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.
Rhinos Grazing in Balule (Video)
“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.
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.
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.
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.