Saturday, December 19, 2009

December 11, 2009 - Kruger National Park

Mama hippo and her young

Kruger Park is absolutely gigantic. It takes days to drive from the bottom end to the top. It is bigger than several countries, including Israel, and approximately the same size as the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The sheer vastness of this wildlife reserve makes it possible to imagine how southern Africa might have looked before the arrival of the arrival of Europeans. The endless views across the savanna surpass even Hollywood's best efforts.

A pair of dwarf mongoose peeking out from behind a giant anthill

Inside the park there are vast herds of animals. With the exception of rhino, of which we saw large family groups in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi but only a few in Kruger, we've seen more of everything in Kruger. Our first day here we saw a herd of 80 elephant moving up river, small young elephants hustling along to keep up with the adults. Today we had 35 elephant cross the road right in front of our car, the mothers placing themselves between us and their young.

Small, Medium, Large

Throughout the park we've seen lots of baby animals. The cutest have got to be the baby elephants, still learning how to use their trunks. The most entertaining have to be the young giraffes, unsteady on their long legs. They jump and kick, startling themselves, as they figure out how all their limbs work. The baby baboons are much more fun to be around than their aggressive parents, who will not hesitate to jump up on a car hood or trunk and try to get inside.

Waterbuck - must be tough going through life with a target on your butt

We were lucky enough today to see two families of deadly predators with their young, but we probably wouldn't have seen either without being told exactly where to go to find them in this vast park. Last night, as we all stood around braaiing outside of our rondovals in Satara Camp, a South African ambled over and offered us a taste of boerewors, a traditional local sausage that often features on the braai.

We got to talking and learned that he came to Kruger several times a year. He showed us some of the photos he'd taken over the past few days. We were ogling over his shots of a family of hyena and he told us right where to go to see them. Then we all went back to making our dinners. A little while later he came over and asked if we wanted to see a honey badger. We rushed over to the other side of the camp in time to see the badger taking his leisure over a tipped rubbish bin. No one said these guys weren't adaptable. The two inch claws and powerful jaws certainly made it clear that this was not your ordinary scavenger.

Not a Honey Badger

This morning we left camp before dawn, as soon as the gates opened at 4:30. The sun was rising over the savanah as we headed east towards the culvert in which the hyenas were living. As we came over a rise in the road we saw two hyena sleeping on the road in front of us. We pulled the car over, and edged up as close as we dared come to them. With the engine off and windows down, we soon picked out several additional hyena in the bushes around us. All told, there were three adults and three young.

As the day became brighter the hyenas became more active and it quickly became clear how the hierarchy worked in this clan. One of the adult females seemed to be dominant over the other two adults. Of the three young, two healthy looking, well-filled out cubs were clearly favored and always assured of a spot to nurse, while the third, a much smaller runt, was left out. As the other two suckled, the runt snuffled and dug around in the dirt, as though he was looking for something to eat. We watched as he tried to curry favor with the one of the other adults, but she couldn't, or wouldn't, help him find food. As a last resort, the runt attempted to get in on the nursing, but he was quickly put in his place by the snarls of the other cubs. Life is clearly going to be an uphill battle for this little guy.

A few hours later, during the heat of the day, we were next to a watering hole, cheering as a hippo threw back his head and yawned, when a bakkie (pickup truck) pulled up next to us and told us that there was a whole family of lions lying in the bush just down the road from us. We hustled on over there and managed to get an only partially obscured view of a pride of lions with only one other car for company.

For the next two and half hours we sat baking in the car, trying to outlast the folks with the best view and watching the subtle interactions of the pride. Occasionally one of the cubs would come harass their mom until she rolled over and let them nurse. Another time she couldn't be bothered and just reached up and threw a paw over the young cub, pulling it down next to her in what can only be described as a beautiful moment.

Weaver birds maintaining their nests

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