“Right now I’m just trying not to hit a Rhino, okay!” Such are the comments that occur in a car driving in Kruger National Park in South Africa. Home to a staggering array of wildlife, Kruger is South Africa’s most well known park, attracting a million visitors annually. Not that you would notice the hordes of tourists because Kruger is over 350 kilometers long and an average of 65 kilometers wide, leaving plenty of room for you and your car to be alone, with only the elephants to contend with.
The numbers are truly amazing; 8800 white rhinos, 13,050 elephants, 7700 giraffes, 32,879 zebras (do they really have it narrowed down to this number?) and 1200 lions. But what almost every visitor desires when arriving at one of Kruger’s entry gates is an encounter with the “big five”, meaning the lion, rhino, elephant, hippo and buffalo. Despite is huge size, the staggering number of animals mean that you are practically guaranteed to see something. Our notes from our first day read as follows: Entry through Phabeni gate at 10:00am (slept late, I know!), 10:05 giraffe, impala 10:10, elephants 10:15, monkeys on the road fondling themselves and throwing feces 10:35, giraffes again 11:20, buffalo 11:25, kudu 11:30, more giraffe 11:45, elephant with baby 1:50 (took a break for lunch; which explains the gap), leopard 3:50, big ass monkeys 4:10, rhino 4:30, elephant in the road 4:40, rhino in the road 4:50… and break.
It is actually possible to become a little jaded with all of this “big game” over time. Whereas in the beginning you are singing the long wailing start to “The Circle of Life” and a few half remembered verses to “Hakuna Matata”, after two days of wildlife spotting you pull up to other onlookers and say, “What d’ya see out there… we’re only after the big cats.” And, of course, that is the climax for most, an encounter with a “big cat”. Kruger has 1200 lions, a crapload of leopards, cheetahs and several other species of predatory felines. It should come as no surprise to anyone that these predators are largely shy, prone to seek camouflage, and are most active at night. All this, obviously, is critical to their success in finding food, but it can also hamper the avid wildlife seekers’ attempt at an encounter.
So you might imagine our surprise when, at the close of the second day we were speeding down the road towards our rest camp (they actually lock you out after 6:00pm; seriously, they lock the doors) when Ashley suddenly called out “leopard, leopard, leopard on the road!” and swung her hand across in front of me tracing a line back over my shoulder and nearly taking my head clean off. Braking extravagantly (I was, after all, in a rental) I brought the car and our two-year-old to a sudden halt of locomotion and turned to see what Ashley had noticed. To be fair I was expecting to see a large pile of elephant shit, it had been on the side of the road all day and had fooled us more than once. But there, sitting up as if to say, “Your in my world buddy, don’t forget that!” sat a huge, spotted leopard. Casually, almost languidly, he got up, gave our car a disappointed gaze, and walked behind us and across the road, pausing only slightly before disappearing into the long grass as if saying, “Yo brother, that Chevy is a piece of crap.” The experience of seeing a leopard in the wild was… well, captivating; even if he did diss my choice of rental car.
The next day we saw more elephants, rhinos, giraffes and zebras; seriously you can really have enough of this lot, and finally a lion. People had told us about a place that practically guaranteed that we would see a lion, and just because the conversation itself was perverse enough, I will recount it here.
“Howzit,” the preferred getting for Afrikaners (I was trying to fit in).
“Howzit man, how has your day beeeeen?” My new buddy was a swarthy white African fella with short shorts, tree trunks for legs, and huge desert boots. His one choice in clothing color? Khaki.
“Great actually, we are having a little trouble running into a lion. We’ve seen heaps of other stuff but those cats seem to be hiding.”
“Ack man, a just saw one right outside the camp gate, he was dragging off some hapless child,” he winked his eye in case I failed to understand the joke.
“Really, do you think he might be still there?”
“Na man, once they have stripped the bones clean of the good meat they leave the rest for the vultures.”
“Oh,” I managed to sound disappointed, “bummer.”
“Ya, you say you haven’t seen a lion yet? You might want to try up on the loop road north of Sekuza, there is a buffalo kill up there and there has been heap of big cat activity due to all the meat lying about.”
“Thanks bro,” I mumbled while struggling with how to explain to Ashley that in the morning our point of reference would be a large pile of decaying buffalo meat, vultures, and hopefully hungry felines.
Arriving the next morning at the death-place (as we had taken to calling it) we saw immediately that we were not the only people wanting to see a lion. Enough people lined the road to require Kruger to station traffic policemen, encouraging people to take a picture and move on; by the way, no amount of money in the world would tempt me to stand out on a hot road in the middle of the wilderness only a few meters from a huge hungry cat and argue with a tourist about when their 30 second photo-op had ended. Arriving at the front of the line we looked over and saw it, the lion! Enormous, with a shaggy red mane, he sat serenely while a lioness devoured the buffalo. I can’t really impress upon the reader how large they are. They were huge! Perhaps it was just because he was five feet from our open car window but we swore that we felt the sheer power emanating from his body. They exude strength. Their entire persona is one of, “Don’t mess with me, I am without doubt, the king in these parts… you may call me Mufasa!”
Say it again.
Doesn’t your spine just tremble at the thought?