Thursday, January 17, 2008

What Do You Get When You Cross an Elephant With a Rhino?

Elephino!!

(For some of our non-native-English-speaking friends: that's actually a really funny joke. Trust me.)

After far too long of a drive, changing a flat tire, and trading in our car for a new one at the Nelspruit airport, we finally got to the Grand Kruger Lodge, which despite its name is actually located just outside Kruger National Park in the privately-owned Marloth Park. It was dark by the time we arrived, so we really didn't see much. We made the decision to get up pretty early the next morning and hit Kruger itself (entering via the nearby Crocodile Gate) for a few hours, and then planned to come back for lunch and a planning session for how to best spend the next couple of days.

What we had not really conceptualized well was the fact that Kruger is not a zoo. It's not just a simple in-and-out. Within a kilometer of entering the park, we'd already had to inch our way past a giraffe (the handsome fellow pictured at the end of our previous post), had seen some distant, napping lions, and encountered a small herd of zebra complete with recently-born colt. Then we were off on one of the many dirt tracks until we got to a "blind" -- similar to a hunter's blind, except this was for viewing, not shooting. While there, we had a perfect view of a little soap opera playing itself out in a shallow river, as a pod of hippos argued among themselves, while others tried to edge their way past two elephants that were playing affectionately with each other. Turns out hippos and elephants don't really get along, and the elephants are the alpha herbivores in that relationship.

Before we knew it, it was already past noon, and we were barely inside the park. We stopped for lunch at one of the internal lodges, then hit the bushveld again for the rest of the day. By the time we returned to our lodge in the evening, it was dark again; the staff was actually a little worried about us because we'd told them we were only going out for a little while!

A chronological listing of everything we did and saw in the park would be a little tedious, so I'll just say a few things about some of what we observed.

It seems like all the animals had just had babies. We saw extremely young elephants, giraffes, hippos, monkeys, eland, and just about everything else.

The elephants in particular were very protective of their young -- we had one very large mom move herself in front of her calf and stare us down until we moved. Since the elephant outweighed our little Nissan by several tons, we were more than happy to move along!

At our lodge we even had tiny 2-day-old baby warthog living under our porch, along with its protective and very homely mom. We saw a couple of confrontations with a larger and more-fierce warthog when one of the two felt it's
territory or youngsters were threatened. The first time we had the two adults start snorting and charging each other, right past our railing, it took us totally by surprise; I've never seen Wendy move so fast!

We were slightly disappointed that we never saw any leopards (the only one of the "Big Five" -- Elephant, White Rhino, Buffalo, Lion and Leopard -- that we didn't see), but apparently they're so elusive and so rare that very few people ever catch site of them. Maybe next time.

Did I mention that it was hot? We had at least one day where it reached 40°C (104°F), and most of the other days were only slightly cooler. Christmas Day itself was in the mid-90's, a welcome change from our home in Seattle (or Forest's in Paris), but at the same time we were definitely not very fresh at the end of each day.

We went on a night drive on Christmas Eve. Unlike the self-drives that we did during the day, only park rangers can conduct the night excursions, for the safety of both humans and animals. Although we didn't have anywhere near the quantity and variety of sightings that we'd had during the day, we did get to see am immensely huge herd of mixed herbivores, all visible with glowing eyes from the spotlights that we used, and we drove right next to an adult male lion for a while. He mostly ignored us, and was definitely on the skinny side [though I would not have wanted that cat to decide he wanted to come through the open windows of the Jeep...]. Our guide told us that many of the lions in the park are afflicted with tuberculosis, which they contracted from eating buffalo. The buffalo, in turn, got it from mingling with domestic livestock across the park boundaries. Although it's unfortunate that Kruger and other parks need to be fenced in, that's just one more reason why it's necessary.

Our full set of Kruger photos can be seen here.

One of these days we'll maybe get back to visit the north end of Kruger, to see "the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees", as Rudyard Kipling described it, or come into the same area through bordering countries now that the
Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park allows access via Mozambique and Zimbabwe as well as South Africa. However, we really had a fantastic time, and I don't think we could have asked for much more from the experience!