Published: September 14th 2009July 31st 2009
Today was my first day of sightseeing. I had hoped to get a feel for the country by taking a city tour of Johannesburg but the trip wasn't running. I opted instead for a full day's safari at Pilanesberg National Park and am so glad I did. I have had a fantastic day, have had a wonderful introduction to Africa and finally feel like my trip is starting.
I woke at 7am and ran straight for my hot shower to defrost for the day. I walked out to the lapa to find breakfast and was soon sitting in the darkened interior sleepily looking out over the gardens munching on toast. I was in my room working out what to take for the day when the man from reception came banging on my door saying a taxi was waiting outside for me. None too impressed at having to leave 20 minutes earlier than planned I hastily flung things into a bag and raced out of the door.
My driver was a cheerful fellow who insisted on calling me 'Anneeee'. We drove to a random McDonalds, met another woman who was coming on the tour, and moved into her larger vehicle while her
driver left in our car. We began the long drive to Pilanesburg and my companion and I introduced oursleves and dozed off. I awoke as we drove past a small shanty town. The houses were a bizarre mix of buildings. Some built with brick with fancy stained glass windows and fenced off gardens; some built with corrigated metal and beautifully painted resembling luxury caravan homes without the wheels; and some merely patched together with odds and ends of building materials forming only a single room.
We finally arrived at the park. My companian, Sabine, and I got out to stretch our legs and watched a cheeky baboon sitting in a safari vehicle with his hands on the steering wheel. We met Sam who was apparently going to be our guide for the day, along with two others who were at the end of a three day safari trip and kindly allowed us the front seats as they'd already seen most of the wildlife. I was lucky enough to have the run of the back seat and excitedly slid from one side of the jeep to the other craning my neck out of the window and scanning the landscape as we
drove into the park.
Pilanesburg is the fourth largest national park in South Africa, covering 500 square kilomentre of extinct volcanoes. Mankwe Lake fills the centre of an extinct 1,200,000,000 year old volcano and is one of the main sources of water for the wildlife. Since 1979 when 'Operation Genesis' brought dozens of translocated animal species to the park Pilanesburg has been home to many of Africa's animals including Lions, cheetahs, leopards, jackals, elephants, giraffes, white and black rhino and many more. A nore recent addition is the very rare African Wild dog which has been in the park since 2000. Pilanesburg also boasts a wide range of environments and is home to over 300 species of bird.
I got my first sighting of African wildlife as we drove in. A family of warthogs ran past the jeep and we spied a solitary gnu sitting in the sun. I soon learnt that I was going to have trouble identifying the various animals as Sam has his own way of pointing them out, and his own names for them all. Thus warthogs are 'The Family Bacon', zebras are 'Donkeys in Striped Pyjamas' and impalas are either 'MacDonalds' or more pleasantly 'flowers'
becasue there are so many of them and they decorate the park.
Our next sighting was of three giraffes. They were some distance away and we couldn't see clearly. They were all standing facing one direction. We asked what would make giraffes stare like that and Sam told us it might be a cat which had us all craning our necks out of the jeep trying to follow the giraffes line of sight. We couldn't see anything interesting so we moved on. We saw a couple of hippotamus lazing by the water. They looke dlike two big rocks with legs and again we couldn't see very clearly.
We drove on and someone yelled they could see another hippo, but it looked wounded. Using the binoculars we could see that the hippo had a bad head wound. We drove on and came across several cars parked on the road with people leaning out holding cameras and binoculars. Someone asked excitedly if we'd seen the lion and then noticing our blank faces told us it was resting under the tree near its kill. We backed up the jeep until the hippo was in view and then slowly moved backwards and forwards until
we'd all caught sight of the lion. Everyone was very excited by the big cat sighting and we spent a long time inching the jeep along looking for the best view between the bushes. The lion finally moved back towards the hippo while everyone watched avidly. I was rather put off by the sight. Hippos are too big for lions to kill. When a lion hunts such large prey it usually goes for the baby first. Even a baby hippo is too big for a clean kill so the lion simply wears it down and takes a bit where it can often resulting in the baby being eaten alive. If the baby is killed and the mother unable to defend it she will often lose the fight and become the lion's next meal. The lion will then eat over several days, guarding its meal from other predators.
There must be a kind of sick voyeurism to watching a creature being eaten alive as more cars parked around us and cameras and binoculars were trained on the distant grisly sight.
We eventually drove on and I was glad to view a more pleasant side to nature, a harem of zebra including
foals standing close to the road. We stopped the jeep right beside them and were lucky they didn't bolt. They stood there, doing absolutely nothing. I was delighted to get so close to them. As we moved on we saw brindled gnus, also known as blue wilderbeast and more zebra. We spied a white rhino alseep under a tree, a common waterbuck and then two hippos dozing together by the side of the lake.
