Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Days 4 through 10 in the Kruger National Park


Note: This post completes the story of my family's recent 10 day self-drive safari in South Africa's Kruger National Park


Day 4 - April 1


Cooler (20 C, which is 68 F) this April 1st morning at Letaba Camp with a fierce, unrelenting wind that made it feel much colder. Ruth & I bundled up for the first time in long pants & light jackets for our 6:00 AM game drive, again leaving the kids to sleep in--their choice.

And also their loss, as within 2 kms of the gate we watched a well-fed mama hyena (her tummy was distended; I hated to think what rotten carcass therein) coaxing 2 of her young out of a culvert under the road they'd made into their den. I'm glad hyenas don't live in Raleigh culverts since they are very fond of eating humans when presented the opportunity.

A bit later we were surprised & awed to come across 3 White Rhinos moving together just off the road. We stopped to admire them, & for some reason I thought of Raleigh City Councilor Thomas Crowder. Maybe because his hide is at least as thick as those covering the 3 magnificent beasts lumbering off into the bush.  Or perhaps because Thomas is just as unstoppable.

We spied 3 Blacked-backed Jackels loping across an open area not far beyond where we'd seen the rhinos.  Before we returned to our Letaba Camp rondavel at 7:30 AM, we'd also seen wildebeest, zebra, impala, and more than 50 baboons foraging. Not bad for a quick 90 minute game drive.

3 Black-backed Jackels

Young Will & Clara contented themselves with looking at the rhino & hyena pictures.  Maybe tomorrow they can drag themselves out of the sack & go with us. 

While overlooking the Letaba River from the large restaurant veranda, we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast of French toast, fried eggs, bacons, butter, jelly & toast, served with hot tea for Ruth & me, and with hot chocolate for the kids. Total bill was R179.20, which is about $24. That's a lot more expensive than meals used to be here in the Kruger, but six bucks each still isn't too bad, I guess.



The fence at Letaba Camp

We were served by Neta, a sweet Gazankulu woman from a small village near Hazyview, who charmed Clara and paid careful attention to Clara's special dietary instructions. Neta needs a ride to Shingwedzi Camp tomorrow, & we offered to take her with us. She's going to let us know in the morning.   

Clara is the most eagle-eyed among the four of us when looking for game in the African bush. She excels at both spotting game way ahead of the rest of us & at flawless species identification. Time and again she'll name the animal correctly while we three are squinting to see if it's a wildebeest, buffalo, or just a big dark boulder. The Kruger abounds with large gray rocks & boulders which Ruth & I, in our zeal to see an animal, often mistake for elephants or whatever.  Every time we make such an error, Will (age 13) lets out a mocking sigh & shakes his head, embarrassed that he could possibly have such stupid parents. 

Cape Buffalo

Cape Buffalo

By midday we'd washed our laundry in the camp's coin laundry & hung them out to dry using the clothesline & clothes pins we brought with us. The temp had risen to a comfy 25 C (77 F) & the incessant wind had abated to a mere gale force, helping the clothes to dry quickly.

At 2:00 PM we drove out for a long afternoon game drive along a dirt/gravel road where we'd seen a pack of African Wild Dogs four years ago. The Coleman cooler we brought along from Raleigh was iced down & well-stocked with Coke Zero, Sprite, water, & beer. We also took along peanuts & power bars for snacks.

Gravel road near Letaba

Except for some impala, zebra, baboons, and a lone kudu, we struck out on seeing unusual wild animals along that dirt road. However, we saw something even rarer:   As we rounded a curve many kms off the tarred road in the middle of nowhere, we were taken aback to find a barefoot young man standing in the grass, his hands & legs covered with thick slimy black mud.  

Seems he & his girlfriend had gotten their tiny Chevy well & truly stuck in a scenic turnout that had been transformed into a swamp by the previous night's rains. She was at the wheel trying to engage the clutch to get them out while he grunted & shoved mightily standing in knee-deep mud. To no avail.

Their cell phones didn't work that far into the wilderness, & so he couldn't call for help. I got out to help the poor couple, inviting a R1500 ($200) fine had I been caught. The Kruger Park Rangers don't take lightly to tourists being eaten by the local wildlife; hence the prohibition of exiting one's vehicle except inside the safety of the camps.

Nonetheless, I had to see if we could get them unstuck; otherwise, I'd have to transport the filthy guy & his gal back to Letaba, ruining the interior of our van & the afternoon's game drive.  Having been stuck in eastern North Carolina back road mud many times as a youth, I knew what to do: dig out under the tires, place plenty of sticks & branches underneath, and then BACK out.  The young fellow took my instruction well, & I managed to avoid the worst of the muck as we eventually pushed the car free after several failed attempts. 

