Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Adventure into the Kruger Park after dark

There's nearly always some sighting to savour on game drives in Kruger National Park. Even without the Big Five, surprises can be just around the corner - athletic kudu sprinting across the road, a pack of wild dogs stretched out on a dry riverbed, even tiny chameleons bringing traffic to a standstill.

But sometimes - perhaps just once in a lifetime - a game drive comes along that is like no other.

My wife and I were staying at Kruger's lofty Olifants Camp and, instead of undertaking the usual late-afternoon game drive, we decided to book for the camp's Sunset Drive.
It was clear that nearly everyone with us in the packed open vehicle was a foreigner. You could tell from the hi-tech digital cameras, clothing far too skimpy for a sunset drive and wide-rimmed hats direct from the Skukuza curio shop.

And the questions directed at John, our ranger-cum-driver, also made it plain that most of our fellow passengers were new to the bush.

"What do they eat?" the Italian lady asked as we watched waterbuck grazing in the distance.

John clearly knew where he was heading as soon as we left Olifants. He set off for the Balule Bridge as if on a mission. And then we saw it. Drooped around a branch of a skeletal leadwood tree on the left hand side of the road was a magnificent cheetah, its long tail hung out to dry in the evening breeze.

Slowly, with the many digital cameras recording the action, the cheetah made his way down the tree while eight giraffe grazed contentedly just a few metres away. But the ranger kept on scouring the veld, as if there were more to see.

Then he picked them up in the grass on the other side of the road: two more magnificent cheetah, about 100 metres apart but with one unified gaze. Two pairs of eyes were focused unwaveringly at the intruding cheetah across the road.

My wife and I held our breath: this promised to be a night to remember. Suddenly, the silence was broken. "What do they eat?" asked the Italian lady loudly.

Although now at least 50 metres apart in the bush on the right-hand side of the road, the two territorial cheetah moved in complete unison, as if telepathically linked. Slow, slow paces, eyes still fixed on the newcomer opposite, who by now had adopted a similar frozen - if somewhat uncomfortable - stance.

Then, as if a starter's gun had gone off in their brains, the two land-possessing cheetah sprinted across the road at that famous record-breaking speed, launching into a horrific V-formed assault on the lone one facing them. It was time for a hasty retreat - and he ran for dear life.

The flight took all three cheetah virtually through the legs of the bewildered giraffe who decided that it was time to get the hell out of there. "Is there a zoo in Cape Town?" the Italian lady asked, making the ranger close a mouth that had hung open in amazement. He chose to ignore the question.

Slowly, the triumphant cheetah duo returned from their land-cleansing operation. They curiously sniffed the tree that had housed the intruder, pointed spotted posteriors to the heavens, lifted their tails and spouted high-pressure urine on to the tree trunk for at least five seconds.

Then they made their way back to their original domain and repeated the process on several trees there.

By now it was quite dark and John put the headlights on the cheetah pair as they ambled in front of our vehicle for some 500 metres until they found their overnight quarters at a pan near the bridge across the Balule.

The drama had lasted all of 25 minutes. It turned out that the ranger had encountered the pair regularly for the preceding six or seven nights.

"Spotting cheetah on night drives is not unusual," he told me later.

"But I had never seen a territorial skirmish like that before."

I suppose it was futile explaining the sheer magnitude of the moment to our fellow passengers. Yes, it was indeed a night to remember. Fortunate though we were, even more drama and pathos awaited us later on the drive.

We came across a group of baby zebra that sprinted away from our vehicle - all except for one little one that remained on the ground. Binoculars showed that one of its rear legs was twisted horrifically, obviously broken.

"Why don't you help it?" one of the passengers asked John.

The ranger explained the rules of the bush, survival of the fittest. He did not spell it out but I knew that, come morning, hyena would have put that adorable baby out of its misery.

Earlier on this particular visit to Kruger, we had sampled another sunset drive, from Berg-en-Dal camp, and, although nowhere nearly as dramatic, the drive had produced five different sightings of hyena, four different species of owl, spotted genet and the most quaint chorus of frogs you will ever hear.

So, when next in Kruger, do yourself a favour. Spend R100 or so and venture out with a ranger at sunset. There might be a once-in-a-lifetime thrill awaiting you out there in the dark.

Kruger Park plays its part in World Cup plans

Lounging peacefully on the terrace, watching the elephants, leopards and antelopes gather at the watering hole - that's how hundreds of football fans will relax in South Africa's Kruger National Park on "soccer safaris", after taking in World Cup matches in the nearby city of Nelspruit.

