Sunday 26 May 2013
Our group of seven assembled at the Skukuza Main Camp in Kruger National Park. The two of us were joined by a retired couple from Cape Town, a British/Irish couple who were working in Mozambique and their sister who was visiting from Australia. Our ‘trail’ began with a drive from the main camp out to the wilderness area we’d call home for the next three nights.
Along the way we were met by a very pleasant surprise—a pack of 10 wild dogs on the road. We followed them for a while as we continued along our way. This was only the third time that we had spotted wild dogs during our two years in Africa and the first time we saw them active – the other two times they were resting in the grass in the middle part of the day. This slight detour meant that we had to rush the rest of the way to camp to ensure we arrived before the sun set.
The wilderness camp is nothing like the main camps that most visitors experience on a visit to Kruger. Rather than high walls/fences and developed infrastructure inside this was pleasantly simple. There was a waist-high fence along the perimeter with two low-voltage electric wires running along the top (the only electricity in the camp). As far as accommodation goes, there are four A-frame huts for the guests and a communal space for eating and enjoying an evening fire.
After settling into our hut, enjoying a delicious meal, and chatting by the fire – we went to bed eagerly awaiting our 5:30am wake-up.
Monday 27 May 2013
After being awoken by one of our guides, we set off on our first walk. 49% of the total Kruger National Park is saved as ‘Wilderness’ area where there is virtually no infrastructure and tourists are not permitted (except for those lucky enough to participate in a Wilderness trail). We walked for five hours this first morning—leaving directly from camp on foot with our two, armed guides.
Walking safaris cannot compete with driving for quantity of game spotted (simply because the amount of area covered is substantially less). However, when walking through the wilderness, there is so much more to the experience than ticking animals off the checklist. Learning about the smaller creatures, plants, tracks, and just simply feeling a part of the tremendous system that we all learn about in the Lion King as the ‘circle of life’ are things that you simply cannot do when driving along at 30-40 km/hour along the road.
Our first walk took us well over 5 hours and within 6 km of the border with Mozambique. We watched a monitor lizard slip into the water, walked past herds of impala, zebra, waterbuck and giraffe. Found evidence of a wide variety of animals including a fur-ball left by either a lion or a hyena, fresh black rhino dung, and leopard prints. About 3km from camp, the guide suddenly stopped. We heard a rustling, and then the guide started moving forward quickly saying ‘lion! Lion!’ We were all a little confused as to what we were supposed to do – our orientation included instructions not to run from a lion, but rather to stand our ground as a group. However, the guide seemed to be going on without us. Despite all the confusion, it quickly became clear that we had stumbled upon a male lion sleeping under a tree in the tall grass. Our approach spooked him and he was running away. We were in pursuit until we could get a clear look – strange chasing a lion I know, but we were excited.
Following the lion sighting, we continued back to camp where we found a large male elephant hanging out under the shade of the tree. He ended up spending most of the afternoon with us there during our ‘siesta’ time (11am-3pm) before heading out down the riverbed.
After our afternoon nap, we set off for a short walk and sun-downers on top of a nearby mountain. As soon as we began to walk, Rebecca noticed something moving in a clump of trees. It was buffalo. Our guides changed directions and we started heading straight for them. As we got closer we quickly realized this was an huge herd of at least 200 individuals. As we inched closer and closer, some member of our group peeled off in fear, but the guides continued on. The buffalo formed a solid wall of horns at the sight of us. When we would take steps towards them they would first stare intently, then turn and jog a few steps back before forming the same wall again. We continued like this for almost 30 minutes and got closer to the animals than I would have ever imagined. To the relief of the buffalo, we turned back and headed up the mountain to enjoy the sunset before returning to camp for the night.
Tuesday 28 May 2013
The schedule was almost the same as Monday. Our AM walk took place in a recently burned area of the park and lasted about 4 hours. On the way to the area we were going to walk in, we spotted a male cheetah (first time in two years we’ve seen one in the wild). This walk itself was fairly quiet, though we did have some cool sightings.
We came across quite a lot of prints and scat. The tracks all reveal a little more of the story that had played out. A lion pride moved through an open area, where a porcupine had recently crossed. Following closely behind was a loan hyena. On the side of the path was the skeletal remains of a baby rhino. When we looked even closer, there were two scorpion holes and the remnants of their kills from the night before scattered across the path – a piece of a beetle here and there.
In the afternoon, we set out to walk along a pan that our guide favored. As we drove up, we were greeted by a herd of elephants including the smallest baby we’ve seen. Unfortunately, we were unable to walk because another group had already arrived at this same pan to walk (this is one of the very few times we saw other people during our trail experience) which irritated our guide to no end since they had traveled up to our area to walk at one of his favorite spots. While we were a bit frustrated as we set off in another direction, but that feeling quickly disappeared as we spotted a huge pod of hippos and several species of birds. As we hiked down the ridge down to the water, we kept our eyes peeled for any other game making their way down to the water for an afternoon drink. As we moved along the water, we heard elephants up on the ridge. Then, suddenly, the groan of a lion. We all got excited and moved quickly through the trees to see if we could catch a glimpse. First, we spotted baboons shouting up on the ridge, then looked below to find a lioness lying right next to the water opposite us. Suddenly, there was a second, and then a third. In total we counted 4 lionesses.
After a while watching the drama between the lions and the baboons and also among the hippos play out, we headed back under the cover of darkness to the camp. Back at camp we enjoyed our final dinner and camp-fire discussion before heading off to sleep. As we went to sleep we listened to the sounds of the night – lions, jackals, and even a leopard lulled us to sleep.
Wednesday 29 May 2013
No walks on this final day, a late-morning wake up (7am) and breakfast before we headed back down to the Skukuza Main Camp where we all met on Sunday. The highlight of this drive was spotting a pride consisting of 13 lions including an absolutely enormous male walking along the dry riverbed next to the road. In front of them was a herd of over 100 buffalo. As the lions got closer and closer, we watched with anticipation. Soon most of the heard was gone, but a few stragglers didn’t seem to get the message when everyone else ran away. While our guide said lions can stalk a heard like this for days, we were lucky enough to witness one lions attempt to run down one of the straggling buffaloes. He was unsuccessful (good news for the buffalo), but the excitement in the car was sky high and made a perfect end to our wilderness trail.