Wayne: The Joburg airport is really beautiful and modern and easy to get around in. We took a turboprop to Nelspruit. From there we were originally supposed to take another small plane to the Leopard Hills airstrip. But because it is winter (close to the solstice) and the sun sets early, it would be too dark to land. So another driver was waiting. I thought it would be like a 45 minute drive, but it was 2 hours!! And the last 35 minutes (only about 10 km) were on a bumpy, pitted gravel road. At last, 7 pm, we got there. We were greeted with lime and soda drinks (aaahhh!), and told we had 30 minutes to freshen up before dinner. (Here's the daily schedule: knock on door at 5:50 am, tea or coffee until 6ish, morning game ride 6 - 9, breakfast at 9, game walk at 10:30, lunch 1:30, tea 3:30, afternoon drive 4 - 7, dinner at 7:30! Tough day, huh?).
Our "room" is fantastic! Probably the best in any place we've ever stayed. I say "room" because it is really our own private cottage. A huge sitting area, king bed with mosquito net...
...beautiful views, huge bathroom with a big tub, twin showers, and also an outside shower! A big deck with a hammock and heated plunge pool. Truly awesome. At night it is very dark and you must be led everywhere by the staff to make sure there are no animals around.
Dinner was served under the stars! It was a little chilly but awesome. The sky was full of stars - we never see so many at home. There were 16 guests, so there were 2 tables of 8 plus your game driver. The ground was sand and there was a huge bonfire in the middle of the area. Dinner was stir-fry - make your own; choose either calamari (??) or venison. Plus you could have pork ribs. So good! Plus some sort of green vegetable puree soup for first and crème caramel for dessert. Wow! We were pretty tired so we went in at 9:30 (plus that 5:30 knock was on our minds). We slept pretty well although at 2:30 there was a loud group of baboons which passed through the area.
Wendy: The whole experience at Leopard Hills was surreal. We needed an escort to our room (with a rifle) because we are in the middle of the wild animal preserve. Our room was jungle elegant. The jaw-dropping showers (2 in 1) were made of stone. The bathtub overlooks an extraordinary panorama view. An outside shower too. A heated plunge pool. The bed was beautiful. An a deck. And they say there are even more elegant lodges elsewhere in Kruger National Park. The dinner was divine. I liked my venison stir-fry (though not sure what kind of venison it was.). Walking back to our room was spooky. They kept telling us it was safe (even on the safari rides), but they still carried rifles! Now this is Africa!!!!
Wednesday, June 18
Wendy: The next morning was our first game drive, and it too was surreal.
There were 5 guests in the Range Rover, plus Duncan (the lodge manager), the driver/guide, and Norman the tracker sitting out front. Duncan had...yup...his rifle. We were told we could talk, but should not stand up and absolutely should not get out of the car. Norman would look for tracks, droppings, etc. as we drove, but we were all also looking in the brush. All of the animals were so unbelievably camouflaged, even the zebras. Mother nature did an amazing job!
Our first sighting was an elephant (and remember, it is still barely daybreak). The car slows down and Duncan says very non-chalantly "There's an elephant", and the big guy casually ambles across the road right in front of us!
Over the course of the next 3 hours we saw lots of other creatures. Impalas by the hundreds, zebras, hippos, rhinos, leopards (cheetahs?), etc. One of our fellow passengers said this ride was not at all typical; you usually don't see so many animals at one time.
I was very impressed with how beautiful all of these creatures are. The cheetahs - so sleek, their fur so beautiful. They move so elegantly and swiftly. The leopards - again - beautiful coats. They're always checking out their environment. The move fast too, but more cautious. All of the deer / antelope creatures were striking; the males especially so. The honey badger has an especially interesting story. For a little guy, he is quite vicious. If cornered or attacked, they go right for the genitals! (according to Duncan).
Speaking of Duncan, the guides were absolutely amazing. Not only were their navigational skills extraordinary, but their knowledge of each and every creature blew us away. And the flora too. With no notes!
I particularly enjoyed their competitiveness (or determination). If they know someone wants to see, say, a leopard, the will contact other drivers and go to another area to find one.
A note about the baboons last night: They were making quite a ruckus because a leopard was on the prowl. Apparently that leopard had killed a baboon a few days ago.
Back to the game drive: It was not too cold (though we did have blankets and hot water bottles!). They said we might not see any water buffalos (and we didn't) and that we would go to the lion's area in the afternoon ride.
We saw a rhino that was showcasing his masculinity!
And the warthogs look like they're straight out of Disney.
Wayne: We woke at 5:15 and got ready for our first drive. Dressed very warm because we were told it would be quite cold, but it really wasn't all that bad. Duncan looked and sounded a lot like the actor Sam Neil, so there was definitely a Jurassic park air to the whole thing. I know we went out in Range Rovers, but I assumed they would have a top and sides and windows. NOPE! None of that - totally open air. But each of us was supplied with a blanket and hot water bottle (when was the last time you saw or used one of those?). So we headed out even before the sun was up. Not 5 minutes out we stopped, as there was a large elephant standing by the road. it looked at us for a few minutes and then crossed the road (Why did the elephant cross the road?), and after a few steps was totally invisible in the brush. A little farther and we saw 3 cheetahs sitting on a termite mound!
