Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Africa-Lion Sands Safari in Kruger Park

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Updated with news of the Kruger elephant attack.

After six days of exploring the coast and winelands around Cape Town, we boarded a South African Airlink flight to Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport. Three hours later, we were picked up in a van and driven another two hours to our destination, Lion Sands Game Reserve in Kruger National Park. The original itinerary included a short flight in a tiny plane from the airport to the equally tiny Skukuza Airport on the reserve, but that airport was undergoing some repair work, so our flight was cancelled. This was ok with me, as I don't love small planes.

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Instead, we were treated to a drive through the town of Hazyview, along a highway lined with villages and pedestrians, including uniformed schoolchildren, people in business clothes, women in traditional African wrappers carrying baby bundles on their backs and loads on their heads, and roadside vendors selling textiles, carvings, and produce. 

Photo by Terry Mercer

I would like a moment to backtrack and explain why it was such a miracle that we even made it to Africa at all. For two years, Mark had been resisting my suggestions that we visit Africa, and I threatened to find somebody else to go with. Then, our friends Terry and Pete went to Cape Town and came back with gorgeous photos, like this one taken by Terry of Table Mountain. I resumed my pressure on Mark.

Branson at UrusalaNext, I made an acquaintance while taking golf lessons at Yas Links in Abu Dhabi. In the UAE expat population, it’s easy to find people who have been to a place you are interested in, all you have to do is just ask. Erika and her husband Rudy are South African, speak Afrikaans, and go on safari regularly. Sir Richard Branson’s private reserve in Sabi Sands is their favorite. One of the best features, Erika said, was that even premium-brand liquors are covered in the all-inclusive price, whereas other lodges charge extra.

I took a brief look at the website, found it to be a bit pricey, but suggested to Mark that he check it out, just as a thought. Meanwhile, spring rolled into summer and I went back to the USA for the hottest weeks while Mark stayed in Abu Dhabi.

What Mark, a great Internet researcher, figured out is that Sabi Sands reserve is part of Kruger National Park, which has a wide range of safari lodges. You can choose your experience from a list including Lifestyle, Family, With Friends, Self-Catering, Adventure, Romantic, Private, Indulgence, Personalized Service, Cultural, and Historic. Each category then has a sub-list. Authentic Tented Safari? Or, how about Grand Colonial Style? Wait! There’s an Unforgettable Wildlife Experience! It was too much for even Mark to filter through. Somewhere along the line, even he doesn’t know exactly how or when, he made contact with a travel agency. We had never used a travel agent for a personal trip before, but we are really glad we did it this time. After a chat with Mark about us, our interests, lifestyle, and budget, Chantelle at Icon Expeditions put together a proposed week-long travel itinerary which she emailed to Mark, along with suggestions for possible upgrades or downgrades.

Meanwhile, I was back in the States, watching AC72’s rocketing about San Francisco Bay, climbing trails in the Sierra Nevada, sailing on Lake Tahoe, visiting California family, and hanging out with Dad in Detroit. Imagine my surprise when Mark told me, during a Skype call, that he was working on a trip to Africa! But, we would probably be going to a different place, not Branson’s. And some other places. Ok? Hell, yes! I could hardly believe it.

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Fast-forward, and “Welcome to Lion Sands!” We were greeted with damp cloths to wipe our dusty faces, a welcome drink, and an overview of the next three days, which would consist of early morning and evening game drives, meals, and lounging in our suite overlooking the Sabie River.

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As we were being briefed, a herd of elephants appeared on the riverbank across the stream. This is why Chantelle suggested Lion Sands Narina Lodge.

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It’s a prime location for viewing wildlife right from the lodge as you enjoy afternoon tea or a cocktail with other guests …

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… or in complete privacy as you take a cooling dip in the on-deck plunge pool back at your suite.

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Soon it was time for our first evening game drive. The vehicles are Range Rovers with three tiered sets of seats for guests, the ranger/driver seat in front, and a seat on the front for the tracker to perch. The spot next to the ranger is for the guns and ammunition, which are always close at hand.

Our team was Field Ranger Raymond Temba, and he and our Field Tracker, whose name unfortunately escapes me because I waited too long to write this story, but it might be Daniel, were born in a small village nearby, and have been working as a team at Lion Sands for 8 years. Raymond inherited his love of the bush wildlife from his father, who worked on the preserve as a ranger, patrolling the fence lines looking for poachers.

Kruger National Park

Kruger Park, and adjacent parks in Mozambique and Zimbabwe, have an interesting conservation history. In 1895, a colonial councilman  introduced a motion to create a game preserve for the purpose of controlling hunting. Kruger National Park was established as South Africa’s first national park in 1926 and has grown into a 7,580 square mile UNESCO International Man and Biosphere Reserve. Read more here.

Africa (926)First, Raymond and Daniel took us across the river via the wooden bridge which, Raymond told us, was a good place to escape from elephants because they don’t go onto the bridge. They’re too big for it. There would be a moment the next day when this would become very important to us, but more on that later. For now, it didn’t seem to matter much because Raymond said that the vehicle was protection enough from the animals. They know the shape, they are used to it, and they ignore it. It’s just part of their known habitat, and not a threat. They’re not even curious, he told us. “But, don’t stand up. If you stand up, the shape of the vehicle changes. Then, they don’t understand.” Enough said.

