Africa Part II-The Big Five
The plane ride from Capetown in the southwest to Ngala and Kruger National Park in the northeast took about 2 and ½ hours in a four-engine prop plane from South Africa Airlines. The landing site is Hoedspruit Airport, a tiny remote landing zone. From there it was a one-hour land transit over bumpy dirt roads to the park and its guest lodge.
At the end of the dirt road the staff greets us with wet towels in a quaint setting of thatched huts and lovely dining areas with a swimming pool fancied by elephants and baboons. I had decided I didn’t need to swim in that pool.
Ngala is a resort in the Kruger National Park in the northern part of South Africa. This is no zoo. It is a network of dirt roads spanning miles of bush country populated by wild animals and birds. Impalas are numerous and so are the gnus and zebras, but the goal of any visitor to Ngala is to take the twice-daily open jeep rides into the bush and view the Big Five. These are the five most dangerous animals in Africa to track on foot. The Big Five consist of the leopard, the water buffalo, the elephant, the rhino and, of course, the lion.
Within hours of arriving, we were in warm bush clothes and driving in the open topped jeeps through the dirt paths and brush looking for game.
There were three jeeps for the eighteen people, but we were not assigned to specific vehicles. It was clear that we, our cousins and their friends, would be in one jeep, but which one? I stepped towards one when another couple climbed in ahead of me. I looked around and saw a young women dressed in the same tan uniform as the other drivers. I thought that if a girl could make it in this terrain, with every other guide being male, she must be sensational. Besides, I am a sucker for a girl in a uniform with a rifle.
I introduced myself to Jenni and we six climbed in. It was the best decision I made on the trip.
Jenni was from Australia. She had an interest in becoming a large animal vet and had come to South Africa and fell into guiding at the Kruger National Park. If the little old lady from Pasadena had a granddaughter, it was Jenni. She was able to negotiate the dirt roads while keeping one eye on them and one on us behind her and still she was able to find the most rare of specious hiding in the brush, even with a flashlight at night. She nonetheless kept that rifle slung over the hood of the vehicle in front of her should she need to control a situation in which animal and guest had opposing views of reality. She never came close to picking it up.
The first thing we saw on our initial afternoon drive through the bush were giraffes as well as the many impala. The giraffe is even more impressive in the wild than in any zoo. Here they are free to gallop gracefully along pursuing the leaves on the highest trees, immune from most other predators save a very bold lion. Even a lion would think twice about trying to bring down these immense hoofed and kicking creatures that somehow blend into their surroundings behind the trees despite their vivid coloring.
Then, in the road, our guide Jenni spots a single leopard on the prowl—Big Five number one. She pursues the cat right into the bush with her eleven-seat Toyota jeep-like mini-tank that appears to be able to run over trees and limbs alike. The cat settles right in the middle of the dirt road, sitting in repose, blue eyes shining. We learn first hand that the animals do not fear the rangers or we visitors as they have become inured to our intrusion as long as we stay in the jeep and don’t stand up. She sits, as we think the leopard is a she on the hunt, but appears in no hurry to vacate the road. We wait a good five minutes before she repairs to the bush and we wade in behind her and follow her until she loses us.
As the sun is setting Jenni sets up a table with drinks by a water hole where we watch the hippos wade in the water with an elephant standing by drinking. The elephant is “in musk,” meaning he is high on testosterone and secreting musk from a gland between his eye and ear. He is looking to mate. We can see the secretions and smell them. One of the hippos finally gets up to forage and we see the enormity of the creature–short-legged and powerful.
Jenni heads back to the lodge and spots two black rhinos in the bush with her searchlight. We had been out in Kruger for three hours and had already seen three of the Big Five.
The next morning, the tap comes to our door at 5:30. The jeeps are rolling by 6:15 and we are again on the prowl for game.
This cycle is repeated for five sessions. Up at 5:30, out at 6:15. Breakfast about 9:30 and out again at 4 until sundown. The animals roam when the temperature drops so sighting is best in the early morning and early evening.
We visit a hyena’s den and watch the cubs and mother within twenty feet of the jeep. Impala and wildebeest are everywhere. We see water buffalos in a dry river bed seeming unimpressed by our presence. Then, in mid-morning a crackle comes across Jenni’s radio. A lion has been spotted. We race to the spot that somehow Jenni finds and there in the middle of an open field sits the King of Beasts with his mane rustling in the wind, surrounded by three other jeeps not seeming to care about all the humans staring at him.
But the true highlight was the finding of a lioness, her sister and two cubs feasting on a wildebeest carcass that she had killed the evening before. We even find the blood pool where the killing occurred. Mom’s paws and jaw were tinged with fresh blood as she and the cubs gnawed on the remains of the unfortunate prey. The lions eat until they are rolling with full bellies knowing little threatens them on the plain. The only thing Mom keeps a watchful eye for is foraging hyenas who would steal a bite from the carcass or even attack the cubs. As we pull away, a hyena seems to have gotten the scent of the carrion. Jenni insists that we not play favorites in this battle of nature and get out.
We see additional elephants and giraffes and zebras and even the rare honey badger running down the road in front of us.
We had seen the Big Five including a female rhino and her baby being pursued by a large male, but Mom was not interested in her suitor and every time he got close, she snorted him away.
We had one last experience with wild life.
A mother warthog was taking her four babies through the lodge resort grounds when I ventured a bit too close. I stepped toward her. She feinted at me with a snort. I backed off. She had bigger tusks than I.
It was a remarkable three days of watching nature close up. The animals had all been raised with the jeeps buzzing around them and had learned that nothing in the jeeps was a threat to them or to their young. As long as we stayed seated and in the jeep, we were safe and the animals were calm. How else to explain getting twenty feet from a huge rhino and her baby or a lioness and her cubs?
We headed five minutes from the lodge and climbed into two single-engine planes for the short one-hour hop to Livingstone in Zambia.
On to Victoria Falls.