Sunday, May 26, 2013

South Africa - Kruger NP and Drakensberg (2012)

After spending a few days in Blyde River Canyon, we made the short drive to Kruger National Park.  This is one of the oldest and largest game reserves in Africa, extending 220 miles from north to south and averaging about 40 miles wide.  We entered the park on the southwest side at the Phabeni Gate.  Neither of us had been on safari before so we weren’t sure what to expect.  We checked in at the gate and got some information and a map. 

Within the park, there are 21 rest camps, as well as several high-end private safari lodges, which were way out of our price range. The rest camps are surrounded by an electric fence with a guarded gate where you can come and go.  This keeps most of the animals out, but some of the smaller ones and especially the baboons are still able to make it inside.  The gates generally open around 5:30 am and close at 6:30 pm.  You have to be in before they close, or they charge you a large fee to open them back up. 

Within the rest camps, there are various types of lodging, from campsites to small huts.  Located throughout the camps are communal bathrooms with showers and communal cooking stations.  The two camps that we stayed in where the largest in the park and had the most amenities, including a restaurant, grocery store and a gas station. 

Our first camp was Skukuza, where we stayed in a safari tent.  The tents were on cement slabs, with two single beds and a small refrigerator inside.  Ours was along the perimeter of the camp, with our braai (Afrikaans word for barbecue) right by the fence.  Each night, a pack of hyenas prowled along the outside of the fence, smelling the meat on the grill.  There are signs everywhere to not feed the animals, but I’m sure some people have ignored those warnings.  It was unnerving to have such a dangerous animal so close, staring back at you a few feet away through the fence.  And the noises these animals made were bizarre.  We now know where the expression “laugh like a hyena” comes from.

Skukuza rest camp

For those who aren’t staying at one of the high-end private safari lodges, there are a couple of ways to see the park.  You can drive around in your car, or you can sign up for one of the organized tours in a big safari jeep led by park rangers.  The tours are inexpensive, and you have the advantage of an experienced guide, a much higher viewing platform (compared to our tiny rental car), and a group of people to help spot the animals.  We decided to try a tour once and signed up for the early morning one that left at 4 am.  It was interesting to go with a guide, but we didn’t do any better in terms of spotting animals and found that we preferred to just drive around on our own. 

Doing a self-drive tour involves cruising down the many paved and dirt roads that wind through the park at about 10 – 15 mph.  When you spot an animal and you want to stop for a while and watch it, you can pull over to either side.  Since traffic is moving so slowly, it isn’t a problem to be in the wrong lane and if there is a good spotting, it isn’t uncommon to have 10 cars lumped together pointed all different directions and blocking the road.  There are speed limits in the park at 45 kph (28 mph) for paved roads and 35 kph (22 mph) for dirt roads, and they are strictly enforced.  This is a good thing as drivers are often looking off into the bush and not always in their own lane.  It is also good because animals could jump in front of your car, or maybe they are just sitting or napping in the middle of the road. 

animal crossing

While out of the gated camps, you aren’t allowed to get out of your car for obvious safety reasons.  In fact, if you have a flat tire, you are supposed to just wait for another car to come by and have them send word to the park rangers at a nearby camp, who will come help and keep watch.  There was one area that you were allowed to leave your car on the south side of the park on the Crocodile River.  We came down to look for a pride of lions that were reportedly spotted in the area and saw that there was a viewing area.  There was a ranger perched up the hill on a rock that whistled at us and waved us up.  We nervously got out of the car and walked up to the viewpoint.  The ranger had a gun, which looked more like an antique than something capable of taking down a lion.  There were nice views from up on the rock, and the ranger pointed out the crocodiles and hippos in the water below and some paintings in the rocks that were left years ago by the San Bushman.

For most of our stay in the park, we rose early in the morning and stopped by the camp headquarters.  Here they had two big maps of the park where people would mark the animals seen during the day with colored magnets.  One map was for the current day and the other for the previous day.  We mainly looked to see where the big cats were spotted and then planned our route around that.  We left the camps as soon as the gates opened, returning for a few hours during the hottest part of the day, and heading back out for the afternoon.  This was because you more likely to spot the animals during the cooler morning and early evening, and it was really hot driving around in the middle of the day.   

