Monday, July 25, 2011

Tales From The Bush

The place was Kruger National Park, South Africa, and the plan was a five-day safari with two days of driving, three days of hiking, and plenty of extra batteries for picture taking. We began with Africa's second most dangerous animal--the hippopotamus. But don't worry; we were far away from the hippos. We had come across a ranger who gave us permission to exit our vehicle and sit on the rocks with the hippo pools at a safe but enjoyable distance. They snapped their jaws while we just snapped pictures. This guy was being a good hippo and posing nicely--I call him Humphrey. (Africa's most dangerous animal is the mosquito, by the way.)
The continuation of our drive through Kruger gave us a great view of an elephant--we had come across an elephant-shaped blob in the bush before, but this one was up close and personal, gregariously munching on a nearby tree. I feel the need to add, since I used the word "gregarious", that elephants are aggressive when defending themselves, and will charge if they feel threatened. They are just trying to scare away what they see as a threat, though, and most charges are mock charges, where they make themselves scary until you drive off. Since they are bigger than an SUV, you high-tail it out of there if they start to look like this.

An elephant's top priority is to protect the young ones, such as this cute little guy hiding behind his mom.
We stayed at the Pretorioskop camp, where we grilled our dinner (we did not catch and kill it ourselves, although I'm sure Caleb would've been happy to oblige) and went to sleep at the very late hour of eight thirty. It gets dark around 5 here, and Kruger is so fantastically dark at night, that it makes for a lovely night's sleep. Besides, the stars are incredible--you can see the Milky Way as if it was a cloud. We spent the last of the evening finding constellations that look like giraffes and cape buffalos. Unfortunately stars are like ghosts; they can't be captured on film unless you have a special camera. 
The next day brought about new wonders of the animal kingdom. We have seen so many giraffes, but I never get tired of those guys. They're like the Ryan Stiles of the animal kingdom--very lanky, and laid-back despite their loud dress. Plus, incredibly fun to watch.
We had seen some intriguing creatures, but after so many impala even I get ready to see a predator. Kruger park boasts around 2,000 lions, 2,000 hyenas, 950 leopards, 350 African wild dogs (an endangered species,) and 250 cheetahs. However, the park itself is huge, and we only explored the southern area, so the carnivores were not as easy to find as they seemed. Bbut as the sun was beginning to set and we were on our way back to the camp for a guided evening drive, we came across a lone hyena walking serenely in the bush.
Hyenas get kind of a bad rap—they are certainly less majestic-looking than lions, but they are actually very helpful to the environment. There are a lot of animals in the park, and all animals die eventually, but you really don’t see many skeletons or remains because of the clean-up crew: the scavengers, least selective of these being the hyena. They will eat anything, and their powerful jaws give them the ability to crack bones, after which the bones decay more quickly.
On our night drive, we expected to see some other nocturnal hunters, and we armed ourselves with jackets and cameras and arrived at the vehicle early to get good seats. In Kruger, there are camps with restrooms, as well as other designated areas where it's okay to leave your vehicle. Everywhere else, you must stay in the car at all times to avoid a potential hazard. This being said, forty-five minutes into our three hour drive, the most likely intoxicated folks in the back felt the need to harass the driver about their inexplicably full bladders. The entire drive was full of these complaints until the driver had to pull over. One man said: "I'll give twenty rand to the first person to find a toilet!" which was followed by another man saying: "I'll give a hundred to whoever knocks that guy out." After all that, all we saw were common duikers. 
The next day, we were glad to be starting our hike through the wilderness. It was time for some serious safari. We met our group at around three in the afternoon, climbed into a big safari jeep and set off for the bush. Our guides’ names were Moses and Rangana, and they had been working in the park for ten and twelve years. We enjoyed a meal cooked by the camp chef, Johann, then sat around a fire and listened to Moses’ and Rangana’s stories and advice on what to do if an animal charged. We went to bed early, and at five a.m. we woke up to the sound of Johann knocking on our doors. It was time to begin our adventure. We were being driven to the bush where we would continue on foot, and soon after we left the camp, what did we see in the middle of the road but a cheetah. As you may remember, cheetahs are even fewer in the park than the endangered wild dogs, and they prefer open areas in the central part of the park, as opposed to the lightly wooded south. Needless to say, Caleb’s fervent wish to see the fastest land animal didn’t look like it would be fulfilled, but here was a cheetah who stared at us for some minutes before slowly walking out of sight.