With 100 000 people Nelspruit is among the smaller of the host cities and doesn't have enough accommodation for the fans expected to arrive here in June 2010.

So organisers are tapping resources in the tourist magnet of Kruger game park, just a two-hour drive away.

"Any person who comes so close to Kruger would definitely come to see the game. You cannot miss it if you're that close to it, especially coming from Europe or Asia," said Stephen Nel, a manager at the Berg-en-Dal rest camp.

About 1.3 million tourists each year visit the park, which is about half the size of the Netherlands and has a highly developed network to accommodate guests.

During the World Cup, the camps of Skukuza, Berg-en-Dal and Pretoriuskop will host nearly 2 000 fans in search of South Africa's "Big Five" -elephants, buffalo, leopard, lions and rhinos.

FIFA partner responsible for accommodation, Match, is offering packages that include lodging, transport and safaris, which could mean pre-dawn drives to catch the animals at sun-up, twilight hikes, or dinner in the bush.

To allow the guests to see the football matches, Kruger is reworking its rules. The park currently closes at 6pm, and some games at Nelspruit's Mbombela stadium will only kick off two hours later.

Armed rangers will escort the fans back to their lodges and tents, "to protect them from lions, elephants and other dangerous animals," according to South African National Parks.

"They'll probably change the opening times of the restaurants as most of our guests would be for the World Cup," Nel added.

He said that the camp had welcomed guests from the rugby World Cup in 1995, but that was on a smaller scale that what organisers expect in 2010.

The World Cup will be the biggest event ever held in this rural province, with Nelspuit building a 46 000-seat stadium for the occasion.

"Initially, there was a shortage of accommodation," said FS Siboza, operations manager for the city.

But, he said, new guest houses had opened in the city and two other towns were helping to ensure enough beds would be available during the tournament.

The city expects new hotels will be built while some homeowners plan to leave on vacation and rent out their homes to the tourists.

Organisers are even considering creating tented campsites for visitors, spread around a 200km radius, including in neighbouring Swaziland and Mozambique.

FIFA wants to ensure that 55 000 rooms are available across the country during the World Cup. Right now there are 34 000, making Kruger's model an appealing option that could be expanded to other national parks.

The only requirement for the "soccer safaris" is that guests can actually see the matches. At Berg-en-Dal, they will be housed in simple cottages built in 1985, without televisions.

The camp is thinking about setting up a TV in a conference room so the fans can watch games in other towns... if they find generators to keep the electricity running.

Kruger Park: It's bigger than Israel!

Encompassing 30 percent of the surface area, nearly half the park's lion population hang out here as well as leopard, hyena and cheetah, thanks to the quantity of sweet grasses and browsing trees that support large numbers of antelope, giraffe, buffalo, zebra and wildebeest.

The far north region 
Here you'll find major areas of sand formed by river flood plains and riverine forests as part of the region lies in a rain shadow. A picnic site along the banks of the Luvuvhu River provides hours of splendid bird viewing.
The knocking sand frog lives here, as do the the nocturnal bushpig and the rare Sharpe's grysbok. There are samango monkeys, packs of wild dog, and the major water pans across the Wambiya sandveld are home to tropical fish, such as the rainbow killifish, not found anywhere else in the country. The sandstone hills, just west of Punda Maria, is the only place you can see the Natal red hare and yellow-spotted rock dassie, or hyrax.

The northern region
North of the Orange River is a semi-arid region covering 7 000km2 that sees very little rain. Here shrub mopane thrives in the hot, low-lying valleys, but five rivers provide narrow corridors giving rise to trees such as the nyala, the sycamore fig, the tamboti and the tall apple leaf.
The Letaba and Olifants rivers contain 60 percent of the park's hippo population. There are bushpig in the undergrowth of the Luvuvhu River and on most of the river banks you can see elephant, buffalo, waterbuck, bushbuck, impala and kudu concentrated near a water supply.

The southern region
Bounded by the Crocodile River in the south and Sabie River in the north, the southern region also enjoys the jagged ridge of the Lebombo Mountains along the border with Mozambique, and the highest point in the park, Khandzalive, in the southwestern corner - almost in counterpoint to Pretoriuskop that lies in the west of the southern region.
The valleys are home to the Cape chestnut, coral tree and lavender fever-berry. White rhino occur here, particularly around Pretoriuskop, Mbyamiti River and south of lower Sabie. Around Pretoriuskop, known for its profusion of trees, is Ship Mountain, its hull-shape the site of an old wagon trail that crosses a stream marking the birthplace of Jock of the Bushveld. The combretum woodlands, also part of this region, attract kudu, impala, giraffe, buffalo, zebra, white rhino and elephant, while the scarcity of lion in this part of the park, makes way for the cheetah and wild dog.