Rare! Then a herd of impalas and some marabou storks. Then 3 leopard sisters frolicking (also rarely seen according to the guide). At one point, one stuck its nose into a big hole in the mound and got sprayed by a honey badger (part skunk-like) The leopards ran away and after a few minutes the badger scampered out. We drove on to a watering hole which had about a dozen hippos in it. We stopped and had tea and hot chocolate (yum!) for about 15 minutes and they were just there in the water the whole time. Then we drove and saw a herd of elephants, more impalas,
and a dika - a small antelope and the only one that eats meat! Then we went looking for a rhino and actually found one. We parked about 20 feet away. He was large; just lieing there for about 10 minutes and then he started to graze.
By now it was time for us to head back to the lodge. We had a delicious breakfast buffet (I was actually hungry). By 10:30 it was warm enough for t-shirts and shorts. Then we went on our game walk. Single file, with an armed guide up front and one in the rear. We saw 2 huge (and ugly) warthogs, some dika, more impalas, a family of large baboons, and hippo, rhino, and elephant tracks (so they told us). Also learned about some of the plants out here in the bush. Back to the room. Wendy had a massage out on the deck; I had lunch. Then it was time for the afternoon ride. We started "hunting" in earnest for giraffes, but none to be seen. We saw a mama rhino and her baby. More impalas and some stenboks and mongooses. Our tracker saw leopard tracks and we went round in circles trying to find it. Night fell quickly. Just at sunset we stopped for drinks and (cold) pizza! Refreshing. Then on to the main event: the rangers told us of something very unusual. it is winter and water is at a premium and apparently a large male rhino wanted some at a watering hole, but a bull elephant had already staked it out and they began to fight and the elephant gored the rhino! He wandered for a day or so (they were tracking him) and then he died. So the rule is whoever's land it is on takes the horn (but can't sell it; want to discourage poachers). Then they used a chain saw to open the carcass (usually it is hyenas who get through the extra-thick skin) so other animals, starting with lions can feed on it. So this was the 3rd day since it died; can you imagine the smell? We pulled up and the driver turned on the spotlight and a whole pride of lions was spread out right in front of us!!!! (Unfortunately, too dark to get any good pix). Most were lying around after having fed, but while we were there a big male yawned and woke up and took a turn....put his head right inside the belly and began to eat! Incredible!!!
Then back to the lodge for another sumptuous feast (this time in the dining room). Along the way we looked at a skyful of stars and our guide pointed out Antares and Rigel and Scorpio and the Southern Cross. After dinner, as we were being led back to our room, the guide told us that a leopard had been walking around OUR plunge pool! He said he was gone, but requested that we stay inside for the night. Good advice! (Was this true or was it just "something to write home about"? Who knows).
Wendy: I was pretty scared on the walk, knowing that the warthogs and baboons are very nearby and that "someone" was probably watching us. Ryan (our guide) said we should stand still if an animal started to approach us. Yeah, right!
The evening game drive was awesome - especially the lions at the dead rhino. I felt like we were on an Animal Kingdom set, even though this was real! But how does reality compare to Disney's Animal Kingdom or the Wild Animal Park in San Diego? It's a private game reserve and the Land Rovers go into the bush, not just on trails or roads. By doing so, we were able to get very close to many animals. The other thing is that the guide is focused on what the people want to see, and do their best to find it. And once you do, they are very patient to just sit there and let you experience it; no rushing to the next spot.
Thursday, June 19
Wayne: We woke at 5ish to the sound of rain! Very unusual for this time of year. Hmmm...go out in the cold rain for 3 hours or go back to sleep? Well, that's an easy choice! It was our last day of safari, so of course we had to go! Luckily, by the time the car was ready to go, the rain had stopped. Once again, a hunt for the elusive giraffe! We had to be back at 9 sharp because our plane was scheduled to leave the air strip at 9:20.
We saw the 3 leopard sisters again, and this time a hyena was trailing them. But it was pretty quiet - maybe from the rain. We saw no elephants, or impalas or storks. But we did see several nice kudu herds. We also saw the same mama and baby rhino, but this time there was a large male about 20 feet away (same one as yesterday?). He would huff and chuff saying "Watch it woman, this is my territory" and she would huff and chuff back.
By now it was 8:30and time was running out. Suddenly, over the car's CB, someone reported that giraffes had been seen in a nearby area. So we zoomed in that direction. All of us were looking every which way and we rounded a corner and I said "There they are!" as if we had all arranged to meet at the corner of Bush and Wadi!
Four magnificent females and each one paraded in front of the car to let us take tons of pix. Then we quickly zoomed back to the lodge and got there at 8:55!
Two final animal notes: When you picture an elephant you think of grey, dry, wrinkled skin. Well the elephants we saw all had smooth slate-colored, almost leather-like skin. Why? Don't know; natural habitat perhaps?
And, the amazing thing about seeing all the animals was their total indifference to us. They certainly saw us, but displayed no curiosity, no interest, no threat or display of aggression. We might as well have been invisible. You'd think that if a "predator" came into an area with a group of lions feeding, at least one of them would have made some kind of "keep back" noise or stance. But, no; they 9and all the others) just totally went about their business.
Next stop: Zambia and Victoria falls!