When we awoke this morning it was still completely dark outside – we were up at five as we were booked on a morning bush walk that left at 6:00. The sky was completely clear and the usual amazing canopy of stars was shining beautifully. It was pretty cold, so we togged up in cold weather stuff, but plenty of layers as we knew it was likely to get warm as the sun rose. We’re all pretty excited, as this is one of the activities we’d planned that we are most looking forward to.
Pat and Jacob, our guides and guardians
Having had a quick breakfast of cereals, we headed up to the petrol station, where the trip would leave from. Before long, other people arrived and then the truck drove up – there were two rangers in it, one being Jacob (our driver from last night) and the other introduced himself as Patrick. Obviously, Patrick was in charge and he checked our permission forms while Jacob went off – to pick up a rifle! Apparently, Patrick has his own but Jacob uses one from a pool.
Patrick explained the format of the excursion, that we would drive out of the camp for around an hour, park the truck and then go for a circular walk for about another hour before returning to the camp. With this all explained, we all boarded the truck; there were nine of us (Paula, Rick and Jo plus four Spanish people and one lone Brit) plus the two rangers. As we headed out of the camp, still in pitch dark, it was noticeable that the temperature was slightly warmer than on the drive last night, hopefully a sign that we’ll soon warm up.
It’s really nice driving through the bush with the dawn gradually exploding, starting with just a few crimson streaks and then bursting into deep oranges and reds before the sun finally rose, turning the sky from dark to that peculiarly rich African blue. The drive is almost worth it just to experience the glory of the sunrise over the Kruger! As we drive along, we see the occasional game, mainly Impala but the odd Zebra and Kudu thrown in. After 45 minutes, we turn off the main road – to our delight, it is down a road marked as “No Entry” so we’re heading for an area not normally seen by visitors.
After bumping down a rough road for a further 15 minutes, Pat brings the truck to a halt – this is it! He tells us all to get out of the truck and this is an eerie feeling as we climb out and stand there, in the middle of the Kruger, with no protective vehicle around us. It’s at once very scary but very exciting.
Pat then proceeds to give us a safety briefing, telling us we must keep together, that we must keep behind himself and Jacob and, most importantly, never try and run if we are charged by an animal. This is to prevent us becoming individual “targets” which Jacob and he would be unable to protect. He then produces his rifle and explains how he checks it and demonstrates loading a round, working the bolt and then ejecting the bullet, finally wiggling his finger into the chamber to ensure he has unloaded the round. He explains that, in the unlikely event of an incident, he will first fire a warning shot and then, only if absolutely necessary to protect us, would he shoot to kill. We take this all in but, to be honest, treated it a bit like the airline safety briefings, it will never happen to us.
It’s already warming up nicely and we shed the first of our layers and stuff these into our backpacks. Pat asks for a volunteer to carry another pack and, as he’s biggest, Rick is the “volunteer”. It is absolutely quiet out here, not even the usual vehicle noise, as we set off into the bush. We are walking in a single file, with Pat and Jacob leading, Paula and I at the rear. We’ve not gone very far when we hear a spine tingling sound –Lions roaring! Pat stops us and tells us that this is a pair of males patrolling their territory and calling to each other to let the other know they are OK. He also tells us that we are in their territory and they are not far off… We all close up a bit as we start off again and we notice that the Spanish woman is visibly shaken.
The bush is a mixture of exposed rocks, fine dusty sand and rough ground – we’re very glad we’ve brought our hiking boots as it would be very easy to turn an ankle here and getting back would be a real problem. In one of the sandy areas, Pat stops us again and points out in the sand a very clear paw print – this is from one of the Lions that we’d heard (they’ve moved away by now) and he says it is pretty fresh. He is actually trying to track the Lions to see if we can get a glimpse of them!
Further on we come to some broken down trees. These are really shiny and he explains that these are used by a variety of animals as scratching posts. Over the years, the continued rubbing by different animals has polished these to a fine, glossy finish. We touch them and they are very smooth – it’s a bit eerie, knowing that wild beasts use this and we’re touching the same place. While we are looking at this, we suddenly hear a tremendous cracking sound, some way off. This is caused by a family of Elephant, working their way across the veld, breaking down anything that gets in their way. Not far from the trees is a fairly large rocky outcrop (or kopje) that Pat tells us is used as a rest place each night for Baboons. They’ve all gone hunting by now and we are going to climb this and stop for breakfast – this is what Rick has been carrying in his backpack!
