Monday, July 13, 2015

Seeking and Finding Big Cats and a Spectacular Show of Elephants

Friday, July 10, 2015:

Hamiltons Tented Camp, Skukuza:
Our Fourth Safari Drive:

            Our day began at 5. 30 am with a Wake-Up Call from the Camp lobby. It had been a fairly restful night punctuated only by a noisy quarrel among the baboons outside our tent. We

washed and dressed swiftly and joined our friends in the lobby for coffee/tea and rusks before pushing off  with Dee, our guide, on our third safari drive. This involved a long drive “north” to look for big cats. Dee was confident that we would find them. We were also keen to get to a dam up north where it was likely we would see Cape Buffalo who love to wallow in water. The southern part of Kruger, where we were based, had turned dry and many animals had migrated up north in search of water. If we wished to spot them, that was where we ought to head, we were told.

            Within a half hour, the sun came up in the eastern sky--a lovely translucent pink sphere that tinted the clouds around it in pearly shades of peach, pink and blue. When we did not come upon any animals immediately, Dee pointed out birds to us. His knowledge was prodigious and he rattled off the names of these creatures and told us about their habitat, their habits, etc. We often stopped to take pictures. Apart from vultures that were everywhere, we saw lots of Ground Hornbills—great big black birds with vivid red bills that strutted right in front of our cruiser. Dee informed us that they are one of the largest ground birds in the world that are also capable of flying. One of them was in the process of eating a land snail and was using its beak to smash its shell against the ground. Another bird that we grew familiar with is the Lilac Breasted Roller, the most-photographed bird in the world. To say that this bird is stunning would be an understatement. Its plumage is made up of a kaleidoscope of colors—startling pink and purple and turquoise blue. And when it flies off, its wing span with its turquoise-black coloring is truly breathtaking. It was easy to see why every photographer loves it. 

 There were impala galore and lots of kudu and water buck and bush buck. We became so familiar with these creatures that it was not long before we began to ignore them altogether! We adored the giraffes, however, with their graceful movements, their carefree lopping off into the distance or their inquisitive snuffling about our vehicle really close to the road. We usually saw them solo but occasionally they were seen in pairs or in trios. One of the highlights of our drives was finding a group of almost seven of them together—and when that happened, we were simply elated. We discovered that although the basic coat of a giraffe may be dappled in shades of yellow and brown/maroon, some of them are lighter than others. The darker ones are particularly attractive. We used the few pairs of binoculars that we shared among us to look at the detail of these animals—their long tongues as they fed on young leaves high up in the trees. Similarly, we adored the “dazzles” of zebras we saw—rarely alone, mostly in groups of no less than six. We were particularly fascinated by their gentle movements, their frequent crossing of the road right in front of our vehicle and the manner in which they seemed oblivious to our presence. Most of the animals have become habituated to human vehicular traffic in the parks and they seem not to flinch in the slightest in our presence.    

            About a half hour into our drive, sudden interest was generated when Dee received news on his walkie-talkie from another ranger, that there was a cheetah in the vicinity. Then began the thrill of the chase. He raced his vehicle around the sand roads and, after a good twenty minutes, reached the thicket where the cheetah had been found lurking. A few of us caught a faint glimpse of the big cat on the far horizon. I clearly saw it stride sideways in profile—but only for a few seconds. It was much too far away and in almost no time at all, the cheetah disappeared below the ridge leaving us deeply disappointed at having barely caught a glimpse of him. 

            We also ran into elephants on this drive—some of them solitary, others in couples, some distant, others not too far from us at all. And then Dee received word that there was a lion sighting. We became deeply animated once again—none of us had seen a lion and we were keen to tick another one of the Big Five off our list! Using tracking techniques and the radio signals he received, Dee drove us to the spot where lions had reportedly been seen feasting on fresh kill. So you can imagine our shock and our fear and our fascination when we found a young male lion sitting a foot away from the main road to the left of our cruiser, utterly unperturbed by the number of vehicles that had lined up alongside him to take in the view. He had clearly fed recently and well—his muzzle was dark: an indication of remnant blood stains from his hearty meal. We had the opportunity to take pictures to our heart’s content from such close quarters. Warned by Dee to stay quiet and not to make any sudden movements, we complied meticulously as none of the viewers at the spot wanted to see the lion move away. In the thicket, not fifteen feet away from us, was the carcass of a freshly-poached rhino. The lion had eaten well and since he felt satiated and had sauntered away from the carcass to lie close to the road, the lionesses felt entitled to feed off the same carcass. We saw at least three lionesses on the carcass. Just when we felt as if we could not have been more fortunate, one of the drivers of another cruiser guided his vehicle off the road merely a couple of feet from the young male seated almost on the side of the road less than a foot from his vehicle. We were aghast and expected a full-blown attack from the animal! The lion did not seem annoyed—just unwilling to be scrutinized from such close quarters. He got up slowly and majestically and haughtily walked off from his position—not even bothering to express his displeasure at the intrusion on his space--and joined the pride that was still engaged in the act of feeding. Needless to say, we were all so angry that the driver had disturbed the animal and has been so inconsiderate of other viewers. In taking his car so close, he spoiled the view for all of us. However, that said, we had already had our fill of the scene and felt as if we had completely received our money’s worth. Our hearts stopped hammering in our chests and we attained a sense of equilibrium again.

