Saturday, June 2, 2018

Seeing Rhinos, Lions, and Elephants at the Kruger

Baby rhino
One of the most amazing things I saw on my trip at the Kruger was a baby rhino. It was the size of a small pig, and it was running away from us with it's huge mother, which was the size of a tank. It was a rare sight. I've heard that there are only a little over 300 rhinos left in the Kruger. In fact, in 2016, Africageographic said that over 662 carcasses were found in the Kruger, without horns presumably. Poachers are driving rhinos into extinction for their horns, which are sold in Asia, generally to the Chinese and also the Vietnamese. Spotting that baby rhino and learning more about these poachers greatly upset me. (Perhaps after Baldwin Park is finished, I'll have to start a project that saves the rhinos. But as my OpEd pointed out, does the SA government intend to prosecute any of these criminals, including poachers?) In any event, I found the sight of the baby rhino a powerful sign and good omen of luck for South Africa. Even against the harshest environment, life is surviving.

Baby elephant - shot near Orpen Gate.
Getting to the Kruger was an enormous feat, mainly because I was by myself and without a car. If you're a solo traveler without transport, the Kruger is almost impossible to do for a reasonable price. But while we were having our South African barbecue on our last night at the Blyde River with the French-Swiss couple, Mateo and Melissa, the gardener, Edward, of the place offered to take me to the Kruger as a guide. I decided I'd pay him some and asked Oliver, the Dutch guy if he wanted to go. (I thought it was a good way to help Edward and still get a cheaper price to see the Kruger.)

I asked them to come to my place at 05:30AM. I didn't know if they would come, because that's really early. So, I didn't set my alarm. I had my stuff packed, but asked them to knock on my door when they came in the morning. If they came, I'd have my stuff ready. If they didn't, I'd sleep in. Win; win; right?

Next day, 05:30A, I heard a knock at my door. I was going to see the Kruger.

Giraffe in the Kruger,
my best shot in the Kruger.
Oliver and I bought 45 liters (11.8 gallons) of gasoline for Edward's car. I thought that was more than enough and estimated that would give us 260 miles (416 kms) in his Cadillac.

Edward asked me if his girlfriend could come. After thinking about it, I said, "I prefer not." He still brought her, which annoyed me, because we had to pay for her entrance fee and lunch and dinner. Sadly, she wasn't a very likable person at least to me, because I felt like she was taking advantage of us. Oliver liked her more. (It was a bit of a culture shock for me, the expectations they had of us. When you invite one, you invite the family - as I was told and learned later. Nonetheless, I was somewhat sympathetic that they were suffering under poverty.)

While driving to the entrance, we spotted a parade of elephants. One mother was with her calf, photoed above. She didn't like how close we got and gave us an angry and threatening look.

We entered the Kruger National Park through Orpen's Gate at around 6:30A in the morning. Entrance was more expensive for Oliver and me, because we were foreigners. It cost us over $30, but for the locals like Edward and his girlfriend it was only $8. When I paid the fee, I thought to myself - This is the South African version of their Disneyland fee. I complained about paying more as a foreigner, and the staff told me - "Come on. You guys a make a lot. You can pay." Not a nice comment.
Zebras in the Kruger

At the Orpen Gate, I bought two cappuccinos, because I was sleepy. Also, at the entrance, I talked to a lovely South African elderly couple at Orpen gate, who told us how they came every three weeks.

We were at the Kruger to find the Big Five. The Big Five is an old term referring to the big five most popular animals to hunt. Now, they're the animals to spot on safari. They include the lion, the rhino, the buffalo, the elephant, and the leopard. (Oliver, on his last safari saw four of the Big Five.) The hardest animal to spot is the leopard, and that's the one Oliver didn't see in his last safari.
A herd of impalas.

So, we drove throughout the park, spotting different animals, but none of the Big Five. We saw a lot of zebras, kudus, impalas, and the beautiful steenbok. The kudus, impalas, and steenbok were all like deer. Except, I was most fascinated by the steenbok, because they were small and not in a herd. We only saw them by themselves, and the guidebook says they generally travel by themselves. It makes you wonder, what's their defense from not getting eaten?

A steenbok
(C) Wikipedia
From morning to lunch, we saw mostly grazing animals. But, in the middle of the road, we also saw a blind snake on the street. I got out of the car (which you're not supposed to do, but I was a bad boy and couldn't help myself) and picked it up. It snapped back around and tried to bite me. (Don't worry, it's not venomous.) Well, at least I got a picture of it.

It's called a Bibron blind snake, and it eats two or three times a year. If you look closely at the photo, the tail and the head look the same - probably as a mechanism to fool predators.

At lunch, I noticed something. The Orpen Gate entrance appears to be the senior-citizen entrance. We were definitely the youngest people in the group. I think part of the reason is that there are so many birds from that entrance, and hence, so many birdwatchers. I think the big animals are closer to the Pretoriaskop Entrance, closer to Nelspruit (the Godforsaken city I still can't stand.)
Bibron's blind snake

For lunch, I ordered a pizza for us. Oliver brought sandwiches. Oliver and I had some craft beer. I liked the design of the beer company.

