Our first family holiday all-as-grownups was much anticipated. With us living in Johannesburg, the opportunity to go on safari seemed too good to miss, so Val got busy with her research. Booking something proved more difficult than expected, however; partly because there are five of us, and partly because it had to take place during the Easter holiday.
This meant we had to plump for two locations: Safari 1 was for two days in a public part of Kruger National Park; followed by three days on a private reserve – Manyeleti – adjoining Kruger and with no fences in between. Safari 1 gave us the better social opportunities, but Safari 2 was much better in terms of the opportunity to see the animals. Its camp-site was unfenced, so could (and did) have animals wandering through… though this did mean we had to be chaperoned back to our luxury tents after dinner, and go straight to bed.
On Safari 1, the converted land-rovers had to stick to paved roads and marked trails, so we could only generally see animals from a distance; on Safari 2 we went looking for them wherever they were, alerted by radio contact with other lodges’ vehicles: racing across the savannah, ploughing through mud and streams, dodging (or not) trees and bushes. And when we got there being astonishingly close to the animals (and never more than three vehicles at a time.)
To complement the sunset on our first evening in the park, we’ve included a taste of the wonderful African sunrises we experienced.
So, on to the animals…
Leopards, cheetahs, hyenas
Not easy to tell the difference between leopards and cheetahs, both being spotty cats (something to do with the head being smaller, but also, leopards appear to have black tears running down their face). At the beginning of Zulu, Michael Caine shoots one of them, then manages to have the other carried home. After lions, however, they are the most dangerous predators in Kruger.
A leopard was one of the few animals we saw up close on Safari 1, thanks to Mary’s keen eyes – one was sitting in the tall grass just a few yards from the road. It was chasing cheetahs that provided our first off-road experience, first to get to the general area, and then, our turn called, racing in to see three of them before they dispersed. Wise, our spotter, was perched on the jump seat mounted on the front of the bonnet.
Hyenas have a bad press, largely due to The Lion King, but we liked them. One featured in an unfolding story where he shooed a leopard away from its kill, caught after dark in the beam of a powerful spotlight wielded by Wise. We discovered later that the leopard had been able to retrieve its dinner: impala tartare.
To begin with, we were only able to catch glimpses of elephants from a distance as they lumbered along.
However, before too long we started to get lucky. On the final outing of Safari 1, a bull elephant emerged onto the road right in front of us.
Even better, we were very excited when an elephant wandered into the grounds of the lodge for Safari 2. We thought it might take a drink out of the swimming pool, as one had done a day or two previously, but fortunately it decided against this, and strolled instead, in a leisurely manner past both our and the children’s luxury tents.
VIDEO OF ELEPHANT AT WATER HOLE TO COME.
And on the final morning’s outing, a small herd, including some babies, wandered back and forth across the trail in front of us. Colonel Hathi’s march from The Jungle Book came to mind, though of course these weren’t Indian elephants, but African.
Lions are the number one animal: King of the Jungle, top of the food chain, first of the Big Five. For those not in the know, these the ones referred to all the time: lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, buffalo. (Buffalo?!!) No idea why those five are chosen; they’re not all predators, it’s not just size (why no hippo?), nor are they the most iconic (giraffe? zebra?)
Anyway, we thought we were going to leave Africa without seeing a lion, but it seems they are like buses – you wait all day… But then, safaris are like that all the time; the quality you need above all is patience. If you want to guarantee seeing a particular animal, visit a zoo.
Our truck was directed to a clearing in the brush, where two lionesses were nursing some cubs. Once again, we had no idea the animals would be so comfortable with our being as close as we were – just a few yards away. The next day we saw a different group – pride – and this time they were presided over by a large male, the most iconic of beasts. It does have to be said that big cats are much like all cats, that they spend a good deal of their time sleeping. As we weren’t lucky/unlucky enough to see them hunting and killing, sleeping lions is largely what we saw.
Rhinos and hippos
On Safari 1, rhinos and hippos were almost as invisible as lions. We did catch a sight of a pair of the former, wandering slowly across the side of a hill in the distance, stately as a pair of galleons. I was informed that hippos could be glimpsed on the far side of a nearby lake, but I had to take people’s word for it.
Buffalo, wildebeest and gnu
I believe that, like sheep, the animals above are generally referred to in the singular, even though, in the case of the buffalo, we saw them in a large herd. The buffalo is one of the Big Five, though I have already expressed my incredulity at this, as there are better candidates. To my mind, they are much like cows, therefore scarcely wild animals at all, but in big numbers they are certainly impressive. Their major point of interest is the symbiotic relationship they have with a small bird, who eats irritating insects off their backs.
According to Dan, our splendid driver and guide, wildebeest and gnu are different names for the same animal, thereby giving the lie to the line from that other Flanders and Swann song that a gnu is “not in the least like that dreadful wildebeest”, but I haven’t verified the claim. We mostly saw the wildebeest/gnu alone, preventing me using one of my favourite quotes: “agnother gnu”.
STOP PRESS: Correction, the Flanders and Swann song compares the Gnu to a Hartebeest not a Wildebeest
Giraffes, zebras and warthogs
None of these make the cut in the Big Five of African animals, even though all three are universally known – the first two because of their distinctive coats (along with leopards and tigers, the only animals which are recognised entirely because of the pattern of their hide), and the last because of his role in The Lion King – even Dan referred to them as Hakuna Matata.
They were not at all prolific, but every glimpse provided a frisson of excitement… even though one is a boar by any other name, and another just a horse in pyjamas.
The giraffe, on the other hand, is entirely unique. Their necks are ridiculously long, but so are their legs (making it all the more shocking to discover they give birth standing up – that’s quite a drop for a newborn.) They are also, apparently, much better fighters than they look, their horns making a surprisingly effective weapon.
Impala and kudu
Impala are beautiful and graceful, like elegant deer, and it is great fun to see them springing around. Unfortunately, because they are so prolific (they breed like rabbits, apparently) one soon comes to dismiss them as commonplace, especially when searching for rarer beasts. It was interesting to learn how their societies work, however, with each herd dominated by a male who lays claim to, bosses about and mates with a large number of doe-eyed females. To compensate, there are also herds of bachelor impala, all horned (and presumably horny.)
Kudu are larger and less attractive, though they are the high jump champions of the veldt – three and a half metres, apparently.
Both serve a major function as food for the predators, including us, though I believe we get ours from farms rather then the wild. I can confirm that kudu steaks and kudu biltong are extremely tasty; I can’t speak for impala.
Our family and other animals…
with apologies to Gerald Durrell. A miscellaneous selection of photos of us, and the various other animals that we saw but who have not featured elsewhere…