Johannesburg and Kruger National Park, South Africa

Arriving in South Africa was a shock to my system.  An extensive network of paved, well-maintained roads?  An uninterrupted supply of electricity, 24 hours a day?  Excellent English spoken by almost everyone?  Lots of healthy-looking dogs and cats?  Sushi bars?  For six months I hadn’t experienced any of those things, and it took me a while to adjust.

I spent two nights at a small guest house in the Melville area of Johannesburg, just northwest of the central business district.  Filled with cafes, restaurants, bohemian art galleries, and second-hand bookstores, Melville’s main street had the feel of a college town.  On the plane from Tanzania I’d started Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, and I found it especially moving to read about Mandela’s life while sitting in a Johannesburg cafe, surrounded by mixed-race groups of friends talking and laughing together.  It’s incredible how much South Africa has changed in such a short period of time.

I was glad to see Jo’burg, but I was more interested in Kruger National Park, the country’s premiere wildlife reserve.  Unlike the parks I’d been to in East Africa, Kruger was designed for self-guided drives, and I considered renting a car.  But for just one person it was cheaper and easier to book a tour, and Trish, the owner of the guest house I stayed at, helped me find a four-day safari that included two walks in the bush.  I really liked the idea of being able to get out of the jeep and use my own feet to explore the park.

On the first morning of the tour I reluctantly said goodbye to my new friend Jasper, Trish’s German Shepherd puppy, and spent the next six hours riding from Jo’burg to a safari lodge just outside of Kruger.  The lodge was located in Balule, one of the many unfenced game reserves that border the park.  As soon as we arrived we headed right back out for a late afternoon game drive and quickly found a group of Black Rhinos very close to the road.

 

Rhino and Bird

 

Rhino Profile

 

Rhinos at Sunset

 

Rhino Straight On

 

Rhinos Grazing in Balule (Video)

 

Setting Sun at Balule

 

Sunset at Balule

 

Bongani, our guide, seemed to be extremely sharp.  But – still wary from my experience with China (the clueless guide I was stuck with on my Tanzania safari) – I decided to see how Bongani would respond to some of the questions China fumbled so badly.  “Do lions ever prey on giraffe?” I asked.

“Oh yes,” answered Bongani, who went on to say that he had personally seen a single female lion kill an adult male giraffe.  The lions in Kruger, apparently, have learned to use the park’s paved roads to their advantage.  Bongani told us that he watched a female lion intentionally chase a giraffe towards one of the roads, knowing that a giraffe running full speed might slip on the pavement.  When the giraffe did slip, the lion was able to leap on its neck and inflict a mortal wound.

What a big difference it makes to have a knowledgeable guide.  I never doubted any of Bongani’s identifications, and it was fun to have a guide who could share interesting personal anecdotes about the animals.  Bongani also helped me understand the code word system used by many safari guides.  When a guide finds a sought-after animal, he or she often gets on the radio to share the location with other guides.  But everyone in the jeep can hear the radio, and – given that guides can’t always follow-up on a sighting – they don’t want guests getting excited by words like “lion” and “leopard.”  So the guides use code words for all the major animals.  Lions, for example, are called ngalas, and leopards are ingwes.

Instead of returning to the lodge at sunset we stayed out for another two hours and used a searchlight to continue looking for animals after dark.  Considering that so many animals become more active at night, I wondered why we’d never done that on any of my safaris in East Africa.  At about 7pm another guide radioed that he’d seen two ngalas on the move, and Bongani drove to a spot on the road that might cross their path.  The guide who’d reported the lions pulled up in front of us and we all sat in silence, scanning the bushes with our searchlights.  After a few minutes two young male lions emerged from the vegetation and crossed the road between the headlights of our jeeps.  It was too dark to take clear photos, but it was really cool to see lions on the prowl at night.

 

Lion at Night

 

Lion in Jeep’s Headlights

 

At dinner back at the lodge I asked Bongani and Mark, the head guide, for their expert opinion on one of my favorite animal questions.  “Let’s say all the toughest animal species in the world each send one representative to a big tournament.  The animals are paired up randomly and have to fight one-on-one to the death, and then the winner of each fight advances to the next round and fights again.  Which animal,” I asked, “wins the whole thing?”

