Well a whirlwind trip has ended—I am back in “the States,” writing this last entry from my windowless office. But the trip lives on in the memories of the fantastic safari we had at Kruger National Park.
We flew from Cape Town to Nelspruit airport just adjacent to Kruger. Unfounded rumors had been circulated that the only planes that fly there are Cesnas, but we flew on a small jet and arrived to a very overcast day. A short drive brought us to the gates of Kruger, and as we crossed the bridge to the gate we saw a herd of elephants in the grass by the river’s edge—at least one student got teary! We had a short drive to our camp inside the park, and on the way we saw more elephant, warthogs, rhino, and impala. Impala, though not the mascot of Kruger (that is the kudu), are the old standbys. Although they’re beautiful, we saw them so much that within a day we began to not even acknowledge their presence as we drove past.
In Kruger, we stayed at two camps, both with electric fences around them to keep all the game out. They had nice cabins, stores, and restaurants, so we weren’t really in the bush. One interesting aspect was that although the fences kept all the big game out, there was one type of mammal that easily breached the boundaries: primates! At both camps, there were plenty of vervet monkeys, stalking the grounds for food (braaiers beware!), and at the second camp the trees were full of bushbabies (small nocturnal primates that have a scream of death). Baboons were found in abundance outside the fences, and I caught one on camera being bipedal to forage.
The best time to see game is as early in the morning as possible and as late in the afternoon. The gates were open from 6 am–6 pm, so those were the only times we could be in the park in our own cars without guides. We also took a guided night drive in open-air landrovers, which was incredibly cool since we got to see things that we couldn’t see in the day, namely a lot of carnivores, both large and small. We used two large spotlights to look for animals, mostly by eye-shine (carnivores are amber-ish, while herbivores tend to be greener). Our list of sightings from the night drive included civets, genets, and servals (all small spotted cat-like things); a pack of hyenas playing together (my favorite sighting of the trip); hippos walking through the bush away from water (a strange sight); a porcupine, which quickly ran away; and the students in the other vehicle saw a male lion from very close.
A typical day consisted of waking up early and leaving around 7 am to start looking for game. The most common sightings were impala, elephant, kudu, and giraffe, which we saw every day. Also common were zebra (these are ZEH-bra, not ZEE-bra, since we were in South Africa), warthogs, and, surprisingly, white rhino. Mammals weren’t the only beautiful sights, too: a very common bird was the lilac-breasted roller, which is bright turquoise and quite spectacular. Hornbills were also very common and insisted on sitting in the road for long periods of time without moving, making it difficult to drive sometimes. One of the more interesting sites was seeing a number of dwarf mongooses crawling into (and likely eating from) termite mounds.
And, at last, the question you all probably have: did we see “The Big Five,” i.e. elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion, and leopard? Elephant, rhino, and buffalo were no problem (although we didn’t see very much buffalo); the students saw a lion on the night drive on their first full day, and the instructors saw two from far away on the last full day. My car saw a leopard on our first day lying in a tree, but the crowning sighting was a beautiful leopard sitting by the side of the road as we were driving out to leave (and causing a huge traffic jam!). So in the end, we all saw the Big Five, and enjoyed all of our safari immensely! It was a great reward for a great field season.
Finally, thanks to all who read this blog so everyone can see what being on a field school (and safari) is like!. I hope you enjoyed it!