And we avoided being some animal's dinner in the bargain.  Ruth & the kids were relieved. When I asked why she didn't get out to help, too, Ruth said she considered it, but decided she didn't want to risk making orphans of our children.

Returning to Letaba rondavel D43 after a swim

 That experience & the luck of our early morning game drive were the day's main excitement, yet en route back to Letaba, we saw more impala, baboons, & zebra, plus waterbuck, elephants, wildebeest, bushbuck, Vervet Monkeys, another jackel, another Leopard tortoise, an unidentified snake, and many, many more birds, including several large raptors too far off to ID.  

Another Leopard Tortoise

Some days at the Kruger yield more animals than others, but every day is an adventure. Tomorrow we continue north to Shingwedzi Camp.  

Day 5 - April 2

A gorgeous day that began as another cool morning (16 C, or 60.8 F), but the wind had died.  Temp peaked at 27.5 C, which I believe is around 81 F, by midday, and a light wind blew up. Perfect weather for game viewing.

We awoke with the memory of hyenas whooping last night, a haunting, unforgettable sound that seemed to emanate just outside our windows.  Of course their calls were made from outside the camp's electrified fences (designed to keep such creatures from devouring the guests). At least I assumed so.

Clara (age 8) accompanied Ruth & me on our 6:00 AM game drive. Gone just an hour, we saw another rhino, jackel, hyena, impala, zebra, elephant, & buffalo.

Before the day was over we saw many more elephants, giraffe, impala everywhere, more zebra, bushbuck, baboons, waterbuck, wildebeest, another Leopard Tortoise, and Vervet Monkeys.

The monkeys are resident scoundrels in Letaba & Shingwedzi camps, where they live in the trees & steal anything left out on a porch or in an open car.  I swear the thieving little twits have a sixth sense for opportunity. You'd think they would just go for food (they have learned to open camp fridges), but I've seen them rising from an open Mercedes sunroof with some poor fool's GPS & then smashing it to bits on the roof.

Tsessebe

The new species sighting of the day was of Tsessebe, a medium height/weight antelope with a brilliant shiny red-rust coat & distinctive curved horns. We spotted a small herd some 15 kms north of Letaba & counted ourselves lucky, as Tsessebe are not often seen in the Kruger.

Birdlife abounded everywhere, too, with all the aforementioned (in previous reports) species seen & only one new one to mention, a Hamerkop. One raptor we usually see often, the African Fish Eagle (very close in size & plumage to our own Bald Eagle), has been so far notably absent.

Still have not seen a leopard, a cheetah, or any more lions.

We stopped at Mopane Camp en route north for breakfast at 9:15 AM. Mopane is the newest camp in Kruger, built (I believe) in the 80s. We overnighted there once when son Will has 3 years old. Mopane has gorgeous facilities, all made of stone & perched dramatically on rocky outcroppings. Trouble is, it's a veritable dead zone in the Park for seeing animals, & no one knows just why. So we pass it by every time, stopping only to dine or shop at the store.  

I mentioned the speed limits in the Kruger are 50 KPH (about 30 MPH) on paved roads & 40 KPH (app. 25 MPH) on unpaved roads. In my 21 years coming here, I've seen very few people speeding. Most people obey the limits, which are to protect the wildlife, & police do set up speed traps in the Park (we passed one going to Letaba). That said, we've been surprised to see a lot of speeding this trip, not a good sign.

Elephants routinely use the roads everywhere in the Kruger, and their dung is thus everywhere deposited on the roads in gigantic piles. Elephants after all do consume huge quantities of leaf matter, trees, & grass every day, producing equally prodigious amounts of waste. Pachyderms perform their toilets as they jolly along the roads, especially at night when the roads are devoid of cars. This makes for interesting obstacle driving courses, as no one wise to the many ingested thorns in the large piles of elephant crap on the roads wants to risk a puncture from running through one.  Best to avoid them by swerving or straddling, a skill even young Will has mastered. 

Cavorting at the Tropic of Capricorn

Tropic of Capricorn

The charm of the two northern camps of Shingwedzi & Punda Maria is impossible to describe, delicious to experience. North of the Tropic of Capricorn, these camps seem isolated & remote from the civilized world, somehow from a more innocent era. The feeling of Old Africa perhaps. Whatever it is, we enjoy being up here in the far reaches of the Kruger, with Mozambique close to the east & Zimbabwe just over the Limpopo River to the north. There's a magic to being here. 

Service at the Kruger's camp restaurants is uniformly slow, but extremely friendly. They all offer the identical sparse menu. While the quality of what's available is very good, the limited menu items make the food choices at a Denny's in America seem inspired by comparison. The monotony of toasted chicken mayonaise (chicken salad) & ham & cheese sandwiches is occasionally relieved by a venison dish (venison is the generic South African word for any wild game dish).

