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Two Weeks in South Africa, 1999

Kruger Park

So, some time around ten or 11 o'clock my second day in South Africa, I was at the Melelane Gate to Kruger Park. The efficient but somewhat officious black park ranger at the gate was busy with a steady stream of others, but he called around to all the camps for me trying to find me a cottage since I hadn't been able to book one in Pretoria, since the office there had been closed on Friday afternoon. It was looking like I would have to leave the park that day since it was Saturday and all the available beds were taken. This would mean that I would have to steer myself toward the exit gates before they closed at 6, and then arrive at an entrance at 6 the next morning to be in the park at prime game viewing time, and at those prime times, which I presumed to be sunset and sunrise, I'd be at the edges of the park, not the heart of it. Later on my way north through the park, it occurred to me that my car was in effect a tent. I could sleep in it and therefore camp. So when I got to Skekuza around 2 or 3 that afternoon, I arranged to do exactly that. I wouldn't have to leave the park after all. Furthermore, although it was too late to make a booking per se, a strikingly lovely (and disappointingly aloof) ranger named Maurrie called north for me to a camp named Oliphants and got me a cottage for the next night, so I could spend yet another day in the park. At last, I had a plan.

The facilities inside the SA parks were phenomenal. I had been impressed with what I found at parks in Zimbabwe, running water, comfortable and safe places to sleep on the ground, reasonably clean facilities, and cheap prices. SA parks were a quantum above that, even better or equivalent to similar facilities in the USA, except that there was not a lot of information to be had about the parks, such as where the best places were to view game at particular times, and so on. But a stay in a SA park rest camp, even sleeping in the car, meant a good meal at the restaurant with wine for under $10, or 60 rand (unless you wanted a whole bottle of red, which itself was $10). It meant petrol, well stocked shops where you could get anything from beer to game buck jerky (like fat flavored leather, not recommended, maybe keep some on hand for Y2K). It meant toilet paper in the loo and hot running water in pristine bathing facilities.

Aside from the facilities, I was disappointed with Kruger Park overall. Maybe I'm being unfair. I saw almost all the animals I'd expected to see: leopard, lion, zebra, giraffe, wildebeeste, impala, kudu, eland, nyala, elephant, warthogs, hippos, crocodiles, birds of various kinds, and even a cobra. So the disappointment was not that I didn't see animals, it was that I didn't see the ecosystem in operation that I had expected to see.

Also, I didn't see rhino in Kruger Park. When I first visited Africa in 1974, there were 100,000 black rhino on the continent. Now in 1999, only 2,000 remained. I don't have the statistic for the white rhino (not being a member of that species, I wouldn't know a white from a black rhino; maybe there's a moral there for the species I am related to). But when I was traveling in Kenya and Tanzaniya in the mid 70's, rhino were common, like any other African animal. When I traveled in Zimbabwe earlier in the decade, I saw a few rhino in two of the game parks. I read in travelers logs in the Kruger park offices that rhino sightings had been made, but clearly the virtual disappearance of that interesting animal from swathes of the African landscape is a tragedy.

Interestingly, it appears that Taiwanese interests financed the extinction of the rhino in Swaziland. (After a restoration following a 70 year absence of rhino from that country, the last one there was killed and de-horned in 1992 by poachers equipped with AK-47's; the rangers became proactive and shot back). Now they have been reintroduced, and are protected by rangers toting their own AK-47s. Ironically, the Taiwanese government, in atonement, has helped finance the rhino reintroduction project, in Swaziland - perhaps to ensure a supply of horn for future generations of impotent Chinese? ... do I jest?)

This is the tragedy. Even if rhino are reintroduced, what you are seeing in 1999 is not what you saw in 1974. What you saw back then was nature in action on its most raw level. You turned up at Ngorongoro Crater and the rangers took you in their Rovers to where the latest kill was. You could see the lions there, still eating, with the hyenas and vultures lurking on the periphery. The herds were all around, in the case of Ngorongoro, sort of kept in this volcanic pit. But in fact, they could, and did, come and go. People were part of the ecosystem, since Masai could be seen wandering through the grass where lions and civet cats stalked prey faster, but less intelligent, than they. The park had no boundary, in the sense that it had no fence. It was a designated area in a larger wilderness. In Serengeti, the animals wandered in huge herds, moving between there and Masai Maru. If people encroached on the borders of these reserves, they still fit into the ecosystem (though their needs for security and government's need to keep the people out of the reserve and the animals away from the people would eventually serve to destroy that balance).