Bush Walks
A bush walk is a great way to track game on foot, but also one of the most incredible ways to learn about the fragility of the ecosystems of the Kruger and to see the smaller animals and insects that tend to be ignored on the game drives. Take your own snacks and sunscreen as most of the camps in the Kruger do morning and afternoon walks.
Wilderness trails
Some wilderness trails in the Kruger are virtually untouched by humans, with names like Metsi-Metsi, Napi, Massingir and the Sweni Wilderness.
Most of these trails are two days with three overnights in rustic huts with ablution in reed-walled showers and flush toilets, but they're always in such demand that they're booked out way in advance. Here you need to be fairly fit as you'll average 20km a day, although this is at a leisurely pace.
The Lebombo overland trail
This is a five-day "wilderness experience on wheels" takes you from Crocodile Bridge to Pafuri, and deserves a mention here. It's an eco trail that takes you along the eastern boundary along the Lebombo hills (hence the name) from the extreme south to the farthest northern edge.
A maximum of five vehicles, with four people in each undertakes the trail that covers 500km.
The self-drive eco trail crosses rivers and encompasses some of the most beautiful scenery in the park. You'll overnight at Lower Sabie, Olifants and Shingwedzi restcamps. Professional guides will lead the trail and explain the terrain, rated as the best in southern Africa purely because of the rich diversity of fauna and flora en route.
Where to stay in the Kruger National Park.
There are a large number of rest camps, bushveld camps, lodges and even overnight hides, all run by South African National Parks Board.
Private operators have established lodges that offer luxury, guided game drives, and the freedom to move into the greater park area if desired.
These private game lodges offer a more intimate and exclusive experience of the vast Kruger.
The private game reserves
Flanking the western boundary of Kruger Park are several private game reserves. Together they form the heart of South Africa's big game country with the free movement of animals between the private reserves and the Kruger National Park.
The Sabi Sands reserve is home to Londolozi, Singita and Mala Mala; Timbavati and Claserie.
SANParks accommodation
# Restcamps: Most have electricity, a shop, communal kitchen facilities, laundromats, restaurants, public telephones and petrol stations. Info centres are located at Letaba, Skukuza and Berg-en-dal.
# Berg-en-Dal: Just west of the Malelane gate overlooking the Matjulu Spruit, Berg-en-Dal is bordered by a dam and dry riverbeds. Lovely trees offer shade to the pretty restcamp, which comprises bungalows, family cottages and guest houses.
# Crocodile Bridge: Right up against the Mozambique border and Maputo, Crocodile Bridge is an area famous for lions and rhinos. Crocodile Bridge lies on the northern bank of the Crocodile River, in the south-eastern corner of the Kruger. The accommodation is in basic bungalows and safari tents.
# Letaba: Lying in the bend of the Letaba River, the heavily shaded restcamp is great for bird-watching and elephants. It's close to the Phalaborwa Gate and includes a camping area, guest houses, cottages and bungalows.
# Lower Sabie: Right on the banks of the Sabie River, most of the game comes to you in this family-oriented camp only 35km from Crocodile Bridge. There are large lawns, huge trees, and a swimming pool. You can stay in a range of campsites, huts, bungalows, guest cottages, guest houses, and safari tents.
# Mopani: On the banks of the Pioneer Dam, this little restcamp lies in amongst koppies and Mopani trees. Thatched accommodation, with stone walls, is in bungalows, cottages, guest cottages and a guest house.
# Olifants: Olifants sits on top of a hill, set on rocky cliffs, that provides incredible views over the Olifants River. There are two distinct types of vegetation in this area - mopane shrub and rolling grass plains - and one is likely to spot elephant, zebra, impala, buffalo, giraffe and kudu as a result. Accommodation is in guest houses, cottages and bungalows.
# Orpen: On the western boundary of the central zone of the Kruger National Park, Orpen is a tranquil camp with scattered trees and wide-open plains that attract a large quantity of browsers. The waterhole, just outside the camp, provides sightings of lion, blue wildebeest, vultures and plovers, and accommodation is in cottages and huts.
# Pretoriuskop: This camp lies in a hilly area dominated by granite outcrops just 9km from the Numbi Gate in the south-west. Rare species like sable and rhino are seen here, as well as impala, zebra, giraffe and wildebeest. Accommodation is in guest houses, cottages, bungalows and huts.