Our first wildlife sighting was a lioness sunning herself on a large rock near the edge of the river. We could see her from the bridge, and we drove across and along the road for a closer look, although we were still a  good distance away. After a few minutes quietly admiring and photographing her, we were on our way, winding slowly along the dirt road as Daniel watched for tracks.

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Suddenly, we pulled up to a box hanging from a tree and stopped. I thought maybe this was the traditional “sundowners” we were promised, but it was too early. No, this was our version of a bird feeder, the Fly Thru. A quick stop for a little “whip,” as Mark and I sometimes call it. Special fruity African juice concoctions, with a spike of vodka, if you like.


As dusk approached, we saw many herds of the most common large animal in the bush, the Impala. They’re nicknamed the “McDonald’s of the bush” because they’re everywhere, everybody eats them, and there is an “m” on their backsides.

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That evening we also saw our first White Rhino, which isn’t white at all, but has a wide mouth, and the Dutch word “wide” was interpreted as “white.” Both White and Black Rhinos are grey, and the difference is that the White Rhino bends down to eat grass, and the Black Rhino reaches up to eat trees and shrubs. Their mouths are shaped differently. These two are both white rhinos. The color difference is a natural variance, and possibly the lighter one is covered with dried mud.

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In a spot not very far from the rhinos, it seemed to me, we stopped the vehicle and Raymond and Daniel went to work setting up for sundowners. This is a bush tradition, and they unpacked a full bar and nibbles. Beer? Wine? Champagne? Or gin and tonic?

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Through that evening and the next, Raymond told us about all the wildlife we were seeing, and the secrets of the bush. Sometimes, when we hadn’t seen any animals for awhile, he would stop at a tree, tell us its name, and explain its many uses.

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“You don’t need to buy soap,” he said. “I will show you how to make it from this plant!”

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In Africa, you have the “Big Five,” a term that does not refer to size, but was coined by hunters based on the level of difficulty and danger in hunting them. We saw four of the group: Elephant, Lion, Rhinoceros, and Buffalo. Leopard, the fifth, eluded us.

We also saw zebras, hippos, baboons, monkeys, giraffes, warthog, kudu, steenbok, dung beetles, giant snails, a chameleon, and a variety of birds.

Lion Sands is a private concession inside Kruger National Park, so there were no other vehicles on the dirt roads; only other Lion Sands groups. There were so many unforgettable moments. I loved seeing the rhinoceros taking a mud bath, the hippos in the water, and every time a herd of elephants appeared at the lodge it was a treat. There were some other really spectacular scenes, which I present in the following series of slide shows.

The first morning, we saw two giraffes just off the road, in the bushes. One was very old, and looked like he had been in more than one battle. Be sure to notice the little bird, riding along on his neck, probably snacking on bugs or fallen seeds. There were also herds of giraffes grazing along the main road heading into and out of the park.

Next, we came upon this small herd of elephants grazing among the trees and shrubs. They didn’t take much notice of us, as close as we were. The young male elephant will be kicked out of the herd by the time he is about four years old, and will have to look for another harem to mate with. He will be of breeding age when he is 10 or 15 years old.

Next we found the white rhinos, enjoying a mud bath, and later we found a mother rhino and her baby. At first Raymond said the baby was a few days old, then he thought maybe a day or two, and finally, as we got closer he said, judging by its unsteady stance, it was possible that this baby was born just a few hours ago.

As the morning game drive ended, Raymond asked if anyone wanted to go on the hippo walk. A walk!! I was all for that, feeling sluggish from the lack of exercise, except for hanging on to the vehicle for dear life as we bounced along. However, it wasn’t much of a walk. We drove to a spot near the river, and followed Raymond and his rifle to a spot overlooking the river, where we could see the hippos, submerged in the water. We were safe, Raymond said, because the hippos wouldn’t come out of the water until the evening. But you never, ever want to get between a hippo and the water. Then, they feel threatened, and they will charge you.

There were no opportunities for long hikes in the African bush. The wildlife rules the landscape, and you must remember your role as visitor and intruder, and keep at a safe distance, with an armed ranger who knows the habits of the animals. And at night we had to get an escort to accompany us along the boardwalk to our suite. You never know, there could be aggressive baboons or elephants, and they want to make sure that nothing happens.

We returned to the lodge, had a beautiful lunch on the deck, and went to our suite to relax before the evening game drive. After my dip in the plunge pool, as I was relaxing and watching the vervet monkeys play in a nearby tree, I noticed a herd of elephants descending the opposite slope, some stopping to take a dirt bath, waiting for the young ones, and then crossing the river. It was an entrancing show.

Later, on the game drive, we were rounding a corner on the way to a bluff overlooking the river for sundowners, and found ourselves in the midst of this magnificent herd of zebras. A small group is sometimes called a “harem,” and a larger group is a zeal, or a dazzle. All zebras are black and white. The brown or orange looking ones in this photo album are just ... dirty.

