Monday, July 13, 2015

Getting Accustomed to Camp Life on Safari--Our First Day

Thursday, July 9. 2015:
Hamiltons Tented Camp, Skukuza:

Our Second Safari Drive:

            The day began for Llew and me at the crack of dawn--at 5. 30 am to be precise, when we set our alarms and received a wake-up call from the Camp staff. In 15 minutes, we were striding down the walkway from our Tent No. 1 to the Camp lobby in the darkness. We joined our friends for morning coffee/tea and rusks—a little something to keep us going until breakfast, later in the morning.

             Because we had been invited to do so the previous evening, Llew and I joined the new friends we made at our Camp, Samantha and Becca Jones from Washington DC and Stamford, Connecticut, respectively, in their cruiser with their tracker/guide Ralph. They were doing their last safari drive having already cracked sightings of the Big Five which is every visitor’s dream. The Term ‘Big Five’ refers not to the largest, but to the most dangerous animals in the Bush: Elephant, Lion, Leopard, Rhinoceros and Cape Buffalo. All they hoped to find was a male lion having already spotted four lionesses and two cubs on a previous drive.

            Ralph was truly a dream tracker. He kept up a steady commentary as he pointed out vegetation, flowers, small animals and birds, even animal dung, to us. He had an IPad with him and each time he came upon an interesting bird, he pulled it up on his I-Pad and played the bird’s call to us so that we got to know what it sounded like. In his company, we spotted our big catch of the day—a leopard seated in the distance on a rock. We were stunned and completely fascinated. The magnificently-spotted animal lay in profile stretched out with its head on its forepaws. It was such a brilliant find that we simply could not believe our luck. Leopards are extremely hard to find and to come up on one on our second drive was just so thrilling. And what’s more, he lay there for the longest time—at least a full 20 minutes--which allowed us to take pictures of him without any stress. About twenty minutes later, he got off the rock and stretched slowly as he began to spray the ground to mark his territory. We got even more glimpses of him as he sat down and then slowly began to slink away deeper behind the little heightened ridge in the distance. So there we had it—the highlight of this drive and the third animal on the Big Five List to be ticked off (after elephant and rhino).More animals on our drive included more impala. Water buck, kudu, duiker and elephants, giraffe and zebra were also plentiful and we saw virtually herds of them—many even crossing right in front of our vehicle.    

            It was wonderful of Ralph to have stopped half-way through our drive to set up morning coffee/tea for us with really delicious corn muffins and rusks. It was fascinating just to watch the the way he masterminded the entire operation: a folding table and table cloth, a very neat but very sophisticated camp stove over which he placed an Italian moka to make coffee.  There was milk in a thermos and sugar and in a typical Indian stainless steel tiffin carrier with four stacked containers were our muffins and rusks. It is clear that these guys have the science and art of Camp life down to the last detail and that they attend to their duties with joy and willingness. Ralph was also very humorous and at every turn he cracked a joke or a quip or a wise crack that make us laugh. We thoroughly enjoyed his company.  

First Breakfast at Camp:   

            Back at Camp at exactly 9. 30am, we sat down for breakfast—there were muffins, rolls, delicious muesli and other cereals to be eaten with mango yogurt or plain yoghurt, cold cuts, cheeses, fruit. There was also freshly-squeezed orange juice and a tropical juice (a mixture of guava and mango juice). And just in case one felt there was not enough food to go around, a waiter came forward to take our orders for a cooked breakfast: eggs any style with a number of fixin’s that included sausages, bacon, grilled tomatoes, grilled mushrooms, hash browns. I chose scrambled eggs with a number of delicious meats. Washed down with decaff coffee, this was simply a stupendous meal and we had the best time.

 A Bush Walk with Dee:

            At 10. 15 am, we left for an hour-long Bush Walk with Dee for he could take a group of no more than four people with him on foot—so Ian, Jenny-Lou, Llew and I set out with him. For the next hour, he made us walk behind him in single file. It was a bit weird to see him striding ahead of us with a loaded rifle in his hand, but he carried it as a security precaution to ensure a line of defense in case we were attacked.

            Dee pointed out all sorts of interesting things to us. He showed us a pile of rhino ‘midden’—a hole used for defecation by rhinos. He showed us a whole lot of crap—if you get my meaning. Impala crap—tiny black pellets that differ in color depending on what the animal has eaten. Rhino crap which indicates that they are entirely herbivorous; freshly dropped elephant dung, etc. He showed us what happened to tree trunks when animals use the sides to sharpen their horns or to rid themselves of ticks and mites that are often found in the mud and accumulated after they take mud baths to clean themselves. He showed us several different animal skulls. We were able to touch a giraffe skull. I did not realize that the horns were pure calcium—consisting entirely of bone. He showed us what a leopard-shelled tortoise looks like based on the broken-up shell left behind by a predator.  As we walked through the Bush, we ran into herd of water buck and impala, but they just parted and let us go through. It was a hugely interesting experience because you have encounters with Bush phenomena that you would never have from the comfort and safety of the back seat of a cruiser.          
            An hour later, we were back in our rooms only to find that our balcony was mobbed ny the teenaged members of our group—and quite naturally too. For it offered the most prized location in the Camp: our balcony overlooked the water hole which had seen non-stop action all day. The kids in our group, Neil, Carl and Kristen, had spent the entire hour watching as hundreds of animals came in turn to drink and then slowly leave. When we joined them, we saw wart hogs, kudu, zebra (a whole marvelous herd of them), countless impala, loads of water buck and Bush buck make their way to the hole. They drank and they left and then more arrived. It was a joy to pass time merely seated on the comfortable striped easy chairs on our balcony watching the changing natural phenomenon right beneath us. How fortunate were we in the allocation of our room!