At Kruger in 1999, the reserve has a fence around it. And right outside the fence, the land of the fast food restaurant and motorway begins. The balance is shattered. The park is in this respect a game ranch. But sadly, it's all there is left of the wilderness in that part of Africa.

This was apparent as I drove through the park. First of all, there were places where the rangers had slaughtered an animal, and left its carcass to attract whatever it would. Just inside the Melelane Gate, I came upon one of these and maneuvered around the tour buses that stopped for a look. There were no animals around, just people and their vehicles.

On my first day's drive from Melelane up to Skekuzu, I saw no herds of animals though I saw enough of a variety of game animals to make me want to pursue the quest. I found a herd of water buffalo wandering on a hillside. There were impala everywhere, and eland and kudu in lesser number. There were zebra and the occasional wildebeeste, and giraffe. On one of the back roads, I came upon a couple of old elephants foraging in the bushes. But where were the herds? The bush grew close to the road, so it was difficult to see the animals. Perhaps they were there. But this was satisfying only in the way that a dive is satisfying when you see a ray or a moray eel, but what you really want to see is lots of rays and morays, and a few sharks would be nice as well.

I had more satisfaction driving down the Sabie River from Skekuzu in the late afternoon. In some of the turnoffs, you could see hippos and crocodiles on the river, far enough off that my field glasses came in handy. I'd bought a pair at Dubai duty free on my way out, remembering that I'd wished I had a pair on earlier passes through Africa.

To see crocodiles, it turns out, a pair of field glasses is essential. These creatures are very subtle. They lie motionless by a body of water appearing at a distance like any piece of wood lying at water's edge. It's only through field glasses that you see, hey, that's a crocodile.

Just outside Lower Sabie, there was a body of water half grown over with the same water plant that's choking off Srinigar. At this body of water, there was an animal show. Hippos generally lounged in the water, just eyes and ears, and an occasional spray of water, marking their presence. But one was grazing his way through the water plants. He'd open his jaws wide and clamp down on a mouthful, and then go underwater to masticate that, and then he'd resurface amid the water plants for another mouthful and repeat the process, working his way ever forward, the better to offer someone else among the vehicles parked lakeside a photo opportunity. On the far bank, hippos lounged, and a stork stood on the back of a crocodile. Closer in, other storks foraged in the marshes. This scene was pleasurable to observe for some time, and was the highlight of a day where sightings of animals were rewarding, but few and far between.

I slept that night in my car. It cost me ten dollars US for the campsite. It turned out that it was necessary to have a receipt showing that some accommodation was paid for on each night you stayed in the game park. The idea was to get all the tourists behind a gate somewhere at sundown, which that time of the year came suddenly at six. For people to be out and about in the park after sunset was dangerous. This was, after all, Africa.

Sleeping in the car was comfortable. The comfort was enhanced by the buffet meal I had just consumed. Each campsite was equipped with a restaurant, and at Skekuza on a Saturday night, there was a buffet meal featuring various dishes including roast leg of kudu. All manner of fine SA wines were available, so one could enjoy oneself quite happily in the evenings behind those closed gates, and all for about 55 rand for the buffet and about 15 to 24 for the wine (white or red, 250 ml).

I think I've discovered the secret of dwindling game in South African and Swaziland parks. Away from scrutiny of world opinion, the South Africans are quietly eating them (sorry, I jest again). The next night after feasting on roast leg of kudu, I enjoyed kudu steak, choosing that over impala chops in monkey gland sauce. My next night in a game reserve I enjoyed a braai of impala and sausage made from wildebeeste. I half expected to find poached ostrich egg on a menu (poached, get it? - really, I'm just kidding here!).

Sleeping in the car had a practical advantage. Before dawn, neighboring campers began to stir and wake me up, and it was a simple matter for me to just move over to the driver's seat and head out the gate at 6, or only slightly after. Defogging the windows was the only problem. We were in the last cold snap of winter, and the inside of the car had fogged up. I'd had to put on extra socks to stay warm.

