We were the third car in the line waiting for the big bull elephant to get off the road so we could get back to the Satara camp before the camp gates were closed for the night. As we have seen in previous days in the park, the bull is often the last family member to cross the road. This one decided to walk up the road awhile and stop and graze on the roadside grass. I think they like to do this to just show their superiority. The park recommends to give elephants 30 meters of space. To pass this one would leave about 3 meters max. We had all turned our car engines off and were waiting for him to move on which they eventually do. Out from behind came the quiet murmur of a car creeping along passing us all at a barely moving pace. It looked like he was moving as slowly and quietly as possible to sneak by the elephant without it noticing, for the elephant had his back to us now. I said to myself , “Wow this could be good“. The car
moved smoothly, silently and slowly and finally made it to the elephant. The elephant only noticed the car as it came next to him and acknowledged it with a flinch his head and continued grazing. The car snuck by in what seemed like forever. The leader in the line started his car and proceeded in the same manner. He made it. The third car the same. We were now the leader of the line and next. What to do wait or try to sneak by? The success rate was 3 out 3. I inched our way up to the elephant and with every few feet calculated a new evasive driving maneuver for every different move I thought the elephant could make. We had watched elephants on previous days react to cars that got to close or were just in the way and they are quick at pivoting on their hind feet and they raise slightly in the air in doing this. Fortunately, we saw no accidents but saw plenty of potential destructive power and some white, and scared, and crying faces. I felt confident I could quickly steer the car in a direction away from any of the elephants moves. We then came to the point in our attempt to sneak by where we were to close to out steer this elephant. The only thing I could see out my side of the window was large legs. We were too close to react. We had to just keep on going straight ahead. I wanted to floor the gas pedal, but we still had several feet of elephant to pass and our only hope was to not startle the elephant. We were hoping he could not hear our racing hearts as we crept by. We finally got to the front of the elephant and Ann bent over me to look out my window up at the elephants head. She said later his one eye was looking down on us. We were holding our breaths. The only sound we could hear was the grass being pulled from the ground. Welcome to another Kruger National Park adventure. We made it back to camp with five minutes to spare and the gates were closed and the electricity was turned on to the fence that surrounds the camp to keep the animals out, especially elephants. We had seen families of elephants up to a dozen and when they move through an area it pretty much looks like a herd of elephants went through. They uproot, tear apart and push over trees on their journeys. You can tell where elephants came through very easily by the destructive path they make, and the huge amounts of dung they leave behind. They could destroy the buildings in our camp and the fun would be over. There are some 12,000 elephants in KNP. Every elephant road crossing is an adventure. Young ones stray and get frightened being alone on one side and come barreling across the road screaming. Young bulls decide in the road who should be ahead of who with some head butting jostling. The big male makes sure the area is secure with some intimidating advances or gestures. We rounded a curve on a remote, thickly bushed, one-lane, narrow dirt road while traveling from the Berg en Dal camp to the
Lower Sabie camp only to startle a big bull along side of the road. He wasted no time in showing his displeasure of our presence. He came moving swiftly toward the car, ears flapping and trunk swinging. It was all Ann could do to not jump out of her skin and drive pronto, in reverse, back around the curve and up the hill. It is said in the park that this aggressive behavior could be an intoxication effect from the elephant eating too many marula fruit. Great…drunk elephants on the road!
The elephant is one of the big five of the five animals that are most desired to see in the park. Another of the big five is the lion. KNP has 5000 lions. On a sunset drive provided by the park
service after the gates close, we saw an incredible lion drama develop on the plains and banks of the lower Sabie River just outside the Lower Sabie camp. It was described by the ranger as a once in a lifetime occurrence. This phrase is heard often in the park as well as “you were lucky”. The ranger on the drive spotted 7 lions taking in the last golden rays of the sun on a huge outcropping of rocks just across the river about 100 yards from us. It was a scene that could have been painted and hung across the river. From our vantage point we could see for miles up and down the river and out into the plains. The plains gently slopped down to the river on both sides with pockets of thorn trees and bushes with rock outcropping here and there and the one were the 7 lions lounging on the cliff. As everyone was sighing with exhilaration, the ranger announces “ Get ready the drama is about to begin”. Two buffalo were grazing up the river toward the lions. A couple of the lions just happened to be facing in their direction. This was so unbelievable that it seemed like we had to be watching this African animal drama in a super huge IMAX theater. As the buffalo got within about 200 yards the lions that were lying down were now up and all were intently looking in the direction of the buffalos. The ranger started explaining the hunting strategy of lions and no sooner than when she was done the lions jumped off the cliff and slowly walked single file toward the unsuspecting buffalos. When the lions were within a few hundred feet, the lions broke out of the single file and started to circle the buffalos in a slow stalking one-leg-at-a-time fashion. One buffalo was in some thick bush and it looked like a goner with a lion right one the other side of the thicket. There was a short scuffle between one lion and the buffalo, who had his head lowered to the ground and wailing about and then he decided to high tail it over to the other buffalo who had secured a bit of high ground. They both faced the lions with horns slightly lowered and stared down the seven lions who at this point seemed no longer interested. The ranger said at this time that lions are lousy hunters with a only 9 % success rate, they have good strategies but poor execution. The buffalo are one of the most feared animals by lions and humans. The lions moved on single file down the river and what is down the river unknowing to the lions, a giraffe. Giraffes who have excellent eyesight that is further enhanced by their observation tower necks are keen to any thing approaching. This giraffe was on alert quickly before the lions knew of its presence, and stood still and watched the approaching lions. The lions caught wind of the giraffe and started to break out of their single file toward the giraffe. The giraffe was ready and slowly trotted further out into the plains out of range for the lions to start stalking. The lions continued toward giraffe and the giraffe trotted again before they could stalk. The lions lost interest and the sun set. Drama over.