            Llew and I both took showers—another truly interesting experience for the showers were wooden cabins in the open air attached to our tent just outside our very fancy old-world 1930s style-British bathrooms with a claw-footed tub and a high back rest—but the shower had no ceiling and was open on the third side. Llew reports that he showered as the kudus watched him! A little later, I had a similar shower--it was hot and very refreshing but a little bizarre! This Camp is the last word in luxury and there are a variety of fragrant toiletries available for our use as well as springs of a natural bush called magic zuari with which the staff decorated our beds and our bedside tables.

            The entire party was on our balcony for the entire morning and it was simply superb to watch the swiftly changing scene. There was rarely a point when there was no action at all—animals came and went and jumped skillfully over the banks or tried to ford them. They had the grace of gazelles and it was simply an indescribable joy to sit back and watch the changing natural scene.
Lunch on the Terrace:

            At  2. 30 pm, we assembled on the terrace to enjoy luncheon ably prepared by the South African Camp chef, Abel. There was grilled impala sheesh kebabs with pieces of red, green and yellow peppers strung through the skewer. There was a lovely green salad, corn fritters, bread rolls with butter and preserves, mushroom and spinach pin wheels made with puff pastry, onion and olive crostini that was crisp and really scrumptious. All this was consumed with tea or coffee or juices and we had a fabulous meal. 

 Our Third Safari Drive:

At 3. 30 pm, it was time for us to leave on our third safari with Dee. This was perhaps the least successful of our drives. Apart from the animals we had seen already, there was nothing of interest to note. Occasionally we drove for long spells and did not come across any animals at all. This was deeply disappointing. Meanwhile, not to let us feel completely disheartened, Dee stopped for sundowners to allow us to enjoy the sight over the Bush as the sun sank in the form of a salmon pink orb. We were treated to a bottle of excellent red Pinotage with white wine or beer for those who preferred it and Cokes for the kids. The selection of snacks was also different: roasted peanuts, biltong (pieces of dried beef), dried mango slices and dried, sweetened, sliced bananas. Again, we were struck by how much eating and drinking we seemed to be doing.

Just as it seemed as if we would be returning home in low spirits, we started the drive back in utter darkness. Dee shone a very powerful spotlight in the road and in no time at all we came upon one of the smallest carnivorous owls in the Bush—the Fiery-Necked Night Jar (a very small owl, no bigger than a blackbird). Dee offered to pick it up for us so that we could inspect it closer and I offered to shine the spotlight upon him as he did so. We were told to keep very still as he approached the bird and then swooped down to pick it up in his palm. He brought the owl over to us so that we could take a good look at it and take pictures. It had a really huge mouth which, Dee explained, is useful for tearing apart and devouring its prey.

So there it was: The Highlight of our third drive was catching the Owl, studying it and then allowing it to flap off eagerly into the wild without feeling too distressed.  

Dinner at Camp:

            We ate well as we sat down for dinner. We had been offered two choices at each of three courses: For starters, Llew and I chose the Sweet Corn Soup which was simply divine. For our Mains, we both chose the Kudu Steak which was served with Potatoes Au Gratin and Roasted Vegetables. Our other choice was a Roasted Chicken Breast with Rice Pilaf and Roasted Veg and Ian, who ordered it, proclaimed it one of the best chicken dishes he had ever had. Dessert was a toss between an Orange Panna Cotta which I had and which was delicious or Sticky Toffee Pudding which Llew had and which was also nice. While we were eating, we were regaled with a series of jokes from one of the wait staff called Ronnie who had a really delightful manner and a very child-like intonation. It made for a wonderful meal. It is grand to be able to sit in the soft light of Petromax lanterns admiring the leaf and pod designs worked on the table by the staff whose attention to detail is simply staggering.

            Then, because all good things must come to an end, we said goodnight to each other and made our way back to our room. We had hoped to see some nocturnal animals such as big cats at our water hole but though we took a big spotlight with us to our room and shone it on the water hole from our balcony, there was no action at all.

It was time to turn off the light and go to sleep.

Until tomorrow, when we hope we will have better luck at spotting cats, I say Cheerio! 

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