Tuesday, April 13, 2010
Under the African Sky in Kruger National Park
The safari is truly about the all encompassing moments that comprise the overall experience of your time in the bush. In fact I would rather stress that the idea of “safari” as a travel activity is so much more than an attempt to see as many animals as possible and as conveniently as possible. Instead a safari, in my opinion, should be an immersion into the “bush”, the natural and organic setting for which you will base your journey, and perhaps even learn some surprising things about yourself when confronted by the power of nature. Our bush experience took place in Klaserie Game Reserve, a private game reserve with open borders with Kruger National Park which allows animals to roam seamlessly in a region that is roughly the size of Israel along the border of Mozambique.
We decided very early during the planning stages of our trip that we did not want to go on a luxury safari, of which there are plenty to choose from in Africa if this is what you seek. Besides the prohibitive cost of these types of itineraries, and not desiring massages and Michelin rated restaurants in the wild, I am fundamentally against the idea of having such a huge environmental impact on pristine nature reserves. I also find something peculiar about “fencing” either the reserve or the lodge for which you are staying. This style of tourism should be responsible and incur the least human impact as possible, so I find something slightly insincere about the large-scale operations that certainly do alter the environmental integrity of the natural space they occupy.
We went with Africa on Foot, one of only three lodges in the 60,000 hectare Klaserie Game Reserve. Besides the lodge itself, which I will get to shortly, this was a great choice because you very rarely come across other vehicles during your game drives and walks. We also enjoyed this venue because it can accommodate no more than approximately 10 to 12 per people at any time and was operating at a lower capacity than that during our stay. This allows the possibility of really getting to know your trackers, rangers, staff and fellow bush-mates. We also enjoyed the rustic and communal style of the camp. The lodge has no electricity, only outdoor showers, communal dining, partial outdoor lounge area and the traditional boma camp fire. We stayed in a rondavel which, despite not having any electricity, is much more comfortable than a lot of big city hotels I have stayed in.
Our rondavel at Africa on Foot:
Africa on Foot:
Boma Camp Fire:
As I mentioned, this lodge is unfenced and is very deep into the bush, so wild animals do wander through. We were told by other guests that a giraffe and elephant had wandered through the day before our arrival and we certainly saw hyena and honey badger scattering about at night after our dinners regularly. I’m not sure I want to know what else was lurking around as I stumbled back to my rondavel after dinner in the dark with only a dim lantern to light the way.
Lion paw print:
This safari is also unique in that it combines the days with early morning game walks as opposed to completing two game drives per day. While spotting game is more challenging whilst on foot as opposed to from a vehicle, believe me, it is far more exhilarating if and when it does finally happen.
Learning to track animals -- paw prints and poop:
We began our days at a quarter to 5 am, followed by an early morning shower, some coffee and traditional “rusks” (think very hard biscotti), then set out as soon as the sun began to rise at around 6 am. We arrived from the game walks by about 9:30 am just in time for breakfast and then had the remainder of the day to ourselves until about 3 pm when we would get ready for our afternoon and evening game drives.
Lounging by the pool:
The game drives would wrap up at around 8:30 or 9:00 pm depending on the amount of action in the bush, followed by our communal home cooked dinner, and drinks at the boma camp fire. The time after the game drive is when you really get a chance to know your tracker, ranger, and fellow guests on a more intimate level and we met some very interesting people during our time there. Hugh and Claire from Australia are travelling for a year and had already spent 3 months in Africa. Fernando is a fellow Londoner who originally hails from Mexico City and has travelled to so many places that Antarctica is next on his list.
Looks like...wild dog poo?:
I do want to stress once again that your time in the bush should be approached in a holistic manner. Always respect that you are in the wild and are up against nature, so besides the skill of your tracker and ranger, a lot of what you see is left to chance. Most people who go on a safari understandably want to see the Big 5; lion, elephant, rhino, leopard, and buffalo. While it cannot be guaranteed that you will see everything you want to see, it is highly likely that you will walk away having seen at least most of what you wanted. If you demand to see everything but lack the supernatural abilities to will animals to a certain place at a certain time then you are better off visiting a zoo. Otherwise, relax, sit back and learn from your expert rangers about everything you are able to experience and be thankful for the opportunity.
Lonesome older male water buffalo hiding from us:
Dead grasshopper being carried away by ants:
Lots of impalas:
Dung Beetle ball - they feed exclusively on feces:
Aside from a leopard spotting, we saw everything we wanted to see and then some. Leopards are very shy, elusive, solitary animals, so maybe next time! Also, it is important to remember that a lot of the fun and excitement of these drives besides witnessing and learning about the animals in their natural habitat is the thrill of the hunt.
Relaxing under the tree:
We were fortunate enough to experience two different lion encounters, one of which was on a night game drive in a clearing that we had roamed about on foot just earlier in the day. The pride included 9 adult females and 8 cubs. Patiently watching and analyzing their movements and behavior was truly amazing and our tracker and ranger, Richard and Daniel respectively, were able to explain everything that was going on. We had spotted a smaller pride of a few of the same lions a night earlier, but on this night they were much louder and much more active.
Highlight: A huge pride of lions!
One of Lily’s most keen memories from the trip was our massive rhino experience that I believe also highlights an important and unique aspect of the Klaserie Game Reserve. After a full afternoon of giraffe and impala viewing we came across a solitary, massive male Rhino grazing in a relatively unobstructed field.
A big rhino:
We learned that, first, we took the Rhino by surprise and that second, it was unsure of how to interpret our presence. We learned from our ranger that it was a bit confused and at first tried miserably to hide behind a sparse bush, but then changed position and revealed his full profile in an attempt to intimidate us. It moved back and forth between positions of apprehension and aggression until finally tiring of his confusion and sulking away altogether.
This type of skiddish behavior was true of a lot of the animals we stumbled upon and I believe it is because Klaserie Game Reserve is not overrun by lodges, vehicles, and troves of people. We spoke with other guests who had completed several safaris throughout Africa and they also found disturbing during some of their other safaris that not only were some animals obviously tagged electronically, but they were also extremely and unnaturally comfortable around humans. Again, I prefer the more natural, lower impact safari experience.
Another highlight for me was our elephant encounter. While we have seen elephants before, we have never seen them in the wild. Furthermore, we have never seen them in the wild while on foot deep into the bush with no getaway car at our disposal. After tracking its footprints on one of our early morning game walks for almost an hour and a half we finally got to within 50 metres of it as it was stripping a tree of its bark. Hunched down and silent, staring with our binoculars for several minutes, it slowly began to flap its ears and approach us. Although a part of me wanted to stay and watch to see what would happen once it reached us, common sense and instinct agreed with our ranger’s decision to slowly move away and move from the area.
Spotting an Elephant on Foot:
I’m pretty sure that Lily and I are both now hooked. We could have easily stayed several more days in the bush and are already contemplating another go at it. Africa is a genuinely stunning place and there are so many gems to explore and discover in this massive continent that it warrants several trips over a lifetime.
The stare-down with the giraffe:
I’ll leave you with a final highlight from the safari. The lodge owns an open air tree house even further afield and deeper into the bush from camp where we slept our final night. Viewing the environment that we had roamed about and encountered during our previous days and nights from high above in the height of the tree house under the African sky, eye to eye with the impending lightning on the horizon with the distant sounds of wild dog and thunder was a truly emotive and most appropriate way to say goodbye to life in the bush.
Our treehouse experience:
The view from the treehouse:
I would also like to extend a huge Thank You to Daniel, our ranger and to Richard, our tracker. Without you guys I’m certain our experience would not have been the same.
Now on to Cape Town…