After a glorious trip to Namibia, I was a bit concerned about going to the oh-so-popular Kruger for my next safari. Having the roads to ourselves and being completely alone in the wild with rhinos and cheetahs was the most incredible experience, and one I wanted to replicate. Would my elephant sightings this time be me, an elephant, and ten safari vehicles packed with other tourists? I'd seen some of the images online–it sounded dreadful, but Kruger is a very practical and (comparatively) affordable safari destination, so I decided to give it a try. I did my research and focused our trip on the northern reaches of Kruger, from Olifants camp north to Pafuri in the Makuleke concession, along the Zimbabwe border. What I found was an enchanted place filled with elephants and something of a magical appeal which will surely draw me back soon.
After a long drive from Johannesburg, we arrived at the gates of the Balule Reserve. Balule is a private game reserve that shares an unfenced border with Kruger and all the wonders that go along with that privilege. Driving in, I marveled at the private residences and made a mental note to look into prices as soon as I got home (They're not bad!). The roads were wildly bumpy as soon as we left the pavement of the main road and we were grateful we opted for the SUV. We finally arrived at Baluleni Safari Lodge, tired but instantly enamored by this little camp. We were warmly welcomed by not only the owner, but a family of warthogs and a beautiful group of vervet monkeys, peering into the main lodge longingly at the four other guests taking their lunch.
During our first game drive, we paused to enjoy sundowners and watch the sun set over the bush. We ate dinner by the fire with our fellow international guests (with whom we naturally discussed Game of Thrones) and sipped chilled Amarula, a liqueur made from the local tree. As our conversation quieted down, a loud trumpeting pierced the night air. Jan turned on his flashlight and led us in the dark in the direction of that unmistakable sound. We stopped on the porch of one of the unoccupied bungalows and watched as a herd of elephant, complete with two little babies, made their way along the river. The pleasant sound of their feet crunching on the forest floor warmed my heart. Our night was spent enjoying the fresh breeze blowing through our tent, completely unfenced from the wild, and wondering if every sound was a nearby lion.
In the morning, we ventured out on a bushwalk with a very experienced guide, Jan. He went over the safety information, such as always staying behind his gun and walking in single file. The number one thing to remember is that only food runs so, no matter what you encounter, stand your ground! We walked past the swimming pool and paused to examine a young baobab tree before continuing on toward the crocodile-infested river, but came to an abrupt halt as a cacophony of screaming monkeys flooded the air. We walked back toward the swimming pool to investigate, as Jan informed us this alarm call is only reserved for predators. Right by the pool, in front of a thicket was the fresh corpse of an impala. The monkeys scrambled in alarm in the trees above the thicket, yelling and clearly informing each other (and us) that the leopard was still in there. The tension in the air was palpable, knowing how close this great predator was despite being unable to see it in the thick brush. We eventually gave the animal a wide berth and left it to its prey, a camera trap set.
Walking through the bush, we paused to admire the hornbills gliding, waited patiently as a giraffe crossed the path in front of us, and marveled at a mound of termites. Did you know that the termite queen determines what kind of job the worker termites have by the pheromones she emits? Fascinating stuff. Moving on toward the river, Jan spotted a most exciting footprint–then another–then another–then another–then another! Five lions had recently been there. We took on a hushed, anticipatory silence and proceeded in the path of the lions. Every step I took was deliberate and my eyes stayed alert, examining every inch of brush in hope. Unfortunately, the lion footprints ventured onto one of the private properties of Balule and we had to abandon our hunt. However, I will never forget the thrill of tracking these predators on foot, knowing each moment that we could be face-to-face with them. On the positive side, this allowed me time to back-track to photograph the colony of stunning bee-eaters nesting on the river bank.
We said goodbye to Baluleni and drove into Kruger with the happy anticipation of what was to come. Immediately, my new found love of birding was sated as I spotted my favorite bird, the Lilac-Breasted Roller again and again. We turned down on a side road, marked on our map as a waterhole. I spotted something furry in a tree and shouted at my husband to stop the car. An adorable rock dassie sat there munching on leaves. We continued on and the sight at the lake took my breath away. An enormous herd of elephants was at once all around us. Some were on a strip of land that extended out into the lake, enjoying a lovely mud bath. Some were in the surrounding woods, ripping branches off the trees and eating them, and some were right next to us, going on about their business. There must have been well over thirty elephants around us, and not for the last time in Kruger.
