Welcome to Allen on Africa

What is it about the sub-Saharan African wilderness that pulls at me to go back again and again? The French coined the phrase Mal d’Africa and deemed it an incurable wistfulness and longing for Africa infecting those who have been there. Before I went to South Africa the first time in 1991, when I was already 43, I dismissed that as a romantic notion. Now I admit that I have the condition, and it seems permanent.

I’ve traveled extensively over six of the seven continents. Many places call me back, but no place do I enjoy returning to more than the African wilderness of the great wildlife parks of Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, and especially the natural beauty of the Kruger National Park of South Africa. The Kruger is spectacular, accessible, affordable, and vast.

I’ve written a lot of posts since 2007 about my experiences in Africa and they are all collected here. You’ll find the individual posts at right and collected by country below. On this blog, you’ll also find practical advice about flying to Africa and how to build an African holiday.

Driving, not flying, to Kruger National Park

As my many previous blog posts evince, I love going to the Kruger National Park in South Africa. After my first Kruger visit in 1991 when I was working in South Africa, I was hooked for life.

I am going again in late February. Usually I fly to the Kruger from Johannesburg, but it looks like I might have to drive this time instead.

Back in the early 90s I lived in Johannesburg and had a leased car, so I frequently drove the five hour trip to reach the Park whenever I wanted to visit. Since then, however, I fly to Jo’burg (JNB) and catch a connecting flight to the Kruger.

The only way to get there by air from Johannesburg is on South African Express Airways.

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SA Express ERJ bound for Johannesburg awaits passenger boarding at Skukuza Airport.

SA Express flies from Jo’burg to two airports accessing the Kruger: Modern Mpumalanga Nelspruit/Kruger International Airport (MQP) opened in 2002, and charming little Skukuza Airport (SZK) dates from 1958. Skukuza is tiny and beautiful (voted the world’s prettiest airport by Forbes in 2018 after a ten year rebuild).

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Skukuza Airport waiting area is open to the African wilderness.

SZK is actually inside the Kruger Park, so I am already there when we touch the tarmac. From MQP I can be in the Park in about 45 minutes after picking up my rental car.

SA Express, with its small fleet of RJs that serves domestic markets in South Africa, holds a monopoly on the MQP and SZK routes. Like big brother South African Airways, SA Express is wholly owned and managed by the government. Unlike big brother, however, SA Express has no competition on the routes it flies.

The fact that SA Express is the sole means of flying between Johannesburg and the Kruger National Park has never bothered me because the service has always been reliable and the connecting fares reasonable (about $250 round trip JNB to MQP, and around $300 from JNB into more convenient SKZ).

Never bothered me, that is, until now. Seems SA Express, like big brother SAA, may be close to collapse. Recent (late January, 2020) media accounts state matter-of-factly that years of mismanagement have brought both the big and little state-run airlines to this point:

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SA EXPRESS

And this January 23rd piece details a rancorous dispute between SA Express and one creditor and clearly explains the problem baby brother has with alliance partner SAA:

“The fact that national carrier SAA has been placed in business rescue [bankruptcy] is risking the viability of another state-owned airline, SA Express, according to court documents filed last week. …

“The documents … reveal that while SA Express and SAA are separate businesses, SA Express is a creditor of SAA. Business rescue practitioners of SAA have confirmed this.

“SA Express is an alliance partner of SAA, and is dependent on it for code sharing and related services. ‘SAA sells tickets on behalf of SA Express and pays SA Express once passengers have travelled,’ Ziegler’s affidavit reads.

“According to [the] affidavit, SAA owed SA Express approximately R20m [about $1.4 million], before the national carrier was placed in business rescue in December 2019.

“Three creditors have filed separate liquidation applications, SA Express owes them more than R34m [about $2.4 million], the affidavit showed.”

On top of which, the South African Auditor-General’s reported that SA Express lost R590m (over $41 million) for the 2018/19 financial year.

Reading all these reports caused me more than abstract angst because of my upcoming Kruger National Park visit in February. I fly Delta to Johannesburg, with onward flights booked and paid for from Johannesburg to Skukuza via SA Express.

Since the SA Express financial problems indicate the strong possibility that my JNB/SZK flights will be canceled, I thought a backup car rental would be prudent. A few keystrokes at the Avis website did the trick. Now if the worst happens, I will be driving an Avis car on the five hour overland journey from Johannesburg airport to Skukuza.

Just like I used to do in 1991.

The Elusive Delta premium economy fare to Johannesburg

MAY 30, 2019 — An old friend I’ve known since Kindergarten wants to join me in early 2020 on my next jaunt to South Africa’s Kruger National Park.  My friend, not a frequent flyer, trusted me to find that perfect balance of comfort, cost, and convenience that will make the long trip bearable to both our bodies and our wallets. I found it, too, in Delta’s new premium economy on the carrier’s nonstop Atlanta-Johannesburg flight (DL200/201), albeit just barely.

Knowing after 28 years of ferreting out bargains to South Africa that it’s never too early to look at options from Raleigh/Durham to Johannesburg and then on to the little Skukuza airport in the Kruger Park, I began poking around on websites scarcely within the 330-day window for advance booking. Because Delta’s nonstop from Atlanta to Jo’burg is a convenient way to get there (just two flights to get to JNB), I looked at delta.com among other itinerary and airline possibilities.

As a baseline, I began by checking the old way to getting to South Africa: flying through Europe.  The fares on some carriers RDU/JNB were lower than $1400, but the all-day European layovers were brutal, and it also killed another day that we might be having fun in the Kruger.

I also tested Gulf carriers, including Qatar Air using oneworld partner fares with AA from Raleigh to Johannesburg, a routing I have done in business class, but never in coach.  I found that Qatar economy fares were not big bargains, and the total travel times were not better than the European-stopover routings.  Ditto for Emirates, which partners with Jet Blue.

South African Airways had a decent schedule and competitive coach fares with its partner, United, RDU to Dulles, then IAD to JNB to SZK (Skukuza, the jewel of an airport in the Kruger), but I tend to shy away from flying economy on airlines on which I hold zero elite status.

Still, SAA fares were comparable to what I subsequently found on Delta in Main Cabin; that is, about $1500 to JNB, or about $1750 round trip all the way to Skukuza. The SAA schedule into Johannesburg also allowed a same-day morning connection to Skukuza, another advantage over Delta and other carriers.  That was mighty tempting.

On Delta, I initially checked fares for late January outbound, returning about 12 days after. Delta.com was showing only Main Cabin, Comfort+, and Delta One classes for January departures. Fares in Main Cabin were reasonable at around $1500 RDU/JNB.  With no competition, South African Airways consistently charges about $300 round trip JNB/SZK, so the total would therefore have been $1800 or so to get to Skukuza and home again.

(By the way, I always check business class fares, too, but as nearly $11,000 round trip RDU/JNB on the dates I needed, booking Delta One was a nonstarter.)

Now I admit without shame that flying in a cramped Delta coach seat to Africa is not fun.  It is a challenge of endurance for 16 hours.  Though hellish, I have done it, and I can do it again.

However, I was counting on my Lifetime Platinum status to grant me and a companion (my friend) complimentary Comfort+ upgrades on DL200/201 ATL/JNB/ATL.  Flying Comfort+ doesn’t make the economy seats any wider, but at least there is 3 inches more between rows, and I have a strategy for enduring that long flight in Comfort+.

The prospect of those extra 3 inches in Comfort+ tilted me a bit to Delta from South African Airways, though SAA’s same-day morning connection at JNB to Skukuza made the comparison with SAA a hard choice.

Why not premium economy? Because I knew that the 777-100LR aircraft used on the route had not been updated with Delta’s “Premium Select” premium economy product, and somewhere I had read that the Johannesburg planes would be among the last to get the interior cabins refreshed.  DL200/201 are money spinners as presently configured. After all, Delta is the sole American carrier with a nonstop to Johannesburg; only South African Airways flies competing nonstops from the USA.