But all too often we've heard waiters say, in their South African slang, "Sorry, sir, the venison is finished." Meaning they've run out. Again. Whenever I ask a waiter when the venison was "finished," I'm told, "Last Tuesday."

So to avoid a reprise of that disappointing news, today we bought fresh Wildebeest fillets, butter, mushrooms, potatoes, & veggies at the Mopani camp store, and tonight we cook them here at Shingwedzi where we are housed in a marvelous "Family Cottage." Which means a stand-alone, thatched-roof cottage with 2 bedrooms, 2 full bathrooms, & a kitchen complete with a big fridge, a stove, and a microwave oven.

Entering Shingwedzi Camp

Family Cottage A29 at Shingwedzi (by the fence)

Better still, our cottage sits right beside the electrified camp fence with the African wilderness just on the other side. We can enjoy watching any wildlife that ambles by the fence while we chow down in safety.

[Written a bit later] Ruth slaved over the mushrooms, potatoes, & veggies, & I cooked the Wildebeest steaks, which were chewy but truly delicious. However, I managed to drop the cast iron pot of cooked & buttered potatoes with a crash that I'm sure everybody in Shingwedzi Camp heard. After I cleaned up the god-awful mess, Ruth forgave me my blunder, & we enjoyed a memorable meal by the camp fence, gazing at the real Africa beyond.

And are soon to bed. Tomorrow we go on the Punda Maria Camp.

Footnote: Neta, our would-be fellow traveler, failed to show this morning to ride with us. We were sad to miss her company.  

Day 6 - April 3

A cool 15 C (59 F)  this morning as we left at 6:00 AM for our early game drive, during which we saw quite a lot: elephant, impala, warthog, giraffe, jackel, buffalo, & baboon. On the same one hour drive I glimpsed a male Paradise Flycatcher (with his characteristic long tail) perched on a branch by the road, the first one we've seen so far this trip.

Cape Buffalo by the Shingwedzi fence

 Buffalo were standing right beside the fence by our cottage when we returned-- outside the fence, thankfully.  They gave us their best bovine stares as we watched them chew their cuds.

Amazingly, the Kruger has no roadside litter whatsoever. The only human trash we observed was cigarette butts around some places where you're allowed to get out of the car. There are a fair number of bird hides and scenic lookouts, plus a handful of bridges & rustic picnic spots where signs advise that visitors may "alight at your own risk" from cars because "dangerous animals may cause serious injury or death."

Babalala picnic area way up north

The Babalala picnic area between Shingwedzi & Punda Maria camps is one such place; each picnic site has its particular charms. Elephants like to drink from the water hole adjacent to Babalala, for example, & literally scores of hornbills are so tame there that they perch around you hoping for handouts (feeding animals is strictly forbidden in the Park, but that law is at worst a trifling inconvenience to most visitors; scraps of food are routinely tossed to the waiting birds).

Earlier in the week we had found another of our favorite picnic areas, Tshokwane (pronounced CHOK WAN' EE), which lies between Skukuza Camp & Satara Camp farther south, was closed for repairs after being damaged by the January floods.  On past visits we often saw baboons, bushbucks, & warthogs loitering about the Tshokwane parking lot looking for uneaten morsels or picking through refuse.

As we approached Babalala this morning, an angry elephant crossing the road trumpeted & shook his head fiercely in warning to us to back off. Not wishing to explain a tusk hole through the VW's sheet metal to Avis, we heeded his admonition & reversed a good distance until he had passed.

Aggressive elephant

Driving the 50 kms or so from Shingwedzi to the Babalala picnic spot reminded Ruth & me of the wide variety of environmental habitats in the Kruger. We had passed through shrubby areas full of Mopane Tree scrub, flat open grassland, rocky hills covered with Baobab, Marulla, &  Acacia trees, and riverine valleys hemmed by massive tall hardwoods, all just in that short distance.

Nyala buck (youngster) near Pafuri

Leafy Baobab tree near Pafuri

Kruger's habitat variety is unlike the stereotypical African savannah many Americans picture in their minds from "Out of Africa" and from National Geographic wildlife documentary films made on the vast plains of Kenya & Tanzania. The Kruger landscape has lots of relief and is certainly covered with plenty of African-looking flat-topped acacia trees loaded with dagger-length thorns. And Lord knows a good many other South African flora have thorny armor as well. But there are many other, more prosaic plant species here, by far the most common of which is the Mopane tree (a favorite food of elephants), easily identified by its paired angel wing leaves.  Mopane is a favorite of the many species of South African browsers.  Point being, the Kruger doesn't always match the average American's image of Africa.

Alas, the kids wearied of watching for wildlife today & spent much of the trip north heads-down in their books. Will is reading "The Hunger Games" & Clara a book from the Percy Jackson series. We missed their sharp eyes helping to spot animals.

