Sunday, 17 November 2013

"Kruger-o-mania" : Part 2: The Elephant, The Lioness and the Road to Satara...

And my adventures in the wild continues:

Early in the morning, we left the Skukuza Camp for the Satara camp. All those reading this post for the first time, let me state briefly, that our first camp in Kruger National Park was Skukuza and that we had an amazing day out there.

So our next destination being around 90 km away and with a little help from our GPS, we set off to the next phrase of our ongoing adventure. My husband being a wildlife enthusiast, took the wheels, while being the camera pro, I was in charge of capturing the wildlife in the lenses.

There are two types of roads in the Kruger National Park. One is the paved and metaled road where the speed limit is 50 km/hour and the other is the unpaved and gravel roads where the speed limit is 40 km/hour. Now one's best chance to see the game is through the unpaved road which are easily distinguishable from the paved roads. The unpaved roads will be shown on one's GPS as "S" Roads, while the paved ones will be denominated by the letter "H". Now at this juncture, I would like to point out that, buying a road map of Kruger is a beautiful idea. It is quite inexpensive and would be your best companion while you are busy navigating the roads or watching the animals in their most natural behavior, also it is readily available in any of the numerous curio shops in all the camps.

Now to travel on the unpaved road, it is wise to have a four wheel drive (4WD) but our experience shows that even the unpaved roads are excellent and if the weather is compatible, one can easily take their two wheel drives deep into the forest. This is what we did, since we had a two wheel drive. We took three or four secondary (unpaved) roads and it is on these roads that we were able to see most of the wild animals in their most natural behaviors.

Our first sighting was a buffalo, resting in the mud, deep into the forest. It was our first sighting of the buffalo, an animal twice the size of lion and thrice more ferocious and territorial. This was the third of the Big five, that we were fortunate enough to see, having seen the Rhino and the Elephant both the previous evening at Skukuza Sunset Drive. Then we drove on only to stop to give a lone elephant it's way across the dirt tract. It was crossing onto the other side of the road in search of fresh leaves and barks. The Elephant was quite oblivious to our car and we stood silently watching it in all it's magnificence.

One of the golden rule of seeking game in the park is being observant and quiet. If you spot one animal, be patient, soon you will find tens of similar game around, hiding in bushes. So while the Elephant crossed the road and vanished into the other side of the bush, we waited silently, only to discover an entire herd hiding into the forest and munching on leaves and barks of trees. That's the beauty of Kruger. The fun part is not in just seeing the animals. That, one can easily see in a caged zoo. The actual part where the excitement kicks in, is to silently seek the animals, camouflaged in their surroundings in their most natural behavior.

For example, it is extremely interesting to see how elephants behave in a herd. It is to be noted that a herd of elephants consists only of female elephants and babies of both genders and only those male elephants who have not yet reached puberty. As soon as a male elephant reaches adolescence, it is left alone by the herd, to seek a mate and also to seek it's own livelihood. The largest female elephant (and almost always the eldest one) becomes the matriarch and she is primarily responsible for the herd's safety.

A while down the road (this time, the main, paved road), we came across a herd of elephants intent on crossing the road to the other side. This time, when our car approached, the other members of the herd had already crossed over and the sole elephant was observing the traffic on the both ends of the road, waiting for the right time to cross. Now when the elephants cross, the first adult elephant

will keep a watch on the other side of the road, one adult will be responsible for each of member crossing the road safely, and the last adult elephant will remain on the other side of the road, till all the other members have safely crossed. This represents highly intelligent thinking and management skills. In fact after seeing the elephants of Kruger, I am of the opinion, that not lions but elephants should have been the "king of the jungle". They are one of the most civilized, intelligent and sophisticated of all the animals that I saw. So, this elephant which was standing on the other side, watched for a long while, until all the cars came to a halt, and observing keenly that no immediate danger in the form of steel vehicles are approaching, it first folded it's trunk on it's own tusk, so as not to put it into immediate danger and slowly crossed the road. She was barely seven feet away from my car, and I got an excellent opportunity to capture her in my lens.

Just as the herd of elephants receded onto the other side of the forest, a lady driving another jeep which had also stopped to give way to the elephants, informed us that some two kilometers up the road, a lioness and her cub were resting under a shady tree. We were thrilled and my husband  put the accelerators in order to see the lioness. But in Kruger, it's not at all possible to drive without stopping to gaze at the sheer number of animals and plants. So what was supposed to be a mere hour's journey turned out to be two and a half hours long. We stopped by to see a family of giraffes, a huge group of impalas, a baboon, quite intent on photographing itself, some wild zebras also extremely keen to get photographed, some amazingly colorful birds, a family of blue wildebeests... now here is an interesting fact about wildebeests...the females again consist of the herd, as soon as the male wildebeest reach their maturity, they detach themselves from the herd and roam around scanning for females to mate, unfortunately they roam around in the same territory as lions do and therefore are most easily preyed...

Then we traveled on to find a long queue of cars lined up on one side of the road... we eagerly joined the queue to find the object of attraction, the lioness and her cub resting under a shade of a big tree... it was around twenty-twenty five feet from us... one car moved out of the queue heading onto it's way and we immediately filled up the vacant spot... to get a good look at the awesome sight. I have never in my life thought I would see a wild lioness with her cub sitting this close to us and that too in broad afternoon light... I wonder how many people in my family or friends circle have had this awesome opportunity. I thank God for making me see this beautiful sight. There was a car behind us making a movie on the lioness. They had their camera on a tripod and intent on filming the entire scenery.

