People go on African safaris in search of The Big Five. The term was originally coined by white hunters to categorise the animals hardest to hunt on foot: African Elephant, Cape Buffalo, Rhinoceros, Lion, and Leopard, but it is now mostly used by those going on safari holidays and the tour guides that cater to them. Whether spoken or unspoken, the achievement of spotting all of The Big Five is on all safari-goers’ minds, and almost always a case of luck rather than skill — some people get lucky, most don’t—but those who achieve it wear it as a badge of honour as if they had personally stalked each one through the undergrowth at great personal risk.
We saw The Big Two, in more ways than one.
We arrived at our rented villa in Kruger Park Lodge on Sunday evening after a day-long drive from Johannesburg airport, where Karen, Abigail and I had flown to the day before (from Luanda), and met Elliot the next morning off his flight from London. The 250 mile drive from Jo’burg East to Kruger National Park was taken at a leisurely pace and made much easier by my sat-nav device that I’d brought from London, complete with recently-purchased Southern Africa maps. The main N4 road is long, straight, and in great condition, but then it ought to be considering we paid around £15 in tolls to use it. As the N4 climbs into hillier territory for the last quarter of the trip the roads get narrower, twistier, more scenic and altogether ‘bikier’. As I drove along I kept saying (out loud): “Wow, I must come back here on two wheels one day!” Seriously, these are some great motorcycling roads, with their wide sweeping curves, smooth surfaces and plenty of overtaking opportunities.
Kruger Park Lodge is a golf resort just outside the Southwestern corner of the Park, and we had rented one of the 140 or so timeshare villas for our four-day stay. The villa was all on one level but large, modern, well equipped and with a vaulted thatched roof with no internal covering, giving the place the feel of a traditional hut—albeit a four star one. Being the geeks we are, a week without Internet was unthinkable and so rather than limit our accommodation options by demanding inclusive Wi-Fi I took my own: a Vodacom 3G modem with portable wireless router. Within minutes of unlocking the front door it was plugged in, switched on, and we were online. After all, what good is an expensive holiday if you can’t brag about it on Facebook? Dinner was out on the covered veranda, cooked on the brick-built barbecue, or Braai, to give it its local name. South Africans love their Braais, and we are becoming experts too, what with our Jo’burg meat runs and poolside barbecues at the Embassy. The last time we had a braai at the Embassy we found we’d run out of firelighters, so I used the contents of my paper shredder basket as kindling instead. There was a lot more smoke than usual but it did the trick.
Our alarm went off at 4.45 the next morning. Game drives are best done either at dawn or dusk, because that’s when the animals are at their most active, and therefore visible. And since the Park closes at 5.30pm a dawn drive is what everyone chooses to do. We approached Phabeni Gate just before its 6am opening time, and joined a line of about thirty vehicles who got there ahead of us. Having parked and queued up to pay the entrance fee of about £18 each, we finally entered the park around 6.15, just after sunrise. Kruger Park is the size of Wales, and with its size and network of roads—some paved, some dirt track—the crowds at the gate quickly dispersed in several directions, leaving the road we chose surprisingly quiet. Then began the serious work of wildlife-spotting. We drove along slowly, around 15mph, each scanning the bush to the sides of the car and the road ahead for signs of life, and it wasn’t long before we found some. A small herd of Bush Buck were standing by the side of the road. One of the smaller species of the Antelope family, these twenty or so seemed unfazed by our presence and stood posing for our cameras as we pulled up alongside. Further along we spotted four Zebras, and then our first bird of prey—an African Fish Eagle perched on the highest branch of a dead tree. More Antelope followed: small herds of Bush Buck and the larger Kudu.
At each of the park’s several rest camps they have a sightings map on the wall, where visitors place colour-coded magnetic dots on locations where they have seen any of The Big Five. I wasn’t sure how seriously to take this. Anyone could put a dot anywhere without having to provide further proof, and even if the sighting was real it didn’t really help. Even if we could navigate to the right spot who’s to say said beastie would still be there for our convenience. I chose to ignore the sightings map and after a break for breakfast we resumed the hunt our own way.
Two things on the road were of interest: Dung and Stoppage. Large mounds of dung were common in the middle of the road, suggesting the nearby presence of Elephants or Rhino, and we speculated on why they would choose the road as their toilet. I suggested that, since they eat the vegetation they walk on, they wouldn’t want to poo on their food, and tried to convince Abigail of this by likening it to her doing a No. 2 while wading through a sea of sausage rolls. “You just wouldn’t do it, would you?”. We knew though that it was more likely that there is dung all over the park and it’s only that on the road that you see. Either way there were no Elephants or Rhinos to confirm our hypothesis. Stoppage is the term we used to refer to another vehicle or vehicles stopped up ahead of us, signifying that they had found something worth stopping for. One vehicle was plain Stoppage, and two or more in the same place qualified as Major Stoppage. The first of us to spot any would shout “Stoppage!” and we’d roll up quietly to the spot to see what all the fuss was about. The first time this happened the fuss was about four Elephants grazing in the brush about thirty metres to our left. Even though plain grey in colour and very large, I was surprised by how hard they can be to spot. It’s only movement, rather than size or colour that gives them away.