Lioness in the grass is hard to see

However, the kids got real interested in a hurry when we came across a female lion very near the car on an unpaved road on the way to Babalala.  "Lionjams" are common on main roads in the Park wherever lions are spotted, but we were surprised to find a mini-lionjam on this remote dirt road. Having sighted the lioness, families in two cars were stopped ahead of us.

The big cat prowled back & forth, giving us all good opportunities to admire her & to be glad of the safety of the vehicle. She finally settled down & grunted a series of low growls, which we assumed were calls to the rest of her pride, but we didn't see them, & so we moved on.

After our Babalala respite, we drove north to the farthest NE part of both the Kruger & South Africa, called Crook's Corner. It was so named because smugglers in years past could leap across borders into one of 3 countries to avoid local law enforcement authorities in pursuit(South Africa, Mozambique, & Zimbabwe all come together there).

Alarm at hearing a lion roar  very nearby at Crooks Corner



The temp had by then peaked at 30 C (86 F) for the day. En route to Crook's Corner we stopped at the Pafuri picnic spot for a fast lunch of peanut butter & jelly sandwiches. Along the road we saw lots of Nyala for the first time, an antelope cousin of the Kudu but smaller & sporting gently curving horns (instead of the Kudu's spiralling horns), shaggy coats, & distinctive black leg stripes. We also spotted several crocodiles, another Leopard Tortoise, & a White-faced Bee-eater, the latter a first sighting (by us) of that bird in the park.

I've almost forgotten to mention the strangely beautiful Baobab Trees that grow in profusion here in the park's northern reaches. Each one attracts the eye with its distinctive form & enormous girth.

Entering Punda Maria Camp

Then we made a beeline for the most northern camp in the Kruger, Punda Maria. Our accommodation here, another "Family Cottage," is even larger & fancier than last night's at Shingwedzi. This one (H23) boasts 3 bedrooms, 2 full baths, a fully-equipped kitchen, a living room with satellite TV, & a second floor deck overlooking the bushveldt.  It was so relaxing that we had to drag ourselves out for an afternoon game drive.

Huge Family Cottage at Punda Maria

But we were glad we did.  A 90-min. drive along the 30 km road that encircles the camp yielded views of Nyala (too many to count), Zebra, Warthog, Baboon, Vervet Monkey, Giraffe, Kudu, Elephant,  Duiker, Waterbuck, Impala, Mongoose, & Wildebeest. Most impressive, though, was having to painstakingly wade the VW van through a herd of hundreds of Cape Buffalo on & around the road. Magnificent!

Cape Buffalo & Baobab near Punda Maria

Punda Maria's tiny restaurant has but 6 tables, but we've enjoyed delicious meals there in past years. Tonight's was also good: Kudu hot pot, kind of a stew with lots of meat & veggies. It was a generous serving & came with rice for 60 Rand (about $8). The Kudu was so tender & tasty that young Will, a picky eater, ate half my meal (which I encouraged because he's a growing boy but not an adventurous eater).

When the bill came, I whipped out 3 one hundred Rand notes to cover it. Ruth & I remember not many years ago when it was hard to pay in South Africa with a Rand C-note because nobody could make change. These days, sadly for me, several hundred Rand notes vacate my wallet in payment for every meal (current exchange rate is about 7.6 South African Rand to one U.S. dollar.) 

Another change:  A few years ago alcohol was prohibited in public places in the Kruger National Park, and prohibited in cars while driving in the Park. Before then, no one cared. The attitude towards drinking in the Kruger was akin to that in New Orleans: Let the good times roll, but don't get into any arguments with the local wildlife.  Perhaps the change was due to a few sloshed Boer boors who collided with a giraffe or drove off a bridge.  I never heard the rationale for the Kruger's sudden imposition of stringent rules against alcohol.

Nonetheless, copious quantities of beer, wine, & liquor are sold in every Kruger camp store. The law against public alcohol consumption in cars & elsewhere is flaunted by South Africans. And why not?  Personally I can't imagine an afternoon game drive without a sundowner. 

Tomorrow we head south to Olifants Camp, a long drive that will get us halfway down the Park.


Day 7 - April 4

The temp was a chilly 13.5 C (56 F) when we left Punda Maria Camp at 6:10 AM, but by 9:30 AM, it had warmed to 25 C (77 F). Today I've been humming the Beatles' song, "When I'm 64." It's my birthday.

Packing the VW van for the road

The kids ready to go

We stopped at Shingwedzi Camp for breakfast at 7:20 AM & departed shortly after eight o'clock. I made good time staying at a steady 50-53 KPH (just over 30 MPH). We stopped once more briefly at Letaba Camp to stretch our legs & reached Olifants Camp, our overnight destination, by noon. The day's temperature peaked around then at 30 C (86 F) & didn't drop until after five o'clock.

