Friday, May 6, 2011
Kruger Park is vast, approximately the size of Israel. Named for late nineteenth century president and Boer War hero Paul Kruger, the park was established in 1898 as the Sabi game reserve to protect animals from well-off sport hunters who were in danger of hunting certain species to extinction. The Sabi Reserve was expanded and became what we now know as Kruger National Park in 1926.
We entered the gates of the park in the late morning on Wednesday, 5/4. We proceeded slowly, using our bus as a makeshift safari vehicle until we arrived at our stop for the night, Shingwedzi Camp just prior to 4pm. We just had time to get situated in our rooms before it was time for our game drives and bush walks. Because we are a relatively large group, we were split into three groups, the intention being to allow each member of our group the opportunity for a game drive an a bush walk.
These are two very different experiences. Participants in a game drive find themselves in back of an open-air safari vehicle and proceed to spend the next 2 1/2-3 hours slowly traveling the roads of the park in search of wildlife. The highlight of the first night's drive was surely a group of hyenas, one of which decided to gnaw on the tire of the safari vehicle! The next morning, groups set out again, this time at 4:30am (this was a brutal wake-up time for many of us, some of us more than others.) It gets quite cold in these open-air vehicles, especially before the sunrise, so much of our energy was spent trying to keep warm. Luckily, the trucks are outfitted with plenty of blankets just for this purpose, so we were able to concentrate on game viewing (as long as our eyes didn't get too heavy, of course.) Highlights of this drive included baboons and two female hyenas with two babies, again right by the roadside (but no tire-gnawing this time, thankfully).
Bush walks are very different, as one might imagine. While participants in game drives typically see more animals, walkers are able to experience the bush in a way that simply isn't possible if one simply drives through it. Each bush walk is led by two experienced guides armed with rifles, to be used on animals only as a last resort (I'm happy to report that none of the guides had to resort to the use of these weapons on our walk; they are an important safety precaution but rarely used). These expert guides are able to interpret the bush for the walkers, showing them things such as the bones of a snake or elephant dung. On of our walks included fresh lion tracks and dung, but no encounters with lions (this was probably for the best, but still...). While one sees more on a drive, walkers are able to experience the bush using their other senses, hearing and smelling the bush in a quiet way that isn't possible from the inside of a diesel safari vehicle, even an open-air one. I think everyone is happy that they were able to experience the bush in both ways.
Thursday morning, we proceeded slowly once again, riding in our bus safari vehicle until we reach our night's lodgings at Oliphants Camp. Animal highlights include hippos, elephant herds (including some really cute babies); birds such as vultures, Bateleur eagles (named for their wobbling flight pattern which resembles a tightrope walker--bateleur is French for tightrope walker) and gorgeous Lilac-Breasted Rollers (see photo above); countless Impalas; giraffes; and crocodiles. Doubtlessly the highlight of our animal sightings occurred Thursday night on our way to our Bush Braai, when we were lucky enough to spy a leopard in the underbrush.
Bush Braais are wonderful. Similar to a barbecue, except that it occurs in the brush under the stars. After a short 10 km drive, we arrived at the site of the braai. The cooks had been busy preparing a delicious feast of lettuce and pasta salads, chicken and steak, grilled vegetable stew, and pap with tomatoes (pap is a maize porridge, similar to polenta), and brownies with custard for dessert.
Participants in the game drive on Friday morning were delighted to find a Kori Bustard. Students had been anxiously seeking out this bird ever since they learned that our guide remembered my name (Corey) by recalling the name of this bird. They were understandably thrilled to have found one; in fact, this was likely more exciting than the rhinos they saw on their ride.
We slowly made our way out of the park and bid farewell to our guide Traugott. He was a great guide, since he had grown up among the Venda and was truly passionate about the people, their heritage, and their land. He has encyclopedic knowledge of the various game in Kruger Park as well, a great guide.