Mark didn’t hesitate.  “African elephant.  One-on-one, no other animal can kill an adult male elephant.”  Mark said he once saw an elephant use its tusks to pick up a fully-grown rhino and throw it 12 feet in the air.  Bongani agreed with Mark.  An elephant wins, he said, and a rhino comes in second.  I suggested some other possibilities – grizzly bear, silverback gorilla, crocodile, tiger, lion, one of the venomous snakes – but they said none of those stood a chance against an angry African elephant.

 

Frogs Eating Insects on Lodge Lights

 

At 5:00 the next morning Bongani and I went for a four-hour bush walk.  I’d been warned not to expect too much.  “We will probably not see any big animals,” said Bongani.  “The walk is more about looking at tracks, dung, and insects.”  Tracks, dung, and insects?  I can understand why the safari company failed to mention that in its marketing brochure.

 

Bongani at the Start of Our Bush Walk

 

And sure enough, we didn’t get close to many big animals.  Still it was a very welcome change of pace to be out of the jeep.  Bongani – whose eyes and ears were 10 times better than mine – somehow spotted an elephant and two giraffe on distant hills, so far away that I could barely see them through my telephoto lens.  Much closer we saw hippos, vervet monkeys, and several waterbuck.  At one point Bongani delivered an emotional speech about society’s shameful lack of appreciation for hyenas and dung beetles.

As we walked along I asked Bongani about his family.  He said he has a three-year-old daughter and recently became engaged to his daughter’s mother, who he’d been dating for seven years.  “Getting married is like swallowing a stone,” Bongani told me.  “You must accept the fact that it cannot be digested, and you just have to live with it.”  How romantic…  If Bongani ever decides to switch careers, I think we can rule out greeting card writer.

That afternoon we went on another game drive, and then unfortunately I had to say goodbye to Bongani, who was rotated to another group of tourists.

 

Steenbok

 

African Buffalo Stare-down

 

Isaac, our guide for the evening game drive, wasn’t nearly as knowledgeable as Bongani, and we didn’t have any luck finding big cats this time.  But we did see zebras, giraffes, and a large herd of buffalo at a watering hole.

 

African Buffalo at Watering Hole

 

Surprised African Buffalo

 

Smiling Zebra

 

Zebra Mom with Kid in Balule

 

Giraffe at Sunset

 

Often my wildlife encounters at the lodge were more exciting than the game drives.  Some animals – especially vervet monkeys and the antelope-like nyala – have found that hanging around the lodge is a good way to avoid predators.  One group of nyalas appeared right outside my room every morning, and I started waking up early so I could have time to watch them before breakfast.

 

Nyala Mom with Fawn

 

Adult Male Nyala

 

Vervet Monkey at the Lodge



Nyala Fawn

 

Two Nyala Fawns

 

Approaching a Nyala (Video)

 

On the third day of the tour Isaac took us into Kruger National Park.  We had a really good group, including Eleni and Paul, two med students from Australia, and Robbie and Laura, a recently-engaged couple from Scotland.  We entered the park through the Orpen gate, and – despite the fact that we were in an area called “the zoo” because it’s usually so densely packed with wildlife – we just didn’t see much.  “All the animals are on vacation,” said Isaac.

Our luck never improved.  We drove through the Satara area, which supposedly has the highest concentration of lions in all of Africa, but we went the whole day without spotting a single big cat.  For long stretches we didn’t find any animals at all.  At the same time, it’s testimony to Kruger’s lofty reputation that we felt disappointed even though we saw an amazing variety of wildlife:  elephants, giraffes, zebras, hippos, buffalos, impalas, kudus, blue wildebeests, warthogs, mongooses, baboons, vervet monkeys, steenbok, waterbucks, jackals, and lots of birds.

 

Elephant in Tall Grass

 

Hornbill in Kruger National Park

 

Zebra Rolling

 

Ground Hornbill Taking Flight

 

Young Wildebeest

 

On the morning of my last day a guide named Christo took a group of us on a short walk around the lodge before breakfast.  We were able to get very close to a herd of African buffalo, which can be aggressive and dangerous.  Christo, who carried a rifle, didn’t do much to reassure us – all of his stories seemed to involve hapless tourists being charged by angry animals.

 

Very Close to African Buffalo

 

After breakfast we began the long drive back to Johannesburg.  Along the way we stopped at Blyde River Canyon, which according to the tour company is “a scenic spectacle surpassed only by the Grand Canyon.”  I wouldn’t go quite that far, but the views were impressive.

 

Blyde River Canyon

  

Back in Johannesburg I checked into a hotel for just one night before flying to Port Elizabeth.