But then my friend alerted me to his preference to leave a month later, departing RDU in late February and returning in mid-March.  Having pretty much settled on a Delta itinerary, I waited a few days so that our return date in March was within the 330-day maximum for advance booking,

To my surprise, the outbound and return dates on delta.com showed a fourth class of service available on DL200/201 ATL/JNB: Premium Select.  Fares in premium economy were $2000 RDU/JNB, which included Comfort+ on the RDU/ATL legs.  A $500 round trip difference struck me as about right for the extra difference in comfort and personal space.

Okay, Delta’s premium economy service is lackluster compared to, say, Cathay Pacific, but the seats are undeniably far better than coach (see my post on Delta’s Premium Select), and so I grabbed two seats for me and my traveling buddy at that fare.

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Delta Premium Select (premium economy) seats on an A350 DTW/PEK

Out of curiosity, I checked the next day for the same itinerary, and the Premium Select fare had gone up to $2500.  The fare had risen $500 literally overnight.

The RDU/JNB premium economy fare has been $2500 ever since for those dates. I’ve checked delta.com from January to April, 2020, and the Premium Select fare is always $2500.

What happened?  Who knows?  Perhaps I came across the one day in eternity when Delta’s new premium economy fares were loaded into the system at a relative bargain price for the nonstop to Johannesburg, after which the gods of Delta revenue management decided to goose the fare $500.

When I checked other origin cities, such as New Orleans, Atlanta, Jacksonville, and Washington, Premium Select to JNB was (and is) priced at $2500 or a few bucks more. Only NYC/JNB through ATL on the nonstop is slightly higher at $2700, and, oddly, MIA/JNB through ATL is $2272 in PE. Why Miami to Johannesburg in premium economy is cheaper by $230 than flying from Raleigh is another mystery.

Talk about elusive! I’m fortunate, of course, to have snapped up a fare on the single day it would be $500 below the price of forever-after, but I am perplexed that the lower, reasonable fare vanished in 24 hours.  The $2000 fare I purchased is a $500 difference over Main Cabin, a fair value cost, in my opinion.

At $2500, though, the current premium economy fare is almost $1000 over Main Cabin, which is not good value for the product. I wouldn’t have paid that much and so would have chosen either South African Airways’ attractive same-day morning connection at Johannesburg to Skukuza or Delta in Comfort+ with a one-night layover in Johannesburg before going on to Skukuza. Chances are, I would have chosen convenience over comfort to go with SAA, with greedy Delta the loser.

Kruger diary: Letaba, Olifants, and return to Skukuza Camp, Days 6-9

I was in South Africa’s Kruger National Park on a self-drive safari in early October, 2018 and kept a real-time diary, of which this is the fourth post documenting my experiences. (Click on the earlier posts on the right.)  After four previous relatively short diary posts, this wraps up my 2018 trip to Kruger in one 5900 word post.

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Morning game drive – Day 6 (Satara, Orpen, Olifants, and Letaba Camps, 05-Oct)

 The day dawned cold again in the high 40s F. but with a crystal clear sky and bright sun. No doubt it’s going to warm up again. I was 2nd out of the Satara gate at 530am and headed west on the H7 road to Orpen before heading north to Letaba, where I’ll overnight.

I was loving the beautiful morning and the view to the west of the distant Drakensberg escarpment. Suddenly I was surrounded by a pack of 11 African wild dogs, as rare a sight in the Kruger as a cheetah.

The Kruger population of wild dogs stands between 300 and 400 according to the latest counts. I couldn’t believe my luck this morning seeing them.

Colorful and friendly-looking, the dogs would happily tear me apart and incorporate the bits into their bodies if I got out of the car. I declined to give them a go at me.

Wild dogs hunt like wolves as a cooperative pack and are relentless drivers of prey. The animals chase their target until their energy wanes. Once the prey is surrounded, the pack harasses the animal from all sides until enough nips and bites bring it down. Then the quarry is quickly devoured by the pack.

This was a remarkable sighting. The dogs stayed on the H7 for miles, running down the center and occasionally moving off a bit before returning to the road.  Watching the wild dogs was thrilling!

En route north from Satara to Letaba, I paused at Olifants Camp for breakfast and a break, passing over the big, wide Olifants River just south of the camp. The entire distance Satara to Olifants was teeming with wildlife, including nyala, impala, wildebeest, elephant, giraffe, and zebra (see photo 2 attached).

Stopped at one point to see why five cars had gathered and were pointing and looking at something just off the road. I didn’t see anything, so asked one fellow as I passed what it was.

“I have no idea!” He admitted, and grinned sheepishly.

The driver of the next car, however, knew what was what. He pointed to a nearby small tree, under which a honey badger was busy eating a leopard tortoise, one leg at a time. Three were already missing. The remaining leg flailed helplessly, then stopped moving abruptly as the honey badger chomped off the tortoise’s head. I could just make out the crunching sound. Blood spurted over the badger’s muzzle, which its tongue lapped up energetically.

My jaw dropped. Nature red in tooth and claw, in miniature. The perfect African demonstration of how things work.

Well, I thought, who doesn’t like terrapin? And drove on.

Only later did I realize that I should have taken a picture. That’s not a sight one sees every day, not even in the Kruger.

The beautiful Olifants River, the bridge, and rolling hills around Olifants camp never get old for me. Such a gorgeous setting and panorama with a grand vista of the river below. Lots of elephants loiter around the river; hence, its name.

After breakfast I took the back way on dirt roads to Letaba. I enjoyed the drive immensely despite it being an arid moonscape of barren Mopane trees waiting for spring rains to leaf.

I nourish the illusion that I’m all alone in the Kruger when driving wilderness gravel roads like that one between Olifants and Letaba along the Letaba River.  That is, until another car comes by, dashing my fantasy.

The landscape there by the Letaba River looks like the American West this time of year because it’s so dry. Montana in Africa.

It occurred to me that all the gravel roads north of Skukuza have been in great shape. Not sure why those down south that I complained about were so corrugated. Sure, there are some rough spots on these roads and the ones around Satara, but they’re excellent overall, unlikely to break a shock absorber.

Admired a stunningly gorgeous leafless Baobab tree I passed on the Letaba River road between Olifants and Letaba.

I saw only a few impala on the entire 21 miles between Olifants and Letaba and reached the camp at 1145am. I’m not expecting much of a report this afternoon because the wildlife seems to have fled until the rains return.

It was just 29 miles Satara to Olifants. At max speeds of 25-31 MPH (and usually less, plus lots of stops to look at things), distances in the Kruger seem greater than they are. It’s a delightfully relaxed feeling, actually, to drive so slowly.

I wonder why, then, I feel so stressed driving at the same 25-31 MPH in I-40 Research Triangle rush hour traffic at home in central North Carolina. Oh yeah, now I remember: I NEVER have the illusion that I’m the only car on I-40.

Afternoon game drive – Day 6 (Letaba Camp, Fri, 05-Oct)

Hippo! Ground squirrel! Bushbuck! Mammal species seen for the first   the day.

Finally enough water in the Olifants and Letaba Rivers to provide a home for hippos. They are grunting to each other as I write this late afternoon Friday at Letaba camp. I am sitting by the fence near my “perimeter bungalow” watching 30-odd elephants working their way up to me from the Letaba River as I relax with a ginger beer and vodka. The river tableau beyond the fence is delightful.

Driving the roads this afternoon I saw many animals, but only near the two rivers. It’s too dry to support life too far from water up here.

Also saw ground squirrels, bushbuck here in Letaba camp begging for food (in the wild, bushbuck are extremely shy), lots of kudu cows just outside the fence, zebra, wildebeest, the implacable impala herds, hippos in both rivers, waterbuck, and thieving demon vervet monkeys here in the camp.