Cat sightings are infrequent and cats on the hunt are more so. Our first lion sighting was on a sunset drive outside the Berg en Dal camp. It was dark on a remote road when four young male lions walked out of the bush in front and along side our safari truck. They strolled along for several minutes before they disappeared into the bush. This is more typical of a lion sighting. Our only other sighting was on a sunrise drive outside the Satara camp when we came upon a pride in a field watching the sunrise only to be disturbed and driven away by a solitary hyena.
The lower Sabie camp was the most unique of the 4 camps we stayed for it had a restaurant deck over the banks of the Lower Sabie river where hippos and elephants roamed. It also was unique for a roadside lake that was a kilometer or so from the camp that was loaded with crocodiles and hippos.
We parked at the lake from and to the camp everyday and watched hippos fighting, grazing and in groups thrashing about in the water submerging and reappearing. We did not think we would see so many animals and so often. We saw four of the big 5 after our second day of a 14 day stay. On the 14th day we still did not see the last of the big five, the leopard. We were not disappointed for we had many sightings and adventures that we would never forget. How could we forget watching a group of 30 to 40 baboons come down the road toward us with their young ones bouncing around playing in the road and as they get to our car all the young ones jump up onto the car and pounce and roll around with each other all over the car. Pure monkey business.
Or on our first day, while taking a turn in a road , we come up behind a pickup truck stopped up the road by a big bull rhinoceros standing sideways across the road displaying his maleness aggressively and then deciding we were not going to intrude on his territory. He outdid our patience by laying across the road. When we turned around to head back , we were approached by a hyena coming down the road that stopped for a sniff of our car before continuing down the road. Those hyenas are bigger than I thought. Also the horrific sight of a python coiled around a suffocating impala showed that the realities of animal survival are not always pretty. Or the spending of a few hours quietly following a big male zudo that was slowly grazing parallel to the road up in a thinly treed forest and finally being rewarded with him coming out of the trees and crossing the road in front of us displaying his long twisted horns.
On the fourteenth day while watching some klipspringers, a safari guide pulled up next to us to ask of any sightings. He mentioned that a leopard was 7 kilometers up the road with a impala carcass in a tree. When we got to the tree, about 30 feet from the road with other trees and thicket covering most of the tree‘s view, the cat was gone. Another safari guide parked along the road was waiting for its return, so we decided to also. About 30 minutes of waiting the leopard was spotted on the ground by the guide and he maneuvered his vehicle for a better viewing of the carcass branch of the tree and we maneuvered into the spot he was in. The cat never went to the carcass but decided to sleep in a lower crevice in the tree. We had the only spot that offered any viewing of cat, and it was only of the cat’s back. Everyone left including the cat a short time later. We stayed hoping for a return of the cat. It never happened and we left and returned 2 more times we no luck. We decided if the cat keeps coming and going, maybe it would return tomorrow. We decided on our last day to be the first one at the tree. The next day we went out to spot at the tree, no one was there and viola, a leopard was up in the tree at the carcass. Before we pulled over to the only good spot for viewing the carcass we noticed another leopard laying on the ground. The grass was high and we could just make out it was a leopard. It was have been the other leopard’s young one. Almost every female animal in the park had a offspring following it. We pulled over to the best viewing spot and watched for 45 minutes of the two leopards going up and down the tree feeding on the impala carcass. Soon the word got out about the leopard and a mini traffic jam occurred with about 8 to 10 cars. We watched about 2 more hours, as the cats would leave then come back. After the cat’s last long absence we left, returning back later in the day with no cat and no cars. We decided that before we drove out of park the next day to our next destination that we would check the tree again first thing in the morning. The next morning there was no leopard and the carcass was gone. It looked like there never had been a leopard there. We drove on to leave the park. On the way, we spotted a car stopping and going and a occasional head popping out the window with binoculars. The car turned onto a watering hole road with a couple cars following. A potential sighting in the making. We followed in to inquire and found out that there was a leopard in the area. The binocular car looked around at the watering hole and left as did the other cars. We decided we would put an hour in at the watering hole waiting that maybe the cat would get thirsty. After sweating in the morning heat sitting in the quiet car we decided to pull out and get going to our White River destination. As we turning the car out from the watering hole onto the road out of the thicket, I saw a bright golden light on a distant tree branch and was not sure if it could be something else. We maneuvered our car the best we could between the tall grasses and the bush thicket and still could not tell if the golden light on the branch was just sunshine until there was movement. The leopard got up and circled on the branch and laid back down like house cats do. We watch for the next 2 hours as the cat tried to get comfortable on that tree branch. Within 30 minutes the cars came. Usually with off road sightings there are only one or two viewing positions because of the bush. The discoverer of the sighting gets the best positioning and sometimes it’s the only view, which was the case with this sighting and the previous one. It is important to wait because things happen quickly and are over very quickly. Everyone understands having the “luck of the draw” in animal sightings. One day out of the Berg en Dal camp, we came upon a road jam of about 10 vehicles . As we crept our way through the jam we were able to see a Python coiling around an impala in an opening between two bushes along the side of the road. The jam lasted all day for the Python never left. Most sightings can only last 5 to 15 minutes as the animals come out of the bush then go back in. it’s a skill that develops in KNP to drive around looking out between tree and bushes above the tall grassed to spot movement or parts of animals. As one ranger apologized on a sunset drive after she stopped the safari truck that usually indicates a sighting, that it was nothing, that sometimes the animals turn into bushes. We saw many animals turn into bushes but none as exciting as the tree branch that turned into a leopard.