Monday, September 20, 2010

Here the lion is still the king

Note: This is a slightly different version [in a more narrative style] than is the article published in Getaway's September issue. I'll leave it to you to decide which you prefer...

With the world cup over, Kruger offers constant escape into a world that is pure and good, cruel but also kind. Here the lion is still the king, even if you’re in your vehicle – by Nick van der Leek

A rainbow lifts over burnished bronze bushveld in the Kruger National Park. We drive under it, Tanya and me, leaving behind rain and Kruger’s very own speedcops [also known as bush pigs], crouched under an umbrella near Phalaborwa Gate. The landscape is gently undulating bushveld with the occasional outcrop. These infrequent natural turrets sporting huge grey boulders are often home to baboons and some or other historical significance. Kruger, God’s own country, is a place that probably hasn’t changed since man first arrived here. Well, other than a strip of tar and the style of the flashing vehicles sliding along these slim corridors.

Kruger’s a big place; the 50km/h speed limit somehow makes the place two or three times bigger.
“The speed limit is there for a reason; look at this,” I say to Tanya. We find a tortoise turned on its back, shell crushed, spaghetti guts spilling out the side.
We also find vultures, dozens of buffalo and elephants browsing on the verge. Up ahead a car is stalled on a verge, heads trained on something invisible to us, but a telltale sign that someone has hit the jackpot. As we slide past he tells us, whispers, “Hyena.”
He drifts away and we take over surveillance. This animal, believe it or not, belongs to the cat family, and a cackle of these mutts are no match for lions. Amazingly we find the animal further down the road, and follow it to a watering hole. We watch as the silver water of a pond makes small circles around his snout has he loudly munches at the water. He then slinks straight towards us, head down, and passes the vehicle for the bush, invisibility cloak back on. It’s these glimpses that make Kruger so exciting.

Tanya tells me that we have to exceed the speed limit slightly if we’re to make Shingwedzi [a quarter of the way from the top of the Park]. From Phalaborwa Gate it’s 131km to Shingwedzi, or 2 hours 45 minutes drive. In winter the Gate closes at 5:30pm and you can get fined up to R1500 for arriving late. Wildlife popping out of the roadside woodwork [lots of vervet monkeys, waterbuck, nyala and birds aplenty] doesn’t make getting there on time any easier, so one really has to plan your trip to allow sufficient time for photo stops.

We rush across the Tropic of Capricorn, and after some debate make a u-turn to capture this moment as well. It’s July, midwinter, but t-shirt warm, and the surrounds have gone from an autumn bronze, a lovely fiery orange in the rain-washed sunlight, to a brilliant, shining green, teeming with buffalo and elephant.

With the sun having just set, 6km left to Shingwedzi, and just 5 minutes to Gateline [Kruger jargon] we find the road in the distance blocked off by a wall of grey. I approach them faster than I would like, and one obstreperous bull lurches forward at us, trumpeting loudly as we sail – now moving slowly – past.
About 2km further we are delayed by a pair of ultra sensitive owls silhouetted against the grey ashes of a cigarette sky. While they’re telescoping towards rustles in the grass, and we have long lenses focused on them, 3 vehicles pass us in quick succession: a reminder – Gateline is fast approaching. We set off, watching the time tick over to 5:31pm. Just around the corner, with around 1km we find all three vehicles stopped dead, abreast of each other, and in their headlights, two beautiful lions, a large male and female, standing in the road.

The female is very relaxed, enjoying the male’s riveted attention, and lounging on the warm tar while the male paces around her, paws her tail, sits, and makes another pass. Finally, one of the vehicles inches forward on the gravel of the right hand verge, and I slide into his slot. The male bristles at this encroachment; the vehicle inches further, and then the male advances with The Look, and the Toyota’s white reverse lights come on, and we’re back where we started. I hover for a moment and try a few moments later down the left verge. As we pass the Toyota the driver says to us, “Not a hell.” I go as far to the left as I can, hover, watch, and then see if they’ll let me pass. The lion lovers are so laid back, they won’t mind me. At about 3 metres the male is up and I hit reverse; next minute the lion is about to run so I stop [they say don’t run away from a lion, does the same apply to driving?], and he abruptly turns and goes back to his fiancé.
“He was right, ‘not a hell’.”
It’s interesting, sitting high off the ground, protected by a powerful capsule of metal and glass, and you have a male lion holding 4 vehicles with fines to pay, at bay. That’s power.
10 minutes later we’re through the gate, none the worse for wear. The lion encounter is a thrilling highlight to close off the day’s game viewing.

