Kruger National Park Revisited

[As the title suggests, I am not able to actually revisit South Africa’s amazing Kruger National Park, but I am able to recall my two safari trips there in 2017 and 2018. This is a reprint of my original March 2017 post about my safari escapades.]

We rise early, try to chug hot, mediocre coffee, and line up to enter our Bush Cruiser, the faithful Land Rover, with cameras, phones, hats, scarves, bug juice, water bottles all handy and within easy reach. Camera is charged and ready to be filled with today’s graphic data. Binoculars afixed around the neck. Eyes sharp and ready to see what is here.

Ibizu our guide is on his walkie talkie, chatting with other guides, sharing sitings. He is on the hunt for lions. He turns the Land Rover around, telling us that we might see something. Another safari vehicle is stopped on the road ahead of us, staring off into the bush.

Everyone is looking at a tree of a type I don’t recognize. I picked up a booklet of the animals and birds in the Kruger National Park concessions store, but the shrubbery and flowers stump me. Through my binoculars I can see the leopard prone on a thick branch, all four limbs hanging down. The beast is distant, a black shadow against a glowing sky. Using my zoom I snap photos, knowing they will be odd and blurry. The marvel of modern digital photography is that when I upload the photos and perform a virtual zoom, I can make out the leopard’s spots.

Another mark on our Big Five list. The Big Five list’s significance has at last taken on a new meaning. Once the pride of big game hunters who knocked off and trophy-izeg rhinos, lions, Cape buffalo, elephants and leopards, it now represents the camera’s success in Africa.

We drive west through our private reserve, the Crocodile river on our left, the rising sun behind us. We pass through the biggest zebra herd of all—at least 100 beasts, several babies among them, spread out through the bush. They are content, Ibizu tells us. “If the lion comes now, they will run straight at us,” he warns.

Impala and wildebeest graze in the tall grass. Guinea fowl trot in front of us, dash out of our way in the last seconds. In the west a tower of clouds flows north, bringing rain to the sugar cane fields on the park boundaries.

Someone points toward our left. Ibizu slows the Rover as we watch a group of elephants, three or four adults, one or two babies. They are moving east, quickly, almost at a trot.

Ibizu says, “They are not happy. There is something around. I will back up so you can see them but if one of them starts to run toward us you have to tell me because I can’t see them.”

We nod obediently. As the Rover passes a shrub we get a view of the elephant bringing up the rear. She is the largest, and probably Big Mama. Stopping, she turns to face west, ears flapping madly, trunk waving back and forth. I know, I don’t have to be told, that she will face any danger and stomp it to death to protect her sisters and their progeny.

We see her agitation only for a few seconds, hearts beating, ready to yell if she begins to think we are the threat. She is roughly 25 yards away, but can cover the distance in seconds. To our relief, she whirls around and trots after her retreating family, herding them quickly away, to safety and out of sight.

The only threat we see are a couple hyenas, who trot directly past us, uncaring and on a mission.

No lions. But maybe tonight.

The night safari leaves our lodge at dusk. Night falls quickly in South Africa. Ibizu uses a spotlight to find hippos for us, as they emerge from the river to feed during the dark.

But just at twilight, before his spotlight comes out, after our tea break of wine and cookies, we see another grouping of elephants ahead of us, on the road. There appears to be only three, but there could be more unseen in the dim light. Slowly Ibizu approaches. He has no warning words, but I believe he is tense and ready to evade them, if we have too.

We snap photos. My camera is not fast enough for low-light photography without a tripod, so I amuse myself with my binoculars. These elephants seem huge, maybe because we are so close. Slowly we approach, the Rover growling softly.

The elephants leave the roadway as we near. Two move left, but one moves right. We are about to drive between them.

Ibizu is silent, and keeps the vehicle moving. He is not about to stop this close to any African elephant. We are ignorant of the threat, astonished and happy, looking at these powerful beasts.

As we pass between, the elephant on our righ, turns to face us. He is looking straight into the Rover, ears flapping. We are agog.

Then he lifts his trunk and trumpets his warning, loud and blasting. Our eardrums numb, we jump. Ibizu keeps the Rover moving, steadily, carefully. We leave the trumpeter behind, and looking back we see him cross the road to rejoin his family.

In elephant-speak, he said “Hey!” Really loud. A warning, I think. Get out of here or else.

We did as we were bid. We got out of there. No lions this trip.

Addendum: we did see lions, on the last drive before we were to head home. Here is our first glance of the Four Brothers. We were to see them up close the next year when I was lucky enough to come back to Shishangeni Lodge.

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