Sunday, 23 October 2016

Africa – Part 4 – Kruger National Park

After two nights at Shalati we were back on the road with another fairly early start that involved taking breakfast with us in paper bags (how exciting!). Stu and I shared the back seat with Vlad on this first day in Kruger and it was a great opportunity to learn about he and Michaela’s lives in New York and their history as a couple. Stu and I came to have a great affection for this pair with whom we had a lot in common despite leading very different lives. I loved listening to them chat to each other half in English and half in Russian with seemingly no logic to the changeover points (though there clearly was to them!).

Anyway, we were only about an hour from the gate of the Kruger that we were going to enter through and so we barely had time to gauge what was in the paper bags (boiled egg in a confined space anyone?) before we were in the Kruger proper.

This was a slightly strange day as we had been on two game drives in game drive vehicles over the preceding days and so now, travelling through another reserve, but in a vehicle that wasn’t really designed for the purpose, the experience felt a little restrictive. For the keen photographers (this would be Vlad, Stu, Daryl and Tony who between them must possess every size lens known to man) it was difficult to get the good shots with both reflection from windows and the cramped conditions to take into consideration.

On this day I pretty much decided I was just going to be “in the moment” and stop worrying about photos – partly for the logistical reasons described above and partly because I was trying to make a conscious effort to engage with life around me without a screen of any kind as a filter. I am aware that I spend far too much time looking at my phone/ipad than I do actually soaking up events around me and sometimes, especially on this kind of trip-of-a-lifetime, it feels empowering and liberating to choose to create memories first hand instead of capturing them on a device of some kind for later reflection. For that reason I have used Stu's (very impressive!) photos throughout this post.

We entered the Kruger and stopped for coffee and bathroom breaks at a little lodge just inside, there were monkeys in the trees all around and the coffee was actually pretty good for a roadside stop. While we were stood drinking our delightful beverages a family of warthogs crossed the road in front of us, we were definitely not in Kansas anymore.

Pumba (Warthog) in Kruger

And so, we made our way through Kruger park, delighting in the amount of zebra, giraffes and elephants we saw, which were in abundance. There were heaps of birds too, but I have to admit I find it very difficult to get excited about birds and kinda zoned out while people snapped various eagles and vultures and tried to identify the varieties against the Kruger guidebook pictures.

For me, the highlight of this day will always be Oliphants River where we stopped on the bridge and were able to get out and enjoy the extraordinary view on both sides across the water. In one single sweep of the eyes it was possible to see a herd of elephants, a couple of rhinos, a group of hyena picking the bones of a kill, baboons, zebra, giraffe and various boks. It was truly incredible to see all of this wildlife just right in front of you, seemingly oblivious to the tourists on the bridge above, pointing hundreds of lenses at them and gasping in awe.

Tegan and I watching the elephants in Oliphants

Elephants crossing the bridge

How many animals can you spot here?

After a good half an hour watching the world of African wildlife go by below us, we made our way to Letaba Rest Camp which was to be our base for the evening. We arrived around 1.30pm and were pretty hungry but due to go out on a game drive at 4pm. Surely this was sufficient time to order and eat lunch in the branch of Mugg & Bean they had on site, right? Well, we cut it pretty close actually. By the time we had checked in, got changed and headed to the restaurant it was gone 2pm – but we still figured we had time and ordered a couple of flatbreads and a couple of beers. It was a beautiful spot as the deck overlooked another section of Oliphant’s river delta and far below us we watched some hippos swimming dangerously close to a large croc on the river bank.

Our traditional hut at Letaba

Beers arrived, other members of our group turned up and ordered food, Sam took this great shot of Stu and I – one of few of us together on the holiday, as it happens. 

Other people’s food started arriving, I chased up our flatbreads and was told they were on their way. Stu realised he should probably go stock up on water etc for our room as it was now 3pm and we might not get time before heading out on the drive. The rest of our group were now starting to head off to prepare for the drive. At 3.30pm our flatbreads arrived. It was a TIA moment I believe. I did wonder if they baked the flatbread from scratch, hence the delay. Oh well.

So, we jumped in the game drive truck and headed out into the Kruger once again. This game drive was interesting in the fact that the first hour and a half we thought we were pretty jinxed and we saw next to nothing. Elephants from a distance, the ubiquitous impala of course, a couple of antelope…nothing we had not yet seen before. And then, crawling along a track, just as the sun was setting, we saw it. Two leopards in a tree with a fresh kill.

Tony lost his mind. It was the funniest, sweetest thing in the world to hear him swearing his head off in shock and excitement at seeing the last (and most magnificent) of the big 5, at sunset, with a kill. Not just one leopard either, but a pair of them. Our driver went to turn the vehicle around and by the time we came back to the tree, one of the leopards was lying in the middle of the road, soaking up the heat from the tarmac. It was utterly magical to see these incredible beasts and they did not seem too bothered by the proximity of the vehicle, we stayed and watched them for a good 20 minutes before starting to head back towards the lodge.

And then, ten minutes later, Stu spotted two hyenas on the side of the road and shouted to the driver and we stopped. This was the first time we had been up close and personal with hyenas and they padded over to our vehicle and checked us out like potential prey which was intimidating and made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. My goodness they are bigger than you think and look like they are built of pure muscle. They had a good old sniff of our vehicle and eyeballed the occupants for a good few minutes before continuing on their way.

Being eyeballed by this guy...

It goes to show how the game drive experience can turn on a sixpence and you can swing from feeling resolved to seeing next to nothing to utterly on the ceiling with excitement in the space of five minutes. It also highlights the enormous role that sheer luck plays in each one – and it was for this reason that Stu and I decided you have to be in it to win it and went on literally every game drive option which we could.

Back at Letaba, Hardy was already seated at a long table with our driver Jan and a couple of our group who hadn’t done the drive, waiting to order food. The buzz in the room as we came back was incredible, everyone was so excited from what we had seen in our vehicle and everyone talking at once, I was desperate to hear what Sam and Merri might have seen from the other vehicle and it turned out they had seen a snake in a tree fairly close up so had also had a great night.

Dinner was another hugely TIA affair, which did not surprise Stu and I, given our experience at lunch. It took at least an hour to collate orders for everyone for both food and drink and then food came out sporadically, in a seemingly random order, over the next hour and a half. Stu and I had actually forgotten we had ordered a side of wedges to share and had both finished out mains when it arrived 20 minutes later. Oh the lols. Stu had actually been back to the lodge and had a shower between ordering and food coming out, such was his belief that there would be time, and he was right.

I decided, after finishing dinner, that I desperately needed a shower too and headed back, leaving Stu to pay for the bill. It will come as no surprise to hear that splitting the table’s bills to individuals (even though we all ordered on separate tabs) took an hour. I was starting to wonder whether Stu had gone for drinks with Hardy by the time he reappeared. I was sat outside our lodge with a bottle of wine, in my pyjamas, reading my kindle, when he finally came back looking bemused. A TIA end to a truly staggering day.

Next day we would be heading out of Kruger and up towards the Zimbabwe border, with one final stop at Mashovhela before we crossed the border out of South Africa. 

No comments:

Post a Comment