We all scramble our way up the kopje, following what is obviously a well used path, until we emerge at the top. Here there is a cave and Pat points out some ancient rock paintings (which are almost completely faded) together with footprints from the Baboon family. From the top of the kopje, we have a stunning view. As far as we can we is complete wilderness, not a sign of humanity and it is quite sobering to think just how helpless we would be without the two rangers. We would be unlikely to be able to find our way back to the truck and would be utterly defenceless against the huge variety of dangerous animals out here.
Jacob breaks out the breakfast things from Rick’s backpack; it’s simple stuff, just cereal bars, biscuits, chocolate and cartons of juice but it is up there with Maliba and SeaVilla for the best breakfast of the trip. While we are eating, the two rangers are scanning the area for any signs of life and they call us over to point out a wide plain in the distance. There, clearly visible, is a wonderful sight. As well as a huge herd of Wildebeest are two White Rhino engaged in battle. Whether this is a play fight or for real, we’re not sure but it is an awesome sight, watching these two huge beasts running at each other and battering themselves, kicking up huge clouds of dust. To the other side of the kopje, a little distance away, we can now see the Elephant family that had been making all the noise earlier. From our lofty vantage point, we can see something like half a dozen of them, all battering their way through the bush and stripping trees for breakfast. Up on a hill in front of the kopje is yet another White Rhino – these are becoming one of our most common “spots”.
Looking down on a Giraffe
Breakfast over, we gather up all the rubbish and load it back into Rick’s backpack (which is now much lighter) and start climbing down the rock. This is actually much harder than the ascent and requires a bit of scrambling and calculated jumps between rocks. As we descend, a Giraffe emerges from the bush just in front of us and lopes across the clear ground at the foot of the kopje, no more than 50 feet away, before disappearing back into the trees.
We set off again in our single file and soon Pat stops us again. He’s come across a Rhino “midden” – this is where the male Rhino defecate and it marks their territory. This is a White Rhino midden as it is mainly grass whereas the much rarer Black Rhino eat mainly twigs and leaves. While we are there, he also explains how small animals get the calcium they need (large carnivores get their essential mineral from eating other animals) – when Hyenas finish off a kill, they eat everything that is left, including the bones. When they defecate, their dung is almost completely white as it is largely calcium and other animals then eat this to get their minerals. Yummy!
A little further on, Pat brings us to a stop and indicates for us to bunch into a group. Very quietly, he tells us that, in the bushes immediately in front of us, there are Elephant. He moves forward a bit to get a better view and then comes back to whisper that, in fact, it is not Elephant but the incredibly rare Black Rhino! We can just about see them through a gap in the bushes, a vague shape moving around. Paula whispers the fateful words “I can’t see them”. What happens next is over in less time that it will take to read this.
There’s a sudden commotion in front of us and before we can react this huge Black Rhino bursts through the trees. Heading straight towards us, this massive beast just blasts its way through the scrub; Pat and Jacob are shouting and yelling, throwing branches and then “crack, crack” two load retorts as they fire into the air, followed by another pair of shots, this time at the Rhino. We watch, absolutely transfixed, as, at the last second, the animal swerves away and charges off into the bush, a big, dull red stain on it’s flank where one of the shots hit home. In the background, more commotion as three more White Rhino break cover and charge away into deeper cover. We’re all pretty much in shock at this point, fixed to the spot. The Spanish woman is almost in hysterics and Paula and Jo (and me and Rick) are all breathing very deeply. We notice we’ve all huddled together, almost without realising it. Jacob and Patrick have run after the wounded Rhino and, for a few moments, we’re all alone in the bush and feel incredibly vulnerable.
Very quickly, the two of them return and check that we are all OK. We can then start making sense of what happened – Patrick and Jacob had been uneasy and were discussing which way to move, sideways or backwards. They had, without us noticing, moved forward of the group by 10 yards and grabbed large branches and rocks, anticipating something might happen. Something then spooked the Rhino, possibly the other British guy moving to the side of the group, wearing a brilliant white top that may have caught the Rhino’s eye. Whatever, it had taken a serious dislike to us being there and just hurtled towards us. Patrick showed us a snapped off bush where it had finally turned; this can only have been 25 feet from where we were stood. This was an incredibly close shave and we owe our safety, possibly our lives to the coolness and professionalism of the two rangers. Had the Rhino hit us, it would have seriously injured and perhaps killed one or more of us.