As we enjoyed our sundowners overlooking the river, we felt so blessed to be there. Afterward we drove, but didn’t see any big game. It didn’t matter; we still had another whole day, and our patience would be rewarded.

The next morning, we met the buffalo. These animals, along with the rhino, are poached for their horns, which some people in Asia use as an aphrodisiac. It is a shockingly lucrative trade, as powdered rhino horn is more expensive than gold. Poachers are armed and highly organized, and anti-poaching game wardens like Raymond’s father and grandfather have very dangerous jobs. Poachers are ready to kill or be killed.

We also saw a hippo on his way to the water, and hippos in the water, with lots of babies.

Morning game drives are at dawn, before breakfast; evening game drives are before dinner. So during each drive, there is a stop for refreshment. This morning, we ran into a large group of baboons. WARNING: this group of slides contains a couple of pictures of a couple of baboons getting a little bit freaky. “I don’t know why they do that,” Raymond said. “They only do it when there are people around. And, those are two males. They just do it, they don’t care. But only if there are people watching. Otherwise, they don't do it.”

Elephants have played a big role in Mark’s and my travels over the past two years. We have ridden them in both Thailand and India. In Africa, the elephants were much different. They were healthier looking. And wild. We found out just how wild they can be on the last afternoon, when we were heading over the bridge, behind another vehicle that had stopped at the other end. We noticed a lone elephant on the opposite side of the river, moving unusually quickly in our direction.

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“That elephant,” Raymond remarked, in the understatement of the trip, “is not good for viewing.” Why? “He is male. Very angry. At everybody. He is a musth, looking for female, to mate.” At that moment, the musth bull looked up, and saw the vehicle at the end of the bridge.

I think one of the reasons that elephants do not trust the bridge is because it’s narrow. For this same reason, the large safari vehicles can only go forward; backing up is too dangerous. The group in front of us was pinned. They were at the very end of the bridge, the elephant was coming toward them, and they couldn’t back up.

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We spoke with those guests later, and they didn’t have many words for their experience. Just, “really, really nervous.” The ranger told us he was slowly reaching for his gun, and some extra ammunition. The tracker told us he was inwardly laughing at the futility of such a move, at that point. The elephant came as close as he could, as we held our breath, watching. But, he would not step on the bridge, so he stepped away. Angrily.

What happened next was predictable. He saw us at the other end of the bridge, and crossed the river. Raymond moved the vehicle a couple of feet further onto the bridge, and then stopped and shut off the engine!! As the elephant stopped for a snack on some brush, Raymond explained that the wet patch on the side of his face was a sign that he was musth. He was also producing a constant stream of urine, which would make a scent trail. If there was a female around who was ready to mate, she would find him. Elephants gestate for about two years, so it’s not often that females mate. After he finished snacking, Mr. Musth took a long look, and began running toward us. Raymond started the engine, and we drove off over the bridge as he looked at us in frustration.

What a show it was! We did get some video, but my Movie Maker program is not cooperating. Anyway, the pictures tell the story just as well, except that you can’t hear Mark’s nervous comments: "Oh, no, not this ...!"

January 29 UPDATE: A story about a musth elephant in Kruger Park attacking a British couple in their vehicle is going viral. He is behaving just as we saw our elephant behave, except these poor sots were not on a bridge, and they were too panicked to be able to get away. This is a GREAT illustration of why we were happy to pay for the expertise and protection of a ranger guided tour. There is no way to know if it was our Mr. Musth, but unfortunately, he has been shot and killed. RIP.

Here is a link to the story.

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That was a lot of excitement. Back at the lodge, we were greeted with the cool face cloth, and then met a South African couple at the bar. “This is the best lodge around,” the guy told us. “I’m a local, I’ve been to them all, and we always come here, if we can get in. There are others that have more amenities, but this one is special because it’s right on the river.” He was a birder.

The lodge was all open to the outdoors, and beautiful.

The last night, on our last game drive, came the most exciting event. The radios were abuzz: there was a lion kill, and it was big. A buffalo, and the pride was feasting. Raymond drove the Rover like a bat outta hell, for miles and miles, weaving through the bush to the kill site. It was overcast, getting dark and misting rain. When we finally arrived, there was another group there, observing, and it was too dark to see without flashlights. No problem, the lions were used to people flashing lights onto them. There was one lion, stuffed full and fast asleep. The others were behind some bushes, but we could hear the cracking of the bones. Presently a lioness emerged, caked with blood, and settled down calmly in the road next to our vehicle, to clean herself. After a time she rose and ambled off toward the river, her distended belly moving from side to side. She looked pregnant, but she wasn’t. She was just full of meat.

Finally, we were on our way back to the lodge for our goodbye dinner. As we drove over rise after rise, the skies were crackling with lightning, illuminating the landscape as far as the eye could see. I couldn’t catch a photo; we were moving too fast. But the images are burned in my memory of Africa.

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