The monkeys are so bold they will steal food from your table as you prepare it, having mastered the sneak attack. God help the fools who leave a car door or window open to go in to the camp store or restaurant. Vervets will enter a car en masse, defecate all over the interior, and take everything.

I witnessed such a concerted attack on a car once at Pretorioscop camp. A dozen or so dropped in through the open sun roof and grabbed groceries and miscellaneous loose items. One emerged with the owner’s remote control between its vicious little teeth.

I love being in Africa, but thank God we don’t have vervet monkeys running amok in Raleigh.

Baboons are even worse. They are big and strong enough to kill a man. When baboons invade camps with that considerable monkey brain intelligence and primate dexterity, the vervet monkeys scatter, knowing when they’re licked. That’s why camp fridges are secured behind heavy metal grating and why everything else, from bungalow doors to trash can lids, has been baboon-proofed.

Morning game drive – Day 7 (Letaba Camp, Sat, 06-Oct)

Another beautiful morning of cloudless sky and cool temperatures greeted me here at Letaba as I loaded my little Toyota Avanza to begin a game drive. It’s predicted to reach the mid-eighties today. Knowing the wildlife was not likely to stray far from the Letaba River, I chose a road paralleling the water.

Or what little there is of it. Not much water flowing in the Letaba at the moment owing to the long dry spell. With another two months or so before the rains begin, it will be an ongoing struggle for local animals.

An upstream dam holds water for such times, releasing a trickle so the river never dries up completely. Many bore holes (wells) supplement natural water courses, too.

Water supply management is critical to keeping Kruger eco-systems healthy. Though the park wilderness is 250 miles long and 50-90 miles, it was carved out of a much larger area in the early to mid-20th century (just like U.S. national parks were).

Before fences constrained the wildlife on all sides, animals migrated freely east-west to find food and water between Mozambique and the slopes of the Drakensberg escarpment west of the Kruger in South Africa. Fencing them into a 250 mile by 50-90 mile space meant year-round water had to be provided.

Hence the many bore holes that feed artificial, life-sustaining water holes and dams on major rivers like the Olifants and Letaba to create reservoirs for the dry seasons. That water management has been massively effective for a hundred years, with the result that this wilderness remains an African Eden, a living world heritage.

The gravel road by the river became so rutted and rockbound that I gave up after a few kilometers and turned back. I wasn’t seeing any wildlife anyway.

The Letaba River is showing a meager channel compared to the vast basin that fills up when the rains come.

The first leaves of spring are showing on a few mopane trees near the river. Mopanes there are quite gnarly–more like a shrub than a tree. Which is why it is often called “mopane scrub.” Mopane is technically a tree, but being the favorite food of elephants, the plants are constantly broken down and chewed up.

A resilient species, mopanes grow back quickly, but stunted and broken, soon looking more like big shrubs and less like trees. A full grown mopane is rare to see in elephant country.

Slim pickings this morning on game sighting: elephants (I never tire of watching elephants), hippos, baboons, giraffes, impala, and little ground squirrels. All close to the river.  Two of the giraffes were enjoying a breakfast of wicked-looking thorns.

Better luck with birds I had not seen before today: resident Egyptian geese, magpie shrike, hadedah ibis, black-headed heron, Guinea fowl, and a grey lourie. The lourie is South Africa’s only parrot and is also called the go-away bird because of its call, which seems to say that. Of course also saw the usual hornbills and glossy starlings that hang around Letaba.

All those birds and animals were seen near the water. Once I moved more than a few hundred yards from the river, not even an impala was evident. Just sun-scorched earth.

Letaba camp is gorgeous, with lots of big trees and spectacular river views from the restaurant and from many riverfront rondavels (like mine). I always love coming here, but I’ll be moving south after breakfast towards Olifants camp, my accommodation for tonight.

Just engaged a German fellow about my age, also traveling alone, who has been coming to the Kruger since 1987. That beats me by four years (my first visit here was 1991). He gave me tips on where to find a big pride of lions south of Olifants towards Satara, and I’ll make that gravel road my afternoon game drive target. Maybe I’ll get lucky.

Luck is a factor in finding game, along with intelligence like his about where animals have been recently seen. I find my luck is enhanced simply by covering a lot of territory. The more miles driven, the better chance of seeing wildlife.

Afternoon game drive – Day 7 (Olifants Camp, Sat, 06-Oct)

The view from my perimeter rondavel at Olifants gives an idea how high are the hills. Herds of elephants at the water’s edge look like ants.

I passed over 100 elephants this afternoon, spread out along a half mile of road on both sides. It was magic to see so many in one herd. The little tuskers in the herd were having a ball ripping off tree limbs, testing their strength.

Lots of baby and young elephants sure seemed to be enjoying the lovely afternoon, running to and fro, blasting passing cars with their juvenile trumpets while the adults stood watch. I stayed for a long time because elephant behavior fascinates me.

I had plenty of time for it. Despite my plan to follow the noted gravel road to the location of the lion pride–information from my German buddy–I had to turn back. After rattling along that corrugated monster for about 3 miles, I decided not to risk damage to the car. Or to me. I already had a headache from the bouncing.

In addition to the severe washboard effect, the road was strewn with softball-size jagged rocks ready to puncture a tire. No doubt any one of those bloody hard stones held geological secrets of earth’s distant past, but I was more interested in not testing the physics of rubber versus sharp rock.

Disappointed that I might miss the lions, even though I knew the pride had long ago moved on, I flagged down a car coming out and asked the driver if they’d seen the big cats feasting on a zebra and how far up the road were they.

“What lions?” He said.

That’s when I turned around. I was happy to leave that bumpy road.

As this trip begins to wind down and I total up what animals and birds I’ve seen, I reflect again on the part chance plays in sightings. Luck or chance, take your pick. I believe, as I said this morning, that driving more miles increases the chance of finding wildlife.

However, that doesn’t guarantee I’ll see what I want. On this trip I came across two cheetahs–two out of a park population of 180 (latest count). Wow!

And I saw and stayed with 11 wild dogs for a few miles. There are estimated to be only 300 wild dogs in the Kruger.

Yet I’ve so far seen just one warthog of an estimated population of 5,000. Most peculiar, how does my single sighting of a small herd of buffalo jive with the park’s count of 40,000? I should by now have seen more of both species.

Point is, you never know what you will see or won’t see.

Except impala. What’s hard is NOT seeing impala everywhere. I love the brown little boogers, so I smile every time impalas surround my car.

One mammal I’ve heard more than seen this trip is hyena. I’ve already noted the hyena propensity to eat people. I am wary of the creatures. I learned in the 90s when I often went camping in the Botswanan wilderness never to leave the tent at night when hyenas were about–and hyena are always around. Pee in a bottle if need be, but keep the tent zipped tightly.

So I was not pleased when in Skukuza the first night, then in Satara, and last night again in Letaba, I heard hyenas calling to each other right right outside my rondavel windows. Hyena have dug under the electrified high camp fences and now freely enter those camps at night to forage.

Camp staff maintain the hyenas mainly target garbage at the restaurant, much as raccoons and rats do at home.

Except that ‘coons and rats aren’t human size, nor do those little critters have jaw muscles and teeth that effortlessly crunch through bones. And last I checked, humans weren’t on the raccoon or rodent menu.

So if hyenas are just innocently looking for garbage, why were the beasts loitering around my rondavel last night? Are they lost? Maybe I should have thrown out a Letaba camp map so they could find the restaurant.

Or maybe they smelled me. I sure as hell didn’t go outside with my flashlight to find out.

