Today is the first official day of the overland trip with Africa Travel Company. We are leaving from the Backpackers Ritz in Johannesburg and heading east to Hazyview, a town near the gates of Kruger National Park, one of the premier game viewing locations in Africa. Last night we had a predeparture meeting to let everyone meet each other and talk about what lies ahead. Overall, there are 11 people embarking on this 11-day leg of the trip to Victoria Falls. Out of the 11, 7 are Aussies with one person each from England, Israel the Netherlands and your truly from the States. The age range is a bit wider than the geographic spread as we have a married couple probably in their early 50's and a 19 year old with all the others somewhere in between. Overall, everyone seemed to get along well so we should be all right.
Departing bright and early at 6:30, the six hour drive was pretty unremarkable. Mostly just highway and rest stops indistinguishable from what you would find in the States. It's not that I was expecting to see lions roaming near the road or zebra roadkill but I was surprised how much it resembled home. I did teach three of my fellow travelers the immortal card game Hearts and then proceeded to beat them like rented mules but, as they were rookies, I didn't allow myself to be that satisfied. Once in the area we made a stop at a strip mall for supplies and once again I was surprised at how similar it was to anywhere in the States. If I took a picture and told you I was in Paramus, New Jersey, you would have no problem believing me.
We arrived at our first camp in time for a late lunch and put up our tents and settled in before having to leave for a night game drive at 4:15. (Keep in mind that it is winter here and while it doesn't really get that cold, the sun sets at around 5:30). We arrived at the Numbi Gate to Kruger at about 4:45 and jumped into the open-air safari vehicle complete with super bright spot lights. Unfortunately, we were not very lucky during our 3 hour drive and saw little else of consequence other than an elephant and rhino, both briefly. In a game park roughly the size of Israel (though without the threat of sporadic rocket attacks), you have good days and bad days.
The following morning we were up at 5:00 AM in order to have something to eat and make it back to the Numbi gate right as it opened for our full day game drive. The thinking here is that at dawn you have the best chance of catching a glimpse of some of the nocturnal animals (lion, leopard, hyena) before they find a secluded place to laze the daylight hours away. About a half mile in we came across a large herd of buffalo resting right next to the road. We were approximately 20 feet away and for the most part they could care less. Seeing one of the "Big 5" right off the bat seemed to be a good omen. However, for most of the rest of the morning we basically just saw impala (which are EVERYWHERE) and other small antelope as well as a few birds.
Before I continue I'd like to describe what I mean when I refer to the Big 5 as I myself did not know of this before this trip. The Big 5 refers to lion, rhino, leopard, elephant and buffalo. They are so named because they are the most dangerous animals to hunt. Basically, if you take a shot at one of these and either just wound the animal or miss all together, you have serious problems. It reminds me of one night while in Hartbeespoort talking to Yogi after dinner about game hunting and he brought up the buffalo as an example. He asked me if I knew how big the kill zone was on this one ton plus beast. Seeing as I have never fired a gun at anything more active than an empty beer bottle, I told him I had no clue. With that he raised the empty coffee mug in his hand, pointing to its round bottom. "About this big", he said. "Anywhere else and all you're doing is pissing it off...and you probably don't have time to reload." Good thing to keep in mind. Nowadays, with the hunting of these animals basically forbidden throughout Africa (although you can still hunt buffalo on many private reserves and elephants are culled from time to time), the Big 5 are still the most sought after game. Only now the only thing they have to worry about shooting them are a coulpe dozen zoom lenses.
Moving right along, the morning dragged on until around 11:00 when we could hear something that sounded big about 30 feet into the thick foliage. Stopping the truck we could just make out what looked like an elephant...and it was coming in our direction! As we patiently waited, it became clear that there were nearly 20 elephants coming our way. This was a herd of females with a few babies. Eventually they came right through the bush and crossed the road right behind our truck and right in front of a little white hatchback. If the elephants saw fit, they could have kicked it over with no problem. Needless to say, when witnessing something like this its best just to sit quietly and enjoy. Finally th day was starting to pick up.
After a picnic lunch that was highlighted by watching vervet monkeys size up victims and subsequently rush in and steal food right off tables (one snagged an orange right out of a girl's hand and ran up a tree before peeling it right in front of us), we headed back out for what would be a great afternoon of game viewing. The area we traveled was much less cluttered with thick, leafy vegetation so we could see farther distances and consequently more action. We came across a family of warthogs looking for food, a few pods of hippo, large groups of zebra and wildebeest traveling together and a lot of some of the larger antelope (waterbuck, kudu, eland). The highlight of the afternoon, however, was catching a glimpse of the elusive leopard, probably the most rarely seen big game animal, especially during the day. Leopards are solitary animals that do their hunting at night. During the day they usually are tucked away in rock crevices or up in thick trees. As we were driving we knew we were approaching something good as there were about 10 cars stopped in the road. When somebody metioned that there was a leopard pandemonium briefly ensued. I swear our truck was on two wheels for a minute as everyone rushed to one side. Unfortunately, I was on the wrong side and was only able to squeeze off a couple of quick unfocused pics before the leopard got bored and retreated deep into the thicket. At least you can make out the spots, though.
Finally, as we were making our way back to the Numbi gate near the end of the day (any vehicle not out by sunset is subject to a fine of about $1,500 US) we came across yet another great scene that was a very close second to the leopard: a mother and baby rhino at a water hole right in front of us. They were so close they almost looked fake, like the mechanical Jaws at Universal Studios. Luckily they were real and did not seem the least bit irritated by our presence, although the hippo in the water was a little less thrilled and repeatedly opened his mouth wide to let us know. This made for a great ending to a great day that brought us 4 out of the Big 5 (the lions were not very cooperative). After making a Smokey and the Bandit-like run for the gate we avoided the pricey fine and returned to camp for dinner.