On the long drive I mused again at the marvelous German technology in our VW no-name diesel van. It was designed strictly for utility & won't win any beauty contests.  Along with the familiar VW logo, it says simply "TDI" on the rear, which I believe is VW's generic acronym for Turbo Diesel Fuel-Injected. Despite its plain-Jane face, it's easy & fun to drive (5-speed manual), has a great turning radius,  & is a fuel miser. I'll have to calculate accurately when I get home, but my rough numbers indicate we're getting the 45-50
MPG.

The van has sits up high & has lots of glass for good 360 degree visibility. At Kruger speeds (20-30 MPH) the kids don't have to be buckled in, & the van is roomy enough for them to move around & have their own private spaces in the spacious back seat areas while Ruth & I sit up front. Works out well for a family of 4.

VW vans old & new

Considering today was mainly focused on driving the long distance to Olifants ASAP & not on game viewing, we were amazed at the wildlife we saw today en route, another astonishing variety: Kudu, many Elephant, Impala, Zebra, Blue Wildebeest, Giraffe, Hippo, several more large herds of Cape Buffalo, Spotted Hyena, Warthog, White Rhino (the rhino was standing on the road, no less), & Waterbuck. We also saw many bird species, including more beautiful Lilac-breasted Rollers and a dozen or so ostriches. (Correction: the bee-eater IDed in yesterday's report was a White-fronted Bee-eater, not White-faced.)

Elephant enjoys a dust bath

This afternoon we embarked on a short game drive that yielded little except seeing a Bataleur (a large African eagle with plumage forming an  extraordinary black helmet) in a tree. But so many gravel & paved roads are closed near here due to the January floods that we turned back to camp to relax & enjoy the late afternoon on the porch of one of our rondavels watching the Olifants River.

Here at Olifants Camp we have 2 adjacent rondavels because nothing else was available that would house 4 people. We were assigned rondavels 7 and 8, which sit right on the electrified camp fence on the high bluff overlooking the gorgeous Olifants River.

Our rondavel at Olifants Camp overlooking the river

Thank goodness I asked for river view rondavels. We have a million dollar view from our porches. The river is wide here & twists & turns in a lazy "S" curve off to the horizon. The rapids on the river below sound like the ocean; well, that is, until the loud, raucous grunting of hippos in the river reminds us we're in Africa.  We are sitting on one of the porches sipping an ice-cold Windhoek Lager (brewed in Namibia--formerly German Southwest Africa--according to the German Reinheitsgebot standards of 1516 using only malted barley, hops, & water)  watching African Fish Eagles & Saddle-billed Storks on the wing above the river. It's paradise here. Life just doesn't get any better!

Tomorrow we drive south to Berg-en-dal Camp.  


Day 8 - April 5

This morning at 5:57 when the Olifants Camp gate opened, we were first in line to leave. We'd started the queue at the gate 20 mins earlier in order to be first down the long, rough, & dusty gravel road detour to the main road which all vehicles travelling north & south are now forced to use on account of the wash-out on the main road. It's the cause of a considerable driving delay as well as a major aggravation (the road is full of large rocks & is well-corrugated end to end), just the sort of thing you'd think the South African government would seek mightily to avoid when marketing the Park to tourists. There's no joy enduring the bone-jarring journey along it.

One of the roads still closed

Of course the bridge should have been repaired by now. The flood occurred January 18th, which was 78 days ago. Considering the Kruger National Park is one of the principal draws of tourists & their money to South Africa, a very high priority ought to have given to restoring its infrastructure.  If such a flood washed out a bridge on the main road in & out of the Grand Canyon, I imagine our own National Park Service would have at least a temporary repair in place in a few days.  

After all, if you can't use the Park roads to see the wildlife on your self-drive safari that the Kruger is so famous for, then what's the point? As a veteran of 21 years coming to the Kruger, I knew what alternate plans to make when we found out that this & other roads were closed. First-time visitors are probably having a hard time figuring it out.

Last evening just before dusk, Ruth spotted a Goliath Heron, Southern Africa's largest wading bird, on the Olifants River below our rondavels. I've never seen one on the Olifants River before. Strangely, however, we saw only 3 elephants around Olifants, a camp named for the great beasts because there have always been so many in the area  ("Olifants" is Afrikaans for "Elephant"). We didn't even see the usual huge piles of elephant dung on any of the roads. At the camp, I asked why elephants were so scarce, but did not receive a comprehensible answer.

Family Cottage at Berg-en-Dal

This morning at dawn it was 14.5 C (about 57 F), & it topped out at 30 C (86 F) again late this afternoon at Berg-en-dal Camp. While driving down here with the windows open, I soaked up the sounds & smells of Africa in addition to the sights. There's a distinctive pungent wild odor that wafts in & out of consciousness here that must be experienced to be appreciated.