A family of four occupied the next two rondavels in line by mine at Letaba last night. The two sons, one a lanky teen and other about nine or ten, had taken the bungalow immediately adjacent to mine. I heard the little kid shrieking in fear to his older brother because the hyenas were calling and cackling to each other in their eerie voices between our bungalows. I thought to myself that the boy had good instincts to be afraid. I slept fitfully after that myself.

When I arrived at Olifants today, I inquired whether I have to worry about hyenas calling at my door in the night. No, they said. Staff had found the hole the hyenas had dug under the fence here, just as at Letaba, Satara, and Skukuza, and had filled it in with concrete. I was told: “No more hyenas inside Olifants!”

I certainly hope not.

Morning game drive – Day 8 (Olifants-Satara-Tshokwane-Lower Sabie-Nkuhlu-Skuluza Camp, Sun, 07-Oct)

This is my last full day of game drives, then overnight at Skuluza camp, and a final morning game drive tomorrow before turning the Toyota Avanza in to Avis at Skukuza airport and winging back home.

The air started warm and muggy this Sunday morning, with mostly overcast skies. I was first at the Olifants gate at 506am and could hear hyenas calling to each other just beyond the fence.

But not inside the camp, I am glad to report. I slept well last night.

Just three cars, including mine, queued at the gate before 530am. I was a little surprised, but then thought about how Olifants is kind of a country-club camp because of its gorgeous location. Some South Africans come here just to enjoy the view and the pool in an exotic environment. They aren’t so keen to go on game drives, and when they do, are apt to say things like, “Oh, look, Hon! Is that a horse with stripes?

I didn’t see much before getting close to Satara, and then saw many species of animals everywhere. Next trip to the Kruger I’m inclined to stay south of Olifants. That’s been the richest game areas of this trip and of many previous trips.

And yielded the best game-viewing this morning as well. After a brief rest stop at Satara, I continued south towards the little open-air snack bar at Tshokwane. Within a couple of miles I came across a lion-jam. A pride of lions had been spotted 300′ off the road. I squinted hard to see the tan lumps in the distance, then moved on. The pride was napping after last night’s big feast of something, and I knew they wouldn’t move much all day.

To my amazement, 1.5 miles down the road beyond the sleeping lions I came across two cheetahs sitting very near the road. I couldn’t believe my luck. I’ve been years and years never seeing a cheetah in the Kruger, and now I’ve seen four on this trip.

Then some miles south I came across more buffalo. And also elephants, kudus zebras, wildebeests, and many giraffes.

Just before Tshokwane I passed hundreds of impala grazing on both sides of the road, an awesome sight.

At Tshokwane I enjoyed a delicious kudu pie and chips for breakfast while doves, glossy starlings, and satanic little vervet monkeys begged food while sitting on my table. I hated to leave, but I had to cover a lot of ground to get to Skukuza.

Shortly beyond Tshokwane heading south, two maIn roads diverge. One goes a bit east towards the Lebombo Mountains that sit on the border with Mozambique, and then turns south to Lower Sabie camp. The other road proceeds west and south to Skukuza. I wanted to check out the game viewing in and around Lower Sabie camp, and I calculated that I had plenty of time to do that and still get to Skuluza for check-in to my riverside bungalow.

I also knew the drive up and over the hills towards Lower Sabie would be beautiful and that I could stop at the Ngube lookout at the top.  I did stop, and once again the vista reminded me of parts of the American West.  Well, except for the African wildlife all around, such as the nearby elephants and buffalo.

Lower Sabie camp was a zoo of people, (not animals), and I didn’t enjoy my brief stop there (to check out the shop, out of curiosity). Okay, I understand that it’s Sunday, and the weekend warriors from Jo’burg have invaded for an early spirng day trip to Kruger. But I’d hate coming back here if it was always like that. I left quickly and headed to Skukuza.

All along the way (about 28 miles) the road hugs the Sabie River. Lots of animals work back and forth across the road going for water, vying with car traffic in the process. So I was not surprised to come across many “lion-jams,” except knots of stopped traffic for every species, not only lions. Lots of gawking at buffalo in the river, and elephants taking a bath, and often just for a herd of impala.

I understood, of course. Day-trippers are looking for every sighting possible in the few hours they are here today, while I have had the luxury of 8 nights and 9 days to soak it in.

Therefore, I took it in stride when I came upon a thick jam-up of maybe 15 cars, with many blocking traffic flow entirely. I asked the occupants of the first car I passed what it was.

“Leopard!” And they pointed to my left in some underbrush. Sure enough, I could make out the cat skulking low and slow through the shadows, too obscured for a photo.

I knew the onlookers would not move until the kitty was long gone, and thus began to navigate carefully through the congested traffic. I was almost clear when two big safari trucks full of tourists blocked the guy in front of me from moving out of the way. I was trapped, so shut off the engine to wait.

To my astonishment, the big leopard suddenly darted just in front of my hood, its spotted body a blur, and crossed the road right by my open window. I was near enough to touch it as it streaked past.

Again, I couldn’t believe my luck to be closest of all those people there to the object of their attention. Especially since I had given up on seeing the creature and was just trying to escape.

Unprepared, I grabbed my phone and took a quick picture, but by then the leopard was headed away down the shoulder of the road. Unless I stay at the ready, that’s a typical animal photo, by the way: “Goodbye. See you later.”

It was a great morning game drive! 125 miles covered in 6 hours on the road. I loved every minute of it.

Afternoon game drive – Day 8 (Skukuza Camp, Sun, 07-Oct)

Final PM game drive was short and sweet: just two hours. I wanted to get back to Skukuza before 500pm to have a bit of daylight to enjoy my riverside bungalow and the view from it, bungalow #86. The camp sits on the Sabie River, normally full of bird life and animals, and I paid extra to get a front row seat on the river.

I had a good view of the old Selati Railway bridge over the river. In the early 20th century, passenger trains on that railroad made this part of the Kruger accessible for the first time to denizens of Johannesburg. It was then quite a high adventure to come to the “lowveldt” and see the wild African animals that had already been long eradicated from the rand (the area around Jo’burg).

My bungalow is at the very end of the camp, so it is quite private and peaceful. I have poured myself a ginger beer and vodka as I write this just past five–if I had lime, I could call it a Moscow Mule. The shadows are long, and the scene where I sit, tranquil. A great way to end this trip.

I rarely drink vodka at home; in fact, I don’t much like it. I prefer Windhoeck beer here, a superb Munich-style lager made by the Germans in Namibia.

But vodka is part of my strategy when traveling alone in the Kruger. It is easier to transport and keep from camp to camp than beer, and I don’t have to re-chill it after a long drive. Just add ice and ginger beer. Vodka is practical in the Kruger.

After 27 years of coming here, I have some routines down. I always wear long-sleeved shirts, a hat, and white cotton gloves for driving, all to prevent sunburn. The sun here is merciless, summer and winter. Best to stay covered up. I use sunscreen on exposed places, like my nose and ears.

I take malaria pills religiously when I come. Met a young South African fellow and his wife who said they had a friend who just came down with malaria after visiting the park. I asked if they were taking pills, and they both answered at once, “Yes, absolutely!”

A car charger for my phone is a must, and my phone always has a woefully expensive international plan for data, email, voice, and texts.

First day here, I always buy a cooler, ice, water, soft drinks, and snacks. I take a roll of toilette paper from the first camp and throw it in the back seat, just in case, along with a trash bag. I borrow a towel from the first camp and return it the last night.

Kruger map books are essential to choose where to go each day, available at every camp store. I also bring a homemade animal matrix to keep track of what I see every day, along with pen and paper.

Kleenex and paper napkins are handy, as is a cheap plastic insulated cup.

Driving on the left is a snap. Been doing it in many countries since the 70s. It seems as natural to me as driving on the right.

But, God help me, I cannot get used to the turn signal stalk being on the right side of the steering column. I’m constantly turning on the windshield wipers (lever located on the left side of the steering column) when I mean to be signaling a turn.

