Monday, July 13, 2015

Arrival at Skukuza and Hamiltons Tented Camp--First Safari Drive

Wednesday, July 8, 2015:
Cape Town to Skukuza
            My birthday was brought in by our friends at the breakfast table of the hotel when they burst into song—literally. Over muesli and yogurt and then a cooked breakfast of Spanish Omelette with sparkling white wine to toast my birthday, we sighed over the fact that Table Mountain was completely hidden by the infamous ‘Tablecloth’—thick cloud cover.

            By 8. 30 am, we were all assembled in the lobby ready to get off in our respective vehicles to be dropped off at the airport for our 10. 35 am South African Airlines flight to Skukuza which is the base for Kruger National Park. Our flight was on schedule and within 2 hours, we were flying right above the wilderness that stretched off for miles below us.

 Our Introduction to Kruger National Park:

            We had a driver with a ‘cruiser’ waiting for us at Skukuza Airport—the cutest little airport in the world. We did not realize the ride to our camp would take two and half hours. And we did not realize that we would see so many animals on our way to the camp. But within three minutes of leaving the airport, we ran into a herd of impala—a type of antelope that we later referred to as the “squirrels’ of the park as there were simply thousands of them. By the time we got to our camp, we saw zebras, giraffes, niyala, duiker (a type of skittish deer), water buck, Bush buck, wildebeest and kudu. We could not have asked for a better introduction to the camp.

Arrival at Hamiltons Tented Camp

            At Hamiltons Tented Camp, which appeared like an apparition in the midst of the wilderness, we were introduced to the gracious staff, including the manager Ben, who was, unfortunately, leaving later that day on vacation. Harold took his place and in his care, we were shown around the lobby and its restrooms, and made to sign disclaimers as we enjoyed a very tasty home-made iced tea studded with fresh fruit in tall crystal glasses and an ice-cold towel. A few minutes later, our keys were distributed to us and we were also introduced to a pair of sisters, Samantha and Rebecca Jones, who would occupy the 6th tent—the rest of the five were occupied by our party. Llew and I and Cheri-Anne and Raghu were placed in Tents 1 and 2 respectively—which we were delighted to discover overlooked the water hole on the property—while the rest of the members of our party were in Tents 3, 4 and 5.

However, we merely had the time to drop our suitcases off into our room and use the restroom when we had to climb back into the cruiser for our first safari which began at 3. 30 pm and would go on till 6. 30—by which time we would return to base camp for dinner. None of us could resist taking our pick from the offerings on the Tea table—mini pizzas, mushroom vol au vents, corn muffins and a fabulous gingered nut tart cut into small squares—all served with tea or coffee. It became clear that we would eat like royalty at this establishment—and we looked forward to every meal.

Our First Safari Drive:

            I suppose when you go out on seven safaris drives in three days , they start to merge into each other—so I guess the best way to give an account of them would be to describe a highlight. Because sooner or later you realize that there are some animals you will see repeatedly and in herds—baboons, kudu, water buck, zebras, and tons and tons of impala. So for us the highlight of our very first safari was being taken to a spot by our tracker Dee where a rhino that had died of natural causes (probably after getting into a fight with another more powerful animal) was being fed on by a pack of hyenas and a flock of vultures.

            Long before we got to the rhino, we could smell its decaying carcass. Dozens of vultures were in the trees that surrounded the dead animal patiently awaiting their turn in the pecking order—indeed we understood where that term ‘pecking order’ originates. The rhino lay on its side—its horn had been carved out by the park’s anti-poaching squad (to prevent illegal poachers from stealing up on it and carving it off for the international aphrodisiac market). The brown-spotted hyenas—at least six of them—were all around the carcass feasting upon it with abandon. One of them had started to gnaw on the rhino’s rib cage bones in order to create a cave that would enable it to get into the animal’s entrails. Another managed to get a hold of a portion of the insides and was swinging it from side to side before devouring it. We were horrified and fascinated at the same time. The hyenas watched us cautiously as we approached but when they realized we intended no harm, they relaxed and went back to feeding. Needless to say, we took dozens of pictures and simply could not tear ourselves away from the sight.

            A little later, our guide Dee stopped for “sundowners’ under a sheltering tree as the sun sank in a fiery orange ball over the horizon silhouetting thorny leafless trees in the process. As it is winter in Africa, foliage is sparse and the trees are starkly bare—which makes it much easier to stalk animals for sightings. Within seconds, Dee skillfully assembled a folding table, a table cloth, two hampers and a tiffin carrier from which he produced red and white wine, beer, Cokes with ice (no less) and an array of nibbles—dried beef jerky, dried fruit, a variety of nuts, savory pizza slices. It was almost unreal—a scene straight Out Of Africa. We had to pinch ourselves to believe that we were on safari in Africa—something for which we have waited for so long.

            About fifteen minutes into our sundowners, our friend Jenny-Lou went dizzy and had a minor ‘passing out’ incident which caused us to get into our vehicle and head straight for camp. Fortunately, she recovered quickly enough and was as good as new just a couple of hours later.

Before we assembled for dinner that evening, we discovered an elephant very close to our tents. Our wait staff shone a massive spot light on it and we could clearly see it lurking on our very property. That was No. 1 of the Big Five that we hoped to see before we left Kruger.

 A Birthday Dinner to Remember:

            All that was left was for us to get ready for dinner that would be served on the vast wooden deck of our camp. Orders for our choices had been taken earlier—for starters, a choice of Carpaccio of Springbok (a form of venison) or Butternut Squash Soup. Entrees were a choice between Salmon with Pilaf and Roasted Veg or Lamb Chops with Mashed Potato and Roasted Veg. Dessert was either Malwa Pudding (a sort of bread pudding with a marshmallow sauce) or Cinnamon Poached Pears. I personally chose the soup, lamb and pears—and truly they were all fabulous. We could not fathom how such a superlative meal had been conjured up in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. Those chefs produce mini-miracles in their kitchens!

            And just when we thought our meal had come to a delightful end, a waiter put champagne flutes in front of each of our places and then, to our enormous surprise, a troop of wait staff, all attired in spotless white with maroon sashes and African sola topees marched out in a crocodile singing an African version of “Happy Birthday To You”. The first chap had a chocolate cake in his hand that was lit with a single candle. There was clapping and singing and dancing as they encircled our table and then placed the cake in front of me. Meanwhile, another waiter popped the bottle of champagne and began to fill our glasses with the bubbly. It was so charming because it was so unexpected! What an incredible moment—to be in the middle of the African Bush on a safari and to be celebrating a birthday with some of our closest friends. That was simply the highlight of my day for I felt thoroughly pampered and spoiled. Of course, we took many pictures and some fine video as the cake was cut, sliced, served and eaten.

            The next morning, we were told, we would get Wake Up calls at 5. 30 am for the 6.00 am safari departure. There was no point in lingering as we could not wait to get back to our room to unwind and get ready for bed. As if the excitement of my birthday celebration was inadequate, both Llew and I were woken up during the night by the loud roaring of lions at the waterhole beneath our balcony! Just imagine, if you can, how that made us feel! It was simply too exciting and chilling for words.

            What a day! What a birthday! This was certainly one to remember!  
             Until tomorrow, Cheerio!  

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