Thursday, May 28, 2009

South Africa Day Thirteen: Kruger Park

This morning we had no particular appointments compelling us to wake up early, but having gone to sleep around 8:30 the previous night we were up and ready to go by 5:30 anyway. So, after making a quick breakfast in our hut we headed out for a day of seeing what we could see. According to the sightings board at our camp, there were lions sighted off one particular road in the direction of the Olifants camp, so we headed that way. Before long we came across a large group of elephants, among which were several babies that were busy cavorting, so we stopped and watched them for a while. They were about 15 feet or less from our car at times, so when the mother elephant started to show signs of concern about our presence (we were soon joined by several other cars) we headed off to avoid upsetting her (and having her upset our car...). Later on we saw a pack of baboons grooming each other by a watering hole, including some juveniles playing in the water and chasing each other around, and eventually we saw some more elephants, giraffes and impalas, but no lions at all, despite popping back into lodges periodically to check their sighting boards for tips. At one point we found a pack of vultures that started to take off and fly off somewhere, so we thought we might have found a sign of a kill and headed off to see if we could follow them, but there was no way to get there, so we had to give up.

In the mid-afternoon we had a walk scheduled at our lodge so we returned to our camp and got the car washed while we waited for our walk to start. The amount of dust that collected on that car after a few days’ driving around on the gravel roads here was amazing!

Our walk was led by two guides, who drove us out of the camp down a side road that is closed to visitors. As we headed out they mentioned that during the morning walk they came across some lionesses with a giraffe kill, so we’d head out that way toward the walking area. Sure enough, three of the lionesses were still there, gorged with giraffe meat and looking exhausted. We were told to keep still and make no noise, so at first we didn’t know if it was OK to take photos, but the lioness closest to us seemed not to be concerned with us so we started shooting away. Based on her still having faint spots in her hide our guide told us she was less than five years old, and she was beautiful, showing us her big incisors every so often as she sat there looking like someone who had just eaten a way-too-big meal.

When we had gotten our fill of photos we headed further along to get out of the vehicle and start our walk. First the guides gave us our safety instructions--walk in a single file, make no noise, don’t touch anything, and follow closely. They each had a big rifle, so we were not about to disobey. We walked among the mopane trees and two watering pans, stopping here and there for them to point something out to us, like a dead leadwood tree that was covered with mud from where animals, particularly rhinos, would rub against it to clean themselves off, and tracks and dung of various animals. We did not see any big animals close up, though we did see some impala and zebra in the distance that ran off as soon as they caught sight or scent of us.

After about an hour of walking around we headed back to the car and drove back to watch the lionesses for a while longer. They were attracting jackals, waiting for the lionesses to wander away so that they could dig in to the remnants of the giraffe, but as yet there were no hyenas or vultures lurking nearby. As the sun set, we returned to our camp.

Back at our hut we got the fire started and prepared our last camp dinner while finishing up our wine and downloading our photos. After we had eaten we were joined for a chat by one of our neighbors, an Afrikaner who used to work in the gold mines and who has been coming to Kruger for 30 years or so, here with his wife and family. As we chatted with him we could hear lions roaring in the distance outside the camp, a very haunting and thrilling sound that echoed through the wilderness.