Saturday, January 22, 2005
Day 20 Wildlife Up Close
22 January 2005 (Happy Birthday, Dad!)
Today we lived out our childhood fantasies. At 4:30 AM about half of us crept out of our thatched-roof huts in the lower Sabie camp of Kruger National Park and into the darkness of a ranger’s jeep. Driving along dirt roads leading deeper into the park’s wilderness, we ducked our heads to avoid being hit by birds and came to abrupt halts to avoid an elephant and a pride of lions.
As the sun rose, outlining acacia trees and languid giraffe limbs, our guide Gerard stopped the jeep and we piled out to prepare for our three-hour sunrise hike. Exiting one’s vehicle is not allowed in Kruger and only a handful of visitors get to take these hikes through the park, so we were thrilled to be standing on the park’s soil.
Gerard leaned against the vehicle door, lit his pipe and began to tell us the rules: single file lines, silence, and NO running away in case of an emergency—his rifle would be there to allay our fears. Suddenly, he hushed us, alert, listening. “Did you hear that?” he asked, pausing dramatically. We heard nothing. He exhaled a cloud of pipe smoke, “Lions roaring.” And with that, we were off and tromping through waist-high grasses, pausing to spot hyenas, sifting through the dung of a black rhino—and all before breakfast.
By the end of our hike we had seen plenty of zebra and impala, but no rhinos: a big disappointment. Piling back into the jeep, we headed back to camp. Gerard startled us by slamming on the breaks and pointing into the hills. Two tiny black dots moved slowly—these were white rhinos. Despite running late on our tour time and pushing the limits on checkout time, Gerard allowed us to try and sneak up on the rhinos. Through the brush we approached the enormous horned animals from behind, putting two or three bushes in between them and us. After somewhat of a stare down, the rhinos ignored us and we reported back to lower Sabie with muddy scratches on our legs and satisfied smiles on our faces
Later on, we all drove three hours through the park on our way to the next camp. We tried to stop every time there was a possible animal sighting—this produced pictures of elephants, zebras, kudu, buffalo, wildebeest, gazelles, rhinos, klepspring, and several rocks we thought were animals.
Throughout the day the scenery and animalia reminded many of us of Disney’s “The Lion King”. Several song renditions occurred to various degrees of success and we had a competition to see who could find the best Pride Rock look-alike.
In the evening the whole group got to go on a guided night drive. After the sun set, we parked next to two adolescent male elephants and watched them fight. They snapped a tree in half and repeatedly charged each other, small tusks clashing. One of the elephants turned toward our spotlight and positioned himself to face the front of our vehicle, flapping his ears in anger. Immediately, our guide started the engine and threw the jeep into reverse—we then knew to be scared. Lightning flashed in the distance and there were several audible gasps. After a few breathless moments, the elephant lost interest and ambled back into the trees. Our heartbeats eventually returned to normal as we came back to camp and we were able to enjoy a delectable late meal together, reveling in our recent adventures.