Remember this tree?” my husband asked.
How could I ever forget it?
We both stared in reflective silence at an otherwise undistinguished thorn tree, standing in a copse of similarly undistinguished thorn trees, at the end of a dusty trail in Kruger Park.
Here it was, almost two years ago to the day, that we had been attacked by a huge female elephant, fiercely protective of the tiny babies in the herd.
The elephants won.
Driving along, just one of many cars on the road that fateful day, we had stopped to let a large breeding herd of elephants cross the path in front of us. Like all the other cars on the sighting, we kept a safe viewing distance from the herd, and watched in awe as the animals walked in a dusty group in front of us.
For some reason, which we still don’t understand, the matriarch didn’t like the look of our car, and walked suggestively towards us.
We reversed as quickly as possible, even further away from the elephants, down the dusty, curvy track. That’s when the second huge female elephant silently materialized from behind, in a cunning pincer movement with the matriarch.
And that’s when we hit the tree. The rear windows smashed, the back door got badly dented, I burst into tears of I-don’t-quite-know-what, and the two elephants calmly walked back to their babies, their point well and truly made.
So when last month, we encountered another huge breeding herd of elephants crossing the road to go drink in the Sabie river, I watched with trepidation as a car full of obvious Fédération Internationale de Football Association (Fifa) World Cup visitors sat slap-bang in the middle of the path of the herd. The young men leaned out of the windows of their rented car, their little point-and-shoot cameras in overdrive, dazzled by the elephants around them. But this matriarch was on good form, obviously part of the soccer charm offensive.
Moral of our story? Whether it’s the Kruger Park or wilder parts of the African bush, we must never, ever forget that the spectacular creatures we encounter are wild. And it is their bush, not ours.
Most of the time, however, a visit to South Africa’s showpiece park is totally accident and incident-free. It is one of the greatest places in Africa to see game: The many different ecosystems over 2 million ha provide for many different kinds of animals, all of them in huge numbers. So where you are in the park determines the kind of game you see. For the elusive, sure-footed klipspringer, head to the rocky outcrops. Elephants love the dense mopane forests—that is, when they are not tangling with visitors like ourselves. Plains game such as zebra, wildebeest and impala wander in large herds through the flatter savannah areas, constantly on the lookout for predators—just like us visitors, if truth be known.
The gradual dropping of fences between South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe will only make the Kruger Park an even larger biosphere. The ancient game corridors, which man interrupted with his political boundaries, are gradually being restored, allowing the wildlife to wander at will. Already, one can cross into Mozambique from South Africa via the park.
Unlike national parks in India, you can drive all day in the South African parks if you so desire. Camp gates open half an hour or so before the park gates, opening at dawn and closing at sunset, so camp residents get a slight head start on day visitors. It’s customary to see cars silently line up at the camp gates in the cool dark of dawn, ready for a day of game viewing.
You can only get out of your vehicle at designated areas, some of which are nothing more than a wooden hide (basically, a lookout, usually at waterholes), while other rest stops have bathrooms, a little shop and very often, cooking facilities. This is when you will see South Africans in their element, pulling up at the rest stops, unloading quantities of food from their cars, renting a braai (barbecue) and cooking up a breakfast storm. Park staffers who are based at these cooking areas keep an eye open for wandering wildlife, but clearly the smell of bacon, fried eggs and boerwurst (a South African spicy sausage) just doesn’t appeal to most animals.
Having said that, the picnic spot at Timbavati has a resident bushbuck that is partial to anything it can forage, preferably right out of your picnic basket. A couple of years ago, while our son Hari dreamily ate his ham sandwich, looking out over the panoramic view, the said bushbuck wandered up, bold as brass, and started nibbling from the other side of the sandwich. Hari generously shared it, and then the bushbuck wandered over to a tiny, blonde, South African girl who was eating an apple. Her parents weren’t watching, so she would take one bite and offer the apple to the buck. They finished the apple in record time.
But by and large you can do Kruger Park unmolested by buck or hornbills—or, as I mentioned earlier, elephants. The park roads are well signposted and the “main” roads tarred and in good condition, making driving easy. There are also hundreds of untarred, dusty trails criss-crossing the park, leading to waterholes and viewpoints. The idea is to drive slowly to spot game and watch Africa unfold. Not every drive has spectacular sightings—this is nature, not a zoo—but every game drive has beauty and charm and there is always something new to see.
Graphic: Ahmed Raza Khan / Mint
Earlier this month, we saw lion, leopard, cheetah and were duly thrilled and excited. We saw big herds of elephants, with babies galore. But we also saw a lone elephant taking an energetic mud bath, splashing mud everywhere with obvious glee. We saw water monitors mating in an elaborate ritual that sometimes bordered on fighting. Baboons jumped on the roof of our car, the alpha male marking his territory all over our spare wheel, much to the amusement of the South Africans in the car next to us. A black mamba crossed out path, and who can forget the baby hyena peeping out from the grass watching us watching him.
We still dine out on our elephant story, however. And I swear that there is still a trace of our patrol’s green paint on that tree.
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