We then left the park and Sabine and I exchanged a confused glance as we were sure it was supposed to be a full day's trip but Sam was excitedly telling the other two about visiting the 'Lion Park'. As we climbed out of the jeep and stretched our legs we were ushered through to a restaurant. I thought maybe it was our lunch stop but the man led us through the restaurant and back outside to two large pens that housed lion cubs. He ushered us into the pen and told us we could take photos for free. I was confused what we were doing there, and Sabine who does a lot of anti-poaching campaigning and has worked in Africa a lot was clearly suspicious
of the place. The cubs were a bit scraggy looking but seemed quite content sitting in the sun. Still, I was uneasy about the place and where the cubs had come from. I wasn't sure if it was a genuine wildlife park that cared for and rehabilitated animals or whether it did in fact deserve Sabine's suspicions. It didn't help that the man showing us around refused to answer our questions, and we weren't even sure exactly where we were or what we were doing there. We saw some older cubs of 7 months and then finally made it back to our jeep to find Sam was going to take me and Sabine back to the park and we were stopping there only so the other two could meet their new driver and move on to the airport. We said our goodbyes and then went for our real lunch break. We bought ourselves packed lunches at the supermarket and ate them in the car as we drove back to the National Park. It was so relaxing to drive slowly drive through the park, warm sunlight and a dry breeze coming through the open windows while we nibbled on bread and
fruit and kept watch for African wildlife.
We saw lots of birds and another family of warthogs. We spied another rhinoceros through the trees and then Sam saw a mother and baby by the pond so we went to see them too. Although there are black rhinos in the aprk all the ones we saw were white rhinos. White rhino doesn't actually refer to the colour but comes from the Dutch 'weit' meaning wide and refers to the square lips that enable it to crop grass effectively. The white rhino has been poached heavily in recent decades as its horn of compressed ahir is prized highly as an aphrodisiac in Asia and as a dagger handle in Yemen. The mother and baby pair soon wandered off together and we drove on.
We saw a large group of impala, sorry, 'flowers', who were all happily grazing with their bottoms to us. While the distinctive black and white stripes on their rumps made it easy to identify them I would have appreciated the odd one or two looking up. Leaving the impalas to their grazing we drove on and passed more wilderbeast and a couple of springbok.
We stopped at the restaurant
and shop in the centre of the park. We sat on the benches outside and watched the two giraffes who had come for the salt licks by the watering hole. In addition to the giraffes there were numerous birds flying about. I was particularly amused by the hornbill who flew onto a nearby table and stood between the tomato ketchup and musturd and looked like he was ready to order some chips.
We returned to the jeep pausing on the way to buy some postcards in the shop. We drove around the central lake in search of the elephants as another driver and told us they were sighted there. All the drivers seem to stop and shar information on which animals have been sighted. Sam referes to it as 'bush talk'.
We saw more hippos and a few crocodiles by the water and then parked and went to the animal hide. We walked down the pathway edged with woonden posts and finally caught a glimpse of the elephant herd who were moving away from us in the distance. Sabine and I sat in the hide and watched the birds, including a pied kingfisher who dived into the water and caught
a fish as we watched. We chatted about our previous travels and Sabine told me about her last visit to Africa with her daughter and how when they got home and her daughter was asked which of the animals was her favourite the little girl replied 'the chickens and the goats'! I suppose they were the only ones she could catch and cuddle!
Our time at the park almost over we returned to the jeep and begand to drive back out. Sam congratulated us on having a rhino day. Apparently there are three kinds of day on safari - rhino days, giraffe days and elephant days. The cats are always rare to see and the zebra and impala are always seen sooner or later but the other three have specific days! We certainly saw several rhinos today although not as close as I would like. I think I enjoyed seeing the zebra the most as they were so close and were content to let us sit almost within touching distance just watching them.
As we drove out of the park we saw something that made Sam change his mind about it being a rhino day. We saw a giraffe walking
across the road ahead of us. Next we noticed one eating beside the road, and a second one beside it and soon we realised we were surrounded by a whole family of them browsing from the tops of the trees on either side of the road.
As we left the park for the last time we drove through the campsite which had numerous baboons in the trees and a small herd of impala walking and grazing on the outskirts of the camp.
We began the long drive back, offering a lift to a few hitch-hiking staff members on the way, and a few random teenagers who as Sam put it 'had to get home quickly to do their homework'. We chatted and joked on the way home and Sam told us lots of stories about his work as a tour guide and told us lots of things about South Africa. We parted ways with Sabine at a motorway stop. She was collected by my previous driver who greeted me with 'Anneeee, good evening.' Sam and I continued back to Jo'burg and he got a room at my hostel for the night. I said goodnight to him outside and he ran
up and gave me a big hug much to the bemusement of the watching staff. I's been a really great day out, and Sam certainly made the trip for me. It's been a great introduction to South Africa and I'm looking forward to the next month travelling here.
There are more photos below