Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Safari Trippin'

From the moment we arrived in South Africa, we'd been planning and looking forward to this:

A genuine African safari!

On Safari!!
It all started with a visit to the Tourist Information centre in Cape Town, where we got lots of good information from a very helpful lady who had been everywhere around Kruger National Park, it seemed.

Well, now we've been on the safari, and this is what we experienced..

We had flown in from Cape Town and spent one night in a wonderful B&B in the suburb of Morningside.
Morning coffee at 2 Mokolo

Day One

Our safari company came to pick us up, and as we were the first, we got to drive around to various hotels, backpackers' hostels and the airport to pick up more people.

That took about two hours, after which we finally began the long drive to the game reserve (near Kruger National Park)... We were already tired of driving, and got to "enjoy" about another six hours of it, with a small break here and there, including a rushed lunch break (as we were "running behind schedule").

Anyway, enough with the negatives, already..

The scenery ranged from suburbs, that themselves ranged from "shanty town" to "2m electrified fenced estates", to bushland. Especially as we drew closer to our destination, did we see lots of bush. There were also some nice mountain views, and the driver took the turns a lot more carefully than the drivers in Nepal, so it felt pretty safe.

When we arrived to the safari company's "in-house" game lodge, the two of us were on a different package than the other passengers, and while they were checking in and getting an orientation talk, we got put on a big landrover with our bags, and set off to meet with our lodge's sunset drive, which had already started (as we were indeed behind schedule).

Almost immediately, we spotted our first animal!

I was hoping to see one, calling them part of the 'Big Six or Seven", and here she was, a beautiful giraffe.
Our first spotting!
We hadn't even started the actual sunset drive yet! We were just going down the main road inside the Balule Game Reserve, so now we had high hopes of seeing lots of animals.

We saw some impala and zebra on the way to meet the sunset drive folks, too, so it was getting better and better!
Our first zebra!
We then caught up with the other jeep and as our driver talked with the other staff, we clambered across to the surprise of one of the other guests. "We're joining you guys", we explained.

Our bags were then driven to our accommodation while we drove around and spotted more animals.
We followed another car's lead to look for a rhino, but in the dark, even with a spotlight, we didn't see it. As we were seated in the very back of the car, we weren't even really sure what we were looking for/at in the dark..

After more looking in the dark, and seeing some minor (non-Big Five) game, it was time to head to the lodge.
We were staying at Ezulwini "Billy’s Lodge", where we, after resolving a mixup, got taken to our beautiful suite room to refresh before dinner.
Dinner was a braai style meal, which non-South Africans would call a BBQ.
Luckily, there were vegetarian options, including 'fake meat' burger patties. The mushroom soup was also really delicious!

Then, it was time for bed, as we had an early (and we mean early!!) start in the morning..

Day Two

We got up at 5am! Five AM!! The sun wasn't up yet, but we were!
Ok, so we were tired, but still excited to see more animals..

First, we got lost inside the lodge grounds - our excuse was that it was dark when we arrived and still a bit dark when we finally fumbled our way to the pre sunrise drive coffee/tea area, after asking monkeys for directions (they didn't care to assist).

Speaking of monkeys, a particularly cheeky one decided to steal our tracker's cigarettes. Silly monkey, don't you know those are bad for you?
We presume he either discarded or ate them (and hopefully learned his lesson with no permanent ill effects), but as we pulled away from the lodge, we saw him on top of the roof, gleefully holding his prize..

Morning drives are the best! The light is getting better as you go, not worse, as with the sunset drives, and there are plenty of animals to see.

We certainly saw a lot, including hundreds of buffalo, and three white rhinos (two females and one male).
Three Rhinos (two visible here)
Naomi almost screamed, she tells me. The rhinos were so big, and Rex, our driver, told us to be quiet as the male could charge us. He also manoeuvred the car into a quick getaway position.
The male
The only animals that are a threat to people in cars are snakes (dropping from overhead trees), elephants and rhinos. The other animals see the car as "one unit", so unless you are stupid enough to leave the car or break the "normal shape/definition of the car" (by standing up or making too much noise), they ignore you.

Buffalo herd
Two of the Big Five done already!!
We had also spotted plenty of others, including Pumba from the Lion King, with his family:
Hakuna Matata!!

And more zebras, including this one that decided to pose for us:
"Check out my stripy behind!"
We saw a lot of animal rear-ends - as one of our fellow safaristas (I made that word up) prediced when we joined the sunset drive the previous day.