The elephants reacted with some curiosity and suspicion at my long lens resting on the window. One of the big bulls came right up to the car looking as though he was going to charge (See those ears flapped outward– cute, right?). Another elephant drank water as a nile monitor lizard casually slithered behind him. The baby elephants charmed us with their antics–oh how wonderful to be young and have a trunk!
We sat for hours watching, but when the elephants surrounded our car attempint to head back into the forest, we felt that we were encroaching on their space and decided it was time to move on. Driving along toward our first rest camp, Olifants, we saw zebras, impala, a southern ground hornbill, a majestic bateleur, and my favorite bird, the beautiful Lilac-Breasted Roller.
We pulled off the road to glance into a riverbed when I spotted something large on the other side of the river bank. Excitedly, we moved to the next pull-off to get a better view. That was the moment I saw my first hippo's eyes peeping out of the water. We backed the car up once again to try to see what was on the other side of the riverbank and, sure enough, there was our lioness, laying on the ground after a meal, her three cubs moving about her. The one cub decided to plop himself on top of a small tree, a matter he seemed quite content with. Nearby, a vulture sat atop a tree, likely waiting for the lions to move on so she could move in on their prey. I marveled at how beautiful she was, her feminine blue eyes shining out from a pink, bald face, all set against a backdrop of beautiful warm colored leaves. Her feathers blew gently in the wind and I found that I could not take my eyes off of her, even to look at the lions.
We arrived at our first rest camp, Olifants, and were pleasantly surprised by the ambience. Rows of bungalows were layers upon a hill overlooking itself namesake river, the Olifants. Down below, hippos displayed their enormous mouths to each other in displays of power. The sun glistened up from the water, the colors of sunset reflecting beautifully. We dined underneath a starry sky at the restaurant, a near-full moon illuminating the bats zipping around us while the hippos bellowed below.
The following day we woke early to find the infamous baboons scavenging their way around camp. One baboon sat on the porch of a nearby bungalow, enjoying a found snack out of a paper bag. They're considered pests by the campgrounds, but they were a welcome addition as far as I was concerned. After packing up, we began a drive south on the hunt for whatever we could find, arbitrarily selecting roads in a loop that would eventually lead us up to our next camp. We spotted lovely little vervet monkeys, picking seeds from the tall grasses and paused to admire a baboon eating something off the ground. The longer we sat there, more and more baboons arrived, until there must have been fifty or more in one field. One tiny, adorable baby sat on the ground screaming and crying for someone to pay attention to him, so human-like (but much cuter).
As we continued on our way, we stopped to admire the common but ever charming helmeted guinea fowl. Their shocking blue heads and protruding bones are positively dinosauric. The francolin (another "chicken," as my husband likes to generically call any ground bird) stood among the grasses, his feathers splayed out from the breeze like a bad hair day. We passed zebras and ostrich and giraffe and impala, all equally enthralling to me. We passed rangers patrolling the territory and they smiled big, bright smiles at us as they continued about their noble profession. I again came upon the lovely little Lilac-Breasted Roller, this time in my favorite form. Sometimes you see them with their feathers bright and sleek, but when the wind hits them just right and they are all puffed up, they take on this marvelously grouchy look that I adore.
We pulled into a promising-looking turnoff which approached a small river. Low and behold, not only was there a goliath heron, but a plump hippopotamus bobbing in the water. We turned off the engine and sat admiring her for a while. I tried to figure out what part of her body was protruding from the water at a strange angle nearby, when it emerged as another hippo, right next to her. Soon another appeared above water, and as I sat watching the three relax in their waterhole, I thought what a pleasant, relaxing existence the hippo has. After a while, realizing with a smile that this was the most exciting thing these hippos planned to do all day, we moved on. I stopped to photograph a gorgeous hornbill who seemed to be having an especially nice feather-day. The feathers atop his head were so fluffy he looked as though he had just come away from a blow-out at a swanky salon.