One of the carry overs from the old safari days, which were primarily trophy-hunting expeditions, is the notion of the “big five” animals.  These are the elephant, buffalo, rhino, lion and leopard.  It is a goal of most of people who go on a safari to check these off the list.   We saw our first one within minutes of driving into the park when a herd of elephants were eating along the side of the road.  They were huge and left a trail of demolished trees and bushes in their wake.  There are nearly 12,000 elephants in the park, and they were very easy to spot.  This is the world’s largest land animal and probably the most intimidating when you are sitting next to them in a car that is smaller than they are.  It’s not common, but they can be aggressive, and we had an encounter with one that was walking down the side of the road.  We tried to pass it, but it wouldn’t let us.  As we got closer, it turned around and blocked the whole road, raising its trunk and stomping its feet.  We did a u-turn and headed back the other direction.   

About an hour after spotting the elephants, we came across a large herd of buffalo crossing the road.  We were only a couple hours in the park, and we had already seen two of the big five. This was another animal that we saw quite a bit throughout the park, usually when a very large herd was crossing the road, one or two at a time.  We often had to wait for over 30 minutes for the whole herd to get through.  This was also an animal that you don’t want to rush, as they can be temperamental and have been known to charge cars.  It was really interesting to see them around the watering hole during the heat of the day when they roll around and emerge covered in a thick coat of mud to keep cool.

There are two kinds of rhinoceros in the park – the white and black.  They are both actually a similar color, but the white rhino has a wide mouth that is better suited for grazing and the black rhino has more of a V-shaped mouth that is better for plucking twigs.  We saw about a dozen white rhinos, but no black rhinos.  Both types are still being poached today, as their horns are believed to be an aphrodisiac and fetch a large amount of money in Asia.  There are only a few hundred of the black rhinos left in the world, and they are considered critically endangered. The park service is doing what they can to stop poaching, using helicopters and apparently drones to help spot the poachers.  While we were there, it seemed that poachers had been spotted, as a helicopter flew over us, very close to the ground.  Shortly after, a truck filled with dogs and machine gun wielding police passed us at about five times the speed limit.     

The big cats are probably the most exciting of the animals to see and the most difficult to spot.  They are mostly nocturnal, and it didn’t help that we visited during the summer when the bush is at its most dense.  They eluded us for several days, and our first spotting was three lions napping on the far end of a waterhole. Then a couple days before we left, we were lucky to see four cars stopped in the road just as we left the camp at 6 am.  We pulled up and parked but couldn’t see anything.  People in another car told us there were four lions in the bush, and a few minutes later two of them emerged right in front of us.  They wandered through the parked cars like a couple of exhibitionists, stretching and yawning and then laid down in the middle of the road for a nap.  We watched them for about thirty minutes before they headed back into the bush and out of view.  

Halfway through our stay, we had a stretch of good luck and saw four different leopards.  The first had just dragged its kill (an impala) up into a tree about 100 ft from the road and was having lunch.  These cats can drag prey up to three times their weight up into the canopy, keeping it out of reach of other predators.  There were at least twenty cars backed up trying to get a look.

An hour later, we were driving down the road, and Andrew spotted another leopard lounging in a tree, this one much closer to the road.  Being the first to see it, we had a prime spot to take some pictures as he slowly stood, stretched, and climbed down from the tree.

The following morning, we drove the same road, and yet another leopard came walking out of the bush right in front of our car.  It slowly walked by, fixing his eyes on Andrew as he frantically snapped pictures.  As it passed within a few feet of the car, he had to put the camera down and roll up the window.  Later that day, we could hardly believe our luck when we happened upon another leopard sitting on the side of the road.  While leopards are generally solitary animals that don’t make much noise, this one seemed to be injured and made a strange moaning/howling sound.

The most prevalent animal in the park is the antelope.  These are similar to deer, except that instead of seasonal antlers, they have permanent horns.  There are quite a few different antelope in the park and we saw waterbuck, the beautiful greater kudu, blue wildebeest, the small klipspringer and many impala.  In fact, there are around 1.5 million impala alone in Kruger.  After a few days, we rarely stopped when we saw antelope.   

blue wildebeest, greater kudu, impala, klipspringer, waterbuck
Besides the big five and antelope, there are a wide variety of other animals in the park.  In fact there are 147 specials of mammals in the park alone.  Di’s favorite animal was the giraffe, and we saw them just about every day.  We also enjoyed seeing the zebras, which were also prevalent and provided some entertainment with their spastic gait.   We usually spent about an hour parked in front of one of the waterholes every day and watched the hippos, crocodiles and other animals drinking and taking a dip to cool off.  There were also plenty of monkeys, baboons, warthogs and giant lizards to name a few.  The only thing that we really wanted to see and didn’t was the cheetah. 