The sounds here are also unique. The constant cooing of many different species of dove provides an unending foundation, on which is laid the cackling of Guinea Fowl & Francolin & the sweet, high-pitched songs of countless other birds.

Around hippo pools, one can hear the massive brutes' funny grunting calls and responses. Zebras bray with a good deal of volume like mules & donkeys; Wildebeests grunt contentedly to each other, almost a bleating sound; Cape Buffalo low in a deep voice that a Texas cattle baron would understand. Male Impalas snort & bark in an unexpected antelope vocalization. Vervet Monkeys sound, well, like monkeys, while Chacma Baboons produce a loud, harsh bark like a large dog with a chest cold.  

Male Lions roar deeply in a long series to announce their territories; Lionesses communicate via a deep-throated low grunting roar that's memorable. Hyenas whoop in an eerie rising call that is both beautiful & scary; Leopards cough, a sound, like the lioness' call, that is hard to forget once heard. I haven't a clue what Giraffes sound like, but they must have the longest eyebrows of any animal on earth.

Some other random observations & thoughts as our trip winds down (we fly home to Raleigh Saturday night): 

The credit card machines were not working at Punda Maria Camp ("The machine is finished," they told me), & there was no way to exchange dollars (or any other currency) into S. A. Rands because the Park staff were not instructed or set up to change money.  Thus only cash in Rand could buy food in the restaurant, anything in the store, gas at the filling station, or pay for overnight accommodation. Anyone with dollars, Euros or Pounds, but no Rands, was SOL.  I knew better & had brought about a thousand dollars in Rand.

Changing money is difficult inside the Park anywhere except at the main camp (Skukuza). We noticed that a new Olifants Camp directory was placed in every rondavel which says it can be done, but the info is wrong, except at the bank at Skukuza Camp. Since credit card machines in the Kruger are slow dial-up types &  often broken, visitors need to carry a big wad of cash in Rand as a means to pay for petrol, food, everything.

Elephant family stops traffic near Berg-en-Dal

Time to back up or turn around

In seven days we've driven 1780 kms, or just over 1100 miles. It's amazing how the miles pile up even at 30 MPH. 

We drove straight through from Olifants Camp to Skukuza Camp, where we stopped for breakfast. The Easter crowds from Pretoria & Johannesburg (4 hour drives) have descended upon the Kruger for the long weekend. It was a zoo at Skukuza, but we dined & left, thankful we weren't staying there (the largest camp in Kruger).

Entering Berg-en-Dal Camp

 Driving on to Ber-en-dal Camp in the southwest corner of the Park, we saw many other vehicles for the first time, a reminder of why we enjoy the tranquillity of the camps from Satara north. And not during major holidays, either, but we had little choice this time because Easter coincided with the kids' school system Spring Break.

Ground Hornbill family

It was another stellar day of game-viewing:  3 White Rhinos (in 3 different places far apart from each other), Baboons, Vervet Monkeys, Lions (sleeping in the shade as they routinely do after a big meal), many Elephants in many different paces, lots of Zebras, Warthogs, Hippos, Giraffe in at least 5 places, another large herd of Cape Buffalo, 4 Kudu sightings, Waterbuck, Wildebeest, Mongoose, & hundreds of Impala.

And that's just the mammals. All the usual birds were spotted, but no new species.

Here at Berg-en-dal Camp we were assigned Family Cottage 18, the same one I shared in 2003 with Dan & Brandon Rader when I came with them & 5 other good friends from New Orleans. It brings back fond memories of another great Kruger experience.
The sightings board here at Berg-en-dal shows several Leopards, Lions, a Cheetah, & Wild Dogs were spotted nearby. Ruth & I look forward to our early morning game drive tomorrow in pursuit of those critters.  

Later tomorrow we go on to Pretoriuskop Camp for our final night of this visit to the Kruger. 


Day 9 - April 6

Nine minutes into our usual 6:00 AM game drive this morning we finally spotted a leopard.  The magnificent cat was ambling amiably down the gravel road ignoring our vehicle & all the other cars pacing its progress.

Leopard leaves

The number of video & still cameras pointed the Leopard's way rivalled the array at a White House press conference. We got a good look but not any really good photos. It was still too dark at 6:09 AM when this occurred; dawn was just breaking over the surrounding hills.

(Note: Normally the Park roads are not so crowded. This happens only a few times each year when South Africans flock to the Kruger for major holidays, & it's Easter weekend. Only Christmas time is busier here.)

Rhinos by the road near Berg-en-Dal

We'd already seen one Rhino by then. After passing the leopard (it disappeared into thick bush by a stream bed), we came across 3 more Rhinos sleeping on the road. We shut off the engine & patiently waited for them to rise & perform their morning ablutions (which one did, unabashed & impressively, right by the car). When they moved off, so did we.