He then asked us to have a quick search for the spent cartridge cases, but asked us not to move forward at all, as they needed the scene kept clear for an official investigation. This is required whenever the rangers fire their rifles as they need to prove that this was absolutely necessary for the protection of themselves and the guests. We find one case but cannot find the others.
We’re all starting to recover a bit by now, and thoughts turn to the injured Rhino. Neither Patrick nor Jacob is entirely sure where (or if) they hit it, although we definitely saw blood on the animal. Even this is unclear amongst us, some thinking it was in the chest, others (including me) being certain it was on the front left shoulder area. We move off finally, somewhat subdued. The return to the truck is uneventful, with Jacob trying to get a signal on his mobile ‘phone in order to report the shooting. He does finally get through and requests a helicopter come out to try and track the Rhino. He also tells us that we’ll be met back at Pretoriuskop by a senior ranger, who will ask us for our version of events.
On the walk back, Pat tells us that this is the first time in eleven years that he has had to shoot an animal; he’d had to fire a warning shot a couple of years previously when a Leopard approached his group but this had proved sufficient to scare the animal away.
Up close with an Elephant
The drive back to Pretoriuskop is uneventful, although we do get a close up of another family of Elephant, munching on trees just by the side of the road. We’re met, as Jacob had told us, by a senior ranger, who’s main concern is that all of us are fine. Once he’s happy that this is the case, he asks us to write up our version of events and hand it in at Reception sometime during the day. At this, we say farewell to our two guides, saying such a big thank-you to them for their professionalism and coolness that prevented what could have been a major tragedy.
Back at the rondavels, we all showered and changed (into shorts again as it is getting very hot by now) and then grabbed a bite to eat before loading up the Mitsubishi again. We’d enjoyed Pretoriuskop; it has a nice ambience and seems nice and laid back. Before we depart the camp, we visit the shop and find a better “thingummy” guide that has more of the animals and birds we’ve either seen or hope to see. We drop off our report on the morning’s events on the way out and say good-bye to Pretoriuskop.
We’ve decided to head down to Lower Sabie camp, aiming to get there for lunch, before turning back north to get to our evening stop at Skukuza. Already, the “excitement” of the morning is wearing off and we’re soon back into the swing of game spotting. We see more of the usual, such as Impala, Zebra and Kudu as well as more of the seeming inevitable White Rhino, before we spot of the crest of a hill a couple of Buffalo. This knocks off another of the “Big 5”, leaving just the Lion and rare Leopard to go. Heading down towards Lower Sabie, the temperature just keeps rising, clearing 30 degrees and peaking at 33! We see loads of animals on the way, including a pair of Vervet Monkeys, who are begging for (and getting) fruit from a stopped car.
As well as the large mammals, we’re also seeing a lot more birds and get a close view of an African Hawk Eagle that is perched on a tree just off of the road and a “real” Snake Eagle, this time a Brown Snake Eagle. We are seeing so many different animals, both in quantity and variety that we start losing track – Jo actually starts a tally of these, so we can recall just what we’ve seen.
A cute little Steenbok
In addition to the “normal” mammals we’ve seen, we add some other slightly rarer types, such as a tiny little Steenbok (which has huge ears), another one that Jo wants to add to her menagerie.
Just before we get to Lower Sabie, there are a lot of cars parked by the side of the road; from previous experience we know this normally indicates something a bit special. We pull over and there is something – a male Lion sprawled out in the reeds on the far side of the Sabie River!
Lion taking a nap on the banks of the Sabie River
Clearly settled in for a serious nap, it hardly moves while we watch, flopped out in a supremely typical cat-like pose. Yet another of the Big Five down! Moving on, we stop by the dam next to Lower Sabie and in the water we see our first Hippo in the Park as well as Elephant, Waterbuck and Warthog around the edges.
