilled drinks, and a short flight later and you arrive in Mfuwe airport: dusty, small and on the outskirts of a small, traditional town, with a potholed road full of people on bicycles running through it. This is Africa! The shops are called things like 'Uncle Sams general dealer and Barber' and 'We know your prayers general dealer'. The children on the side of the road all carry smaller children on their backs, and shout out 'Sweeties!' as you drive past. In the middle of the town, there is a 'disco' happening, with some men on stage doing a terrible rendition of dancing. It's just perfect, and before you know it you wind up on the banks of the beautiful Luangwa river at sunset.

Lunch under the trees on the banks of the river.

Well, it would have been sunset, but we had brought the rain queen in all her glory on this trip. Turns out, the first two days we were not to see the sun! I, however, could imagine the sunset, as it had been just over a year since my previous visit, and I can assure you it is magical.

The trip I was now on was with C4images and Safaris, a fantastic photographic company for anyone wanting to travel and photograph with like minded people. This is my third trip with them, and definitely not my last!

Landscaping lessons while the light was bad.

The lodge we stayed at is called Chichele Presidential lodge and is run by Sanctuary Retreats. It is a gracious, timeless looking lodge, and was extremely well managed. Our ranger was named Prince, and if you do go there, I would suggest that you request him. We had five nights in the park, and from the moment we arrived, nothing was too much trouble for him. We even requested a 4.30am wake-up, so that we could be on the go by 5 - and the lodge accommodated that without a hesitation. It may sound strange, but for me that is one of the hallmarks of a good lodge- when requests such as this are not met with resistance, but instead with enthusiasm! It was then just up to us to keep that enthusiasm going even when we started getting tired, and when the clouds refused to lift above the horizon.

Puku- my favourite antelope.

We did see the sun though, on the third day: and it brought the park to life. Puku suddenly became backlit Puku, the river suddenly became a landscaping dream, and my arms suddenly became tanned. And while the sun was out, we did our best to make the absolute most of it! I think we all must have slept like the dead the night we arrived back in Joburg, but we cannot say we didn't make the most of our far- too- short five nights in South Luangwa.