common hippopotamus

Burchell's zebra

southern giraffe

chacma baboon

leopard tortoise, Nile crocodile, Nile monitor, vervet monkey, warthog, lizard

Before we came to the park, we didn’t even think about the birds that we would see, but Kruger is a birdwatcher’s paradise.  We saw a yellow-billed hornbill eating a big hairy spider, vultures picking at the leftover remains of an antelope, and eagles perched on top of trees looking for prey.  We saw ostriches as well as many other brightly colored small birds.  There are reportedly 517 species of birds in Kruger National Park alone.   

brown-hooded kingfisher, crested barbet, pied kingfisher, ostrich, yellow-billed hornbill, helmeted guineafowl, tawny eagle

oxpeckers on an impala
One of the more interesting birds that we saw quite regularly was the oxpecker.  These birds sit on animals and eat parasites off of them.  We saw them on rhinos, giraffes, antelopes and zebras. 

Our last night in Kruger brought a spectacular thunderstorm with lots of lightning and heavy rain, ending our drive a bit early.  The next morning, we reluctantly left the park and headed south.  Our safari trip was the highlight of our visit to South Africa.  It is a completely different experience seeing these animals in the wild.  We probably won’t have much interest in going to zoos after this.

After spending so many hours in the car during the previous week, we were looking forward to our next stop in the Drakensberg Mountains.  This is South Africa’s highest mountain range, and there are several national parks within it.  Our first stop was the Royal Natal National Park.  The main attraction here is the Amphitheatre, which is a crescent-shaped wall four miles wide and nearly 5,000 feet high.  The top of the wall is over 10,000 ft above sea level.

We stayed at the Thendele Rest Camp, which is situated on the side of a mountain opposite the Amphitheatre.  The views from the patio of our chalet were stunning, facing out over the park.  As we enjoyed our morning coffee, guineafowl pecked around looking for scraps, while baboons ran from chalet to chalet doing the same.  The wild life in South Africa seems to be plentiful everywhere.

While there, we attempted to hike from our lodge to the top of the Amphitheatre. The first section was a bit challenging, but the views all along the way were spectacular.  On one section called “the crack”, we climbed up a rocky cliff through a series of rope ladders, passing directly under a waterfall, bringing us up to the top a ridge.  From here, it was gentler slopes, with grassy fields and lots of wildflowers.

It took five hours to reach the ranger station near the ridge of the Amphitheatre.  From here the trail continues along the ridge sometimes leaving South Africa and entering the neighboring Kingdom of Lesotho.  The gate attendant told us it was another two hours to reach the top of Tugela Falls.  This is where the Tugela River plunges 3,080 feet, making it the second highest waterfall in the world.  Our legs and feet were already aching and we didn’t think it was possible to add another two hours one way to the trip and still make it back to our lodge before sunset, so we decided to turn around.  It was disappointing not to reach the waterfall, but when we reached the car that afternoon barely able to walk, we were glad to have turned around when we did.  It was still a nice hike in some of the most beautiful scenery we’ve seen. 

hiking in Royal Natal National Park
The next day we packed up and moved a little further south in the mountain range to an area called Giant’s Castle.   This area got its name from the outline of the peaks that resemble the side profile of a sleeping giant.  We did a short hike that afternoon to some nearby caves to see the cave paintings.  These were done by the San Bushman, an indigenous people in South Africa that lived in the caves, maybe even as late as the early 20th century.  They were skilled hunter-gatherers and nomadic, leaving few traces of their existence other than the rock paintings.  There was a guide at the caves who gave us a good tour and some insight to the meanings of the paintings and how they were made.  She also gave an impressive display of the San language, skillfully making the clicking and popping sounds that are unique to the language.
The next morning was sunny and clear, so we squeezed in one more hike to a lookout called World’s View.  We could see the entire Drakensberg escarpment, from Cathedral Peak to Giant’s Castle.  This area is so beautiful and has such great hiking that we were wishing for just a few more days in the park.  But, it was time to get back to Durban and start moving down the coast.  We had a nice trip inland and were able to see quite a bit of South Africa.  By the time we returned to the marina, we had put over 2,000 miles on our rental car. 

hiking near Giant's Castle