Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Lions and Elephants and Giraffes, Oh My!

Tyler and I had initially planned on scheduling a safari for the tail end of our trip. But with the bag confusion and some extra time in Jo-burg, we decided to go ahead and plan something instead of just sitting around waiting for Emirates to find and deliver our stuff.

Some travellers we'd met had sort of pooh-poohed doing safari in South Africa. There are wilder places in Tanzania, Botswana and Kenya. But we had time in South Africa and friends to visit in Kenya, so we decided to go ahead and book a safari mostly at Kruger National Park, a huge park bordering Zimbabwe and Mozambique with a land area bigger than Israel. And it was amazing. Definitely one of the top five experiences of the trip so far.

We started early, which would be a common theme for our safari, getting picked up at 5:45AM for the four hour drive to our camp. The company running the safari on a private land reserve that abuts Kruger, called the Concession, that had been won in a land dispute by the local people. However, they agreed to have it continue to be a continuation of the National Park, and the company splits the profits with the locals. In December, they opened up a new semi-permanent camp, including hot showers, tents, a pool and hot tub, and a lovely bar/lounge tented area. Who would have thought?

Our "rustic" accomodations

Typical scenery. Something about the trees and the grasses just felt like Africa to me

After arriving and having some time to soak in the view and the ambience, we left for our first night drive, complete with "sundowners" on a rock by the river. We wound up in one of the two Jeeps with a guy from Portland and two girls from New York City. We realized when we returned that night that all the Americans had ended up in one jeep together, so we jokingly called ourselves "Team America." Oh, and we had Melosi, our fantastic guide, to help spot wildlife and teach us about local flora and fauna.

Taking off for our first animal watching drive

One of our early sightings--sable antelopes

Sundowners in the bush. Rough life, huh?

I had been concerned that our timing of arriving in South Africa in the middle of their winter would be a bad time for animal safaris--hibernation or something like that. To our pleasant surprise, winter is actually a great time for animal sighting because there is less foliage to conceal them and the water sources are fewer and farther between, so they are more often on the move. Yay! The only downside, of course, was for the freezing human animals on the tour. Nice as the tents were, they were unheated, and we had to work hard to stay warm in the early mornings and nights.

Safaris in winter are cold, can you tell?

Leaving for the full-day safari in the open-sided jeep

The prediction of many animal sightings turned out to be true. I've just posted some of the animal photos we took, and many of them will benefit from being enlarged. We even managed to see all of the "Big Five": elephants, African buffalo, leopards, lions and rhinos. (So named the Big Five because they were the most difficult to hunt on foot.) But I was equally pleased to see a number of non-big five animals, like giraffes, zebras, tons of birds, many kinds of antelope, hippos......

One of the first sightings--a warthog

Water buffalo--first of the big five to be sighted

First sightings of giraffes--a toss-up of my favorite with the elephants

For some reason, it was really amazing to watch the giraffes cross the road

First elephant sighting, a single male

Rhinos--another one of the big five!

Poor impalas. They're so prevalent that you just get bored of seeing them, even though it really should be amazing to see an antelope!

Zebras. Notice the "ghost stripe" between the darker stripes.

Hippopatomi, with the baby standing by the mama

Huge crocodile swimming in the river. It had to be nearly 10 feet long! Fortunately, we were in the jeep on a bridge far away from it....

A large herd of elephants crossing the road. Each male would turn and flare his ears to warn us off from messing with the babies.

As we made our way out of the park to return to camp, we were a little disappointed but not surprised that we'd seen four of the big five--all but the leopard. Fortunately, Mel stopped to chat with some guides he knew headed in the other direction, and we turned to follow them to a reputed lion sighting. Though we'd seen a lioness and some sleeping lions, they had either been obscured or just lying on the ground, so another sighting would be great. We arrived and saw several males walking around in the brush. As we all tried to get our photographic proof, Mel started pulling forward to another set of cars, despite our protests. Fortunately, he didn't listen to us, because we caught a quick glimpse of a leopard walking away. We got all five! And returned to get photos of the lions as well.

The elusive leopard, walking away

One of our better lion sightings. If you enlarge, you'll see the male lion's face.

Side profile of another male lion we saw at the very end of the day.

It was an incredible experience to see all these animals out in the wild. My favorite moments were probably the close encounter with the giraffes in the morning, the huge number of elephants crossing the road, and--something not photographed--kudus bounding across the road in front of us, jumping incredibly high. The only thing I might have changed was to have more time to be on safari and see more in the park.

Sunset after an amazing day in the park

Team America with our trusty guide Melosi!

1 comment:

Tim said...

All of your safari and animal pictures are great!
Your "frozen" safari experience is so counter to my normal mental images of Africa and safaris, but it does seem that the lack of foliage helps in getting good pictures and more sightings!