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Return to South Africa

I've been pondering the effects of returning to the same places over and over again. I recall my first trip to Africa; the dizzying excitement of seeing something as common as an impala, the disbelief at observing an animal as endangered as a rhino, the admiration of the colorful bee-eaters, the heart-stopping sense of wonder at it all. That was, indeed, something very special, and my memory of that feeling is something I will always treasure, but there is something special in this new familiarity as well. I now notice the variables of the land and the animals. I notice when I haven't seen a lilac-breasted roller in a while. I know to pay attention to the behavior of the vultures when looking for predators. I've learned not to worry when an enormous elephant charges my car, if his ears are flapped out and his trunk isn't rolled. I'm better at anticipating animal behavior, and positioning my car in the right place to both respect the animal's space and get the shot. I've developed an eye for spotting birds, and take as much pleasure in seeing an unfamiliar avian as I would a lion or a cheetah. I've learned so much from my time in the bush, and replacing that blind marvel of my early visits with this comfort and familiarity is, too, a wonderful thing.

Before heading off to self-drive through the southern half of Kruger National Park, I booked a few nights at a lodge on a private game reserve that specially caters to photographers. Indlovu River Lodge, in the Karongwe Game Reserve. The lodge has two photography hides, dug into the ground in front of waterholes and positioned perfectly for lighting, one for the morning sunrise, and one for sunset. The hide is open to the water and fitted with gimbal heads for camera stability. The animals do not know of your presence as it is dark in the hide, so you can watch them from a very close distance without their knowledge. Sitting in a hide is one of my favorite things. It requires endless patience and a true appreciation for wildlife. This is not for people who want the practically guaranteed sightings of guided game drives, but for those who want to see what nature offers them. You may get lucky and have a leopard come to visit the waterhole, or you may see only mourning doves and have the time to observe and appreciate their own unique beauty. The anticipation of waiting in perfect stillness and silence to see what appears next is thrilling.

The conditions on my first evening sitting in the hide were far from ideal. It was a chilly, windy day and the rain had soaked the earth just the day before, so animals had no need of traveling to the waterhole. I enjoyed the peace and solitude of the hide and watched a variety of birds visit.

I enjoyed the cool breeze and wondered what could be lurking about out of sight, to my great delight, a group of funny birds I had never seen before fluttered down from the sky. They looked like a strange combination of a dove and a parrot, with a beautiful green color and yellow legs, which looked like they were wearing flamboyant pants.

That night, we enjoyed a brai dinner in the boma, sipping wine and enjoying the sounds of the bush at night. In the morning, we woke to the vervet monkeys playing around the lodge and snacking on the trees surrounding our chalet. One monkey had a little baby clinging to her baby as she whizzed about the grounds. We left for an early game drive at 5am. I’ve come to not like game drives, preferring the freedom of sighting wildlife on my own, but we had an enjoyable morning nonetheless. We stopped for coffee and rusks by a waterhole and watched the hippos, crocodiles, and variety of shorebirds milling about. The Egyptian Geese came in for their landings like kamikazes, squawking the whole way down.

Mid-day, I took a walk around Indlovu with my camera, hoping to get a close up glimpse of the mother monkey while I ducked behind trees but she proved far too wise to fall for my sneaking. Enjoying my solitude, I continued my walk over to a raised hide above a dried up waterhole. On the way, I had to navigate around a massive colony–no, empire–of ants, and did my very best not to step on any. While no animals were drawn to this dusty, dried up hide, I found it to be a peaceful place to observe the birds in the trees from eye-level. Perched all alone up there, I felt all of the stress and worry I brought overseas with me disappear as I focused on their calls and appreciated the otherwise stillness of a sunny afternoon in the bush.

In the evening, we headed back to the hide, hoping for better luck on this beautiful, sunny day. Lady luck was smiling upon us, and the waterhole was abuzz with all sorts of creatures. Bees were flying all around, bothering the birds and, thankfully, staying out of the hide. Many poor, unfortunate souls struggled for life in the water, and we did our best to save ones that floated near enough to our hide to lend a helping stick.

The green pigeons returned, awkward and wonderful. They land quickly and clumsily, and when aground they use hopping as a means to get around, their shockingly yellow legs leading the motion. A Malachi kingfisher, an almost unrealistically purple bird, swooped in repeatedly but, alas, was too quick and unpredictable in his aerial gymnastics for me to capture his beauty.

At last–a mammal made an appearance! A shy impala cautiously stepped to the waterhole, every footstep carefully placed, on the alert for any stray sound. The chairs in the hide were maddeningly squeaky, and I did my best not to move a muscle or breathe too loud. The flight instinct is so very strong with these animals, who are like a walking buffet for the predatory set. As the impala walked away, I noticed oxpeckers landing on them. The impala shake about and even glare at the oxpeckers, hoping they will leave, but the oxpeckers seem to take pride in being pests, like a little kid annoying his parents for the sheer joy of it.

