Dec 10th, 2000, 8 pm
Safari in Kruger National Park – In search of the Big 5
Walt Disney created Disneyland, a magical place where dreams could come true. Well, today one of my childhood dreams has been realized and I’m in the polar opposite. Like many kids, I was fascinated by wild animals and dreamed of going on safari. My interest in animals, especially those in Africa, was reborn in secondary school after my uncle lived and taught in Tanzania for six years. He resided just a few kilometers from the edge of the Serengheti National Park, home of the famous wildebeest migration.
Anyway, where am I? I’m in Kruger National Park, South Africa’s largest. I’ve left my base in Johannesburg and joined a small, private four-day safari tour. Mary, our guide, has been showing people through Kruger for over twenty years. We are also joined by her son whose returned from the U.S. for an extended Christmas and New Year break. He’s studying to become a heptologist (study of snakes), so his knowledge will certainly be of great use.
Yesterday was 38℃, so today begins with a 3:30 wake-up call to avoid the heat and to hit the trails before sunrise in search of “the Big 5”. This term refers to elephant, giraffe, rhinoceros, leopard and lion, considered by many guides and safari-takers alike to be the most attractive animals to observe. Before breakfast we searched some open savannah, having hoped to spot some large predators (cats or hyenas) hunting or feasting on a carcass.
Luck wasn’t on our side, however, we did see as many as 40 elephants walking along a road. The structure of the herd was quite fascinating, with leaders at the head and rear giving instructions about potential danger, the correct route or sources of food. It was reminiscent of a school excursion, where teachers are stationed at the front and back of class groups to guide and protect their students.
Our next target was some low, rocky hills on the grassland, but again we found little due to the extreme heat. This all changed just before lunch when we had an interesting and potentially dangerous encounter with a brash, young bull elephant. He was standing on the road and not willing to budge for cars or trucks. Mary stopped our 4WD truck about 80m from him, but he clearly senses danger.
Ignoring the tour guide’s requests to keep our limbs inside the truck at all times, a German honeymooner and I hung out the windows in search of a great photo. The young bull turned and walked slowly toward to us, his large ears standing upright in a show of aggression. We didn’t move, so his pace quickened slightly, his behavior now more threatening. Mary remained cool, calm and collected, quietly reversing the truck to avoid further aggravation and a potential charge by the powerful elephant. She’s a true pro.
After lunch we focused on some wooded areas and it paid immediate dividends. Mary spotted something beyond the first bunch of trees and stopped driving. Seconds later, a pack of hunting dogs appeared and Mary went nuts. They are rarely seen, and despite her frequent visits here, she hasn’t seen them for years. Even better, we witnessed the pack hunting a herd of impalas. The dogs are thin and weak-looking but have amazing stamina, chasing their prey until it reaches a point of exhaustion and accepts its fate.
Things soon quietened down as the animals hid from the blazing afternoon sun which pushed temperatures to near 40 degrees. Mary suggested that we call it a day, and our agreement was unanimous. We arrived at the lodge at about 3:30pm. My room has a king-size bed, outside there’s a pool, a spa and a restaurant. It can only be described as gorgeous. And although it is expensive, I may never get this chance again.
After a quick swim and chat by the pool, a refreshing shower, a first-class dinner, and a couple of beers, it’s now time for bed. And it’s only 8pm! It’s been a taxing but rewarding day. While two of the Big 5 have managed to evade us, there’s always tomorrow. Won’t be dreaming about anything tonight; I’m exhausted!
(C) Paul Johnson and Johnson English Service