            Another ten minutes after this sighting occurred, we saw two large Cape Buffalo ambling across the thicket. They too were one of the Big Five! Our safari was getting better by the minute. With cameras already taking still pictures and video recordings and with our binoculars poised to take in their size and movements, we remained transfixed. Then, imagine how awed we were when they decided to cross the road right in front of our van. Now these buffalo are among the most dangerous of creatures in the Bush and they are known to charge a vehicle with very little warning. Yet here they were—a pair of them, not a few feet away from our cruiser. They walked slowly and langorously and even cast a glimpse at us as we watched in stunned silence. This was another highlight in a morning that was getting more amazing by the minute.

            Then, just when we thought things could not possibly get better, Dee got word from fellow-trackers about a leopard sighting. That was it! The excitement in our car was palpable! It was as if we had hit the jackpot—Four of the Big Five about to be sighted on a single drive! It was simply awesome!

            Some more frantic driving followed—the true thrill of the chase. This is exactly what is meant by the phrase that we use so loosely sometimes. Dee found the spot where a leopard had been sighted—and then there he was! Up in a tree, draped sensually on a branch, one of its legs dangling down as did its thick and gorgeous tail, the lovely spotted cat was taking a nap. Its eyes were tightly shut and it was in such a relaxed position that it was hard for us to believe that we were looking at one of the rarest creatures in the wild. And here again, he was a mere ten to twelve feet on a tree branch above us. I mean how lucky could we possibly get? We took loads of pictures because we simply could not get enough of the scene.

            About twenty minutes later, we drove off and then, five minutes down the road, we met a fellow tracker in his vehicle with some more visitors to the park. The two vehicles stopped and Dee was asked where the leopard was to be found. He volunteered to lead the driver to the spot as it would have been impossible for the other driver to find the exact tree. By the time we got back to the spot, the leopard had awoken, much to our excitement, and we were able to get a fresh batch of pictures with him holding his head regally up for our viewing pleasure. He continued to remain on the branch seemingly in no hurry to get anywhere. After we’d had our fill of photo opportunities, we drive off for snacks.

            With the practiced ease of a pro, Dee set up our folding table for hot coffee that he made on a primus stove in a moka, tea with hot milk in a thermos flask and a variety of muffins—corn and blueberry. We also had a bathroom break at this point as our excursion was a particularly lengthy one.

            We continued to scour the Bush and that was when we found another sighting based on the number of vehicles that had stopped by the side of the road to enjoy the sight. About five hundred meters from us were two young lionesses and a male lion seated in a sideways pose staring out into the thicket. We were not sure exactly what they were up to but suddenly they began to play with each other as they rolled on their backs, their bellies in the air as if begging for a tummy rub! It was a very cool sight. Imagine having seen a total of eight lions in a single day! It was simply unfathomable. 

            Later that morning, we made our way up to the dam where the water levels had fallen considerably. There was a hippo, far in the distance, that was actually asleep on the dry river

bed—a rather rare sight as hippos spend most of the day wallowing in water. It was at this dam that we saw at least six huge crocodiles almost stationary as they lounged in the sun. There were no Cape Buffalo there but having seen them earlier that day, we were not in the slightest bit disheartened.

            In the final analysis, it had been wise to make the long drive up north. It had been wise to prolong our drive until we were contented about the quality and number of animals we spotted. It was one of the most fulfilling drives we had undertaken so far and we could not have been happier—or hungrier as we marched back into our Lodge quite faint with delight at the lovely brunch set up for us by the exemplary staff. 