We checked in at Letaba Camp and found ourselves impressed again at the lovely setting. We were greeted at our bungalow by a friendly ground squirrel who approached us, clearly asking if we had food for him. Unable to resist, we offered the little fellow in a potato chip, which he took from my hand. Being a squirrel of sophisticated tastes, he found it lacking and discarded it, sorely disappointed by the newest guests' offerings. A mother and baby Nyala also call the camp their home, and these fuzzy little antelope were a wonderful addition to our base. In late afternoon, we headed out on what would be one of our most memorable drives. Driving through a side road, hugging the Olifants River, within a forest of red leaved trees we started to notice elephant after elephant walking through the thick wood. We quickly realized in wonder that we were again surrounded by a massive herd of elephants.
We pulled off the road near a waterhole and were delighted to find even more elephants. As much of an problem as the overpopulation of elephants at Kruger is for the balance of the ecosystem, it was a delight to get to know them so well. While, like all animals, I had always liked elephants, I truly fell in love with them at Kruger. We watched the large family for an hour, the herd casually dining while the babies tossed their trunks and sprayed themselves with dust. There is nothing cuter than a baby elephant, all wrinkles and awkwardness, carrying its built-in toy trunk everywhere it goes.
The sun began to set over the bush and an elephant walked next to the water in the distance, the hills in the background. This was one of my favorite moments from our entire trip, the perfect African scene.
Did you know that an elephant can sneak up on you? Well, it's true. After watching the dazzling flight of the ducks, we noticed a large mass rapidly approaching from the trees. This young bull was looking as us inquisitively and with that mischievous face we came to know well. As we were in between him and his herd, he decided to charge at us, which meant he looked adorable and frightening all at once. My husband accidentally revved the engine of the car, much to my chagrin, while I said "back up back up back up!" Luckily, this was a mock charge–you can tell by the fanned out ears and the waving trunk. Had it been a real charge, he would have pinned his ears back and rolled his trunk up to protect it. Mock charges are pretty darn cute, and we gladly let the young guy show us who's boss.
Driving down the road, I spotted something out the passenger window and again shouted "back up, back up, back up" (because saying something three times is the best way to achieve your desired effect)! I had spotted yet another something, and this time it was not a rock-rhino. Sleeping ever so peacefully in a dried-up riverbed was a hyena, and my heart grew five times. This was the first time I had seen one of my favorite animals in the wild and I delighted in his every small, sleepy movement. He opened his eyes and, looking right at me, stretched and went back to sleep.
When we arrived back at camp, we built a fire and sipped a South African wine, enjoying the evening orchestra of birds and frogs in the trees above. Morning came and we began the long drive north to Shingwedzi. We saw elephant herd after elephant herd, to the point that we barely paused the car upon seeing another of these incredible animals.
Despite the wonderfully large number of Lilac-Breasted Rollers we encountered, I had yet to photograph one in flight. It became my white whale. It seemed as though every time I spotted one landing on a branch, it was settling itself down for a multi-hour nap, ne'er to move again. At last, after much patience and with a little bit of luck, this darling little Roller flew for me.
We happened upon a brand new baby elephant and her mama. The baby was copying everything the mama did, learning from the best. They crossed the road right in front of us and proceeded to join the pack. A male elephant had his eyes on us, and dutifully arranged his herd of elephants in a ring surrounded their little bundle of joy, just in case we were there to cause trouble. It was both noble and heart-warming to witness. They continued to go about their business, mostly ignoring us while protecting their little one from the paparazzi.
We soon took a turn down an interesting-looking windy road, only to come face-to-face with a herd of Cape Buffalo. Their helmeted heads and piercing eyes made for quite an intimidating scene.We positioned our vehicle so we would be able to drive off if need be. This one bull, who seemed to me to be in charge, kept a watchful, threatening eye on us while trying to deal with the irritating menace of the ox-pecker birds, ever landing on his face.