The hike consisted of a morning walk and an evening walk, the morning walk being five hours long, with a very pleasant break for snacks in the middle. The first animals we saw on foot were white rhinos, which are apparently less aggressive than black rhinos. Moses told us that they have a saying in his culture: “If you even think about a black rhino, climb a tree.” Our guides told us how to differentiate between black and white rhinos by their appearance, behavior, footprints, and, of course, their dung.
From a distance, you can tell a white rhino from a black rhino if they are running away from predators, Rangana said. The white rhinos would run behind the babies, since they prefer open areas and therefore must protect the young ones from behind. Black rhinos run in front of the babies because they prefer wooded areas and therefore must clear the way so that the little ones can get through. “It’s like black and white people,” Rangana explained, “we carry our children on our backs, and you push them in front in a pram (stroller).”
Moses and Rangana spotted everything from elephants so far away they looked like small rocks to tiny holes in the ground, and they could tell by the shape and size what created them. They also told us about different plants, such as the lipstick bush, which gives a red hue to the lips if you chew the roots.
The next day, we came upon the skull and bones of a buffalo which had been killed by lions (not even hyenas can clean up everything.) I was a little worried about seeing a kill while at the park, and thought I would be terribly creeped out by any remains. But over the years, and especially during this trip I have come to a healthy understanding of the "circle of life." Buffalo gotta graze, lions gotta eat. It's really amazing the intricate structure in nature--it's not as if God just threw everything together, but He made it so that carnivores control herbivore populations which, if they got out of control would destroy so much vegetation that they couldn't survive. So carnivores are necessary to the balance of nature as well as aesthetically pleasing.
 Have you ever seen pictures of tribal people dancing around with skulls of animals in front of their faces? That's another thing that has lost its creepiness for me. When we were all taking pictures and looking at the bones with solemn fascination, Moses did not shy away but grabbed the buffalo skull, held it up, galloped around and said: "Look! I'm a buffalo!"

It was quite amusing and broke the austere mood.

For our evening hike, we went to see some bushman paintings which may have been over two hundred years old, and then hiked up a mountain for the sunset. On the way, someone in our group saw what he thought was a cat, and we searched through binoculars but couldn't see it. Caleb also caught a glimpse of it, and we were hoping to get a better look. We didn't catch up with the mysterious cat, but enjoyed a breathtaking sunset and headed back to the jeep by the last of the daylight. Happy with our experiences but still keeping a wary eye out for lions, we headed back to camp. Then I saw the outline of a head--a big head, with pointed ears. Moses and Rangana had told us not to shout, because it would scare the animals, but to snap our fingers if we saw anything. I was snapping like crazy. Finally the woman in front of me, who had also seen the outline exclaimed: "Cat cat cat!" We stopped and backed up to find that the cat was still there--and it was a leopard. Leopards are difficult to see because of their shy, solitary natures and surprisingly apt camouflage, but there he was, just sitting there among the trees. Moses and Rangana said that he was probably waiting to cross the road, or else he would have run off when he saw us.
This beautiful guy was the icing on our safari cake.
It's been a wonderful trip; there’s so much more I wish I could include, but as it is I’ve been working on this entry off and on for two days! Tomorrow Caleb’s and my flight leaves at five p.m., and we’ll be home on Wednesday. I’m so glad I was able to have this experience, and if you’re interested in hearing more, don’t hesitate to ask! Thanks for reading!
-Geek In Mozambique


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