There was a board near the restaurant, where tourists had marked where they spotted some of the Big Five that day. earlier in the day. People spotted a pride of lions, a leopard, and several gangs of buffalos.

So, we tracked them down according to the markers on the board. By a bridge, there were lioness sleeping underneath the cool of some trees. They were probably near the water to also drink.

Buffalo under the tree. Apparently, they're very aggressive.
They were waiting for nightfall to hunt their prey. There were also tons of cars just watching them. I got out of the car again to shoot a picture and people in the other cars started yelling at me.

Well, I figured, (this the lawyer in me), they were pretty far away if they came after me. I'm sure I could've gotten back in the car right away. But after shooting some pictures of the lionesses with angry onlookers yelling at me, I went back in the car.

We drove off to find the Buffalo. While driving there, we saw several crocodiles in the mud by the bridges. I went out again to try to snap some pictures, but when the crocodiles saw me, they swam into the water.

A lioness underneath the tree
We saw several gangs of buffalos. The leader of the group gave me an angry look as I took pictures of him.

At this point it was near 2:30 in the afternoon, and I could see Edward was exhausted of driving. But Oliver and I paid, and we wanted to see more. So, we asked him to drive us up to a road called S89, which is a dirt road. So we did.

There, we saw plenty of giraffes and other herd animals. It was rumored that there was a leopard earlier there in the day, but that was nowhere to be seen. Then, towards
sunset, we spotted a rhino mother and her baby. Edward
wanted to leave, but I said we had to stay behind. And we kept following it and watching it.

It truly was an amazing sight. The rhino calf was so cute.The rhinos didn't like us though, and eventually they were stampeding away from us.

Watching the rhino run with it's huge body made me think - Man, what would it feel like by getting hit by one of those? Apparently, rhinos have poor vision too. It'd be like getting hit by a semi-truck - no doubt.

Well, sunset was coming, and we were about 100 km or 60 miles away from the gate. So Edward got panicky. He didn't think we had enough fuel, though I told him we did. I know; I calculated how much we had.
Rhino mother in the Kruger
But, Edward started zooming, and he was tired and careless. And he ran over a pheasant, which horrified me. The bird was flapping its wings, just paralyzed.
Lilac breasted starling (the most common bird we saw)

I was upset, and I was having such a good time. I told him, "Edward, next time, just drive around the pheasants. There's no reason to run them over."

His girlfriend wanted him to stop, so she could take the bird home to eat. I wanted to kill the bird to put it out of its misery. I just kept thinking what it'd be like if one of my mother's hens were run over the same way. And when the car made a thud sound after running it over, it reminded me of the thud sound when that boat propeller hit my shoulder and almost killed me in Colombia.

I told him, "Anyways, just keep going, Edward."

Male lion walking away from our car.
We left the bird behind, but I kept thinking - I just hope a predator kills it right away and puts it out of its misery. I don't know what was going on with Edward, but it was clear to me he was losing his focus after driving for so long. In the end, we had driven for over 11 hours and over 200 miles in the park; all in one day.

What was good is that Edward did start driving around the birds, after I told him to do so. I told you in my previous post, the Kruger a huge park. We only saw 5% of the park too.

Then, it happened. Edward was waiting to see one. A male lion, proud and dignified, was laying on the street. We hadn't seen a male lion at this point. And Edward never saw one either. And it was lying on the street to absorb the heat from the tar road before night came. It was a really incredible creature. I wanted to go out to take a picture; it was so close. They said, "No." So, I rolled down my window and climbed out and snapped some photos of the male lion walking away.

Waterbok and Zebras at watering hole in the Kruger.
After the lion left, we also saw some hippos by a watering hole, and a hyena approached our car. I noticed that all the animals started coming out right before sunset. Funny; but we probably saw 80% of all the animals in the last 40 minutes of our time at the park. But we had no time to take pictures. We had to get to the Gate before it closed, and Edward was in such a panicky state. He didn't think we'd make it, and he wondered if there was enough fuel.

In the end, we did make it. We got to the gate late, but I knew we'd be ok when we overtook another car that also had to get out. I also calculated there was enough fuel to go back into town. We were all relived to get out of the park in time.

Edward wanted us to do braai (a South African BBQ), especially since we had two at the Blyde River that he saw us enjoying. But both Oliver and I were too tired.

An eagle at the Kruger;.
We saw three of these.
Instead, we ordered some Kentucky Fried Chicken and went to his village to eat. All in all, it was a good day. We told Edward he had the making of being a guide, but I think he also had a long way to go, which I definitely mentioned.

But I was still lucky to have met him. If I didn't, I wouldn't have seen the Kruger, and we did well. We saw four of the Big Five that day. No leopard though. Maybe, next time.

It's clear that the Kruger has a special place in my heart, and I hope to remember it forever. I found that we were blessed and grateful and moved to see that baby rhino. It really left me with a new hope and impression of South Africa.

PS: For you bird watchers, I added more bird photos, which weren't taken by me.
Francolin (c) Wikipedia
Kori Bustard
(c) Wikipedia
The Lilac-breasted Roller
(c) Wildlife Den
Red horn bill
(c) Wikipedia
Martial Eagle
(c) Wikipedia

Long tailed glossy starling
(c) Beauty of Birds

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