We pull into Lower Sabie and wander down to the restaurant to grab some lunch. The restaurant is in what looks to be a new development, with shops and an internet café there as well. The food here is good and, despite it being in a major tourist area, quite reasonably priced. The views from the restaurant are amazing, looking out over the Sabie River, where we can see a couple of Crocodiles, a group of Hippo and yet more Elephants. There’s also abundant bird life here, with brilliantly coloured Weaver birds, Bulbuls, Hornbills and Cape Glossy Starlings. These all know there’s food to be had and woe betide anyone who leaves edibles unattended – the birds will be there in a flash of colour and be away with their pickings.
Eruption of water from the fountain as birds take a bath
As we finish, Rick goes into the internet café (suffering Philippa withdrawal symptoms) and while we are waiting a tiny little Skink runs past us – unfortunately, given her love of little lizards, Paula misses this as it scurries away and hides inside a metal tube. We’re also amused by a great cacophony where birds are splashing in a water fountain, spraying water everywhere.
Back on the road again, we turn north to head towards our next stop, at Skukuza rest camp. We’ve nothing planned here so aren’t in a great hurry (although we have to keep an eye on the time as we have to be there by 18:00 or we’ll be fined for late arrival!) and take a leisurely drive up the Old Tshokwane Road. Again, we use the 4×4 ability to dive off across various sand roads and one of these takes us right past an absolutely huge herd of Buffalo.
Buffalo staring us down
There’s a real mix here from the obviously dominant male, lots of other younger males and females and a couple of little calves. They are pretty relaxed but definitely keeping an eye on us as we drive past.
Just outside Skukuza, as we are crossing one of the bridges, a Monitor lizard comes waddling along the road. We stop and watch as it casually climbs over the parapet and wanders off into the reeds, just feet from where we are watching. On the other bank of the river, there’s another reptile, this time a medium size Crocodile; strangely no other animals around…
We’ve just enough time to run round one of the loops alongside the river; here we see quite a few parked cars and we pull over to see what they are watching. Jo manages to catch a glimpse of a male Lion lying in the reeds but the rest of us can’t see it. Annoyingly, the cars with the best views clearly are not interested in moving to let others have a view, selfishly sitting there obstructing everyone else, so we move on. It turns out well that we do, as just a little further on, two lovely little bushbuck emerge from the bush and cross the road right in front of us. Turning back towards Skukuza, we narrowly miss a mobile road-block as a family of Elephant decide to cross just after we go past. Anyone following us would probably have been late to get in to the camp!
Parking up, we go in to register and pick up our keys; it’s really odd but here is the first time we meet with a miserable reception. In contrast to every other stop, the receptionist clearly can’t be bothered and is quite grumpy as she deals with our conservation fees and hands over our keys.
Map in hand, we drive off through the gathering dusk to find our rondavels. These turn out to be quite close to the centre of the camp and we take a stroll down to the shops once we’ve unloaded. We’ve decided to eat at the restaurant here, which is based in the old Railway Station. Again, this is a fond memory from our last visit.
By the time we set out, it is completely dark and we try to find our way through the camp navigating off the map we’ve been given and a little torch. This proves harder than anticipated and we take a few wrong turns (compounded by a couple of the roads being closed for repair) before we finally see the bright lights of the station. Meanwhile, Jo’s nose has started bleeding profusely and shows no inclination to stop. We arrive at the restaurant and sit in the lobby for a while, waiting for Jo’s nose-bleed to dry up – it slows gradually but still keeps dripping despite everything we do to help.
The Restaurant at Skukuza
Eventually, we go in to the restaurant and sit down, right next to the old railway train. The atmosphere in this restaurant is really lovely, with the old steam engine, carriages and platform signs with distances and journey times to other places all over South Africa. The meal is excellent as well, all of us opting for steaks, with a really nice red wine to wash it down. Jo’s nose keeps dribbling all through the meal, unfortunately, and we grab a huge handful of serviettes for the walk back.
Knowing where we’re going is a big advantage and we’re back at the rondavels in a fraction of the time we’d taken to get there. It’s still lovely and warm and Paula and I sit out for a little while, just watching the stars, when we’re suddenly aware of something in the tree next to us.
Our late night guest, a Long Tailed Bushbaby
Looking up, there’s a cute little animal with big eyes and a long, bushy tail sitting watching us! This, we figure out later, is a Long Tailed Bush Baby – a nice end to a memorable day.