Brunch at the Camp:

            None of us even wanted to get to our rooms to freshen up. Scouring the horizon and taking in the sightings had been exciting but we were ready to chow down. We found a number of scrumptious offerings on the buffet table: a chicken and mushroom quiche, feta cheese pancakes that were as soft as pillows, bobotie—ground beef in African style topped with grated Cheddar cheese--smoked salmon, croissants, fresh fruit, muesli with mango and plain yoghurt, sliced ham and a variety of cheeses. There were also fresh fruit juices (all of us were particularly keen on the freshly-squeezed orange juice). The tea and coffee were also excellent and we could not have been happier by our meal. Just when it seemed as if we could not eat another morsel, along came a waiter named ‘Silence’, to take our order for eggs. We were most amused! Needless to say, we declined his very kind offer and adjourned to our respective rooms to chill.

The Changing Panorama from the Terrace of our Tent:

            Cheri-Anne chose to get a head massage. The teenagers in our company went off to their tents to switch off the intercom so that they could take a nap. Llew went in for a shower. I sat on the balcony of our tent overlooking the waterhole with my laptop on my knee to do a bit of journaling and to take in the ever-changing drama of animal life beneath me. In short, every few minutes, groups of animals came to the water-hole—either for a drink or water or a bath. Some came singly—a lone kudu, for instance—others came in pairs, as did the Water buck. Zebras came in dazzles—whole groups of a dozen at a time. There were regular pairs of wart hogs who snuffled about in the mud. Rarely was the waterhole devoid of action: when no desirable animals were around, there were always the impala. Loads of them came in regular droves. The best sightings were of a number of different animals drinking together in various parts of the waterhole. Impala jumped deftly and gracefully over the banks, kudu would rush through the water to get to the other side. Two lovely silver eagles—the kind that mate for life—were perched high above the branches watching the changing panorama below—looking as if they were clad in brown trousers with spotless white shirts.

Viewing Elephant Bathing Rituals from Our Terrace:

            All the while I typed as Llew showered in the shower cubicle that was open to the sky. And then just at the point when he finished his shower, I spied them—a huge bull elephant and two smaller ones came in a group. The bull walked the entire length of the river beneath us and parked himself just under our window. He was massive. Once in his spot, he used his great big front paws to dig into the soft sand of the river bed to divine water and a few minutes later, he hit the cleanest water.

            Meanwhile, the other two elephants made their way directly to the water hole. Llew got on the intercom and alerted every member of our party that elephants had arrived at the water hole. One by one, all our friends found their way to our terrace. In amazed silence, we watched as the elephants went through their bathing ritual, one at a time. Each of them first had a mud bath—they scooped up shovels full of sand and mud in their trunks and threw it over their backs. This went on for at least fifteen minutes. Then, while the smaller one continued with the mud bath, the bigger one approached the water. Before our stunned eyes, it waded for about three feet and then realizing that the water was not very deep, it actually sank gradually into the river to remain seated in the water. The idea was to wash off all the mud and sand from its body. In order to achieve this, it sank further and further down until only its trunk was above water. It then turned over on one side in order to get that side of its body completely submerged. Then, it turned over on its other side and submerged that side as well. It was simply astonishing. When it had finished its bathing rituals—which took another few minutes—it waded out of the water, its entire body gleaming grey and shiny as it emerged.

            It was at this moment that we heard a loud and thundering noise. It was the trumpeting of a large number of bull elephants combined with their gigantic heavy legs as they blundered down the hill in a long single file. We were simply speechless. Just when we hoped the entire herd would head towards the water hole, they turned in the opposite direction and seemed to disappear in the distance. We were a trifle disappointed. However, the smaller elephant continued with the mud bath. But then, quite suddenly, about five minutes later, the herd turned direction and the whole lot of them very slowly and gingerly made their way to the water. By this time, we were all recording the rituals or clicking still pictures with our cameras. This was simply the jackpot and we had hit it! One by one, the elephants slid down the slope towards the water, bringing the cutest little calves with them. These little ones were sandwiches between the taller, bigger ones, who seemed to be offering them protection. At one point, we counted 21 elephants in that herd—of every possible size and height. This was simply too much to take in. The two original elephants left the hole and walked away as if to make way for the troupe that had arrived after them. Then, after ten minutes, quite as suddenly as they had appeared, the whole herd seemed to have been alerted to something and in unison, they made a right about turn and with loud trumpeting, they ran up the hill leaving their little ones who had been burrowing in the shallow sand pools to catch up with them. Within a few seconds, they disappeared behind the thickets and it was as if they had never been there. A good ten minutes later, the bull elephant who had stood beneath our balcony all the time, finished his own bathing rituals which had involved spouting water from the sand hole around his head and back and, as unhurriedly as he had arrived, he left the scene and make his way along the river bed to disappear into the thicket with the rest of the herd. When we asked Dee later what might have caused them to disappear in that fashion, he said they had probably been alerted to the presence or the arrival of another elephant herd, felt threatened and decided it was best to leave.

