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Published: March 20th 2012
So, after our Garden Route drive ended in Port Elizabeth, we stayed a day longer to take in a day-long game drive with long-time guide Alan and then flew to Johannesburg where we were picked up and taken to a permanent tented lodge (similar to the type we stayed at in Tanzania's Selous Game reserve - see blog entry "Selous 1" for details) for 4 days of Sabi Sands Game Reserve and Kruger National Park game drives and bush walks. We took them in and relished them knowing that these were the final and still-amazing animal encounters and sightings that we experienced during our awe inspiring 3 plus months' sojourn in Africa.
Two highlights stood out amongst the many wonderful creatures we saw for the last time.
All of our previous sightings of rhinoceros had been relatively fleeting, distant, or mostly blocked by bushes. The first one, in Ngorongoro Crater during our first week of safari in mid-December, was so far away it was hard not to wonder if the recognizable (with binoculars) outline was a concrete statue placed there by the safari companies simply to complete the "Big Five". The mother with child
we saw in Mosi-Oa-Tunya Park just outside of Livingstone was real enough, and just meters away, but she would not come out from under her tree in an already dense bush. In Etosha, the grey mass that someone had seen the typical rhino horn on was a few hundred meters away and moving behind a bush. It made me think of Sesame Street's Snufalufagus - real or not real?
All of these fleeting and faraway sightings were corrected in Addo Elephant National Park. Our guide, Alan, really went above and beyond. Having picked us up at our guest house at 7:30 am for a "day tour", I could hardly have complained if he had been dropping us back there around five, which would have meant leaving the National Park by around 4. In the end, we were pushing the limits of the park's 6 pm gate closure policy, but I guess Alan has friends, because we did not even get a frown from the park ranger. Many self-driving park visitors have to open their car "boot" upon leaving so rangers can check that they are not carrying any endangered species or animal parts.
And the endangered species most
in demand by poachers in South Africa today is rhino, for its horn, craved in China for its supposed aphrodisiac qualities. Just about every rhino in South Africa, whether in a national park or a private reserve (bred for their own clients to view, or to help re-populate national parks all over Africa), is individually tracked and protected by a security detail that would be the envy of some heads of state. But still the poachers, well armed and well financed to collect the horns which are valued at $12,000 an ounce, manage occasionally to kill an animal. Park rangers can and do de-horn the animals without hurting them (for their protection), but the poachers have no time for the delicate approach. When we first arrived in South Africa a few weeks earlier we heard news stories about police accusing a park ranger in Kruger of working with poachers. The stakes are very high.
I suspected that Alan had a surprise for us when he started down a rather long side loop road very late in the day. And my anticipation was rewarded as we came over the crest of a hill and could see several herbivores grazing on
the far hillside. There were zebra, red hartebeest, and kudu. Then we noticed a large grey animal, also apparently grazing, working its way up the hill from a stream bed. Is that a buffalo? Too light coloured. Then the shape started to become familiar, very stocky, but with short legs. Rhino! Alan told us it was not grazing but foraging for shrubs, as it was a black rhino (exact same colour as a white rhino, see earlier blog for the reason for their names) with the typical pointed or "hooked" snout that would make it ideal for getting the leaves off bushes and trees. There were very low bushes in this field that would make the rhino look like it was grazing on grass.
It was walking towards us and we thought we were going to have a really close encounter, but it eventually veered in the other direction up towards the real grazers, giving us the chance for some of those "multi-species" photos that seem so unreal. One of the other drivers who had stopped to look said he thought he saw a lion in the tall grass near a tree, but we could not see it.
My main hope for seeing rhinos was in Kruger National Park, where Lucas (see our Botswana blog entry) had seen a group of 4 or 5 together having a bit of a tousle with a group of elephants. I was not disappointed.
To get to our camp from Kruger we had to drive for a few km's along the fence line of Sabi Sands. One guide, when we first arrived, said they often see game along the fence. But I was still surprised to see the rhino there on our second afternoon, as we were "driving home" at a fast pace from an afternoon game drive in Kruger. The guide/driver Lyam did not see it because he was much lower than we were in the back of the truck, and this rhino, although only a few dozen meters from the fence, was grazing in tall grass that reached to its shoulder. Yes, this was a white rhino, equally dark skinned, but with the characteristic square face of the grass eater. We snapped a few pictures before heading to dinner at camp. The next day the same thing happened, but this time there were two rhino in the tall grass
as we drove along the fence line. As soon as Lyam stopped the truck they ran away from us, making pictures difficult, but not before raising their heads and showing their full horns, the reason they are so intimidating.
After a couple of sightings similar to previous ones - too far away, too hidden in tall grass, finally, on our last night in Sabi Sands, on a game drive that was getting very wet in the rain, we saw some rhino not too far off in the distance. The advantage for us of doing game drives in the private park was that their rules were more relaxed, and they welcomed night game drives and permitted drivers to go "off road" so you could get as close to the animals as your gear ratio would allow. The disadvantage, was that when you arrived at the invisible border between the park where you had paid the entrance fee and the next private park (many have dropped their fences separating private reserves, and even with Kruger, in a co-operative effort to give the big animals more room to roam naturally), you could not get any closer to the animals that seemed so
tantalizing. I wasn't too disappointed, because of the ones we had seen the previous two days.
