Friday, November 27, 2009

November 24, 2009 - Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Park

These past four days have been amazing. Now, we've done and seen some pretty cool things these past three years, but rarely have so many cool experiences happened in quick succession. On Saturday we stood in an enclosure at an endangered wild cat rescue center, not ten feet from a cheetah eating a big hunk of zebra meat. That night, as we ate our dinner at a bush camp, a family of bushbabies leaped around the branches over our heads. Early the following morning we drove into the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Park and Wilderness Area where we would spend the next three days hunting the Big Five with our cameras.

Over the next few hours, from the comfort of our rental car we spotted dozens of zebra, giraffe, blue wildebeest, warthogs, baboons, impala, nyala, white rhino, and buffalo. Just before stopping for lunch, we were crossing a low bridge when we came abreast of a big bull elephant eating the leaves off a tree next to the road. We stopped to watch him and take a few pictures. We must have been too close for his comfort because he started moving towards us. Frozen by the fact that there was a huge wall of grey pachyderm with long white tusks coming towards us, ears flapping away, I completely failed to take any pictures. Sten, reacting more quickly, dropped his camera gear, got the car in gear, and swung us out around the elephant just as he stepped into the road to cross the bridge. We stopped the car a few yards away and stared at each other for a few seconds, wrapping our heads around the fact that we'd just been herded by an elephant, before Sten spun the car around to follow him down the road.

Self-driving (as opposed to going on a 4x4 tour) allowed us to do the park at our own pace. But the only way to see animals at night is to do a night drive in one of the park's vehicles. The only way to do a night drive is to stay in the park. So late that afternoon we checked into our accommodations at Mpila Camp. We would spend two nights in a permanent raised tent with an attached shower and adjoining kitchen connected by a wooden walkway. The camp is not fenced. Wild animals regularly wander through the area. As we checked in we were given a mobile number to call in case we needed any assistance during the night. The receptionist wasn't explicit about what we would need help with, but she emphasized several times that if we needed any help at all to just call and the staff would take care of "anything." A sign in our kitchen was much more forthcoming as it warned parents not to leave their children unattended lest they get carried off by a hyena. Hyena are also known to steal meat off of the braai (bbq) next to the tents. Upon returning to the marina in Richard's Bay, we would learn that last year a local man had been scalped by a leopard as he tended his braai at Mpila Camp. The bush grows quite close to the tents, and it is easy to imagine a big cat lurking in the grasses waiting for an easy meal.

After a shower and changing into long pants and sleeves, we joined 10 other people in the back of a large truck for a night drive. We'd already seen a massive amount of game that day, including three of the Big Five (buffalo, rhino, and elephant), and had hopes of seeing the remaining two (lion and leopard) during the drive. Well, we didn't see any cats, but we saw several other fierce predators, including a pack of wild dogs (we saw approximately 20 of the 500 remaining in the whole of South Africa) and a skulking spotted hyena. The other two highlights of the drive were seeing a rare black rhino (the only one we would see during our stay in the park) wading into the river to bathe at sunset and a herd of 40 or so buffalo blocking the road well after dark. By the time we returned to the camp at 7:30, we were completely wiped out from a long day of spotting game.

Kitchen on the left, sleeping tent with attached bathroom on the right...and hyenas in the bush?

Back at the camp we discovered that we (alright, I) had left the light on in the sleeping tent before we left for the drive. Unfortunately, I'd also left the door to the bathroom open. That was when I discovered that the bathroom wasn't screened in (deep eaves had obscured that fact from me before) and that we now had half of the insect population of iMfolozi inside our tent. This was a little closer than I'd wanted to get to nature. But as staying in the tent had been my idea and their presence there my fault, I couldn't very well make a fuss about it. So I turned off the light, left the bathroom door open and went to the separate kitchen to pour us each a glass of Cabernet. Meanwhile, Sten was lighting the braai in the clearing next to the tent. As he grilled a tenderloin of beef he kept his back to the kitchen and one eye on the bush around him. As we ate, we debated whether the can of mace I carry in my bag would be of any use against a hyena or wild dog. That night I woke to the sound of a hyena barking outside our tent. I eventually fell back asleep, but I must have spent the rest of the night with one eye open; when I woke the next morning the contact in my right eye was firmly glued to my eyeball.