We watched zebras frolic in the fields, and I delighted in their feistiness. One was a clearly a bit of an asshole, and could not help but bite and kick mischievously at his mates. The ebb and flow of the wildlife at the waterhole was a wonder to behold. The buffalo moved on, which made way for the zebras (and the lone wildebeest tagging along), which ran off, making way for the ostrich, which made way for the impala. A large, lone bull elephant then emerged from the faraway woods, making a most majestic entrance I must say. He covered himself in mud at the waterhole to cool off from the hot, mid-day sun and walked right past us, keeping a suspicious eye on my long lens.
We continued on our merry way toward Shingwedzi, enjoying sightings of an array of animals. I saw hippos basking happily in the sun and discovered how shockingly pink their bellies are. I learned that female waterbucks are one of my top two favorite antelope species. They look something like furry reindeer oddly out of place in the African sun. We stopped at another waterhole and watched another lone male give himself a long and luxurious mud bath. After covering himself in a thick coat, he hosed himself off with his trunk, the most useful appendage in the animal kingdom.
We arrived at Shingwedzi camp and, after quickly settling into our bungalow, headed back on the road to take in the late afternoon wildlife. We came across this striking Cape Buffalo, who walked toward us with intensity. It (luckily) looks like he is charging at the camera, but he was really just walking slowly toward another patch of tasty grasses, ox-pecker in tow on his back. We laughed an elephant scratch himself against the rough bark of a tree until he soothed each and every itch. In one side loop, we saw a vehicle pulled off to the side of the road, which is always a good sign. I peered through the window and in my great excitement and enthusiasm (I swear I have NEVER done this before) drew in a breath and exclaimed "It's an owl!!!" At which point the frightened owl flew away before I could get that dream photo. Sigh, face palm, et. cetera.
On our final night at Shingwedzi, we opted to take a guided night drive, after the park is closed to visitors and their vehicles. We immediately crossed paths with a hippo dining near the road at night. Our next bend in the road proved to be even more thrilling, as a female hyena stood up from the ground. Another, and then another hyena appeared until finally, a tiny hyena cub emerged from his den and looked at us without a hint of fear in the world. This tiny, curious creature completely stole my heart. His mother circled our vehicle, smelling it, and looking at us inquisitively while I resisted the urge to leap out and snuggle her cub. We swept our spotlights back and forth, searching for the reflection of eyes. We found a Mozambique Spitting Cobra, and I felt sorry we disturbed his road crossing. We saw red eyes, eerily moving from tree to tree, only to find that they belonged to the adorable, furry bushbaby.
The next day, we said goodbye to our last rest camp and made excitedly for our luxurious final lodge, Pafuri Camp. Down a side road, a large elephant was enjoying a solo breakfast, blocking the entire road. After watching him for a while, we needed to be on our way. On the left side of the road, just past the trees he was eating from was a sharp drop-off. He had to go the other way. We started tthe car, hoping he would be accommodating to us and moved forward slowly. The large bull quickly backed up and turned to face us, ears flapping outward. We stopped moving. He went back to his meal. A few minutes later, we tried again, inching the car forward once more. Again, he backed out quickly–and elephants can really move–and faced us, posturing and flapping those big ears of his. We laughed and stopped moving once more, and resigned ourselves that we were either going to be stuck for a while, or we’d have to turn around and go a very long way around. Behind us, a truck full of workers appeared. They did not approach gently, but revved their engine and drove onward quickly toward the bull. The poor elephant trumpeted his horn and scampered–yes scampered- across the road.
After seeing his tough guy mock-charge, seeing him turn into an enormous baby was adorable. It was, however, also wrong of the workers to drive at him like this, as it can lead to elephants fearing cars and behaving aggressively in the future as a result. We continued our drive, anxious to get to Pafuri when, at long last, after squinting into mile upon mile of grassland until my eyes hurt, I finally saw what every safari goer hopes to see: moving spots. A cheetah was trotting north, conveniently the same direction we were going. We drove alongside this most elegant of felines for a long while until she eventually plopped down under the shade of a tree. It is amazing how quickly they vanish.