Not 5 kms farther down the same gravel road we came across 4 more Rhinos just waking up (I never knew they like to hang out together). We were amazed. Seeing 8 Rhinos at 3 different places before 6:45 AM, plus a leopard, pretty much makes any game drive a stupendous success. I've never had such good fortune in all my previous Kruger visits. We soon circled back to Berg-en-dal Camp for breakfast, but not before spying several Kudus munching on bushes.

Later in the morning, as we drove to Pretoriuskop, we saw 2 more Rhinos (in different places), bringing our total sighting to an astonishing 10 Rhinos--and that was before noon.

This way to Shitlhave water hole

 By day's end we had seen one more Rhino (at Shitlhave, a water hole) for a grand total of 11, an all-time record.

Elephant family near Berg-en-Dal

Elephant family crosses the road near Berg-en-Dal

Peaceful elephant by the car

Our overall mammal species count was low, however. We saw a large herd of Elephants, more Kudu, bunches of Waterbuck, Zebras, Warthogs, Giraffes, Hippos, hundreds more Impala (including males in rut sparring right by the car), and Vervet Monkeys both in the wild & in our car at  Pretoiuskop Camp trying to steal whatever they could grab (we were unloading our suitcases & the car door was left open for maybe 30 seconds--that was enough for the devilish buggers).

Memories from 2003 of Family Cottage 18 cam back to me last night when Clara took a shower & reported that the shower drained slowly. So slowly that I had to take a seaman's shower. Funny that I recall we had the problem in that same shower 9 years ago.

Young Will, a picky eater, has discovered that most camps, including Pretoriuskop where we are now, don't have the "Kiddie's Pizza" which is a standard item on every menu. We get the standard refrain when they're out of something: "Is finished!".

Too bad, as the pizza is one of the few things he likes on the Kruger's limited & unvarying menu. Luckily we brought some Kraft Mac and Cheese in instant cups that can be microwaved, and we've also made pasta with butter for him several nights. Feeding kids overseas sometimes requires an agile strategy.

Yesterday, when describing some of the sounds of the bushveldt, I neglected to mention Elephants. They trumpet, of course, especially when you get too close, but more interesting is the digestive rumbling & gurgling sounds emanating from their stomachs. This can only be heard when watching an elephant that tolerates stopping very close by with the engine turned off.

There's no mystery to discerning placid pachyderms from ill-tempered ones. If an elephant wants you to leave, you'll know it by loud trumpeting, ears fanned out, aggressive stance while facing you, repeated violent head shakes, & finally a headlong, furious charge. An elephant at a full run is wondrous to behold, that is, unless it's headed straight for you. We've been chased many times, & every time it gets my heart racing as I pray not to stall while feverishly running through the gears of the diesel van.

Such encounters are not always avoidable. You never know when you're going to round a curve & come across a rowdy elephant on the road already too close directly in front of you that wants to prove who is really in charge out here. Then it's time to find reverse in a hurry & keep your cool.

Other times you can carefully pull up to & sit watching an elephant not 20 feet away that's busy ripping off & munching all the foliage from a Mopane tree. That's when you realize there's an awful lot of activity going on in its stomach. And, yes, for the record, elephants do pass gas, lots of it. 

Entering Pretoriuskop Camp

 Tomorrow will be a sad day for us all, as we make our way out of the Kruger National Park around midday back to the Nelspruit Mpumalanga Airport for our afternoon flight back to Johannesburg. Then our 16-hr overnight Delta flight to Atlanta. If all goes well, we'll connect there to RDU & arrive Easter Sunday around noon. I miss the Kruger already.


Day 10 - April 7

As we pulled out of Pretoriuskop Camp for our 6:00 AM game drive, I noticed a Baboon by one of the rondavels scanning the area for scraps. In the background a sizable herd of Impala grazed around our rondavel (nr. 135) with a flock of Guineafowl accompanying them. Several Vervet Monkeys lurked in the trees waiting for some poor fool (like me) to leave a car door open for a split second. All that wildlife was inside the camp.

Little did I know that would be the majority of animals we'd see this morning. We laid eyes on a single Kudu & nothing else. Sometimes you get skunked, & we've been awfully lucky these past 9 days.

The rest of the morning was more productive as we slowly drove out of the Kruger: We saw some Zebras, a lone Warthog, a bunch of Giraffes, 2 Ostriches, a family of 7 Ground Hornbills, & a very docile herd of a dozen or more Elephants with 2 tiny babies that surrounded our van. We stopped & watched the Elephants for a long time--very peaceful.

Impala bucks fighting

Impala bucks fighting

 We departed the Kruger via Malelane Gate at 1:15 PM and drove the 66 kms back to the airport via the N4 road, arriving just past 2:00 PM.  After 10 days of driving 40-50 kms/hr (25-30 MPH), it seemed strange to fly along at 120 KPH (a bit over 70 MPH), the legal speed limit.  

