Wednesday, July 17, 2013

DAY #6 - What Animal DIDN'T We See?

I couldn't sleep!

Just the thought of getting to go on another drive kept me antsy and rarin' to go for the next morning. At about 5:00pm both of us were awake enough to hear a lion moan not far from camp. Now that is a way to start your morning! Thirty minutes later we got the courtesy knock on our door from the guides to let us know it was time to get up and get ready for the morning drive (it was still dark at this point).

We made our way to the main lodge (we were allowed to walk alone in the morning, albeit cautiously since we had just heard a lion). They had set up some "tea and rusks" for all the guests, which we soon learned were really, really hard, crunchy scone/cake type things. We're talking put it on the side of your mouth and crunch down, hoping you don't break a tooth. But, it was snacks, so Julie was happy. All the other guests slowly filed into the room, and as we waited for the guides to load up the vehicles, we all chatted about the sounds we heard during the night and early morning, including the lion roar.

The same group of nine people jumped into our vehicle, and with that we were out on our second game drive, this time before the sun had even risen! One thing I forgot to mention in the last post was that within minutes of being on our first game drive, Julie immediately compared it to being on the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland. It flung us around side-to-side, there were animals all around, and it felt like we were on some odd, rickety track the whole time. As much as I hated to agree with her Disneyland-Africa analogy, she was right.

 Julie ready for action!

Anyway, the morning air was cool as the wind hit our faces when we sped up, but with jackets and hats, we were totally fine. The weather the whole trip was comfortable and easy to dress for (no extreme heat or cold). Similar to the day before, it didn't take long before we came to our first animal sighting of the day. We came to a clearing where a couple elephants from the herd we saw the night before were eating some trees, and they had a small baby calf with them as well. H.J. daringly drove us up close to the elephants for some amazing photos, but it didn't take long for the big bull of the group to get fidgety about our distance. He faced us directly, and as he pawed the ground as if to charge (we would find out later he was about to "mock charge"), H.J. smacked his hand loudly against the side of our vehicle and yelled "HEY!" at the elephant. As if scolded by his mommy, the elephant stopped his hissy-fit, and went back to eating trees. We almost had an elephant charge us, but he didn't. Why? Because H.J. is a badass.

 Sunrise with the elephants

This is the one that thought about charging us

Since we'd spent a lot of our time thus far with elephants, H.J. convinced us to move on to see what else we could find. So we drove on, and we went from my favorite animals of the trip (elephants), to seeing Julie's favorite animal...wild dogs! Wild dogs are a unique breed, with similar attributes to hyenas and wolves, but with the biggest ears I've ever seen on a dog! They have incredible hearing, and have beautiful markings on their bodies, and especially their legs. We followed them for a bit, and before we knew it, all of their ears went down and it was obvious they had caught scent of an impala, and they tore off as a group out into the distance. Julie was about to say she was gonna miss those guys, but before she could even think it, H.J. revved the engine and gunned it into the bush to follow them! This was one of the most exhilarating moments of the trip, as we powered over bushes and small trees pursuing the dogs, and the other vehicles on the radios said they were on the other side watching the impala run. After a valiant effort, H.J. finally lost the dogs in some thick bushes, and we parted ways with our hunting friends.

Here come the dogs!

 Check out those ears!

 On the prowl
We slipped back on to the one paved road in the park to get to another dirt road H.J. wanted to hit, and as we drove we passed another vehicle stopped on the side of the road, with all the guests looking at the base of a tree. As soon as we pulled up, we saw why. A large leopard was laying down and stalking a family of warthogs nestled under a tree. We watched as the leopard lay motionless for a while, and then, with no warning sign, bolted out of his stance and darted for the warthog den. The family darted out, with a huge pile of dust kicked into the air. But the leopard was quick enough to snag one of the baby warthogs in his mouth, and in one motion retreated back into the bush to go enjoy his kill in solitude. That was pretty intense.

After the kill, we found a nice place to set up for morning coffee in the bush. H.J. and Caswell once again brought out coffee, tea, and hot chocolate, as well as some excellent muffins for a morning snack. I know you're already thinking it, so I'll say it: Yes, Julie loved the snacks.

Julie loves snacks!

The rest of the morning drive was spent observing less active animals who let us watch them as long as we liked, including a giraffe, some more impalas, kudu and a saddleback stork. As we rode animal to animal, we got to know our vehicle-mates a bit better, including a British couple our age who were on the honeymoon. We ended up spending most of our meals seated with them, and we enjoyed their company the entire time, as they stayed at the lodge the same days we did. After watching all these animals and driving around, it was time to head in for breakfast, so we drove back to the lodge at about 9:00am. We spent some time out at the observing deck, with a now routine sighting of the resident crocodile (he rarely moved from 9:00am-4:00pm), and then were hailed by the bongo drums to come in and eat our morning eggs and bacon.