            Having viewed this entire spectacle, you can imagine that we were loath to leave the scene for a cup of tea. How astonished we were, after having just finished brunch, to find a royal repast awaiting us for Afternoon Tea: Greek spanakopita in phyllo pastry cups, spring rolls with a tangy sauce, ground beef filled croissants, cinnamon apple cupcakes. But, sadly, there was simply no time to do justice to Abel’s offerings. I grabbed a phyllo cup and an apple cupcake and raced off to the cruiser for, exactly at 3. 30 pm, Dee was waiting to take us on our next drive—our fifth!             

Our Fifth Safari Drive:

            After all the action and excitement of our morning and afternoon, it was simply too much to expect that the next drive would be just as fulfilling. And indeed, for the most part, it was rather humdrum. We had no major sightings and so were quite pleased when Dee stopped under the most splendid baobab tree in the Park to enable us to admire it and learn a bit about it. Just a little later, at another spot, we stopped for sundowners. In a trice, Dee set out our white and red wines and Cokes. He offered a different selection of nibbles and as we shot the breeze while the sun sank into the west, he taught us a new game. He brought us shiny black pellets that looked like little beans and introduced us to what he called a “popular Bush game”. He drew a line in the sand and showed us to how to hold the pellets between our lips and blow hard towards the line. The aim was to get the pellet as far as possible down the road. Of course, it was only after we’d have a good time trying to outdo each other that he revealed that the black pellets were hardened impala poop! You can imagine how some of us cringed! 

            After we had finished sipping our tipples and nibbling on our snacks, Dee put away the portable picnic table and its accoutrements and got us all back in the cruiser again. On the way back, we did not see much except for a Bush Baby—the smallest primate in the Bush and a steenbok—a very small brown deer-like creature.

Revisiting the Rhino Carcass:

            It was Dee’s idea that we should stop briefly by the original rhino carcass that we had seen on our first drive surrounded by Hyenas and vultures. He thought it would be good to see what had happened to the carcass after three days. And what a sight greeted us! The hyenas and vultures had fed to their heart’s content. The fallen rhino had been reduced to a skeleton and we could so clearly discern its entire rib cage. We alighted from the vehicle and walked to the back of the creature only to find that all of his insides had been consumed. Not a single organ was left. Indeed the bones had been picked clean and this sad skeleton would remain in this state until the maggots had finished their work on it as well.  

Bursting Into Song:

            Despite our waning luck on the last drive, we were all so elated by the successes of the day and our many phenomenal sightings. It was little wonder that Cheri-Anne suggested that we sing along the way home and we belted out a bunch of numbers in the darkness, in the Bush, much to the amusement of Dee who began to think of us as a truly sporting lot. By this time, we had gotten really comfortable with each other and were pulling each others’ legs with abandon.  

We started off with some Beatles’ numbers, then moved on to classics of community singing and finally finished with some typical Bombay songs. Dee requested us to sing “Bombay Meri Hai” on our entry into the camp and we were pleased to oblige. The staff that usually awaited our arrival and greeted us at the entrance with cold towels and glasses of sherry, were most amused by our singing and were all smiles as we entered the place. They too had grown fond of us. This was the beauty of having chosen a tiny boutique lodge to camp in. It was small, intimate and very personalized. With just 6 tents, we had the place almost entirely to ourselves and we loved the privacy of it. 

Dinner at Camp:

            All that was left was for us to sit down directly at the beautifully laid out table and enjoy dinner. Most of us had the excellent Broccoli Soup while others had the Grilled Eggplant Salad. For Mains, I chose the Duck Breast and Llew had the Beef Steak. The sauces in both were outstanding. Mashed Potatoes for me and Rice Pilaf for Llew were our accompaniments as were the superbly roasted vegetables that we also enjoyed. Dessert was either a Chocolate Pudding or a Crème Brulee and since we had each chosen one, we had a chance to taste both of them.

            The next day would also be the day of our departure and since we had one more game drive at 6.00 pm, we adjourned to our respective tents to pack up and get organized. Llew and Raghu enjoyed a glass of wine on our terrace while I continued packing. They heard a very loud and strange noise after a while which they were told were baboons again. But, by 10.00 pm, Raghu returned to his tent with an escort (as no one is allowed to walk in the lodge grounds without a staff member).

            It had been an incredible day. Nothing would disappoint us anymore, we thought, as he secretly hoped that the morrow would bring the sighting of a rhinoceros—the last of the Big Five—and one we all hoped not to leave without seeing.

            Little did we know what the morrow would bring…

            Until tomorrow, cheerio! 

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