I continued to scan the bush in between photographing birds, and at last, I spotted a wildebeest in the distant scrub, making his way toward the waterhole. Behind him, a line of these majestic creatures, all kindly coming up to reflect perfectly in the water in front of me.

The oxpeckers are a joy to watch. Their quizzical expression and ever-tilting heads evaluate their surroundings, like mad artists who see something interesting the rest of us don’t.

A southern red-billed hornbill, who had been observing the action from a nearby tree, swooped down with a flair for the dramatic. He proceeded his funny little march around the waterhole, a sentinel out on a patrol he takes too seriously, while others giggle at his demeanor.

The waxbills and firefinches also visited, vibrant little birds which I love and which will feature heavily in tomorrow’s fun. Peeking around the corner, came the chicken with his head cut off: the helmeted guinea fowl. This poor bird appears to live in a state of perpetual terror, so I was extra-careful to remain silent as it hesitantly bobbed its way to the water.

In the morning, we elected to go on a guided game drive to break up the hide sessions. Just my luck–that morning the lions made a trip to the waterhole, spotted by another vehicle, but no lucky photographers were there to capture their reflections. We did, however, come across this beautiful pride of lions, consisting of four young males around one year old and one female. The lions crossed the road in front of us, and one of the males paused to give himself a bath. He bent his neck awkwardly, showing off a tubby belly which looked temptingly rubbable.

In the evening, we returned to the hide, but had to share it with two Canadian wildlife photographers. They were amused to find the chairs just as obnoxiously squeaky as we had described over lunch at the lodge and we all had to contend with this issue as we scared one especially jumpy dove away repeatedly. We were visited by one nyala, but otherwise it was another quiet evening at the hide, with an abundance of birds but few mammals. A pied kingfisher broke the silence of the bush with a splash, diving into the water mere inches away, making all of us jump as though leopard had leapt into the hide. We discovered later that there was a male lion lurking nearby, and all of us were glad we hadn’t left the safety of the hide for a bathroom break in the bush.

Glossy starlings are common as can be, but they are so beautiful. Spending time in the hide allows you to be present in the moment. There is no, “what’s next?” There is just time and quiet. These birds actually shine in the light with an iridescent turquoise that changes as they move. And did you know that birds are funny? Well, of all the animals in the animal kingdom, I find myself most often laughing at members of this class, with their curiosity and expressions.

Speaking of funny, the oxpeckers landed like a vaudeville comedy troupe: exaggerated motions, silliness, and plenty of pomp. I adore these guys. Even if it weren’t for their open-mouthed goofiness and eccentric behaviors, just look at them– they are flying clowns!

That night, the silence was shattered by the roar of lions. The chilling sounds echoed through the night air and reverberated within me. I fell asleep feeling within and a part of Africa.

At dawn, I woke to birdsong and playing monkeys. This would be my last morning at Indlovu, before heading out on a self-drive adventure through Kruger National Park. But first, we headed to the photography hide positioned to take in the morning light. We set up our cameras on the gimbal heads, poured ourselves coffee from the thermos, and snacked on rusks as the little birds zipped about. I looked into the water in front of me, and was pleased to see many little fish. I put my fingertip to the water, and a school swam up to me and nibbled on my finger, to my intense delight. I realized I shouldn’t get too attached, in case the kingfishers return.

A tiny little duiker came to visit, approaching with great caution. I stilled myself on the squeaky chair as best I could, and was able to snap a couple of shots before the nervous little antelope went back to the relative safety of the woods.

The waxbills are wondrous little birds–common as can be, but oh so bright in color! They come in like little tornadoes, all in a bustling group. I picture minions, bumping into each other to get the best spot in line. They startle easily, although seemingly more from each other and the shoving, rather than from my squeaky chair inside the hide, so it is a constant flurry of adorable activity when they are around.

A brave visitor appeared, and my face lit up with delight. I lunged for my camera excitedly and almost squeaked the chair and ruined the moment. A single zebra approached with confidence, and proceeded to drink at the waterhole, his glorious stripes reflected in the still water. I took about a hundred too many photographs before he moved on. However, to my astonishment he returned thirty minutes later with all of his friends. The herd loped toward the waterhole and their rocking gate brought back memories of halcyon days horse-back riding. They lined up like perfect models right in front of me and drank from the waterhole. One zebra felt left out and tried to squeeze himself right in the middle of the line, like the youngest sibling,wedging his way through the big zebra bellies. As they finished guzzling the water, their spunky natures inevitably emerged, and a particularly feisty one kicked at the zebra next to him, with a donkey-like squeal that made me giggle.

At last, it was time to say goodbye to Indlovu River Lodge. While our stay was enjoyable and the hides offered an unmatched photographic opportunity, I was excited to get into our car and head out on our own to explore the bush. Self-driving is incomparable. It is a joy to be your own spotter and train your eyes to notice discrepancies in the wild, like spots expertly camouflaged in the tall grasses or a lump of a raptor silhouetted in the trees. The ability to stop near you discovery with your windows down, turn off your engine, and just quietly observe and photograph an animal for as long as you like is like no other experience.