Kudu female

During breakfast, H.J. came by and informed us that, because of the high winds, there would be no guided bushwalk today. With the lion pride so close to camp, it was unsafe to go out when the winds could quickly send our scent their way. We were pretty bummed about this, as we were excited to walk into the bush and find tracks and follow animals. But we made the most of the day, enjoying our time on the observing deck, taking some naps, and just relaxing. In addition to the crocodile, we also saw impala, terrapins (turtles) and vultures make visits to the watering hole. We also had very frequent sightings of the southern red-billed hornbill, the bird who Julie and I referred to as "Zazu" from the Lion King. Now this bird was black and white, and Zazu was very blue, but it was obvious the Disney character was adapted from this bird. Geez, two Disney references in one post...what's happening to me?! Everywhere we went, be it to our room, on the deck, in the vehicles...a Zazu was there.


 Zazu photo shoot!

After another light lunch at 2:00pm, Julie and I went back to the room to rest up before the afternoon drive. This was when I walked into the bathroom to find a scorpion in the sink. I made the mistake of telling my wife, who spent the rest of the trip looking everywhere before she took a step. I also made the mistake of rinsing him down the sink, instead of killing Julie was equally paranoid that he would just crawl right back up the drain. My bad Julie, my bad.

Impala at the watering hole

As quickly as it probably seems in this blog post, we looked at our watched and were surprised that it was already time for the afternoon game drive. Now savvy safari veterans, we packed up the essentials and headed to our vehicle to meet our friends for another round of animal adventures. We were greeted by H.J., who introduced us to our new tracker, Caswell. We drove around a while to start this drive before we spotted anything. It was actually quite fun going on these drives, as we became obsessed with trying to spot the next animal before H.J. or Caswell did. We rarely did, but it was still fun to try.

After about twenty minutes of driving, we came to a screeching halt as Caswell pointed to the ground. He immediately jumped off the hood of the car, got down to the ground and called H.J. out of the car to look as well. They spoke in Afrikaans, so we had no idea what they were saying. And then H.J. walked back to the car, grabbed his rifle, and said "We will be back in 10 minutes." And with that, they disappeared into the bush, leaving the nine of us sitting there, with no idea where they went or what they were looking for. We sat and chatted, looked at birds, killed time the best we could. After about 15 minutes they came back, saying they didn't find anything, so we moved on. We think they saw some cheetah prints.

Caswell and H.J.

After our guides momentarily abandoned us, we came across a single rhino in the bush, all by himself. We stopped and watched him for about five minutes, when all of a sudden, we saw Caswell motioning for us to direct our eyes to the ground. We looked down to see a uniquely spotted, mid-size cat burrowed under a tree and some bushes. H.J. told us it was an African Civet Cat, and it was extremely rare to see them in the daytime. He said it was the first time since he'd worked there (four years) that he'd seen one in the light. And then, as if on cue, the cat got nervous and bolted away from us, spooking the rhino as well, so we drove on.

African civet cat

Very soon after this we spotted a pack of 5-6 huge rhinos, including a young one. We kept a safe distance from them (20-25 meters), and we saw them change their formation upon our arrival, pushing their butts together and forming a defensive circle so they could see all angles. It was great to see them from inside the vehicle, as opposed to our flat-tire adventure the day before. We spent a long time watching them, and had some beautiful light as the sun began to set during this sighting.

Rhino circle

 The guard

We finally pushed along, and decided to stop for evening drinks in an open meadow with some impala off in the distance. With another beer and some snacks to hold us over until dinner, we were ready to embark on the last hour of our evening drive. We saw an incredibly large kudu with beautiful horns, and then as it got dark, we got a call on the radio that there was a huge herd of buffalo making its way through a valley near where the elephant herd was the night before. We high-tailed it over there in time to catch glimpses of their dark bodies in the moonlight. They were incredibly loud and clumsy creatures, with every step being audible to anything with ears. Those suckers weren't about to sneak up on anyone.

Beautiful kudu

As dinner time approached, we angled our way back to the lodge, taking one last detour to chase down a hyena. He was very dark and slinky, and was definitely a fast animal. We tracked him for a while, with his beady eyes flashing in the headlights every now and then. He finally darted deep into the bush, and we did not pursue due to lack of light. We drove back to the lodge around 6:30 and H.J. said we had about thirty minutes before dinner time. Our entire vehicle bypassed the trip to the rooms and headed straight for the outdoor bar, where H.J. and the other vehicle guide, Bernard, doubled as our bartenders. We knocked back a couple drinks, told some stories, traded barbs with H.J., and had a great time talking with all the guests. I will remember the time at the bar as well as any other part of the trip. H.J. was an incredible host to us during our stay, and we owe him a lot for making it such an incredibly enjoyable experience.

The bar

For sake of brevity and avoiding repetition, I will just say that we once again had an entertaining dinner listening to the funny cook-staff, talked some more with H.J. and our new British friends, and after dessert, we once again felt the weight of our eyelids growing by the second. We hailed H.J. for our nightly escort to our room, dragged our feet to our chalet, and got ready for bed. We were still on a high from our first full day on safari, and we couldn't wait for the next day, with our fingers crossed we could go on a bushwalk!

*NEXT UP* - Two more game drives, stalking a lion, and learning to read animal tracks!

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