Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Our Last Day at Kruger National Park--Sixth and Seventh Safari Drives

Saturday, July 11, 2015:

Our Sixth Safari Drive:

            Waking up at 5. 30 am has become routine by now and we know the drill.  Wake up Call, hasty washing and dressing and racing off to Lodge Lobby for milky coffee and rusks, a quick clamber into the cruiser—and off we go!

            This morning, our tracker Dee is a Man On A Mission—he is determined to show us rhinos (live ones—not the dead poached variety that we have seen on two occasions being scavenged on). We are ebullient in spirits. We are keen to tick off all five of the Big Five from our To See List!

            The morning is glorious as all mornings in the Bush are. We set out in darkness, but within a half hour, color tinges the eastern horizon and we stop to take pictures of the lovely Bush sunrises—each slightly different from the one that went before. Fierce debate follows: are sunrises or sunsets prettier in the Bush? We agree that sunrises are better in the morning, sunsets better in the evening! You see—we are a wisecracking group!

            But while we joke and quip, Dee is hard at work. Ever the vigilant tracker, he stops frequently to examine poop on the side of the road. And footprints. Where our eyes see the merging of many, he is able to distinguish one set from the next. He informs us that a leopard went past a few hours ago. Or that hippos ambled along in a certain patch before disappearing into the undergrowth. By this stage in the game (pun unintended!), we have become familiar with and freely use terms like “fresh catch”, “fresh kill”, “fresh prints”, “fresh dung”.  Dee explains that hippos tend to use man-made asphalt and mud roads in the Bush but that they skitter off at the slightest sign of humans approaching as they now associate vehicles with poachers who carry AK 47s—dangerous Kalishnikovs that aim to kill. Rhino horn now fetches $60,000 per kilo in the international market—and each horn on an average weighs 4-5 kgs. Which is why rhinos’ heads are always weighed down! Attempting to end poaching, South Africa and Kruger National Park have banned the use of walkie-talkies and other forms of GPS signaling to alert trackers to rhino sightings—as these messages are intercepted by poachers who then arrive at the scene, do the dirty deed and make off with the booty. It is simply disgusting. Whereas the rhino population in Kruger used to be several thousands, it is estimated that today there are no more than 6,000 in the wild. We are horrified. These statistics make the sighting of rhinos a very rare occurrence today and although Dee is optimistic that he will not send us home disappointed (today is our last day in the Bush!), we are beginning to lose hope.

            And then there they are! We come upon them so suddenly that they seem like a mirage—a mother rhino with her young one. In other words, we see not just that rarity—one rhino—but two! Our excitement knows no bounds. They are a shy couple and they hide for cover behind a bush. Fortunately, the bush is stripped of its usual summer foliage and this winter sighting makes it easy for us to zoom in with our cameras and take pictures. The mother is clearly protective of her baby—she keeps him determinedly behind her and her girth provides very effective cover. Still, we are thrilled. Dee is exulting in his seat, his hand thrown high in the air as he says, “Rhinos, Guys. I give you rhinos!” We showered him with praise. He has come through splendidly and his sense of fulfillment at tracking rhinos (through footprints and dung) and finding them knows no bounds. We are now ready to return to our banal lives back in the States for we have ticked off the Big Five from our List. The sense of triumph in the car is palpable. Five minutes later, the mother rhino has bundled off her young and gone far away from the road leaving us to admire the pictures we took and the video footage we shot.

            The rest of our drive is pretty uneventful by comparison. We see them all: elephants, hippos, giraffes, zebras and, of course, the lesser desirable ones such as kudu, bush buck, water buck and countless impala. We stop for morning coffee as the picnic table is deftly set up. We nibble on rusks and sip our warming coffee as we photograph the sunrise.

            And then just when it seems as if nothing can get better for us, Dee receives word about the sighting of a leopard really close to our Lodge. He bundles us all back in the cruiser and the chase begins, in earnest. Messages fly fast and furious on the radio systems and within fifteen minutes, Dee is at the scene. Imagine if you can what sort of mood and sentiment existed in our vehicle as we slowly went “off road” (permissible within Hamiltons’ concession) and skirted slowly around  the most gorgeous leopard—a young chap nicknamed Wabaeeza or The Naughty One by the local population of Kruger. Dee stops merely three feet away from the animal who crouches in the shrubbery. He is hungry. He has reportedly been stalking impala in the area and has been unsuccessful. We are afraid he will mistake us for his next meal. Dee is confident he will behave. He informs us that trackers at Kruger have worked for months to get Wabaeeza accustomed to the sound of vehicles and their revving and their close approach and stopping. He is now conditioned enough not to get agitated, to attack or to slink off into the undergrowth when cruisers approach. Ralph, Hamiltons’ other tracker, is also on the scene in a vehicle with his charges. Dee warns us not to make a sound—there is pin-drop silence in our cruiser. He warns us not to move—we are petrified statues! The leopard is still only three feet away from us on the ground. One more vehicle approaches—driven by Sean, another Hamiltons’ tracker, who has a couple of visitors in his vehicle. Wabaeeza is not too perturbed, but he chooses to show off his moves—he gets up and stretches lazily. Then he takes a stroll right behind our vehicle, much to our combined fear and delight. A few feet later, he stops again, finds himself a more comfortable spot and squats down. Dee loses no time. He revs up the engine of our cruiser and makes a quick half circle around a bush before bringing us face to face with the leopard, about three feet away from us. Once again, we cannot believe our luck. We have seen a total of three leopards—that most elusive of creatures—on this safari and it seems as if our cup runneth over.