Having entered Kruger from Phalaborwa gate before when traveling through the northern parts of the park, I knew just which waterhole I wanted to return to. A right turn down a windy dirt road leads you to an active waterhole and, sure enough, a herd of elephants was enjoying mud baths when we arrived. I sat for a long while just observing these brilliant creatures. A mother elephant tenderly cared for her young, while other elephants rolled in the mud and sprayed themselves with water in, what looks like, a most enjoyable bathing ritual. Eventually, the herd moved on, marching right in front of me. The baby elephants waved their trunks at us in farewell as they passed by, and I politely waved back. It was time to move on.

I continued driving along the dirt road, making my way slowly toward our next camp while on the (photographic) hunt for wildlife. Sitting under a tree was a small group of baboons. I pulled up the SUV and, after a few adjustments to achieve an optimal angle, switched off the engine, pulled out my beanbag for lens stability, and observed. There were many more than just the few baboons I initially noticed, and a group of youngsters roughhoused merrily in the branches of the trees, making a great racket. One youngster fell from the tree in the scuffle, brushed himself off and scrambled back up into the action. Looking around, I saw a mother baboon sitting beneath a tree and nursing an absolutely precious infant with startling pink ears. The youthful baboons’ play games moved to the ground, and the infant baboon snuck away from his mom to try to play with the big kids. Mom walked calmly over to the chaos, picked up her little one, and brought him back to their original location. She picked through his hair for insects, and two other adult baboons came over to assist in the cleaning. The baby snuck away to play several more times, in a repeat of this adorable scene.

We pressed on, needing to hurry a bit to make it to the Satara camp before sunset after spending such a long part of our day with the elephants. I stopped the vehicle briefly to watch another herd of elephants in a riverbed, one with particularly impressive tusks, and we spent too little time with the many zebra and waterbuck and monkeys we passed as we turned south into the park and crossed the Olifants river..

Up ahead, I saw several cars gathering, always a sign of an exciting sighting. I slowed down to a crawl, and quickly spotted several young male cheetahs sleeping under a tree. I maneuvered the car until I had a decent view of one of the sleeping cheetah and then switched off my engine so as not to disturb the animals (*Pro tip: if you have two photographers self-driving, one drives while the other sits in the back seat. The one driving maximizes views for their own side and the back-seat photographer can slide around for shooting). He was laying with his face in my direction, so I anticipated that he would at least face me for a moment when he woke up. My luck was far better than that.

The handsome young male yawned and stretched, and stood up lazily, looking in my direction. Soon, all of the cheetahs began waking up from their nap. It was nearing dusk, and that meant it was time to hunt. The closet cheetah fixed his eyes on something in the distance, and I followed his line of sight to a little steenbok in the tall grasses. The steenbok quickly sensed the danger, and darted off into the savannah. The cheetah did not elect to chase, to my disappointment and relief for the sake of the adorable little antelope. The five cheetahs were on the move, and right in my direction. They walk with incredible grace, with long strides that show off their lean muscles. Their eyes glowed golden in the low sun of the hour and I was completely in awe of their beauty. Several giraffe were walking toward the cheetah, and I was curious to see how the interaction would play out. Cheetah should not attempt to hunt giraffe as they are not strong enough to take one down and would likely die in the attempt. The giraffe continued to pick leaves from the treetops but kept a wary eye on the cheetahs, who had lined up on a termite mound and were eyeing the giraffes with wistful hunger.

The cheetahs vanished into the tall grasses, and it was time to continue on to Satara, our first rest camp. On the way, we saw a leopard tortoise (one of the “Little Five”) and kudu backlit by the setting sun.

Our first day of self-driving had been wonderful, and I was eager to wake up early to explore this area, famed for its population of big cats. After a good night’s rest, I stepped out of our bungalow and saw movement on the ground nearby. A honey badger, the ferocious, voracious, fascinating little animal was rummaging around camp for scraps of food, going bungalow to bungalow with a limp. I followed him from a distance, delighted by this animal–so tough that he has few natural predators and will stand up to a full grown lion with great bravery. This sighting was a real treat.

We began our drive, heading toward the S100, a road known for excellent sightings, and were not disappointed. A ground hornbill crossed the road in the beautiful golden hour light, tossing sticks aside in a woodpile looking for breakfast. I found that his red wattle gives him a very distinguished appearance, and I pictured his personality to be that of Sam the Eagle from The Muppets.

A herd of elephants enjoyed a morning meal on the left side of the road. I stopped the car when I noticed that the tiniest, brand new baby elephant was part of their herd. She zoomed back and forth, like a dog fresh out of a bath, while her mother calmly watched over her. I wondered if the mom was thinking about how cute she was, like I was.