Sunday, July 18th was Nelson Mandela Day. To commemorate his birthday, Mandela asks that all South Africans do something philanthropic for 67 minutes. Since we were stuck in the savanna, I’ll have to make up my 67 minutes when I return to the States. Happy Birthday President Mandela!
Sunday was absolutely the highlight of our safari. We had spent several days exploring Bulule, a game reserve in greater Kruger, but Sunday was the real deal. We awoke before sunset again, and I walked around taking photos of the nyala and our treehouse. We trekked back to the fire pit for breakfast, joined by yet another mischievous monkey. This one climbed into the trashcan, retrieved a piece of stale toast, and chowed down. After everyone finished serving themselves scrambled eggs and baked beans, he took the liberty of climbing onto the picnic table to stick his entire monkey face into the pan of beans. Naturally, I chose to take photos instead of shooing him away. As gross as it was to share beans with a monkey, he was kind of cute, standing there with his piece of toast and beans all over his face. Florence finally shooed him away and tossed the rest of the beans as he leaped into his tree, toast in hand.
After breakfast, we boarded a canvassed Land Cruiser. I was disappointed to not be able to feel the sun on my face all day, but Kruger has strict regulations on vehicle enclosures. We were joined by a family from London – John and Carolyn, and their daughters Katie and Becky. I can’t even begin to explain how wonderful the Andersons were. The girls were the most polite, engaging, outgoing children I’ve ever met. We ended up chatting with them all day. Becky had a ton of questions about American teenagers, prom, high school, driving, the beach, and on and on. We exchanged email addresses at the end of the day so we can all keep in touch. Our guide for Kruger was Christo, who we inexplicably took to calling “Geoffrey.” He was hysterical, and loved joking around with us (albeit sometimes a bit inappropriately).
Kruger proper was about half an hour’s drive from the Treehouse Lodge, and with the wind whipping through the canvas door panels, it was so freezing. I’m glad I layered up. The drive was well worth it, and the day was packed with animal sightings. We ultimately encountered four of the Big Five. Unfortunately, our three-day quest for the elusive leopard proved futile.
As we rolled into the park, Geoffrey immediately spotted a cheetah sprinting across the savanna. She was so far away, but beautiful nonetheless. Geoffrey told us that there are only 300 cheetahs in Kruger, and 800 in all of Africa. It was only the third wild cheetah he had ever seen in his 20 years of visiting Kruger. We did see those domesticated cats at Cheetah Inn, so I asked our guide about their function in the game reserve. He said that when a cheetah is born in captivity, trainers will socialize it with another cheetah in a rehabilitation facility. They will share an enclosure for several months before being released into the reserve together. The wild cheetah will teach the captive cheetah to hunt and survive.
We ran across countless dazzles of zebras, at least a dozen giraffes (including a couple of families – so precious), a lone warthog, a hippopotamus, a pack of dwarf mongoose, and enumerable indigenous birds. We saw hooded vultures, which reminded me of Jungle Book. We spotted a ground hornbill, like Zazu in the Lion King. The ground hornbill is endangered because the elephants knock over the trees in which they nest, and they are naturally very slow breeders. Clearly, Geoffrey was full of useful information.
We stopped for lunch in the middle of the park, where we dined on macaroni and cheese and toasted vegetable sandwiches. I got caught up in looking at bulletin boards crammed with photos of animals killed by poachers. The pictures were heartbreaking. There were elephants with truncated trunks, decapitated zebras, and rhinos with sawed off horns. Geoffrey told us that if a poacher is caught in Kruger, he could legally be shot and killed. Fabienne asked if the government considers the fact that often, poachers come from such extreme poverty that sacrificing animals is the only way they can feasibly provide for their families. Geoffrey responded that a rhinoceros horn will fetch over two million rand on the black market, and it’s usually not a matter of alleviating poverty; it’s solely a matter of greed. Regardless, I’ve got such a bleeding heart for animals that looking at those pictures made me feel like someone just punched me in the stomach. By the time we finished lunch, I was ready to go back to my blissful ignorance in the Cruiser.
The second half of the day did not disappoint. Geoffrey made us promise not to sell him out (whoops) but he got out of the Cruiser and banged on the hood of the Cruiser, trying to entice an angry buffalo to charge. I’m not sure how comfortable we were with his plan. He took us to his favorite spot, a watering hole jam-packed with hippos. When we pulled up, they were all basking in the sunlight, but without warning, the entire pack jumped up and ran full throttle, in a single file line, into the water. It was so crazy to see. We watched them swim for a while, and I was lucky enough to catch one of them yawning on film. A yawn signifies a warning, not boredom. Noted, hippo.
We paused in the middle of a clearing to look at a family of lions running across the plain, and then Leah spotted a few rhinos in the distance. All we could see was a series of silhouettes against the orange sky, but it was still very cool. As we watched for game, a car rolled up and asked what we were looking at. The driver had the most incredible Southern accent, so we asked where they were from. Naturally, they came from Fort Worth, Texas. I shot them the Horned Frog sign, chanted “TCU! TCU!” and we went on our merry way. Man, I love Texans.
Later, we came across a lone bull elephant, chewing on tree branches by the side of the bath. He was so close to us, and Geoffrey tried to get him to charge us (terrifying, considering the size of that beast) but then he realized that the elephant was wet with what he called “must.” Apparently, a male elephant will spray himself with semen to attract a mate. We were intruding on his ritual, and he let us know by bolting into the woods, tail wagging as he went.
At the end of our day – and 600 kilometers later – we caught one more breathtaking sunset, and then left Kruger exhausted and awed. We enjoyed one more communal fireside dinner at Marc’s Treehouse, and then passed out in our tiny twin beds by 10:30. What an incredible, unforgettable day… I’ve felt this way so many times throughout the last two months, but sometimes I just have to sit there and fully absorb the fact that This Is Africa.