Zuid Afrika 1: Kruger Park

Stepping from the small plane in the small airport at Nelspruit I was met with the heat that is summer in Africa – something like Caribbean heat, but dry and heavy, laying over you immediately like an old Army blanket despite the open sky and fluffy clouds.

Thabe (Tam-bay’), thin and dressed in white, meets me with one of those signs (always wanted to be that guy – happens more often now) and drives me an hour through the rolling countryside with rocky outcrops.  Each dirt road is red with the iron-rich soil common to much of Africa. Impoverished lean-to’s line the road with a few mangos and unidentifiable vegetables for sale on old wooden tables.  There are forests of straight eucalyptus and even straighter pine, farmed for lumber and paper, and providing the large beams for the huge open thatched buildings of the airport and the hotel. Farms of macadamia nut trees – it’s a very rich and fertile land.

Thabe, from the Shangaan tribe (northern Zulus), wants to visit America and Europe, and has a good job as a driver, but needs money for petrol, money for school fees for his daughter, and money for the house he is building for his family, so he may walk the length of his days under African skies. “We survive on tips,” he hints.

The hotel is built above the bush, weathered wooden walkways with thick bamboo rails wander under the trees to connect the rooms.  I gratefully plop down for an hour’s kip before the first ‘game drive’. Don’t worry, it’s ‘driving around trying to see game’, not actually bothering the animals, or driving them, the way our hunters do the deer at home. Getting ready for it, I discover my first loss – the camera Tammy equipped me with from the office has disappeared from its case, probably while my bag was in Jo’burg airport.

Adrian is our guide in the Land Rover, with about 6 other tourists – 3 Germans, 2 Brits, and an American goldsmith.  Adrian is Afrikaans, ample, and full of stories about the animals we will see around the corner, the ones he saw this morning – but we see mighty few in the heat of the afternoon.

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Part of the problem is that it is so green here now – the rainy season has been plentiful, and the rivers are full to racing – no ‘great green greasy Limpopo Rover’ of Kipling.  In October, you could go to the trickling rivers and find all the animals gathered around a dwindled pool, but now they can find water  anywhere and are off by themselves in the leafy shade.

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We see more impala – much like small does, only healthier looking and with sharper markings down their Superficial Back Line – than we care to count, and one large kudu, an impala as big as a large buck, but with vertical stripes on its flanks designed to hide it in the grass in drier seasons.

The terrain is wattle bush-veldt, so leafy is hard to see more than a few yards into it, and any animal would be in the shade, so I spend the time trying to train my eyes.  We stop at Lake Panic (smaller than the Mill Pond), and on its hushed banks see a large terrapin that lumbers into the water after we approach.  Small herons and large – the purple one about the size of our blue ones, a beautiful swallow, a brown and white jicanda bird – and about four hippos, but they are a football pitch away among the lily pads, and can be noticed more for their occasional noisy sighs and snorts, since they keep everything but their eyes and ears under water.

On the dirt road – run over – is an emerald snake, the highly venomous boomslang (from the German: baum – tree + schlange – snake).  The venomous fang is in the back of his mouth though, so you really have to stick your finger down his throat to get the haemotoxin.  I decline, even dead.  Beautiful snake, though.

We are a bit rewarded on the way home with a large wart hog crossing the road in front of us, and then a band of baboons, who have taken over a bridge above the Sabie.  They look like Fidel’s rebels, maybe 30 of them running around gesticulating, stopping the traffic as if for a shakedown, babies on the mothers’ backs, and the dominant male up on a bridge post, picking his feet and displaying his sex.  They do not jump on the car, but neither are they particularly bothered by us.

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Just before we get home, as the sun sinks and the air cools, we come across a large bull elephant eating by the side of the road.  Way bigger than the Land Rover, he calmly strips branches with his marvelously prehensile trunk and stuffs the leaves in his mouth as we park not 10’ from him.  A large set of ivory tusks, still in his head where they belong, reveal his age to be about 40 of the 60-70 years they can live.  His ears show a clear tree of arteries and veins, and by flapping them – which he is doing slowly all the time – he can keep his blood 3 degrees cooler. He is not raising his head or his trunk, so he is ‘viry relexed’, according to Adrian.

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He wanders across the road in front of us, surprising me again with the absolute silence with which he moves, many inches of padding under his feet.  He relieves himself as he reaches the other side, and I swear he could have filled a keg with his bladder, so much liquid pours down the tarmac.  Adrian says they pass about 100 kgs – 220 lbs – a day in feces and urine.  A good deal more – for now, at least – than I weigh.

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Tomorrow morning I will be up at 5 – who knows what time it is now? After all this time in the air crossing time zones – to leave on the morning adventure at 5:20.

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One Response to “Zuid Afrika 1: Kruger Park”

  1. Michelle Bellerose Says:

    … one of my favorite writers is Bruce Chatwin, I’m digging the dispatches …

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