The Afsaal rest area south of Skukuza towards Berg-en-Dal is home to lots of rhinos, and it’s about an hour away at 31 MPH. I drove there and back and struck out on rhinos, but I did see many elephants close to the road.  I took several photos.

Also saw more lilac-heated rollers, a leopard tortoise, zebra, giraffe, impala, and three male lions near the road, dozing. No good angle to take photos, though, so the elephant pictures are all I have for the afternoon drive.

Speaking of which, some have asked how to approach an elephant real close like I did today. It’s easy. I drive up cautiously and watch the elephant’s reaction. If it is bothered, the ellie will let me know by facing me and shaking its head vigorously.

That’s the initial warning. After that comes loud trumpeting and then a fast charge. Sometimes it’s a mock charge where the animal turns away at the last second, but I don’t wait to find out. I have reversed and moved away after the first head shake.

If the elephant ignores me coming that close, and most in the Kruger do because they’ve become inured to cars, then I shut off the engine and enjoy being in the animal’s company. I never tire of watching elephants, the true king of beasts.

The sun has gone down in the Kruger, and light is fast fading. It’s been a wonderful trip, and I still have one more morning game drive before I head home.

Morning game drive – Day 9 (Skukuza, Mon, 08-Oct)

Last game drive this trip was quiet and short, just 2 hours, because I had to get back to Skukuza Camp to leave. I must return the car to Avis at Skukuza Airport by 1100am and repack before that.

I am leaving more clothes behind and a pair of shoes for staff.

The day broke cool with a light rain shower, presaging much more precip to come over the next few months. Except for the one morning I overslept, I followed this routine every day, including last night and today: arose at 430am, was at the gate by 505, out when the gates opened at 530, to sleep by 830-900pm.

Species seen this morning: one kudu, hundreds of impala, 2 common duiker (a small, shy antelope), ground hornbills, ground squirrels, and elephants. Of course the usual bird life, including francolin, Guinea fowl, glossy starling, yellow-billed hornbill, and numerous varieties of doves.

Some impressions this trip (my opinions, of course):

The park is now allowing too many outside safari company trucks carrying tourists in. Seems to be mostly a problem down here in the southern part of Kruger than at Satara and north.

Surprised at some species of animals not much seen, including warthogs, rhino, and buffalo.

I was surprised to see 2 sets of hyena pups. I never knew until now that hyenas breed year round.

Very surprised to have seen nyala in such large numbers, cheetah at all, wild dogs at all, and several leopards.

Changes since 1991 are few, and that’s good. I’ve come to the Kruger countless times in 27 years, observing the differences each time. Most of the changes have been to restaurants and snack bars. Park management seems not to be able to settle in what they want.

Thank goodness, though, menu basics such as chicken mayonnaise sandwiches (chicken salad), toasted ham and cheese sandwiches, and good breakfasts choices are still available. I do miss game selections for dinner, like kudu steak, buffalo pie, and impala flank schnitzel. Once at Punda Maria they even offered warthog ribs. On this trip I was able to get kudu pie at Tshokwane, but that was it for game.

Rhino numbers in the Kruger have been healthy and growing. Last count was 5000+, but due to poaching, the population figure is no longer reported. All are white rhinoceros, also called square-lipped rhino, because they graze more than browse, using their square lips to grasp grass on the ground.

Black rhinoceros, sometimes call hook-lipped rhinos, browse low bushes and trees with their protruding lips. Black rhino range never extended into the Kruger, I don’t believe, but that species is native to Botswana and can also be seen at Etosha National Park in Namibia.

I did see rhinos here the first day, but not since. By contrast, when I was last in the Kruger in April, 2016, I saw rhinos so often that I lost count. They are here in great numbers; just a factor of chance that I saw so few this time.

I was reminded this morning what dramatic terrain there is going south. I’ve commented several times how much I enjoy the Kruger simply for its natural beauty. It has so many varied eco-systems for such a relatively compact area (250 miles top to bottom). All are interesting.

I know, I know: Wilderness parks like the Kruger and our gorgeous U.S. national parks in the west are no longer more than vestiges of the natural world, but thank God for the spiritual rejuvenation I get each time I come here.  Even though along the southern border sugar cane refiners mar the view, I love the Kruger, just as I love our great western parks in the United States.

I drove a total of 1090 miles in 9 days = 121 miles per day. That’s about right compared to previous trips.

When I come, I want to be on the road seeing the wilderness and its wildlife. Not everybody who has come with me in the past has shared that obsession, and that’s fine. If folks want to sleep in, they can. I go out alone, in that case, and circle back midway through a game drive to pick them up at their leisure. Then continue on.

I’m already planning my next Kruger trip.

Not-so-deep thoughts on Kruger National Park

In my morning report I mentioned “safari trucks” without an explanation. Safari trucks are rigged to carry folks on guided game drives.

That is, a guide–hopefully one who knows his or her salt–does the driving, navigating, reconnoitering for wildlife, and talking while you sit with 8-40 (some trucks are large) of your favorite friends and family. It’s a fine way to see animals in places like private game lodges outside the Kruger. But it’s not necessary in the Kruger or in similar do-it-yourself game parks like Zimbabwe’s Hwange and Namibia’s Etosha.

In the Kruger you have to pay for the guided rides, of course, on top of anything else already paid. And guided trips ain’t cheap. Driving yourself is already paid for in your fees when you arrive: no extra charges apply.

I like the innate privacy and ultimate flexibility of driving myself. As do the majority of Kruger visitors, whether South African, Chinese, European, Australian, or American.

But recently the park has licensed many more contractor safari firms to bring visitors in for game drives. Just saying a few is fine, but I think it’s time to put the brakes on the numbers now.

Noticed the trucks at Skukuza Airport from Mala Mala and Sabi Sabi luxury safari lodges. Those two, plus Londolozi (my favorite), define the pinnacle of luxury safari lodge experience outside the Kruger. All three, plus a few other lesser-known safari lodges, are situated in the entirely private Sabi Sands game reserve, which is adjacent to the Kruger near Skukuza. Those trucks are waiting to pick up guests arriving at tiny Skukuza airport where I await my flight to Johannesburg.

I merely used those trucks as examples of safari trucks. Actually, no safari truck from Mala Mala, Londolozi, or Sabi Sabi would ever tool around the Kruger except to come to the airport. That’s because those three lodges charge $1000 to $5000 per person per day, and they pretty much guarantee your guided game drives to be spectacular, all inside the private Sabi Sands reserve. They don’t need to drive in the Kruger, nor are permitted to.

I’ve been there myself. When I first worked in Johannesburg in 1991, South African friends arranged special prices for me at Idube Safari Lodge in the Sabi, another luxury place (well, ALL lodges in the Sabi Sands are luxurious). Idube hasn’t the panache of Londolozi; however, even a “friend” rate there was a heart attack.

But Idube came through. I took my parents there for a 3-day weekend (they had flown over to see the country), and the game drives were extraordinary. Especially the night drives to watch a lion pride stalk and kill.

One advantage that guides at those luxury lodges in the Sabi have over the Kruger is the ability to go off-road to get close–as in REAL close–to wildlife. Kruger rules prohibit off-roading; it’s an offense that will get the guilty party expelled forever.

So what’s the other differences between driving yourself around in the Kruger and being guided in a luxury lodge safari truck in the Sabi Sands? Money.

The animals you see are the same. But the comparable Kruger cost per day, including fees, accommodation, rental car, gas, food, tips, and beverages came to about $181 for me this trip. Obviously, a small fraction of what the luxury lodges charge.

That comparison doesn’t include airfare because airfare isn’t included in the luxury lodge rates, either.

It would have been even cheaper had I not been traveling alone, halving the rental car and gas costs, and possibly the accommodation rates if sharing.