Partway through each drive, there was a break where we stopped for a while and had a drink.
Lion bait
Noone got eaten by any predators, but we enjoyed a hot beverage..

Then we drove some more, spotting more animals, like the tiny and super-cute steenbok (which we misheard as springbok)
Steenbok photo is from Wikipedia as we didn't manage to capture one of these cuties ourselves..
Cool fact: "They are almost entirely independent of drinking water, gaining the moisture they need from their food." -- Wikipedia
So less chance of ending up as a (small) snack at the watering hole..

Oh, and we saw hippos! Mainly submerged, but there they were!
Hippos, not rocks

The drive drew to a close, and we returned to the lodge for breakfast.
Now we'd seen two of the Big Five! (Buffalo and Rhino).
Still no sign of the other three: Lion, Elephant and Leopard. Maybe in the evening?

After breakfast, we took a nap, to try to catch up on much-needed rest. Getting up at 5am after a day on a bus took it out of us, and we woke up less than an hour before lunch.

The afternoon (sunset) drive was fun, and we spotted plenty of animals, including our now good friends, the impala
"Fast food" for big cats..

As well as two more unicorns rhinos - two male white rhinos, just hangin' out. Rex told us that when it's just males, they are very relaxed and so we approached quite close to get a good look at them.
Here's a gif that Google made for us..
They eventually got tired of being stared at, so they strolled off..

Soon, the sun was setting and after a beverage break, we looked for animals in the dark..
Our favourite is the morning drive (except the early wake-up..), as it's pretty much impossible to get good photos of anything after dark.

Day Three
On this day, we were going to move to another lodge, deeper in the Reserve.. but first, the morning drive!

This morning drive started off innocently enough, with some surprised-looking impala.. These guys are everywhere, but they are still nice to see.
Good morning!
Then, we drove to an area we hadn't seen before (not that we were keeping such good track of where we'd been - we got lost inside the lodge area, remember!), but this was a new place.
We think that Frans (tracker/spotter) and Rex (driver) had heard something, but didn't tell us..

So when Naomi suddenly said "Lion.. I saw a lion!!", it got very exciting!
We were suddenly very, very aware that the only thing separating us from predators was their willingness to consider the car as one unit - the car was a little high, but certainly not a big leap for a big cat...
(Click to enlarge)
We followed this adult lioness.. and spotted a jackal, too!
Looking to scavenge?

And then two more lionesses showed up. Three!! Three big cats that could eat us and never think twice about it.. They had just eaten ("pheeew", we thought to ourselves!), and were pretty relaxed.
Messy eater
Morning ablutions..
Time to move along..
They didn't stay too long, maybe we were disturbing the peace too much. They walked off, into a neighbouring property, where we weren't allowed to drive, so that was that..

But wow, they were amazing! We were happy to see them, but a little terrified, too..

Great start to the day!!

Not to be outdone, the second half of the morning drive decided to give us a big cat, too!

We followed the directions from another group (they all stay in touch via CB radio), and found..
(Pun fully intended)
A cheetah!!
Not one of the Big Five, but quite rare to see, and here it was, munching on breakfast..
Beautiful animal, clearly built for speed.

We watched it eat, popping its head up to check for other carnivores regularly, as Rex told us that it's too weak to fight, so it has to be ready to run away if threats appear.
Poor impala..
This is how close we were..
(Click to enlarge)

After two big cats, we wound down the drive with a big group of giraffes and a drink with the hippos.

After breakfast, we got transferred to the River Lodge, quite a drive..

Along the way, we collected another of the Big Five - Elephants!

You can see how close to the car they were - no more than 10m away

We also saw another huge herd of buffalo on the way, where we had to pass through the herd as it was on the road.

Now we had seen four of the Big Five, only missing the Leopard.

We arrived at the River Lodge, and our room was a mirror-image of the previous one, but with a nicer outdoor area and view:

At lunch, a cheeky monkey stole some of the food from the side table, which was right behind me and I never heard a thing - ninja monkeys, no doubt. But we got the culprit on camera:
Enjoying the proceeds of crime..
After lunch, it was time for the sunset drive (late lunch, starting at 14:30, and the drive starting at 16:00).
We saw more elephants


A Wildebeest (aka Gnu)
Gnu (is Not Unix)

And then, more lions!!
One adult lioness and two younger: a male with not much of a mane, and a female.
We were really, really close to these ones!!