We waited and observed the lioness and her cub for around an hour. I have never seen an animal more gorgeous and stately than this. She probably just had her meal/lunch and was quietly lying under the tree. I believe she was also quite aware of all the cars and the interest being taken in her and her cub, and she was so uninterested, as if this was a daily occurrence. There were a few other animals also in the vicinity, but no one was coming quite close to the duo. I later heard from our Guide, that if a lion had, had her feed, she would not disturb any animal or even look for hunt till again she's hungry. Our guide told us that it is a common sight in Kruger to have a pride of  lions gathered around a waterhole and a family of impalas and baboons roaming around them quite freely unafraid... Unfortunately we weren't able to see the sight...

Our sighting over, we traveled onto the Satara camp to begin our next phrase of adventure... Life didn't get any better than this...

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

"Kruger-o-mania"... My adventures in the wild... Part 1

I recently visited the Kruger National Park here in South Africa... Oh my god, it was an awesome, awesome adventure. Not being a wildlife fan myself, even I found myself engrossed in seeking game (as they call the animals in Kruger).

The basic story behind writing this article is if anyone wants to travel to Kruger, then they can refer to this blog post for some basic information. However all the important information one needs is available in the SANParks site :

This is the site one can use for all information.

The first thing one needs to know before visiting Kruger is planning the trip. It is very important to plan one's trip beforehand. If one has planned one's trip, everything will go perfectly.

The first thing one needs to book is the accommodation. There are 2.2 million visitors to Kruger National Park each year, so it's sufficient to say, that accommodations are hard to come by. Kruger National Park has eight rest camps : Berg-en-dal, Crocodile Bridge, Pretoriuskop, Lower Sabie, Skukuza, Orpen, Satara, Olifants, Letaba, Mopani, Shingwedzi and Punda Maria. Punda Maria is the northernmost camp of KNP and falls in Zimbabwe. One needs a visa to visit this camp. These camps are like small towns. The camps that we stayed in had restaurants, take away stores, medicinal facilities and Skukuza also has a Post Office!!

In addition to these main rest camps, one can also stay in one of the satellite camps known as bushveld camps. Bushveld camps are a recommended option if one wants more of a wilderness experience than are possible at the rest camps, and these are equipped for self catering too.

At the Rest Camps, one has a choice of various types of accommodations. One can choose to stay in a safari tent (we stayed in one), a bungalow, a guest cottage (these two options are luxurious accommodations and can fit upto 10 people). One also has the option of camping and there are designated space for camps. Skukuza is the headquarters of the Kruger National Park and as such is the busiest and the largest camp of all.

The cost of all types of accommodations can be known from the San parks site that is given above. All the accommodations need to be booked in advance as one has to show the reservation confirmation at the respective gates.

We entered the Paul Kruger Gate as our first camp was Skukuza. Here, we stayed in a safari camp that was equipped with electricity, had a fan, fridge, Braai facilities, beds and linen were provided which I have to say were new and met our expectations. There are glasses and a jug also present in the tent, but the tent does not have any power point, so if one is hoping to charge one's cellphone or camera batteries, one will be disappointed. The kitchen and the ablution facilities were common but were very clean, hygienic and were well provided for.

The safari tent can house two, four or six people. The minimum number of people, one safari tent can accommodate is known as the base rate. For example, if your group has five people, then you can book a tent for four and take one bed extra. So the base rate you'll be paying is for four people, and you will need to pay for the extra bed that has been provided for. The tent for four people costs around R 700.00

Needless to say, staying in the safari camp is an adventure in itself. It's best if one is lucky enough to grab a tent near the perimeter as all wild animals like hyenas and jackals come upto the perimeter at night.

There are different ways to see the game in KNP. The most recommended are the guided drives and walks that are available in all the camps. The drives are done in open jeeps and are driven by experienced rangers who communicate with each other via radio. So the best chance of seeing game are these drives. There are three types of guided drives available: Sunrise Drive, Sunset Drive and Night Drives. All the big cats including the lions, leopards, cheetahs etc are nocturnal creatures and are most active during night and during dusk and dawn. The drivers, as mentioned above are experienced rangers and therefore provide an endless and precious information about wildlife, trees and bird species of the Kruger National Park. It is indeed extremely informative and enjoyable to listen to their running commentary while seeking hidden animals.

At the Skukuza camp, we took a Sunset Drive which costs around R 230 per person. The Sunset Drives are for three hours duration and starts at 4:30 pm and lasts till about 8 pm. One has to report at least half an hour earlier from the departure time. We were fortunate enough to see many species of birds, trees, and insects. We also saw elephants, giraffes, rhinos, probably a thousand impalas and one rare specie of baboon... it was breathtaking... as the sun sunk down the horizon, while returning, we suddenly heard a terrible noise and I flashed the flash light provided in the jeep towards the noise only to find out two adult elephants fighting each other. It was incredible. As soon as the lights shone in their eyes, they moved away from the light and receded deeper into the jungle. As the flash light was not falling directly onto their eyes, we could see them fighting each other. It looked quite ferocious but our guide explained that these two elephants were just playing with each other. I wonder what would it have been like when they seriously fought each other. Supposedly it is an extremely rare sighting.

There was one time during the drive, when the jeep stopped completely, the driver cut the engine and told us to switch off all the flash lights. The Guide asked us just to be patient and listen to the sounds of the forests. It was one of those moments, when one realizes how insignificant one is as there are so many other sounds hidden and they come alive only when we try to listen carefully. It was one of the awe-inspiring moment in my life.

Fortunately the night we had taken the drive in Skukuza was a moonlit night and the forest looked beautiful bathed in the silvery light of the moon. It was one of those moments when you really don't want the drive to end but unfortunately it does.

We came back to the Camp after an incredible three hour drive with hunger in our bellies and awe in our minds. I remember, the only discussion at the dinner table that night was about wildlife and the forest. We went to sleep with the sounds of the forest filling up our hearts and making us realize that beyond our ordinary existence lay an extraordinary world.