Deep in the South African Bush

We haven’t posted for a while for a couple of reasons: 1) we were just hanging out in Plettenberg Bay which was lovely but not really the stuff of riveting travelogues; and 2) we spent the better part of the past week on a freaking safari!

This post is about what we did during #2.

Special Guests

We have been lucky throughout our trip to be visited by friends and family who have brought with them the taste of home that we occasionally crave. This time we were accompanied by two of our best friends, Pam and Craig Stimmel. Some of you may remember Pam and Craig as two of the people with whom we visited Ireland and Costa Rica:

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Into the Bush

In 2010 Anna went on a safari in the Masai Mara in Kenya as part of a larger trip to Kenya and came home raving about her experience. Since then we have been planning on going together so this was one of the lynchpin activities of our trip. Sweet fancy Moses did this not disappoint! We did splurge a bit on this trip and headed to a fantastic camp called Tanda Tula which operates in a private game reserve bordering South Africa’s massive Kruger National Park called Timbavati. There, we were treated to exceptional accommodations in “tents” (actually very sturdy tents which allowed you to hear, but not get crawled on or gored by, nature complete with bathrooms and a decanter full of sherry), an open bar (don’t think they liked us taking advantage of that), fantastic food prepared for us about every 4 hours, and the best safari game drivers you could ask for.

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A Day in the Bush

Our typical day began at 6 a.m. with a wakeup tray of coffee, tea, and biscotti delivered to our tent by our game drivers. At 6:30 a.m. we piled into our open-air land rovers and took off on our first game drive of the day which lasted about 2.5 hours. At about 9-9:30 a.m. we ate breakfast overlooking a dried riverbed before either walking or riding back to camp at about 10:30 a.m. After that we would typically nap for about an hour-and-half before meeting for some vigorous euchre games in the bar area and having lunch at 1:30 p.m. Our afternoon game drives launched at 3:30 p.m. and lasted until about 6:30 p.m., with a break at sunset where we could snack on some treats and sip some wine while admiring the beautiful landscape and whatever animals were curious enough to come up and say hello. Finally, we would have dinner at about 7:30 p.m. and head off to bed soon after so we could be up bright and early the next day to do the same again. Tough life, eh?

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Big 5 Encounters: Lions

The “Big 5” is a group of game animals grouped together by hunters (and now marketers) because they are very dangerous to hunt. Now it’s a goal of people on a safari to spot each of the Big 5 in their natural habitat. Armed with only cameras, we went on our safari hoping to catch a shot of each of the Big 5: lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros, and buffalo. Thanks to our guides, we managed to see all 5 and each one deserves its own special story. The first is about our most terrifying, fascinating, and exhilarating experience of the whole safari.

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Lions just hanging out

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Yeah, we got close to the lions

We got to see lions on three separate occasions over a 4 day span which was amazing in and of itself. More amazing yet was the fact that we got to see 6 male lions and two females. Even more amazing was the fact that we got to see two lions mating.

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That is exactly what you think it is

But that isn’t even the most amazing part. After these two lions were finished mating (it took no longer than about 15 seconds) the female got up to go for a stroll and happened to walk close to our vehicle. Our guide then whispered to us that we shouldn’t move regardless of what happened next. About 10 seconds later we learned why. Apparently threatened by his mate walking so close to our vehicle the male got up to investigate and headed directly for our vehicle which, it is worth repeating, did not have doors or a roof.

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When the lion was no more than 7 feet from the vehicle he stared directly into Pam’s soul (Pam and Anna were on the lion’s side of the vehicle) and roared. Loudly. Despite our guide’s warning, Pam and Anna immediately recoiled from the side of the vehicle, backing away from the lion. No one breathed. The lion looked at us for another 10 seconds or so, then decided that he had sufficiently intimidated us and turned to head back to his mate. After about 1 minute more, everyone breathed again but much faster this time.

According to our guide, lions can’t discern the individuals on a vehicle and interpret this large image as just one single entity. When the lion thinks that this huge thing is just one entity, it is very unlikely to attack, making not moving the key to avoiding any lion attacks during a game drive. Any sudden movement could be considered a threat and the lion which may provoke the lion. All of this is great in theory, but when a lion roars at you you’re going to move and quickly. The best (worst?) part came when someone asked our guide what the difference was between what that lion did and what happens during a lion attack and he replied, “Oh, nothing.” Great. So Pam and Anna were attacked by a lion and barely flinched. Brave women. Very brave.

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More lions

Sheila the Leopard

Leopards are beautiful and deceptively cuddly deadly animals. Every day we got to see at least one, and usually the same one which Pam named Sheila. By the end of our time at the camp, all of the guides were referring to this leopard as Sheila.

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Sheila was a pregnant leopard who had recently killed an impala (type of antelope) when we first arrived. We knew this because she had dragged her kill into a tree and was eating it gradually through our stay.

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Sheila lounging on a tree near her kill

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Sheila’s impala tartare

Because she hadn’t moved around much while we were there when our drives were relatively slow we would pay her a visit because she was easy to spot and obviously beautiful. On our last game drive, though, we got to watch Sheila stalk impalas for about an hour and marveled at how close she could get without being detected. Even her movements through the tall grass failed to disturb even a single blade. It was a truly jarring sight to witness this leopard who once looked so playful and cuddly lying on the ground digesting her food turn into a stealthy predator.

Big 5 Interlude: Wild Dogs on the Kill

Although not part of the Big 5, nobody wants to mess with wild dogs. Reduced to a staggeringly small number (something like 390 total), wild dogs are a rare sight. We were very lucky to spot a pack of 20+ wild dogs rouse themselves one afternoon and trot out in search of dinner.