Driving off first thing in the morning was disappointing for finding all the herds of animals that one might expect in morning drives at other parks, except that it was a good time for coming upon the cats in the park. This particular morning, those leaving Skukuzu were treated to the spectacle of 3 male lions trying to mate with a female, who didn't seem to mind all the cars gathered round. I observed this for a time from the main road, but observed also that if I could get onto a back road, I could get closer. I drove up and down the tarmac for a quarter hour before finding the dirt track and when I again found the lions I was queued up behind a half dozen others who had got there first. Still, I wasn't disappointed. As the lions began to disband, completely oblivious of the cars, they started walking up the road. Two males came alongside my car on either side, less than a meter from where I was behind a hastily rolled up window. I guess I've never been so close to a lion before that I could almost smell its breath.

The animal sightings continued apace. Long periods without spotting animals might be punctuated by a herd of elephants, or a bevy of graceful giraffe. At one point a lioness came trotting up a path toward me. I stopped the car where the lioness paused by the roadside, looking left and right but not at my car, as if I (or more correctly, my car) wasn't even there. Eventually it crossed the road accompanied by its retinue of flies swarming about its face, and it settled under a tree where it made plain that nothing was going to happen for a long time. The flies made plain that they were going to keep buzzing the lion's face for an even longer time. A few giraffe up the road seemed as oblivious to the lioness as she was to them. Eventually, another car came along and after pointing out the resting lioness, I drove off.

That afternoon after a long spell of driving through bush with little more of interest in the way of animals, I encountered a herd of ostrich roaming either side of the road. I saw only two at first, distant, and observed them through the shimmering heat ripples in my field glasses. Driving further up the road, I encountered the others, a dozen or so in all. I'd never seen so many of those creatures at one time. It was on this stretch of road that I encountered the Mozambique spitting cobra, though I didn't realize he was a spitter till much later. I didn't even realize it was a cobra until I stopped alongside it and he raised his head back, with the characteristic banded throat spread. It was near here that I saw a couple of hyenas lying beside a road sign, almost begging to be photographed, though not bothering to get up and pose. Later, I saw through field glasses a large animal in the road ahead of a car attempting to cross a bridge, another hyena.

Earlier in this day I had seen a swarm of vultures picking to pieces the rotting carcass of an elephant left apparently by the game wardens. It was an excellent opportunity to observe vultures, how the dominant ones kicked (literally) the others aside in their quest for the big pieces.

One disappointment with this area was the salt pans and water holes, where there were no animals. At some water holes, there might be some hippos and the crocodiles lounging if you could see them in field glasses. It was interesting to watch both animals glide through the water. This was very different from Hwange, in Zimbabwe, where water holes and salt licks were usually good for an elephant or two, at least a few years ago.

Occasionally, I would come upon crowds of baboons. Baboons are always interesting, the mothers carrying shy tiny young, the children playing king of the tree (where the king has to retain his superior position in the tree). There were also the black-faced monkeys.

I found mornings in Kruger Park a little disappointing. In other parks I had visited in Kenya, Tanzaniya, and Zimbabwe, I could get up at sunrise mornings and be almost guaranteed that for an hour or two I would see a lot of animals around. But in Kruger Park, the animal density, or perhaps the vegetation along the roadside, did not support that notion. However, mornings proved to be the best time for cat sightings. Aside from the lions my first morning there, my second morning, I saw a pair of leopards. If on any trip you can see a leopard, you can consider yourself lucky, as these animals happen upon roads by accident and then disappear quickly. Only minutes after seeing the leopards, I came upon a lion wandering in the road. Lions seemed to like roads better than did leopards, who quickly meld into the bush. Lions like to wander in roads and even back in the bush, they trot along in sight of the road as if they wanted to be spotted. (Hey, this is speculation; I'm no African bush biologist).

At some point in the park I had to decide to leave it. I wasn't sure if I should head south and down through the park and try to exit by evening, hole up somewhere just outside the park, and head for Swaziland in the morning, or should I leave the park and see some of the Klein Drackenveld area of the Northern Province, and still have the same drive south to Swaziland, though it would be on roads where the speed limit was 120 rather than 50. At a road junction in the park I decided on the latter option. I headed out of the park, but took a back road on which there was one significant elephant, so significant that, after stripping leaves from a plant he was violating, he decided I was worth a trumpet and an ear-flare before crossing the road behind my car. As is always the case in such situations, I had to stand my ground and ignore his bluff, though it always seems at the time that this could be a foolish choice, at least as far as protecting my rented car was concerned.

Next episode:
A quick drive through The Klein Drackenveld, winding up at Barberton

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Last updated: December 20, 1999