Our second day in the park proved to be very frustrating. We were parked by a watering hole, watching a family of white rhino rolling in the mud when a second car pulled in next to us. About five minutes later we heard some very excited noises coming from the vehicle and one of the passengers turned to us and asked "Did you see it? Did you see the lion?" Apparently a lion had walked right by, but we were blocked from seeing it by their car. We spent a while longer at the watering hole waiting to see if it would pass by again, and once we got very excited when something emerged from the trees, but it turned out to be a warthog.

Not a lion

A few hours later, we were having an early lunch at a picnic spot when we ran into the folks who had seen the lion again. The first thing one of them said to us was "Did you see the leopard?" She went on to explain that they had just turned left out of the turnoff to the watering hole when a leopard loped across the road. Now, leopards are very rarely spotted during the day doing anything but sleeping in trees. We asked if it wasn't a cheetah. But no, she had the photo to prove that it was a leopard. So within a period of ten minutes these people had seen two of the Big Five. We had been right there and seen neither. I was so envious I might have been turning green. As she walked away I muttered under my breath to Sten "I hate these people a little bit." We packed up our stuff and headed off to continue our hunt for cats.

By mid afternoon we were starting to think that the only cat we would see was the big piece of Caterpillar machinery that was fixing one of the roads. Then at one of the river overlooks, where we were scanning the reeds hoping to see a lion, a young woman came up to us and asked if we had seen the cheetah sitting under a tree a few kilometers back. We stared at her crestfallen, wondering how we had managed to miss another cat. We must have looked devastated. She took pity on us and proceeded to give us very precise instructions on where it was. We hopped back in the car and, as instructed, turned left at the Do Not Enter sign, drove back 2.4 kilometers, and then slowed to a crawl, scanning the underbrush. There, right where she had said it would be, sat a cheetah. We were at least a hundred yards from the animal, but somehow seeing one in the wild was an even more intense experience than being in the enclosure with the cheetah at the rescue center two days prior. We sat there for ages, watching this big cat roll around, play with its tail (just like a housecat), and clean itself. Then it sensed something tasty nearby. We could see its whole body tense up. Sten rolled the car forward as we tried to follow the hunting cat, but eventually it went too deep into the trees for us to see it, even with a powerful pair of binoculars.

We spent a few more hours driving the unpaved roads in the southwest corner of the park looking for lions. There were very few other vehicles around. We were so pleased to be mostly on our own in a beautiful piece of country. We didn't see any lions, but we enjoyed seeing baby impala, which are just all legs and ears, and kudu, an antelope with spectacular spiraling horns. We also saw many of the tiny creatures including the very cool dung beetle and grass hoppers six inches long and colored like a circus clown. The park is filled with many cool and unusual birds, ranging from small colorful finches, which build upside down teardrop-shaped nests, to huge eagles and vultures. As the afternoon wore on, we saw several young male impala sparring in preparation for mating season. As we made our way back to camp for the night, the light was low and casting a beautiful golden hue across the hills. The day had been interesting, but frustrating. It was great to see the cheetah, but we were both somewhat dejected about not having spotted any cats on our own. Hot showers and a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc were on order.

Now that's a rack

That night I was woken by the sound of a wild dog crying outside our tent. A moment later a chorus of voices answered from the opposite side of the tent. I was shocked awake by the disconcerting realization that we were sleeping in the middle of a pack of wild dogs on the hunt. The dogs proceeded to call back and forth to each other as the two groups converged next to us. I was afraid to make a noise and imagined that Sten was lying there feeling the same way. Eventually they moved on and I whispered into the darkness "that was a little close for comfort." When Sten didn't respond, I realized he had slept through it. A few hours later, I could hear the pack hunting just down the hill from us. Again, Sten slept on. As I lay there in the dark I thought about the fact that there are only five thousand of these critically endangered carnivores left in the world. I felt so privileged to have shared a small slice of the wilderness with them for a night. In the morning I discovered that once again one of my eyeballs had a contact glued to it. I groggily got up to make coffee as Sleepyhead continued to burrow under his covers.