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Seeing a kill during a safari is an extremely unlikely event as they frequently happen at night or deep in cover that a game drive doesn’t penetrate, or simply happen in a part of the park in which no vehicles are cruising. As you can probably guess, seeing a kill by wild dogs is exceedingly rare on a game drive. Well….

We followed the pack of dogs for a while before our guide stopped the car and killed the engine. After asking us to be silent and listen, he and our tracker listened intently to the sounds of the wild dogs barking and then, suddenly, another voice yelp feebly. Snapping his fingers and saying, “They got him!” our guide gunned the engine and we were off in pursuit of the kill. Not to be outdone, a hyena was already hopping in the same direction, but we sped past him and made it to the kill zone about 5 minutes or less from when we heard the fatal yelp. Already, the pack of dogs had disassembled the duiker (another kind of antelope) they bagged and were gnawing away at what was left. It was an incredible stroke of luck that we managed to witness this event and a unique experience even among experienced safari-goers (one lady who had been coming to this very camp for over 20 years had never seen one). It was somewhat disgusting but oddly fascinating at the same time.

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Hungry dogs

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Dog with a bone

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Dog with a head

Teenage Angst and the Elephant that Hated Craig and Me

Within the first 30 minutes of our first game drive we were parked inside a whole herd of elephants watching a 2-5 day old elephant trying to nurse and other elephants use their trunks to strip the leaves and branches off of every tree in the area.

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Baby elephant!

Being this close to a large group (15-20) of enormous animals is disconcerting, but not quite as disconcerting as having an adolescent male raise his tusks at your car, spread his ears, and stare you down for a solid minute or two before deciding that eating was mercifully more important than trampling us.

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Stampy trying to scare us away by raising his tusks and fanning his ears

After he moved on the rest of the herd seemed content to just ignore us altogether while we snapped photos, lowered our heart rates back to normal, and listened to our encyclopedia of a guide tell us all about elephants.

That night we joked about how that elephant, who we named Stampy (after Bart Simpson’s jerk of a pet elephant) hated us and toasted the baby elephant and expected that to be the end of it. Stampy, however, had other plans.

The following evening after the sun had set we found a herd of elephants including the tiny baby and about 7-10 more grazing in one of the river beds. Apparently elephants don’t like the searchlight we used to spot game at night so we only flashed the light for a short time and then just parked to listen to the elephants march around eating and snorting. Unfortunately one elephant – Stampy – wasn’t content with how quickly we turned off the light and eyed us for a while in the darkness before trumpeting and taking a few steps toward our vehicle. Luckily for us our guide was quick on the ignition and we sped off before Stampy could prove he wanted to make good on his startling threat. We certainly won’t object to elephants being included in the “Big 5” after our experiences with them.

The Elusive Rhinoceros

This is probably the least interesting story we have about any of the Big 5. Basically we spent the better part of two game drives trying unsuccessfully to locate a rhinoceros before finally discovering 4 of them chowing down on some grass during a third game drive. Not that those first two drives were a waste at all: we saw a porcupine, several giraffes, many zebras, and more!

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Even when we saw the rhinos they didn’t do much except run away so we didn’t hang around too long but did manage to snap some pretty great photos of these horned tanks. I must say that these may have been my favorite animal and it was a minor shame that we didn’t get to see more of them.

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Rhino giving us the stink eye

Buffalo Girls Won’t You Come Out Tonight…

When I say buffalo, think water buffalo. Or better yet, imagine this:

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They behave like cattle except they stare at you with malice while chewing their cud instead of a cow’s more vacant stare. Despite appearing quite docile, these are apparently vicious creatures. But frankly seeing them was nothing terribly interesting. The best part was probably that they traveled in enormous herds numbering into the hundreds. The worst part was that they stank like a summer outhouse.

However, the buffalo featured prominently in a pretty fun story. During the morning drive of our last full day our guide learned that there was a female lion stalking a herd of buffalo so we headed straight there to try to spot the lioness and possibly a kill. We patiently waited for at least 45 minutes or so while the buffalo unhurriedly crossed an asphalt road before the road cleared completely. Discouraged, all of the other vehicles watching the buffalo hoping for a kill or lion sighting took off looking for other game but our guide thought we should stay for a bit. Less than a minute later the female lion poked her head out of the bush and peeked at us as she continued to stalk the buffalo across the street.

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She was only about 50 yards behind the buffalo herd

Although we didn’t get to see the conclusion of her stalking, we got a treat at dinner that night. Toward the end our host (one of the game drive guides who ate dinner with us) clapped his hands excitedly and told us to listen as two male lions growled at a herd of buffalo that had grazed onto the grounds of our camp. It turns out that what we thought was thunder was actually a herd of 50+ terrified buffaloes running like hell away from two lions. A short time later the buffaloes returned to our camp and clustered together as a defensive tactic, so when we were escorted back to our tents that evening and our guide scanned the area with his flashlight you could see hundreds of buffalo eyes staring back at us.

All night we were treated to buffalo mooing, lion growling, and hyena yelping just 200-300 yards away. It made for a fitful but fascinating night’s sleep.

There were even more sightings and stories from this unforgettable trip but I’ve already rambled on for far too long. Definitely a highlight of our adventure so far!

9 thoughts on “Deep in the South African Bush

  1. Mom

    Fantastic photos! And you didn’t ramble on long enough – more, please! Wow, our photos of Baltimore Orioles in our yard seem far less impressive….

  2. Mary Daly Baniak

    I agree with Judy – the writing was even better than usual. Tank said the same thing last night. Well done, son!

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