The entire drive to the far north was magical, watching the vegetation transform into something lusher and more tropical. It was just as we approached the Makuleke concession that I saw my first baobab. I stopped the car with as much enthusiasm as I would for a lion and marveled at these wise-looking, twisting behemoths.
At last, Pafuri Camp was before us. We were greeted by the gracious staff and escorted to a table overlooking the river to get checked in. In the most glorious welcome, an elephant was right before us, raising its trunk straight up in the air reaching for what must have been the most delicious branches to warrant such a stretch. The scenery was breathtaking, the steep red banks stretching into a rich brown river, all surrounded by a lush green forest, like something straight out of the African Queen. The camp was slightly raised up like a low treehouse, blending perfectly into the surroundings. We signed a waiver which ensured the camp that we wouldn't sue in the event that we were eaten by leopards (or anything of that exciting nature), as the tented camp is completely and wonderfully unfenced from the wild. Our tent was heavenly, with a luxurious bed beautifully draped with mosquito netting. There was both an indoor and outdoor shower which, like our expansive patio, looked out over the nearby river, open and welcome to whatever wildlife should choose to visit.
I was a bit concerned about being restricted to guided game drives after the freedom of self-driving around Kruger, however our assigned guide for the duration of the trip quickly lay rest to my worries. A young, rugged guide from Tanzania with a posh British accent, a wealth of knowledge, and a knack for storytelling helped make our trip so incredibly special. On our first evening drive, we came across a herd of elephant which were acting strangely nervous. He pointed out how the bulls were secreting oil from the sides of their face, which signifies their stress. This was highly unusual behavior for elephant. They sadly must have had a bad experience with humans that caused this behavior. Then, a call came over our guide's radio which left him distracted and apologetic to us. We learned, in sorrow, that an elephant had been found by rangers with a snare around his foot. The injury was so bad that he would need to be put down. As snaring is a common poacher's method in nearby Zimbabwe, it was thought that this poor male had stepped into the trap on that side of the border, broken free and wandered into Pafuri. This was a harsh reminder of the sad reality of our world and the dangers faced by these magnificent animals.
We drove to a lookout point, which used to be known as Ivory Hill. We climbed to the top and looked out over Mozambique and Pafuri from a viewpoint historically used by poachers to easily find their targets. The baobab trees towered above the forests, like majestic beacons. After taking in the view, we proceeded toward the canyon, our destination for the evening. Dylan took us to a lesser visited canyon, which is a favorite hangout of the guides. I was thrilled to get out of the vehicle once again, something you just can't normally do in the African bush (for obvious reasons). I asked if they ever get leopards in this part of the concession, and he told me they regularly are seen right there on that very hill. We kept our eyes peeled for moving spots and snakes and after a short hike uphill, we arrived atop a stunning canyon, lit by the setting sun. I discussed conservation with Dylan and listened to his unique perspective on the ivory trade and trophy hunting. He was happy to learn of my interest in birds, and regaled us with many sightings from that moment on and throughout our days with him. We drank our sundowners, white wine, and sat above it all, watching the shadows stretch across the red canyon while the birds flitted about the rocks.
Before sunrise, we headed out on a bushwalk. We walked through a narrow ravine with great caution, as it is a route used by animals of all shapes and sizes to pass through the canyon walls. Poachers used the top of this ravine historically to shoot passing wildlife, like shooting fish in a barrel. Dylan told us how some elephant herds have passed this knowledge down through the ages, and they can still be seen acting nervously or even running through the passageway in fear. We spotted the perfectly round print of a leopard, and nearby a tiny copy–a mother and her cub had recently passed this way. We sat down on a log to rest and enjoy the nearby hoopoe birds. Dylan regaled us with stories about becoming a guide. He is specializing in dangerous animal encounters on foot–is there a more interesting job in the world? We naturally wanted to know about some of his more interesting encounters and he once had two male lions charging directly at him and two German tourists he was guiding. He thought this was highly unusual behavior for the lions and had his gun ready to shoot, trying to calculate how much time he would need to be able to shoot both, but realized at the moment he had that thought it was already too late. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that the two tourists were running away and, as I told you, this is the one thing you should NEVER do. He shouted “STOP!” desperately and the moment the two tourists stopped running, the lions stopped their charge and moved on. Life is exciting in the bush.
