“Put your cat-eyes on”, our guide directed us, “We are in lion and leopard country”. We had packed up the van for a 5:30 a.m. departure from Kruger National Park’s Satara Rest Camp. It does not sound too restful to be up and going at sunrise on vacation! But, the cool of the morning and evening are when the animals and birds are active. Our plan was to safari on back roads for several hours, then stop for a late breakfast at Olifant Rest Camp. Time to check our list.
In South Africa “The Big Five” are the animals that most people’s desire to see: Lion, Leopard, Elephant, Rhinoceros, and African Buffalo. These are named such for, when hunting on foot, these are the most dangerous. In a mini-van, they are not as much of a threat to life and limb, though lions might eat your tires, baffalo and elephants could put a pretty good dent in your side, if they do not roll you into a ditch. Keep your hands in the car. (Monkeys are more of an immediate threat when they attempt to slip into windows and baboons can open a car door if not locked, while seeking your food).
Other lists here include “The Small Five” and “The Ugly Five” (baboons, marabou stork, warthogs, vultures, and hyenas). Then there are abundant grazing animals such as zebras, impalas, kudus, waterbucks, etc, which you can find on the handy booklet checklist from the gift shop at each rest camp. Turn a few pages to find birds, reptiles, snakes, flowers, trees… Lists, lists, lists.
Within ten minutes, we had our first lion sighting. They were the lions which we had seen yesterday resting in the grass. He had pulled the buffalo into the shade and was taking his fill from what the hyenas and jackals had left from last night. Tick one off of the big five. We traveled for some time across over-grazed “sweet grass” growing fresh green stems after yesterday’s rain, but saw no mammals. Birds were abundant and requested stops. Several veret monkeys beckoned us to search for them among branches of a fallen tree. A herd of impalas blocked the road to let a family of giraffes cross before us. A pack of elephants ignored us in order to eat some brushy leaves. Tick a second off of the big five.
Along most roads in Kruger, you may stop when you want, often on either side of the road, if not at an angle, in order to watch and photograph the animals. Stay two minutes or two hours. No one will bother you, and most will thank you for pointing out something interesting. Back up along the road as far as you wish to track the animal’s movements. Keep ticking off that list. However, you may step out of your vehicle only in designated pull offs and bridges. Keep in mind that even a hippoptamus can come out of the waterhole at 40 kmp, to trample you. We spent a good while on the bridge over a river, watching crocodiles sleep on sand bars, hippopotamus wallow in shallow waters, and dozens of birds glide by, snacking on bugs, and dipping into the river’s meandering pools. Just before arriving at the Olifant Rest Camp for breakfast, we stopped for kudus crossing the road and zebras waiting for us to pass. More sightings to check on the general animal list.
From Olifant, we drove north to Letaba Rest Camp to visit the elephant exhibit. Bushbuck grazed right in the camp, allowing me to walk within feet of it. Our drive back to Satara double checked our list with many additional sightings. Impala were beginning to look as common as white tail deer on a golf course in the USA. Not far from the camp, we came across our first worthogs from on the “Ugly Five” list.
After a freshen-up rest time, we boarded a ranger-lead evening tour of the area. We left at 4:30 p.m. as the sun began to settle into a bank of low clouds. After one turn, we had our first view of a white rhinoceros. Tick off three of the Big Five. Across the road were Africa Buffalo. Check off four. A short distance along the road, we watched more hippopotamus doing their classic mouth opening snorting and splashing into a watering hole. The sun began to set, first bringing brilliant blues and whites, then glowing pinks to the horizon. With spot lights on, we continued along the way, first finding a pair of bush babies in a thorny tree. With stars starting to shine, we rolled up to two lions stretched across the road, digesting their meal and warming themselves on the tar roadbed. Initially they ignored us, then growled, then sauntered off into the brush. When one stood up, it’s tail hit the side of the truck just beneath where I sat. Yes, I kept my hands inside the side-walls! Double tick number one.
On our return home, in addition to annoying those lions some more (why did they lie back down in the middle of the road?), we spotted a white faced owl and porcupine. Ah, what a day of lists! Our tour guide had stayed up and grilled up wildebeest sausage and stakes for our dinner. Best to tick off some hours of sleep. When does this rest start!
P. S. I specialize in sighting rocks, dead tree stumps, and shadows that resemble wild animals…