But we were about to get an even bigger thrill. By now it was dark. We were using a spotlight held by a "tracker" perched on a seat attached to the left of the hood of the truck. Right after we had followed an amazing leopard walking on the track in front of us, we saw three white rhino beside the road, not 50 feet from the truck. The largest, a male seemed quite agitated. The next biggest was a female, and the smallest her baby. She seemed to be trying to keep herself between us and the baby, normal mother behaviour. But the guide intimated that maybe she was trying to keep herself between the baby and the large male. Lyam thought the male was probably wanting to mate with the female, but that she won't reciprocate as long as she is caring for a baby. One baby is hard enough to look after in the wild. Lyam also said that the male, frustrated, might try to kill the baby in order to get what he wanted. That seemed pretty sad, that
a member of the species might kill one of its own, when the species was facing the toughest outside pressure of just about any animal in Africa.
I guess that's what true "wildlife" is all about!
Hyenas, Lions and a Dead Elephant
The last morning of our stay in the Kruger National Park area actually entailed a morning bush walk in the Sabi Sand Reserve. Yippee but ugh - this meant a grueling 4:30 AM wake up call! Oh well, I said to myself, go big (or early) or go home - sleep is for when we are back in Canada.
I slept badly that night, fearing missing our early start but at the required time I heard the crunch, crunch, crunch of footfalls on the gravel path that signaled our imminent departure. 'I must be out of my mind' I thought as I grappled with clothes and closed-toed shoes (that I had not worn in some 4+ weeks since our last bush walk in the Okavango bush camp on the overland trip). Soon we were whipping along the sandy, bumpy roads and tracks to our starting point deep in the reserve.
guide started us out with a spring in his step as he explained the rules (walk in single file, do what he tells you if we encounter anything larger than a mouse, no talking; you get the idea); he could smell death in the air and knew that for several days now, there was a kill somewhere in the area with lions feeding at it but that so far no one had located it. He was keen for us to be the ones to find it.
We set out in the growing light just after sunrise and walked down a track and then through the bush, an unpleasant smell growing stronger as we went on. We came up along a well tree-ed and brush-covered drainage ditch along which he and other guides had been exploring for the kill for some days and we made our way down to look up and down its length. Nothing. We crossed down and over to the other side, going along the ditchline with the smell getting stronger or weaker depending on direction. Then, to my obviously great delight we spotted (no pun intended) first one then two then three spotted hyenas. As y'all
know from my previous posts, these fascinating creatures became my African favourites and I was thrilled to see them again and probably for the last time on this trip. We followed them along for a bit and while they were neither aggressive towards us nor outstandingly shy, they kept well in front and bounded off into the brush, only to come back out and peer at us from a not-too-distant but safe (for both of us) distance. This was a sure sign that the kill was nearby - the hyenas were either waiting their turn at the feast or trying to find opportunities to make off with part or all of the prize. Making off with all of it would prove an impossibility.
We swung back over to the edge of the ditch, hearing the excited hyena whoops and calls close by as they alerted each other to the prize - we knew we must be getting close. Our guide pointed out various signs of either a confrontation or struggle of some sort - tamped down grass, broken bush and small tree limbs, dung that can only be described as 'fright poop' - you know, if you are scared
out of the willies, how would you poop your drawers? The smell was powerful and as we scanned up and down the ditch we identified the huge grey lump of a carcass with a large fan shaped ear over it - an elephant. We stepped part way down the slope of the ditch and directly across from us a large male lion with a full mane came into our view. Between a couple of sharp intakes of breath, Lyam's whispered directions to us were to slowly retreat the way we came, walking backwards and stepping carefully (now would not be a good time to fall over a tree root or something). Whew. Then we walked a few yards up the ditch line and peered out again. The carcass was in almost full view and a second male lion stepped out from behind a bush and laid down on the ground facing us with paws spread out before him and emitted what sounded more like a low pitched growl than a roar. Again we did the 'slow walk backwards' routine, with Lyam keeping his rifle at the ready in case anything unexpected (or perhaps expected - I can't decide which) happened and we moved back from the powerful and tense scene. Wow! In a bit of a daze we briskly retreated from the scene, following and photographing the lurking hyenas and vultures and continued for a couple of hours on a lovely walk but honestly, my head was still reeling from this astounding encounter. Needless to say, except for the fabulous hyenas, the only pics from this little drama are all in our heads - you will have to picture it for yourselves.
Later we learned that the elephant, a female had given birth and had probably collapsed from the experience, giving the lions and others who would benefit from her demise an opportunity and weeks of food. Nat Geo Wild had nothing on us that morning!
After our many drives and the above memorable walk, it was time for us to say goodbye to the African wilderness and head back to Johannesburg. But not before we were driven by our guide Joy (whose name totally suited her - she was a complete joy) along what is known as the Panorama Route. This route takes one though some spectacular geological features in north eastern South Africa such as Lisbon Waterfalls, Blyde River Canyon, the Three Rondavels, Bourke's Luck Potholes and the Pinnacle. See http://www.sa-venues.com/maps/mpumalanga-panorama-route.htm for more details and see our pics below. A great ending to an interesting week before getting back to civilization, a last train trip and finally (and sadly) home.
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