And because it’s affordable, I’m able to return to the Kruger relatively often.  I plan to return as soon as possible.

Kruger diary: Satara Camp, Day 5

I was in South Africa’s Kruger National Park on a self-drive safari in early October, 2018 and kept a real-time diary, of which this is the fourth post documenting my experiences. (See the other posts at right.)

DAY 5 (October 4, 2018) – SATARA & ORPEN – MORNING GAME DRIVE

When the sun sets, being in the Kruger brings home what real darkness means. Sure, the bungalows have one outside light, but illumination is weak and limited to the veranda area. There are no street lights. Walking a few feet away from the rondavel after nightfall plunges me into pitch dark and requires a flashlight. Then slow and careful treading to scan for trees and obstacles, not to mention snakes and scorpions, is wise. In cities we have forgotten what absolute, inky-black dark feels like. It’s a shock.

Once clear of the dim light sources, however, looking up in the sky of an African night at the bright stars is a stunning reminder of what we miss due to the light pollution at home. The pall of artificial lighting has dulled our wonder at the night, and more’s the pity. I forget how glorious the heavens can be seen here until I come back.

I was lucky to see the sky last night. The clouds slowly dissipated through evening yesterday, but this morning a new cloud cover is overhead, along with high winds and a morning low of 48° F. Quite a contrast to the 96° of Tuesday afternoon.

Not everything here is perfect. I am very unhappy with something new to Satara: anti-poaching dogs. The brutish mutts are housed in the staff/ranger areas of the camp, well away from visitors, but that distance isn’t enough to mute their loud, incessant barking. The dogs’ angry voices awakened me several times last night, the first time I can ever recall such a disturbance in the Kruger.

I’m going to ask the resident ranger later today whether this is a permanent condition of camp life now.

The morning game drive was at first mostly a bust. I drove 52 miles and saw only 3 giraffes, 3 wildebeest, and several hundred impala (considering there are about 200,000 impala in Kruger, I expect to see a lot of them everywhere, and I usually do).

Then, at mile 53, I saw a brown and black fluffy mane adorning a large tawny head right by the road and knew I’d hit the jackpot. It was a young male lion, yawning. I figured it was exhausted after a night of bloody butchering and devouring something slower.  I pulled off the road to watch.

Pretty soon the lion attracted what’s known as a “lion-jam” in the park. I noticed the guy was favoring its left rear leg, and when it arose to leave, there was no doubt of an injury. The lion limped badly across the road and disappeared into the brush. Could have been caused by a zebra kick, or just a bad fall.

Unless the leg heals completely and quickly, it was a dead lion walking. A lame lion catches no food. Pretty soon I fear the handsome beast will be hyena food.

The view from a promontory coming to Orpen Camp (which I had to drive to again to send and receive email) was of the undulating, forested terrain, quite a contrast from the flat, wide open plains around Satara, just 29 miles away. That’s part of what I love about the Kruger: so many and varied eco-systems in such close proximity. Makes every drive interesting, game or no game.

Stopped on the side of the road at the lookout, I noticed the vicious thorn bush not yet in leaf for the spring. An early lesson of the Kruger was to avoid contact with every bush and tree to keep from getting seriously stabbed.

DAY 5 (October 4, 2018) – SATARA – AFTERNOON GAME DRIVE

Yesterday I stated my goal to be first out this morning at 530am. Well, I was first in line, but it was due to the afore-mentioned anti-poaching dogs howling that I arose at 415am. I was at the gate reading in my car by 445am, which put me in the number one position by five minutes. Three more vehicles had stacked up behind me by 450am. When the gates swung wide at 530am, I led a veritable parade of cars out to greet the early morning wildlife.

As reported this morning, though, the wildlife didn’t turn up to greet me. I must have turned down the wrong roads, because I didn’t see much except the injured young lion with the bushy mane.

On my arrival back at Satara I contacted the resident ranger to complain about the barking dogs. The ranger was out, so I discussed the problem with the good folks at reception. They confirmed many guests had squawked about the hounds, and the staff admitted being kept awake in their quarters as well. I left a message for the ranger to contact me on his return.  He never did.

When I mentioned the yowling curs to my bungalow’s caretaker and cleaner, Lilly, she laughed and confirmed they kept everybody at Satara awake last night. But the ranger is God in the Kruger, so the staff don’t complain directly.

Lilly thanked me for the three shirts I left with her. When I come to the Kruger, I bring clothing to leave behind for families like hers, and I tip the housekeeping staff every day, too. Though I did not ask for favors in return, Lilly very kindly made sure I had everything I needed, including extra soap and towels.

This afternoon proved more rewarding than this morning. I came upon scores of giraffes and later hundreds of wildebeest, impala, and zebra in herds of 20-100. As one large family of giraffe moved across the road from left to right, I was reminded to always look in the direction the animals came from before proceeding, and even then to go slow.

That is, I never assume the last animal I saw cross the road was the last one. Stragglers have often surprised me, and I don’t fancy getting stepped on by a giraffe.

This rule applies to every mammal in Kruger, large and small. Impala are notorious for jumping out from behind bushes right in front of cars just after a big herd of their buddies have moved off. “Wait for me!” they seem to say, as they bound after the others, inches in front of my grill as I slam on the brakes.

It’s amazing that huge creatures like giraffes can suddenly appear out of nowhere in the same way to join their friends on the other side of the road. I am even more cautious when elephant herds cross in front of me. There is always one more pachyderm too busy destroying a tree to notice its family has left. Better to wait and be certain than get smacked by a big gray wall of flesh with two ivory spears up front.

At one point just north of Satara this afternoon I spotted 30-some familiar-looking animals moving in parallel to the road, out in the open. I’d seen kudu in herds like that. They are easy to spot because of their slight hump and odd, camel-like gait. Kudu heads move back and forth as they walk, and that’s what I thought I was seeing.

Then I realized the horns were wrong for kudu, not spiral, but a gentle curve near the tips: Nyala!

Nyala are kin to kudu, but a bit shaggy, like they need a haircut, and a little shorter in stature than kudu. Thing is, I’ve never heard or read of nyala moving in herds, and especially not away from the water courses and swampy areas the animals love. Another wildlife revelation for me, then.

The S100 is one of the most productive roads for seeing game near Satara because it parallels the N’wanetsi River. Herbivores thrive all along its 12 mile length, and so do a pride of lions that preys on the grass-eaters. As long as I’ve been coming here, the pride, in successive generations, has been a mainstay of the river road.

Sure enough, today I passed two lion-jams of cars on the S100 watching the current generation of big cats sleep off a feast of zebra. What was left of the carcass was visible not far away.

The male lions had moved ahead of the females and were 100 yards or so off the road. People used binoculars to watch their big heads raise up occasionally.

A quarter mile away the female lions were doing the same, but much closer to the road. I squinted in the distance and enjoyed catching glimpses of the dozing lions, then moved on.

A couple of miles down the road I came to a big group of impala, waterbuck, and zebra grazing close by. That was more interesting to me than the lions, so I cut the engine and waited. Pretty soon I was surrounded real close by the three species working their way through the stands of dead grass.

I wrote this description while the animals around me placidly grazed and kept moving very slowly across the plain. Before long, they were out of sight.

That one experience made the afternoon game worthwhile for me, much richer to me than watching lions lying on their backs, digesting, as lions do. Yet not another car stopped by mine to be in harmony with the impalas, waterbucks, and zebras.

DAY 5 (October 4, 2018) – FAREWELL TO SATARA CAMP

Tonight is my fourth and final night at Satara camp. I go on to Letaba camp for one night tomorrow way up north, then south a bit to lovely Olifants camp on a bluff overlooking the Olifants River (“olifants” is “elephant” in Africaans) for one night, and finally back to a riverside rondavel at Skukuza for my last night.