Sleepy after dinner..
Soooo sleepy...
Going to check on the food, as vultures were hanging around..
These lions walked around us, passing only a couple of metres from the car. Not four or five metres, but two to three... that's really close!!! Glad they had just had dinner!!

We watched them for a while, then left them in peace.

The night wasn't done - as the light was fading, we returned to a spot where we'd been on the previous night, where a hyena cub had been spotted earlier. That night, we saw nothing, but this time we were lucky!

Not just one cub, but a whole group of hyenas were there. We drove in among them and parked just outside their lair.
The cub only has three legs..
The light was getting really weak, so we dont' have many good photos, but we enjoyed watching them for quite a while. Some of them tried to nibble on the car tyre - that's how close they got!
Look at the teeth!!!
One of our fellow safaristas (there's that word again) didn't know about the "don't stand up" and "don't make noise" rules, so started to do both... When he made hyena imitation noises, Lawrence (the driver at this lodge) told him to be quiet, and when he started to stand up, I yanked him back down to his seat, lest he (or any of us) become dinner for the hyena pack.

Daylight was disappearing, so we moved on..

After dark, we only really saw one new animal, a Spotted eagle-owl (pretty sure that was it.. it was an eagle-owl at any rate)
Too shy to look at the camera..

Day Four

This was our last day at the Ezulwini family of lodges ("Billy's Lodge" and "River Lodge"), we were being picked up after breakfast to go to the Tremisana Lodge, directly operated by Viva Safaris, our tour organiser.
But before breakfast, we were again going on a morning game drive.
Still hoping for a Leopard spotting, we were encouraged by Lawrence who said he'd seen one just outside the lodge area.
This made sense, as I'd heard the monkeys and baboons get all upset around 03:30, which was apparently due to the presence of a Leopard..
We set off in hot pursuit, and both Lawrence and Richard (the tracker/spotter) got out of the car to follow tracks for a while.
Trackers or leopard-bait?

Sadly, the leopard had seen Lawrence earlier, and run off across the river where we couldn't see or follow..

So no leopard for us..

After seeing more impala, we got a lead over the radio and followed it to find..
A critically endangered Black Rhino

The Black Rhino is smaller than the White, and eats different food - it prefers to eat from bushes, where the White eats mainly grass.
It's also the target of poachers, that kill them, and take the horn, because people believe in magical thinking (that the rhino horn cured impotence)... Get a viagra, which has actual scientifically proven efficacy, guys and leave the rhino alone!

After seeing the rhino, we went to see the hippos again, as some in the car hadn't seen any yet.

Then, we got to see...

Two adult lionesses, and..
A big, bushy, male!
Again, we were really close! We drove so we were only a couple of metres from the two females, then drove closer to the male, putting ourselves in-between them.
Mildly curious about us.. Look at those eyes!
He knows we're here..
Full belly... too tired to move...
We were a few metres further away from the male..
After this amazing encounter, we returned to the lodge, seeing more buffalo by a watering hole.

We had breakfast, finished packing, and headed off to the Tremisana Lodge, where after checking in to our room, we headed straight off to Kruger National Park itself, for an afternoon drive.
The drive there was long and dusty - we were further from the Park than we had thought - about an hour away..

Even along the way, we saw animals - warthogs and baboons - on the road side of the fence.. hopefully, none of them strayed onto the road.

Kruger Park is fairly dense with animals (though don't think of it as a zoo, it's nowhere near that!) - so we could see plenty more elephants, zebras, wildebeest, waterbuck and plenty more of warthogs and impalas.. And, in the distance, we saw some lions, too. But after the experience of parking right next to them, seeing them this distant was just a reminder that they are roaming freely..
Elephants crossing the road in Kruger
If you don't stay in a private game reserve and go for the kinds of drives we got to go on, then doing a drive through Kruger would definitely be worth it.

You can't go off-road, so chances are slim of getting right next to lions like we did, but you'll see them.

You'll probably see at least the four of the Big Five, the same as we saw: Lion, Elephant, Buffalo and Rhino were all spotted on our few hours' drive on one of the many roads in the park, so if you have more time there, you might see the Leopard, too.

Alas, we never did see the leopard.. But we had an amazing time, and we're so happy to have gone on this safari!

And I managed to restrain myself until now... so here's a zebra crossing...        :-D

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