The rest of the drive continued in similar vein and by the time we left the park we had seen Bush Buck, Impala, Kudu, Wildebeest, Giraffe, Zebra, Elephant, White Rhino, Warthog, Baboon, Mongoose and more species of birds than I care to list individually. We’d seen everything in fact, apart from Buffalo, Lion and Leopard—the remaining three of The Big Five.
On Wednesday morning we did Game Drive #2, same early morning drill as before. By now things like Giraffe, Zebra and Elephant were becoming commodity, and we half-joked that we would only stop from now on for Lions or Leopards. We’d gone about 10km down a dirt track when we stopped for an unexpected reason. About 100 metres ahead our way was blocked by three Black Rhino standing across the road, forming an almost perfect roadblock. Having heard stories about Rhino charging at vehicles I was concerned about getting any closer, but I didn’t want to turn around and go back the way we had come, so we crept slowly towards the group, all the while willing them to move on and let us pass. Finally the three started to meander off the road, to our right, and I was just about to move forward when a fourth emerged from the undergrowth to our left and followed the other three across. We crept past the spot, watching them continue to walk away as we passed and breathing sighs of relief.
We never did see any Lions or Leopards, or even Buffalo, so our “Big..” scorecard remained at Two.
We returned to the small town of Hazyview in time for lunch, and afterward had our second Big Two encounter—at an Elephant Sanctuary. The sign promised an “Elephant Interaction Experience” for 495 Rand each, which is about £45. Not cheap considering we needed four tickets, but I thought ‘what the hell, we’re only going to do this once’ so we paid up and joined the three other families that formed the rest of the group. Before meeting the Elephants we were taken to view their empty sleeping quarters, which consisted of two large pens in the same concrete barn, with a layer of straw for a bed. We then moved on to a display chart and brief lecture on their anatomy. The one fact that I took away from this was that an Elephant’s heart can weigh anything from 20 to 45 Kilos! Finally we were led to a forest clearing on a hillside where the four families sat on wooden benches to await the arrival of Casper, the larger and older of the two, and the smaller one whose name escapes me but I remember it too started with a C so I’ll call him Clive.
Caspar and Clive were led by their handlers down a hillside path behind where we were sitting, and upon reaching the floor of the clearing they were turned sideways on to us to walk to a stop right in front of the audience. Well, our first view of Casper and Clive proved beyond any doubt that they were a) boys and b) VERY pleased to see us. I have never seen two such grotesquely huge penises before and never want to again. It was like passing a traffic accident—you don’t want to look but you can’t tear your gaze away. I could almost hear parents’ faces reddening in the embarrassed silence that accompanied their final steps. I have no idea why they were so aroused. Perhaps they get excited by their performances, perhaps walking downhill affects blood supply to the nether regions. Who knows? Maybe the handlers knew but none of us had the gall to ask. This was another kind of Big Two altogether. Thankfully their aroused state subsided after a minute or two and ‘things’ returned to normal.
We took turns to go down in pairs and get a guided tour around the Elephants. Standing right next to the huge Casper was a humbling experience. In the shadow of his immense bulk I felt that he was about to fall on top of me and kept taking involuntary steps backward. The handler invited us to touch his front leg, got him to lift a foot so that we could feel the hard toenails at the front and the soft cushiony part at the back that allows them to walk almost silently. We felt the tail, then the belly, then one of his enormous ears which was very warm to the touch. Elephants don’t sweat, instead they lose body heat by flapping their ears to cool the blood which flows through the ear’s many veins. Next we were invited to look down the end of his trunk and to drop some food in there, and finally the handler got Casper to lift his trunk and open his mouth so that we could see his teeth and stroke his tongue, which was smoother than yours and mine.
After everyone had done this tour and had their photos taken we went to another paddock where we paired up again, this time to take it in turns to lead the Elephants in a walk around the paddock by holding the end of their trunks. This was not a pleasant experience. Karen and I stood side by side, each with our fingers and thumbs gripping the end of Casper’s trunk: hard and bristly on the thumb side and soft and slimy on the finger side. As we walked we could feel his hot breath on our fingers and smell it as it wafted up to our noses. I wanted to recoil as the smell was quite nauseating, but we were too concerned with stepping over the rough ground without falling over under his feet to care about anything else at that moment. I was glad when the circuit was complete and we could run to the toilets to wash our hands.
Well, that’s about half the holiday covered. I haven’t yet mentioned the traditional village or the reptile park we visited, or the final two days at Montecasino, but I think I’d better stop now and leave that for another time. Safari pictures and video to follow.