I wanted to see what four nights at Satara was like since game viewing here is usually so good. I’ve never stayed more than two nights in a row here before and always left thinking that wasn’t enough.

My takeaway after four nights: I like being settled in one camp for at least two nights, three at the most. In four days I’ve explored every game drive around Satara, some multiple times. I love it here, but I am ready to leave.

I found out why the Kruger is so crowded.  It’s Spring Break on the S.A. school calendar. I should have checked it when I booked 7 months ago.

That said, I was able to book the accommodation I wanted at every camp except Satara, and yet I was pleased with the bungalow they assigned me here (F138).

What I had hoped to snag was one of the Satara “perimeter” bungalows. Rondavel G167 is so close to the wire that an elephant could just about reach over and grab the hat off my head if I was sitting on the veranda. And the grill (braai) is nearly touching the fence. Wonder if the odor of searing brats on that fire calls out to hungry hyenas when the smoke wafts through the fence.

Lots of tanned animal hides on the racks of the Satara grocery store, called the “Park’s Shop” for as long anyone can remember. Prices vary, but a big zebra skin goes for about US$1,000 and comes with a veterinary certificate authenticating origin and tanning/sanitization method. It’s legal to bring tanned hides with such certificates into the USA, except from elephants and big cats.

Some years back I brought back an nyala hide labeled as kudu. It was not expensive because kudus are plentiful and die naturally all the time. Not so many nyalas out there as kudus, but the store staff wouldn’t believe me when I told them of the label error.

All tanned skins sold by the South African National Parks come from animals that died in the Kruger (no hunting is allowed in the park). SANP directly benefits from the sales. All profits contribute to ongoing conservation. “Custos Naturae” is the park motto, meaning custodians of nature.

Tomorrow I travel north to Letaba camp, perhaps my favorite in the Kruger, though game-viewing around Letaba is usually not as good as near Satara. No matter; the camp is situated directly on the river with gorgeous views and grounds. I wish I had time to spend more than one night there.

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Kruger diary: Satara Camp, Day 4

I was in South Africa’s Kruger National Park on a self-drive safari in early October, 2018 and kept a real-time diary, of which this is the third post documenting my experiences.  (See the other posts at right.)

DAY 4 (October 3, 2018) – SATARA & ORPEN CAMPS – MORNING GAME DRIVE

Cell service at Satara failed, halting email. On my drive this morning, I came to Orpen Camp, which has cell service in order to receive and send email.

Big change in the weather this morning.  Temperature plunged 30 degrees to 66° F. with a stiff wind. I’m the only one not wearing a jacket.

Cooler, yes, but dry as a bone. A park ranger told me yesterday this dry season has been the longest and driest in many years. Most of the rivers are without water, just hot sand. Thus no hippos or crocs to be seen yet.

I was at the gate by 505am today but still 5th in line. Gates opened promptly at 530, and I wheeled around the first four vehicles because they chose to poke along at 30 KPH. I maintained 50 KPH, the max speed, and soon came across the best sighting yet: two cheetahs, probably siblings, crossing the road.

Cheetahs are few in the Kruger, a few hundred at most, and I’ve rarely seen them in the past. This was an exciting moment. I shut off the engine and watched the animals lope off slowly to the east. They appeared healthy and well-fed.

Just a kilometer away I caught a momma and juvenile Ground Hornbill pecking at something dead, smushed in the middle of the road

Heading into the gravel road that leads to the Timbavati reservoir and beyond to Orpen Camp, I saw perhaps 60-70 giraffes scattered throughout, no more than 5 together at any one place. Many were in the road, causing me to brake several times to avoid them as I came around a curve (even though I was moving at less than 20 MPH).

Altogether I covered 21 miles on dirt/gravel roads this morning (not counting distances traveled on the main paved roads). With multiple stops to enjoy watching the wildlife, that took just under two hours.

Stopped briefly to photograph a dead tree full of vultures having a rest. I love scenes like that one. It is so “Africa”!

Just before reaching the main road to Orpen, I saw Cape Buffalo for the first time this trip, about 30 milling around.

Sadly, now on day 4, I still haven’t seen a warthog.  I usually see many every day. Perhaps the pigs are vacationing in Mozambique.

DAY 4 (October 3, 2018) – SATARA – AFTERNOON GAME DRIVE

The Toyota Avanza (rented from Avis at Skukuza) looks tiny and hideous from the outside, but it is fun to drive and doesn’t feel small on the inside, not even sitting in the back seat. Even better, it offers great visibility all round, essential for game drives.

I love a stick shoft anyway, and this little SUV is impressively tight and nimble. Also has phenomenal turning radius, which is a big help on narrow dirt roads with thorn bushes protruding both sides. Sometimes the best way ahead is to turn around and go around thorns that can rake the paint off.

A young boy elephant charged the car as I passed. Young ellie bulls do that when male hormones kick in. This one gave out a wicked trumpet blast, shook its head furiously, and launched a bold mock charge as I approached.

Not wanting to offend the creature’s sensibilities, I stopped and reversed. Then waited. After all, respect must be given when owed, and this is elephant country. And even a young elephant is a big beast capable of inflicting serious damage upon my Avanza.

Satisfied that I’d been properly driven off, the little guy turned its back to the car and went back to foraging. I engaged first gear and inched forward. Just when I thought I was in the clear, the elephant charged after the car a second time.

A little later, a zebra came very close to the car. That’s unusual behavior. The normal zebra response to a vehicle is to move away quickly. That’s why most zebra photos are of the animal’s ass-end as it gallops off.

Zebras have massive hip muscles, and the species is easily capable of breaking a lion’s jaw or leg with a fierce defensive kick.

Impalas were loitering in the background. Zebra, impala, kudu, wildebeest, warthog, and waterbuck often hang around together, the better to watch out for each other. Lots of eyes ready to sound the alarm for approaching lions, cheetah, hyena, or leopards.

Finally I saw a warthog, but the sneaky rascal bolted before I could get close. I caught its image through the windshield as the pig followed standard warthog protocol when fleeing: Run like hell for a good bit, then stop abruptly, turn quickly and reconnoiter before running like hell again.

It was another great day of game viewing. The cooler temps persisted throughout the day, helped along by steady winds and a mostly cloudy sky. Knowing the animals would be active earlier when overcast, I set out this afternoon at 200p for a four hour drive that covered 70 miles. Here’s a list of species seen, most in large aggregate numbers:

Elephants, kudu, impala, waterbuck, warthog, cheetah, wildebeest, zebra, baboon, vervet monkey (1st sighting this trip of the little demons), steenbok, and giraffe. Plus something low and dark in color of medium size that shot across the road too far away to identify and disappeared into the tall grass.

And of course the usual variety of resident birds, including several species of francolin, several species of vulture, several species of doves, lots of hornbills, many glossy starlings, another kori bustard, a black-bellied bustard, and a red-crested korhaan.

Tomorrow morning I’m going to try to get to the gate early enough to be first in line.

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Kruger diary: Satara Camp, Day 3

I was in South Africa’s Kruger National Park on a self-drive safari in early October, 2018 and kept a real-time diary, of which this post documents my experiences at the second camp, Satara, where I stayed for four nights. See my other posts at right, including how I flew how I flew to Johannesburg from Raleigh, and then from Jo’burg to Skukuza Airport.

DAY 3 (October 2, 2018) – SATARA CAMP

An old friend emailed overnight to ask if I was kind of a Kruger guide. For 20 years I have often brought friends and family, and I certainly know Kruger better than most visitors.  But that doesn’t qualify me as a guide.

My friend also asked whether Kruger is on the Equator.  The Kruger National Park is not that close to the Equator. The northern one-third of the park straddles the Tropic of Capricorn, so its temperate, like North Carolina. It was 53° F. this morning and 85° F. this afternoon. This is early Spring in the Southern Hemisphere.