In the hide

We packed up the car and headed back to the watering hole to look for a lion. At this point we had given up on the notion of seeing a leopard and were just hoping for a lion. We saw lots of game that morning, including dozens of rhinos, but still no cats.

During our three days in the park we probably saw fifty rhino; mamas, babies and some very big bulls. These things are absolutely immense and prehistoric. As our friend George says, "add a horn to its head and few fins to its back and you've got a Triceratops." While most of the time they act like massive lawnmowers, grazing on the grasses at their feet, if they feel threatened, they will charge a vehicle. One of the yachties we know has the dents in his rental car to prove it. We were amazed by the sheer number of rhino we saw over three days. We were even more amazed when we learned that a century ago there were only 20 white rhino left in the park. But thanks to the conservationists, the park is now rife with rhino. There are now so many rhino at Hluhluwe-iMfolozi that they are regularly captured and sold to other parks and zoos around the world. By the third day of our visit to the park we were a little abashed to be finding ourselves driving by families of rhino in our quest to spot a big cat.

Just before noon on our last day in the park we were driving by a watering hole when I caught a glimpse of a distinctive profile out of the corner of my eye. I turned to Sten and, with a big grin spreading across on my face, said "go back." By my expression alone, he knew I'd seen a lion. We reversed, and there it was, 100 yards away, just sitting there, in the shade of a big tree, giving us the full Abe Lincoln. And then we both did something very stupid. Sten grabbed his camera and the monopod and climbed out to take a picture. And I, who had been holding it for way too long, got out to pee on a bush. The lion took one look at us and got up and sauntered away. Smart lion. Stupid people. So we sat there for a while, eating lunch, and hoping against hope that it would come back. But the lion was smarter than that and eventually we moved on. So our only encounter with a lion was short-lived, but it was very gratifying to spot it ourselves after many long hours of hard looking.

We had spent most of the prior two days in the southern section of the park, which is very arid, and home to more game. So we decided to exit the park at the northern gate and revisit the section we drove through on our first morning in the park. We weren't expecting much, but our last few hours in the park provided us with some incredible encounters. We saw a large group of giraffes grazing the treetops, several more rhino families, some large lizards, and a couple of elephant. Unfortunately for Sten, he was having trouble enjoying himself as I had decided that the park roads would be the perfect place for me to practice driving stick. He was paying too much attention to my driving to spot game and I was paying too much attention to the bush to stay on the left side of the road. Luckily, there weren't many other vehicles on the roads.

Giraffe - cheaper by the dozen

As the sun was setting, we were driving along a dirt track close to the park exit when we passed a 4x4 from one of the private game parks that fringe the park. The guide flagged us down and asked if we'd seen the leopard. When we said we hadn't, he gave us directions to the spot where they'd just seen one. We thanked him profusely and then I stalled the car in my excitement to get to the leopard. With an embarrassed wave to the passengers in the back of the 4x4 we took off. Even in the dim light, the leopard was easy to spot among the sparse foliage of a tall tree 400 yards off the road. I don't know that we would have seen it but I'd like to thing we would have, though probably not with me driving and Sten busy watching me driving.

We spent the rest of the evening watching the leopard. It was high in a tree, looking down on a herd of zebra grazing nearby. A leopard won't usually take a zebra, but there was a baby in the herd that it might have found tempting. We didn't get to see if anything developed as eventually we had to race to the park gate to get there before the park closed for the night. As we changed into warmer clothing for the drive home we were both bubbling with excitement. It had taken us until the last hour of our last day in the park, but we finally saw a leopard, giving us a true Big Five experience.

The Big Five are pretty awesome, but the little stuff is just as interesting

African Wildcats at Emdoneni Lodge - They may look like housecats, but don't be fooled, the cage is there for your protection, not theirs

Yes, that is on odifforous pile of buffalo dung on which those butterflies are alighting. Being on safari is a feast for all the senses.

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