After arriving at my Johannesburg accommodation at around 10 pm, there wasn’t much time to talk to my travel buddy, R, about my smooth flight (half full) from Dubai. We had a couple of drinks with the operators of the small lodge we were staying at, watched the young English kids drink too much wine and jump into the freezing cold swimming pool because they were asked to, and headed to bed without much fanfare. While our start the next day wasn’t early, it did involve a lot of driving and being cramped up for a while.
When we got to the van to drive us to Kruger National Park, we were greeted by an American family of 3, and a young German couple. We would make a detour to pick up another family of 3 in Pretoria before heading on our way. With 10 of us in the 13 seater van, it was crowded, but not too cramped.
Heading east from Johannesburg takes you past open expanses of land and past mines of various sizes before you enter the Mpumalanga Province, one of 11 provinces in South Africa. The route we take leads us into the heart of South Africa’s trout fishing region, with many dams and ponds littering the valleys between the rolling hills. We stop for lunch in Dullstroom, which appears to be the trout fishing capital. In honor, I have pan-fried rainbow trout with rice. Superb. I highly recommend it. We switch drivers for the final legs of the journey. People leaving the safari camp and heading back into Johannesburg get our driver, who only handles the route from Dullstroom to Jo’Burg, and we get Isaac – driver, amateur chef, field guide, comedian. We will have one more stop for a pee break before reaching our final destination, the Tremisana Lodge in Balule Reserve, part of the Greater Kruger National Park.
Several years ago, the private reserves that share a border with Kruger National Park removed their fences to allow greater freedom of movement for the animals that call this remarkable place home. The private reserves, however, do have some advantages over the park itself – the major advantage being the ability to conduct game walks and drive off road if necessary. Although it never ceases to amaze me how many animals you see standing by the road (in Africa or back in Canada when I’d go into the mountains).
After being greeted and shown to our rooms, we would have around an hour before heading out on a sunset/night drive and a bush braai (what a BBQ is referred to in Africa). Our driver, Bongoni, held the spotlight in one hand and eased the jeep down dirt paths with the other, all the while stopping when he spotted the flash of eyes. Sadly, taking photos of anything further than 5 feet from the jeep was useless, so there are no photos from the night drive. We saw hippos, three giraffes (all sitting/laying down), several bushbabies (a small mammal adept at climbing trees), a chameleon (I still don’t know how he found it), lots of impalas and other antelopes (plenty of photos from other drives, which I’ll post), and it ended with a pair of buffaloes near our lodge. The dinner, beef boerwoers (a spiced sausage) and chicken with corn on the cob and pap (a starchy product made from maize and usually covered with a tomato and onion sauce) constituted dinner. And it was good. I washed mine down with a bottle of Savannah, an African cider.
My alarm woke me at 5:30 am to change and head to the lounge area for tea and rusks (a hard biscuit) before embarking on a 4 hour game walk with our two armed rangers, Bongoni and Adam. Adam is American and has been working as a guide in South Africa for nearly 5 years. He came to South Africa on a gap year, fell in love with the place, changed majors to study biology, and then did his guide training in South Africa.
On our brief drive towards the Olifants River, where we would start our walk, we watched the sun come up between the few clouds and had to navigate around the early morning cardio exercise of one very energetic giraffe.
Blocking the way
After driving in so many twisted loops I got lost, we hopped out of the vehicle and listened to our safety instructions. Pretty basic stuff really. Stay in a single file line, always listen to the guides, do not run (even if really scared something might attack us). Both guides were armed with rifles, and hoped they wouldn’t have to use them. We started by heading uphill into an area with thick shrub. The winter months are perfect for animal sightings. The shrub, while thick, isn’t unmanageable and there are few leaves on the trees. Plus there are no mosquitoes, few bugs, and if you’re afraid of snakes, they are usually hiding too. Bongoni led the way, and he threw his hand up signaling us to stop.
“Rhino.” He whispered. We looked around nervously. He called us over slowly, pointing to a greyish mass between 50 meters away. It moved. It wasn’t a rock.
“Black rhino.” He continued. “Wait here.” He ventured a little closer, trying to navigate the bushes, but keeping as many obstacles between us and the rhino. He called over to Adam to let us join him one by one until myself, and the German couple were with him.
“This is a mom and baby,” as the baby wandered by. “Maybe about 3 months old. The black rhino is a browser, which means it eats from the trees and shrubs. And it is endangered.”
There are only around 2000 black rhinos left in Africa, so this sighting was very special. Our guides kept enough distance and obstacles between us so it made photo taking difficult. All I have is one rather innocuous photo of the mother; but I saw it. While on foot. We could have ended the walk then and we would have all been happy, but we continued.
The endangered black rhino (don’t worry – better rhino photos to follow)
We would angle back towards the Olifants River, stopping to learn about the flora and fauna that covered the area, and looking at spoor (footprints) and stool to determine what animals had been around and when. And all the while, we listened. We listened to the wind whip through the trees. We listened to the birds call. We listened for footfalls. We listened for roars, grunts, and other assorted animal noises. All I could hear were birds and the wind. Bongoni and Adam heard much more. We came across two giraffes, both taking the time to watch us as intently as we watched them. While one of our guides was talking about them, the other would be surveying the areas around us, making sure nothing was sneaking up on us.
The wonderful giraffe
We followed a path left by elephants down towards the river, the resident pod of hippos primarily submerged in the early morning sunshine. We sat near the banks and had a brief snack, talking about how Bongoni knows so much about nature but so little about women! Moving alongside the river we saw some vultures circling above the far bank. A solitary crocodile lay on the bank and then decided to take a dip, the vultures unconcerned as they swooped in for whatever lay behind it, and behind the bushes that obscured our view. We were steps from our jeep, and as we drove back to the lodge, we were still buzzing from seeing the rhinos.
Into the water
After breakfast, a siesta, and a light lunch, we brought our gear to the lounge area ready for our return from an afternoon game drive. From there, we would head to Marc’s Treehouse Camp for our next 4 nights.
We headed out with Adam again, and in the afternoon sunshine there was no need for spotlights and I was hoping my camera would get a workout. He headed back towards where the rhinos were headed that morning in hopes we could track them down again but we had no luck there. He stopped for impalas, kudu, and the little steenbok that mate for life, and a few bird species as well. He received a call on the radio that elephants had been spotted so we headed that way, only minutes from the end of our drive. I have seen hundreds of elephants and never tire of them. They are absolutely incredible animals. We stayed around this herd for a few minutes, watching them eat and shuffle along to the next tree.
The painted horse
The Drakensberg Mountains in the distance
Impala (or most predators’ favorite meal)
We barely had time to settle when we piled into the van to drive the 45 minutes to Marc’s Camp. We were shown our guesthouse overlooking the river, and walked back to the lodge in time to buy a Savannah to go with dinner, baboutie (a minced beef dish with bread and cheese topping) with rice and salad – followed by chocolate cake for dessert. After a drumming and singing exhibition around the fire by Pretty and Margaret, the two girls responsible for most of our well-being, we headed for bed. Day 3 would see us spend a whole day searching for the Big 5 in Kruger National Park.