# Punda Maria: One of two camps north of the Tropic of Capricorn, Punda Maria lies on a ridge in the northernmost reaches of the Sandveld, 8km from the Punda Maria gate. Some of the best bird-watching is to be found here and it's a good place to spot nyala. There are seven luxury tents, a pool, bungalows and cottages.
# Satara: Regarded as the best camp for viewing the big cats, Satara lies just 47km east of the Orpen gate in the knobthorn veld, which offers some of the best grazing in the Park, and the high number of watering places in the area translates into frequent sightings of antelope, zebra, giraffe and buffalo. Accommodation is in guesthouses, cottages and bungalows.
# Shingwedzi: On the banks of the Shingwedzi River this rest camp is prime elephant spotting country, filled with trees, bungalows and shady verandas. North of the camp is a riverine forest. Accommodation is in huts, a cottage and guesthouses.
# Skukusa: Skukusa lies right in Big Five territory on the banks of the Sabie River. Accommodation ranges from safari tents and bungalows to luxury bungalows, guest cottages and guesthouses.
# Tsendze: With the emphasis on "touch the earth lightly" - there is no electricity. Warm water is from gas geysers and lighting is solar-powered. It has a three-star grading and comes with open-air showers. The camp lies in the shade of leadwood, mopane and apple-leaf trees.
Satellite restcamps
# Balule private camp: Ideal for campers, Balule lies on the southern bank of the Olifants River, perfect for those who seek solitude.
# Malelane private camp: Just 3km from the Malelane Gate, this satellite camp is one of the smallest in the Park, accommodating just 19 people, and lies on the banks of the Crocodile River. Accommodation is camping or little huts.
# Maroela private camp: Overlooking the Timbavati River bed, Maroela Camp is an ideal place to spot leopard. It's about 4km from Orpen and Eastgate airport. The nearby Rabelais dam is also a good place to spot game.
# Tamboti tent camp: Self-catering safari tents are mounted on stilts overlooking the dry Timbavati River bed. The camp lies in a flat veld area and shares communal bathrooms, kitchen and food areas.
Bush Lodges
# Boulders: An exclusive camp, accommodating up to 12 people, Boulders is 50km north of Letaba. Raised thatched cottages allow the safe viewing of game. Solar panels provide energy for ceiling fans.
# Roodewal: Just 40km from Olifants restcamp en route to Timbavati, Roodewal accommodates up to 19 people in four cottages close to the Timbavati River, with a lookout platform in a huge nyala tree. Accommodation is in huts and a family cottage. Solar energy provides lighting.
Bushveld Camps
# Bateleur: Set on the banks of the Mashokwe Spruit in the northern savannah, Bateleur is the oldest and the smallest camp. A game-viewing hide overlooks the waterhole, including a floodlight for night viewing. Here you can spot hippo and crocodile. Accommodation is in guest cottages.
# Biyamiti: On the banks of the Mbyamiti River, this intimate camp lies in a wooded clearing, close to the old ox-wagon trade route. This is a good camp from which to spot the Big Five and black rhino, as well as wild dog and cheetah. Accommodation is in little cottages.
# Shimuwini: Shimuwini lies on the upper end of the Shimuwini dam on the Letaba River. The Letaba River is lined with big trees that include the baobab, and the dam provides hours of bird and game watching. Accommodation is in 15 family cottages.
# Sirheni: The northernmost camp, Sirheni lies on the dam of the same name in mopane veld. Accommodation is in 15 cottages.
# Talamati: On the N'waswitsontso River, Talamati lies in a large open valley about 31km from Orpen Gate with two hides overlooking a waterhole. Accommodation is in 15 family cottages.
Overnight Hides
# Sable: Just 10km from the Phalaborwa Gate, this is a unique form of accommodation. This bird hide by day transforms into overnight dwelling. The hide looks over the Sable Dam.
# Shipandani: Overnighting in a bird hide-away is a unique way of being close to elephant, buffalo and other creatures of the night that include nightjars and cicada. On the banks of the Tsedze River, Shipandani is close to the Mopani restcamp and sunset is a particularly gratifying experience.
This is the richly diverse land of the Big Five, the Little Five (buffalo weaver, elephant shrew, leopard tortoise, ant lion and rhino beetle), the birding Big Six (ground hornbill, kori bustard, lappet-faced vulture, martial eagle, Pel's fishing owl and saddle-bill stork) and more species of mammal than any other African game reserve.