Here at the small Mpumalanga airport I returned our trusty Avis van.  we are now checked in for our one hour flight to Johannesburg, where we connect to our nonstop Delta flight to Atlanta tonight leaving at 8:40 PM.

Just read a local news story in the Nelspruit paper (nearest town of any size to here--about the size of Greenville, NC) that an Mpumalanga (the province in which the Kruger is located) ex-policeman was arrested this past week & charged as the rhino poaching kingpin. They found over 5,000,000 Rand (over 600,000 dollars) in cash, a bunch of rhino horns, & a lot of high caliber hunting rifles with night scopes & ammo in one of his several houses.  So far 150 rhinos have been killed in 2012 in Mpumalanga Province for their horns. The Kruger lost 252 rhinos to poachers in 2011. The article reports that the horns are "sold to Chinese persons.". The alleged kingpin bragged from jail that he intends to murder the entire rhino-poaching police investigation team once released.

On that somber note, we sign off for the last time for this trip & hope to be safely back in Raleigh tomorrow.



Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Kruger National Park, South Africa Day 3 Report (March 30)

[This continues a day-by-day series of reports on my family's recent trip to the Kruger National Park in South Africa.]

Last night's ferocious thunderstorms persisted until the wee hours at Satara Camp, knocking out power briefly 3 times. We kept waking up to check on the kids and to listen to the downpour. It was wonderful!


Our Family Cottage at Satara Camp
Inside our Family Cottage at Satara

Gas station at Satara Camp

Fence surrounding Satara Camp 
Ruth and I let the kids sleep in a bit this morning while we headed out for a game drive as soon as they opened the gates at 5:30am. We didn't see many animals (though we did see a lot of birds), but we enjoyed the beauty & tranquillity of an African sunrise illuminating the lush green grass still damp with rain. (Other early morning adventurers were more fortunate and saw Leopards at 3 places we'd driven past, proving once again that seeing wild African animals is all about chance.)

Secretary Bird
Leopard Tortoise
After a hearty breakfast of a sausage roll, fried eggs, bacon, stewed tomatoes, and toast and croissant with butter and jelly, we packed the VW diesel van for the short drive (we thought) north 79 kms to Letaba Camp. However, no one told us, nor were there any warning signs posted to the effect, that several roads and bridges en route north had been washed out in the mid-January floods that had devastated the Park.

Thanks to friends in South Africa, we had seen pictures in January of water 18 inches deep at Letaba Camp, which is built on a high bank of the Letaba River. But nobody told us of the wash-outs, or that no repairs had since been made.

Thus a trip that should have taken a couple of hours took until 2:00pm. We arrived Letaba after a harrowing drive from Satara. We found 3 bridges washed out and not yet repaired, which by itself would have not been so bad. However, Park officials had posted no detour or warning signs in advance, and we didn't know about the washouts until we reached each one. This caused us to backtrack many kms and detour each time.

I tried to bring this to the resident Park Ranger's attention at Letaba when we finally arrived, but discovered he was attending a conference and had left no backup. I've made too many trips to count to the Kruger since 1991, and I've always been impressed with the professional management of the Park. Until now.


Many people coming behind us this afternoon had the same experience. A lot of families arrived late as a result of the failure of Park management to post warning informational signs.

Hippos

Hippos
We nonetheless enjoyed the day immensely. I didn't expect to see many animal species after the torrential rains of last night; usually they disperse into the bush after such a deluge. So we were very pleased to see many elephants at numerous locations, as well as lots of Vervet Monkeys, Chacma Baboons, zebra, wildebeest, giraffe, impala, warthogs, Cape Buffalo, hippos, kudu, bushbuck, waterbuck, Leopard Tortoises, and 2 species we had not seen the previous 2 days: a large monitor lizard (over 3' long) and a steenbok.

Zebra
Waterbuck (all females)
Lions (from previous day's drive to Satara)
In the avian world today we saw the usual flocks of doves and francolin and guineafowl, lots of Yellow-billed and Red-billed hornbills, many Lilac-breasted Rollers, a couple of Saddle-billed Storks, some Maribou Storks, a Burchell's Coucal, and 5 Ground Hornbills (which are as large as American Wild Turkeys).

White Rhino & Impala

Giraffe by the car
Momma & baby near Olifants

Elephant in the grass north of Satara

Big tusks!
The temp peaked today at 34.5 C (almost 95 F), which made for more comfortable game drives than yesterday (we tool around with the windows down for optimal viewing as well as for a natural experience). Tonight and tomorrow night we rest in rondavel number D43 here at Letaba. We're relaxed but tired and going to bed early in order to rise early for another game drive before breakfast.
Letaba rondavel D43

Letaba rondavel D43