The Park is hotter than Johannesburg because Jo’burg sits at 5000′ like Denver, and the Kruger is near sea level. The Indian Ocean is not far to the east across the narrow strip of Mozambique. The Kruger borders Mozambique on the east. The border is not far from where I am now, maybe 25 miles east. So the Indian Ocean weather patterns and warmth impact this area. Think: Florida weather. That’s pretty close. They grow all manner of tropical fruit around here and bananas and lots of sugar cane. But it’s not Equatorial hot. That’s way far north. The Equator runs across Kenya.

DAY 3 (October 2, 2018) – SATARA CAMP – MORNING GAME DRIVE

Overslept this morning! In October Kruger gates open at 0530, and I had intended to be one of the first cars out. Early mornings are glorious in Africa, and the best game viewing is then.

I was soon out the door, however, with the small cooler I bought at the Skukuza shop two days ago packed with ice, Coke Zero, and a bottle of water. Should I have a flat or breakdown on a back road in the Kruger, someone is likely to come along in no time. It’s still a good idea to keep plenty of water in the car, and I do. There’s another big bottle of water in the back seat for just such contingencies.

Conventional game drive wisdom holds that both early morning and late afternoon are optimal rather than the middle of the day when it gets hot, driving animals to find shade and rest. My experience is that very early morning drives are best for catching the end of the predator night shift. I’m more likely to come across lions on a fresh kill as the morning dawns. Too, the herbivores are friskier before the African sun gets down to business.

Truth be told, the middle of the day can also be good for game drives when it’s raining or overcast. A vacant landscape suddenly comes alive with animals during and right after a cooling midday rain shower.

One of my closest leopard encounters happened on the main road north of Satara some years back at about 200pm following a quick rain. I remember watching the leopard splash through the shallow puddles of water as it sauntered down the road right next to the car, ignoring me, yet so close I could have reached out and touched it.

Thinking about that rainy afternoon made me remember a day when wet roads in the Kruger attracted Leopard Tortoises in vast numbers. They lumbered out onto the asphalt in order to sip from the pools of rain water before the sun returned to burn it off. Before the shower I hadn’t seen a tortoise in days.

That’s the way game drives go. I can drive for miles and see nothing and then suddenly witness a plethora of African wildlife.

It pays to stop and savor the experience when that happens. This morning, for instance, I pulled off a dirt road and killed the engine to gawk for a while at a mixed herd of zebras, wildebeests, and kudu all moving together. Must have been several hundred. Though tiny by comparison to the million-strong annual wildebeest and zebra migration in the Serengeti, which I’ve seen in Tanzania, it was impressive to see all those animals together. Yet all right here in the Kruger at one-fifth to one-tenth the cost (Kenya, Tanzania, and Botswana safaris are now $500-1000 per person per day–yes, PER PERSON per day).

A bit farther on I stopped again to watch a family herd of elephants working through the tall dead grass, chewing placidly as they yanked it up. I was closest to two teenage siblings, so concentrated my attention on them.

I was fascinated to see that both elephants had already learned the pachyderm trick of holding a bunch of tough grass taut with their trunks while swinging one front leg across to cut the grass with their toenails at ground level like a scythe. I’ve seen elephants employ the same behavior on the side of the Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania to cut and eat tall grass growing there.

A bit later I stopped to enjoy several hundred more zebras and wildebeests, joined by lots of impalas, moving slowly across the road. I let myself be surrounded by them, a marvelous feeling. Ten minutes later the area was empty, with not an animal in sight.

Another car came by just then as I was taking notes and slowed down to see why I was stopped. Having missed the sea of African animals that had only a few minutes before been everywhere around me, they looked at me curiously and drove on.

That’s typical of a game drive. There is no guarantee of seeing wildlife. But it sure is exciting fun to be there when it happens.

Just north of the Satara gate I watched a momma Black-Backed Jackal guarding her den where 8-10 little pups scampered around. I watched the little furrballs playing in the dirt with each other for about five minutes before it dawned on me to take a picture. Too late! Mama barked at them, and they scurried into the den before I could point and shoot.

Jackals are roughly the size of our foxes and occupy the same eco-niche. They’re famously fast at stealing bits off a lion kill without getting caught.

Just a bit farther on I came across a hyena traipsing down the road after a hard night gnawing the bones and drinking the blood of something dead. Or its meal might have been alive; hyenas aren’t discriminate about their food being fresh or rotten; any protein will do.

I’ve camped in Botswana in the open with hyenas all around the tents. It is not conducive to a good night’s sleep to have them testing for ways to get in. Being the ultimate opportunists, they would be happy to eat me if they could.

Trees and bushes are still bare from winter, revealing many weaverbird nests (empty this time of year). Some nests are more like single family homes compared to the big multifamily nests which seem to be more common.

Elephants knock down trees to eat and tend to drag limbs and tree trunks all over the place. Messy eaters, elephants frequently leave mangled parts of thorn trees in the roads, like ones I encountered this morning. It’s a hazard to driving, requiring alertness to avoid. Elephants also leave massive dung piles on the road which drivers naturally swerve around carefully.

DAY 3 (October 2, 2018) –  SATARA – AFTERNOON GAME DRIVE

It was “stinking hot!” today, a South African woman of about my vintage exclaimed to me late this afternoon as we compared notes on our respective game drives. Like me, she’s doing it alone this time.

She’s dead right about the heat. It was, as already reported, a chilly 53° F. at Skukuza yesterday morning. 24 hours later, a comfortable 61° at 545am to start the day here at Satara. By 300pm, however, it was 96°. Seems the Kruger spring is turning quickly into summer, just like it often does in Raleigh.

The heat stifled much game movement this afternoon. The mom and dad of a young South African family told me that they chose to tent-camp at Satara this week with their two small kids because the Kruger is normally cool in October. But the scorching heat drove them from their tent, and they spent the entire day in their Toyota hilux truck with the A/C blasting.

Elephants, zebras, and wildebeests were lethargic but active near water holes. I spotted a single banded mongoose scurrying across the road. The high temp seemed to keep a lot of species in the shade waiting for dusk.

It didn’t seem to bother the birds, though. I was startled to see a Kori Bustard right by the car–surprised because it’s a huge species, the heaviest flying bird in Africa, I believe (though the Secretary Bird is nearly as large). The head was as high as the car window.

Later I saw another Kori Bustard, then another, and another. Altogether I counted 7 of the impressive birds this afternoon. That’s a one-day record for me in the Kruger.

Plenty of hornbills were flitting about hawking insects and lizards crossing the dirt roads. I noticed, too, a few Lilac-breasted Rollers–my favorite Kruger bird–also hawking insects by the road, a reminder that some LBRs have chosen year-round residence in the Kruger. During the late spring and summer, Kruger skies are alive with Lilac-breasted Rollers.

Camps are permanent home to families of Glossy Starlings, and I’ve seen more than I can count or estimate. A Glossy Starling help itself to bacon from my breakfast plate this morning after the morning game drive. This was at the Satara restaurant.

Starlings and hornbills have become so bold at Satara and other camps that leaving unattended food for even an instant risks losing everything on the plate. I used my cap to wave off several graceful, dive-bombing hornbills before this starling snuck in and robbed my pork.

The bird later perched on the chair opposite mine and proceeded to sing a long song. Whether to thank me for the bacon or to beg for more, I don’t know, but I enjoyed it immensely.

Camp gates are closed at 600pm and reopened at 530am in October. Opening and closing times vary with the seasons.

A wildebeest walked by my car this afternoon, turned to get a good look at me, shook its head in what I took to be disgust, and continued on. I couldn’t get my phone camera up quick enough to capture its look of revulsion.

Back at camp just before the gates closed, I enjoyed a light meal at the Satara restaurant and went to bed early so I could arise at 430AM for my fourth day in the park.

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