 Back to Camp for Breakfast:

            There is heightened elation as we return to Camp for breakfast—beautifully laid out and enticing. We start with freshly squeezed orange juice. I have fallen hard for the muesli concocted by Abel. I eat it with mango yoghurt. I cannot get enough of it. When I praise Abel for his handiwork, he offers to give me the recipe and then sends me home with a small package of the mixture. I intend to try it out when I get back to the States.

            We are informed that the cooked Breakfast Special is Scrambled Eggs with Bacon and Roasted Cherry Tomatoes served on Toast. I opt for it and everyone else does too. It is delicious. There are cold cuts and croissants, freshly-baked muffins and preserves, fruit and cheese on the buffet table. We have eaten well and enormously for the past three days and have been pampered hand and foot by the attentive staff at this five-star resort. We are loath to return to our packing and the rest of our lives.

            But go we must. We return to our rooms to do last-minute packing because most of us were clever enough to pack the previous evening.  We take last-minute pictures of the place and its people. We want to etch in our memories this glorious vacation which we all agree ranks at the very top of the amazing travels we have done in our lifetime. The staff is present all around to sing us off—they dance, they clap, they encircle us. Harold, the manager, is the ring leader. He is a large man with a lovely happy smile. He takes pictures of us in front of the spreading baobab tree and later presents it in a souvenir folder to each of us. How marvelous!

            Finally, after tipping our staff and saying goodbye to Dee, who has been a tracker and guide par excellence, our luggage is loaded in the trailer that follows our cruiser. Kruger and the Lodges have it all done to an art form—five-star living while retaining the unspoiled natural feeling of being in the wild. With a last regretful look behind and a final wave at the staff that have assembled on the porch—in the style of Downtown Abbey but with an African Bush twist--we are sent off in right royal style. It has been lovely and while some of us say that it is unlikely we will return as the world is too large and we have much of it left to explore and discover, others say they will return for they have had the time of their lives.        

Our Seventh and Last Safari Drive:                

            By this stage in the game, we had expected to have a few animal sightings on our long drive through the Bush to Skukuza airport. And indeed we did see plenty—but most were of the pedestrian variety—impala and kudu and bush buck. Some excitement was generated when we came across zebras and giraffes. And then in the distance, we paused because we ran into a long line of Cape Buffalo heading off somewhere to the left of us. Photo ops galore were presented to us and we clicked quickly or watched their progress through our binoculars. A little later, our driver pointed out a herd of hippos to us—at least a dozen of them, lying prostrate in a dry river bed. And then, again quite suddenly, our driver stopped to point out two more rhinos to us—again, a mother and baby. Perhaps the same ones we had seen that morning? Possible but also unlikely as we were a long way away from the site of our morning’s sighting. How ironic that Dee had to do so much careful and skillful tracking to find us two rhinos and then, without any such training to credit him, our driver calmly pointed out two more! One cannot control nature and one cannot predict what the quality of sightings will be like in the wild. We had met many visitors who had wonderful stories to tell of animals they had encountered—but almost invariably, there was something missing. One mother and daughter traveling together had never managed to find a leopard. Samantha and Becca had seen everything except a male lion. We had seen it all! How lucky were we!        

Departure from Skukuza to Johannesburg and from Johannesburg to London:

            We arrived eventually at Skukuza airport that serves Kruger National Park. We went through formalities with no hassles at all and boarded the cutest little toy plane in a toy airport. We picked up souvenirs from the airport stall and charged our phones at the ultra-modern, ultra- convenient airport and then we were off. It was a very short flight to Johannesburg and before we quite knew it, we were in Johannesburg airport looking for our respective connecting flights. Our friends said goodbye to us after we’d each purchased Amarula crème liqueurs from the duty free shops and then Llew and I were off to a pizzeria to enjoy pizzas and lattes before boarding our 8. 10 pm flight to London.

            This time round, we did not get seats in a row to enable us to stretch out, but we each managed about four hours’ sleep on a red eye flight and looked forward to touching down on the morrow at Heathrow.

            Our African safari had come to an end. It had been the trip of a lifetime and we had not been disappointed.

            Until tomorrow, when we hope to awake in London, cheerio!

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