Shingwedzi is nestled right beside the Shingwedzi River in mopane country, close – but not too close – to the river’s flood level. This really does give visitors that ‘back to nature’ vibe. Unlike Olifants, which is perched high above that magnificent river, and has awesome scenery but is somehow a little detached from the surroundings, Shingwedzi’s camping sites, huts and bungalows conspire to create a community. So it’s kind’ve cozy. The limited use of paving, the tall palms elbowing the tall thatch cottages and the abundance of squirrel filled trees make Shingwedzi the sort of space that you want to braai in and sit around outide. There’s not much of a view, but isn’t that what game drives are for?

The next morning I visit reception to note the recent sightings. Everything, from leopard, to wild dog, and most of it on a dirt road that starts on the east side of the camp [right behind our bungalow where a Bateleur likes to brood]. So we follow the gravel road [23km along the S50] that skirts the Shingwedzi River. It has dozens of mini loops to get you closer to the river. It is here that we spot our first crocs, and a bunch of terrapins. Further down we see the bloated carcass of a hippo floating in the middle of the river, with a croc fastening a napkin to his throat before thrashing down some lunch.

I do a very dom thing moments later. I get out the vehicle – strictly forbidden – to get a ground level view of a tortoise with a flat shell. Just after clicking the shot a blue vehicle saunters up the road and I dive back into our Isuzu. The lady on our side motions us to roll down the window.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you; a leopard was in that exact spot yesterday.”
Feeling embarrassed, I try to rationalize to Tanya that I am right at the door of the vehicle, and leopards don’t attack people anyway…I learn later that I am wrong on both counts. Unlike hyenas and lions, leopards are known to hunt and attack people – including adults. They’re also the sort of cats that see you; you’re unlikely to see them. And as a matter of fact, leopards are the only one of the big five that we don’t see.

I suspect we came close. Later the same day, with my camera trained on a herd of impala sunning themselves in the late rays on a straw colored verge, all of them glance suddenly – in unison – at something, and in a wink, they are gone. We hear that characteristic snort/bark that is their alarm call. We never did see what was chasing them though.

The area around Shingwedzi is lovely and teems with life. It’s warmer and greener here than just an hour or so further south, but be warned, William, the manager tells me July is usually full every year.During our visit there is a constant [and let’s admit, irritating] stream of vehicles. Although the rest camps offer drives, sometimes, often, you’ll see more from your own vehicle, and you can take it all in at your own pace.

On our night drive the highlight was two Marshall Eagles sleeping in an Apple Leaf and a Bushbaby that most of us didn’t see [what does that tell you?]. The local ranger, Matthew, says there is a resident pride of 14 lions so you’re virtually assured of seeing these on your visit. Also make sure to visit the Shingwezi Bridge justaround the corner from the camp, where you are allowed to alight from your vehicle and take some photos. It was a very popular spot when we were there, and it’s a lovely place for sundowners and a quick social.

While braaiing under a sky shot through with stars on our last night, and using some locally purchased meat [and it must be mentioned, delicious] in front of our cottage, I point out the headlines in a paper bought at Phalaborwa’s Spar to Tanya. The entire front page of the The Star [June 29] is dedicated to theft – everyone from the new police commissioner, to his deputy, to the ex-president, minister of correctional services, the previous finance minister, the former deputy president, you name it – has been a victim. The World Cup has been a temporary reprieve from this uninterrupted news-stream designed to bring about depression and cynicism. But with the World Cup over, Kruger offers constant escape into a world that is pure and good, cruel but also kind.

If you’re looking for a pot of gold under the rainbow in the Kruger Park, you won’t find it. What you will find is a treasure of another sort - wild animals. Lots of them. And you can do far worse than the critters you’ll encounter at Shingwedzi.

Getaway September 2010 article here.

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