When we were researching our safari, we contemplated whether to hire a guide from South Africa verses setting our own agenda, renting a vehicle, arranging lodging, etc. My parents had done their own driving tour back in 1996. When we had come across African Sky, we checked in with friends who grew up in and and traveled extensively in South Africa. They assured us that the roads were good and everyone spoke English, so paying such fees for a guide were unnecessary. We decided that having someone who knew how to get around, would take care off all of the lodging and many of the meals, and knew where to find the wild life suited our budgets and interests.
Every day we have thanked our intuition and pockbooks for such a wise decision. Our guide, Mary-Anne, has driven 12 hours days around back roads looking for critters. She has filled hours with commentary about the natural and social history of South Africa. Our time is now filled with conversation, rather than commentary. She steps up to get our keys and pay the bills. She spots animals and birds that the rest of us missed and usually say, “Huh?” to. And, moreover, her passion for nature and teaching is such that when we hunt through our lists to determine whether that was a Steenbok verses a Springbok, she can describe the difference and recite the day, time, and location of where she saw said animal. Have I used the adjective “amazing” yet?
Today, we gathered extra early to be among the first out the gate. Collection time at the van was 5:05 a.m. We were thrid in line, as a firey sunrise opened up the morning. The first two cars headed south, while we made a turn to the east. We would be the first on the road today. Mary-Anne enthusiastically declared, “We will be opening the road! We might be able to see tracks”. Among the Big Five safari tours, the guides usually look for other vehicles stopped to determine where animals are. We would be solo, until someone caught up with us. For all we knew, we would come across some animal sleeping in the road.
Birds abounded. Our first Big Five animal was a loiness. “Oh, a lion”, Mary-Anne exclaimed, stopping suddenly, and putting the van in reverse. I saw a tail disappear behind a bush near the driver’s side of the van and thought, “Missed another”. “Get your camera’s on, I’m going to back up and follow it.” The lioness turned around the bush, walked onto the road and began to stride by us. Mary-Anne did not miss a beat, but directed the van to the far side of the road while rolling backwards at the same pace as the lioness. Twenty yard, fifty yards, one hundred, nearly a quarter of a mile we backed up with the lioness within three feet of the side of the van. Judy had her camcorder held out the passenger window, wondering when she might be donating it to the lioness. Eventually, another vehicle came up behind us. We stopped; let the lioness pass; watched the other car passengers quickly roll up the window as the lioness passed them like some bolder on the side of the road. We realized that we could breath again. (These photos were not taken with telephote lenses!)
Today’s sightings were dominated by birds that Linda ticked from our list. Birds on the ground, on tree branches, on the tops of dead trees, in the air, standing on mud and in the water. Mary-Anne is quite a birder and could identify many before I figured out where they were. She has studied natural history in order to provide this level of safari experience, for those interested in stopping and watching whatever might pass by. Such determination and diligence take years of study and observation to make the process come easily. Yet, she had the humility to check her guide books (and cell phone) for verification. It’s not every day that you need to distinguish between a black-bellied bustard and a rest-crested korhaan. Right?
Today’s game spottings fell into the categories of at a distance, in the brush, and a bit too close for comfort. In addition to the lioness that began our day, we had a warthog just off the tarmac. Grunt, grunt. We had a rare sighting of sable antelope just behind the tree line and a herd of zebra at the waterhole. Waterbuck and Kudu stood next to the closes bushes. Who needed a telephoto lens?
Our sights of the day were a total of 13 rhinoceros. Mary-Anne spotted a group of five about a half mile away on a hillside. Telephoto lenses were useful here. Shortly after sitting quietly for 10 minutes, hoping that the sable antelope would decide to come out with the zebra, we ventured on and nearly drove into a rhinoceros grazing by the road. He munched way, then turned right toward us. As it’s horns poked out from under branches near the side of our van, Mary-Anne tapped on the side of the van, “This is too close for me”. I had already envisioned a hole in the side wall and the van tipped on it’s side. “They don’t have good eye sight, but could hear my hand on the side of the van.” It pulled back a couple of feet and grazed off, crossing the road behind us. Up the road another half mile, we came across five more rhinoceros settled into the muddle bath. Then finally, at a dam down the road, we watched two more climb over the dam, saunter down for a drink, and then wander off into the brush. Thirteen rhino’s in less than a hours time!
While lists can be good tools for guidance and recall, spending time with each encounter and even just waiting to see what comes up can bring awareness and enjoyment that lists are just a shadow of. Without a guide, we would surely have driven pass most of what she showed us. Thirteen rhino’s in a day!