We spent the day lounging by the pool cameras at the ready on their tripods. The bird-life in Pafuri is incomparable. Everywhere you look there is another fascinating species to admire. I watched in awe as the Pied Kingfishers hover over the river and then dive down into the water. I watched as the bee-eaters flitted about, far to quick to catch in my lens. I marveled at the beauty of the harrier-hawk, his peachy face so fashionably set against his blue-grey plumage. I watched vultures circling up ahead and wondered if they were following the lion (which had been seen earlier at camp) down below. I watched the ebb and flow of life on the river, the meeting place for all. Buffalo, elephant, impala, baboon, warthog, all come to the same place to drink. I watched a nile monitor lurking about the nests of some poor ducks, and I smiled at the cartoonish dewlaps of the White Crowned Lapwing waggling as they perused the riverbanks. I watched from my lounge chair, occasionally taking a dip in the cold pool when the tropical winter sun became too much to bear, before inevitably finding myself dripping over my camera as the next animal wandered by.
Dylan told us what perfect gentleman old bull elephants are and that whenever he sees them he tips his hat to them, because it seems the only proper thing to do. This delighted me beyond all reason and I was thrilled to witness this display of African social graces for myself.
One of the things that most intrigued me about visiting Pafuri was seeing the Fever Tree Forest. Fever Tree–is there any more romantic name in the universe? The Fever Tree was named as such because travelers of yore came down with fever from malaria, and thought it must be from all of these unusual, yellow hued trees. Naturally, the malaria was from the mosquitos which frequent this area of regular flooding. The Fever Tree Forest was every bit as magical as I envisioned and more. Acacia xanthophloea has powdery, yellow bark and the trees are spaced in such a way that the light comes down between the branches and illuminates the shadowy forest floor with a mystical light. I was completely enamored.
We drove on and, in another stunning work of art compliments of the setting sun, watched a breeding herd of buffalo, backlit by the sunshine. Our sundowners destination this evening was a dream come true. We pulled up in front of the most enormous baobab tree, so enormous that I couldn't get the entire behemoth in my camera frame without backing so far into the bush that I would surely have been grabbed by some eagerly awaiting predator. Dylan asked if we’d like to climb the tree, and after her scrambled up the slippery bark first, he gave us each a hand with the last couple of grips. We were in the nook of this massive, proud tree just as the sun was setting. The sky glowed in a magnificent array of colors and I thought a moment couldn’t possibly be more perfect.
In the morning, we again headed out before sunrise, and Dylan had a real treat in store for us and the other two photographers with us. Once you learn to take an interest in bird-life, your world changes. There is such biodiversity that everything immediately becomes more interesting. Our guide was thrilled to have four guests with such an interest, as he was able to show off his vast knowledge and also take us to a special place that he knew would delight us all. We first went to a pan and visited the hippos bobbing in the water alongside the crocodiles. On our way to our destination, we stopped the vehicle and, as always, our guide gave us the chance to be on-foot in the bush. An elephant bull was up ahead and we approached on foot. Like with all bushwalks, we walked in single file behind his gun, and paid close attention to his every command. When the elephant saw us, Dylan motioned to get down. We all crouched to the ground and watched the elephant ahead of us, so close by, look at us in assessment, then turn and move on his way.
We parked the safari vehicle near the lovely Fever Tree Forest and headed in on-foot, until a scene like no other opened up before us. In front of the mystical fever trees was a pond, and near that pond were baboons, and in that pond and all around was the most astonishing range of bird species I could imagine encountering. There were African jacana, spoonbill, and ibis. There were Marabou and Yellow-Billed and Saddle-billed Stork. There were Goliath herons and Great Egrets, and Hamerkops and Sandgrouse, and Painted Snipe, and so, so, so many more. We watched stork swiping their heads back and forth to stir up the water, we watched fish speared on beaks like shish-kebab, we watched kingfishers diving into the water, all in front of the magical forest of the fever trees.