Late For The Gate and The Leopard That Lost Its Spots

Never mind cats, we were almost as excited to find a washing machine at Lower Sabie. So we took full advantage, strung a line up between a couple of bushes in our camp site and made ourselves at home!

Have we already mentioned that Angela might just be a little obsessed with seeing Leopards? Well this was the place to see them so you won’t be surprised to hear that we were up at dawn (again) for a drive down what we’d named Leopard Alley. Sadly, no-one had told the Leopards. After 2 hours of completely fruitless searching we were somewhat consoled by a stop alongside a large waterhole. There were the usual hippos and crocs in the water and various antelope on the far side, but within a few metres of the car were two beautiful Malachite Kingfishers (smaller than our UK fellas) and a Pied Kingfisher (bigger), all doing what they do best – fishing.

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Pied Kingfisher

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Malachite Kingfisher

We eventually moved on, giving our prime photo spot to someone else, and headed to the picnic site at the Mlondozi Dam for breakfast. There was a huge herd of Cape Buffalo and a large herd of Elephants, which was great to see. We got chatting to the site warden who told us that earlier in the morning there had been a group of male lions that had been chased off by the Buffalo. Then, a group that had arrived a few minutes after us asked if we had seen the group of 10 lions crossing the road. No. We hadn’t. 14 lions in the area and we’d missed them all. A plan was hatched. Lions usually spend the heat of the day sleeping under some shady bush or other. They might still be in the area, and after a long hot day they would surely want a drink…

That afternoon we headed back to the dam and waited, and waited, and waited. The group we’d talked to before had had the same idea and we chatted as we watched the elephants come down to the water in the evening sunlight. It was a beautiful scene but as the light faded and we strained our eyes we still failed to spot those elusive feline forms. Our companions gave up and headed home, aware that the gate closed at 5.30, it was a 30 minute drive back to camp and it was now ten to. We watched them go, deciding to give it just a few more minutes. At 5 on the dot we gave up and pulled away from the hillside viewpoint down the short slope to the plain below. And there in the middle of the road was a male lion, right in front of us, with his 3 pals in the grass either side. We were surprised to find they were quite nervous. Maybe their run-in with the Buffalo that morning has unsettled them, or maybe it was because several of them were quite young. The one stayed in the road and in the distance down the track we saw a Hyena trotting towards us. He could obviously see the lion on the track and was unconcerned. One lion? Pah! I can take him on! Then a couple of the others came onto the track and he could see them all. You’ve never seen an animal move so quickly. He was off that track like greased lightning and disappeared into the bush faster than a scalded cat. The lions paid him no attention and we sat quietly and watched them for several minutes before they headed off towards the water.

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Slightly nervous young lion

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Handsome young man

Much as we’d love to have followed them we now had a problem. We were running late. If we made tracks and kept at the speed limit we might just get to the gate in time. Off we set, with the light fading fast. The atmosphere was changing and we started to feel the park change, almost becoming itself, wild and slightly unfriendly. It was a weird feeling and we felt quite small. We kept going and were making good time. Then just what we didn’t need. Elephants in the road. Up until now the eles we’d encountered in the Kruger had got out of the road pretty quickly. Not this herd. Whether it was the change in light I don’t know but as far as they were concerned the road was theirs and they weren’t going anywhere. It was a breeding herd of about 12 animals, with several youngsters and a huge bull. He was massive. For the first time we felt really vulnerable.

So we were stuck until they decided to move. After 10 minutes we realised there was no way we would make the gate in time. After a bit of quick thinking from Gareth we phoned the camp reception and told them of the situation. “We’re 5km outside the camp and there’s a herd of elephants in the road and they’re not budging. We won’t get to the gate before it closes”. “Well madam, you will just have to try to make the gate in time”. “There are baby elephants and a huge bull in the herd. We’re not driving though them! We’re not going to make the gate.” After a bit of huffing she gave us the head warden’s phone number. We called and explained the situation. He was brilliant, told us not to worry and that he would let the gate know. Now we could relax a bit, but we still had the eles to deal with. After another 10 minutes they slowly, one by one, stepped off the road and made a pathway through. They seemed quite chilled so we inched forward past them. We were so close to the bull it was unnerving but we held our breaths, they stayed calm and got through them.

It was really quite dark now and we had to take it slowly. Lapwings, which usually kept in the grassland during the day, were all over the road and kept flying in front of us in the headlights. Fortunately we didn’t hit one and they were the only things we encountered. As we approached the camp at 5.50pm the warden was by his car waiting for us. He was really friendly and told us that if we were quick there were two lions in the road in front of the gate! And indeed there were. We saw their ghostly forms, so pale in the headlights, amble down the road ahead and disappear into the bush. Awesome. And yes, the warden was out of his car with a pair of lionesses a few tens of metres away… What a day.

We (or more accurately Angela) still hadn’t given up hope of seeing a Leopard and we were running out of days in the park. So we were up early again the next morning and headed up Leopard(less) Alley again. You guessed it. No Leopards. But as we turned down a side track towards the river there was a Lioness with two fairly mature cubs, a girl and a boy.

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The two ‘cubs’

We watched them for half an hour, with NO other cars there – totally unheard of in Kruger. She was alert and on the lookout for food for her large but still dependent cubs. A Water Buck walked across the path behind her. She didn’t see it to start with but turned her head just as it disappeared into the bush. She immediately went into action and instead of following it she skirted round to the side to cut it off before it got to the river.

The female cub, who was more self-assured than the male, stood up and watched her go, following her for a short distance but still looking as if she felt slightly abandoned.

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Mum, where are you?

We waited about 5 or 10 minutes for the mother who returned without her prize. They would go hungry for now. Then they all disappeared into the bush just as the first car arrived. “Have you seen anything?” they asked…

After tea and medals we drove down towards Crocodile Bridge and what would be our final night in Kruger. On our way we passed some birds that are one of the symbols of Africa – Lilac-breasted Rollers. Incredibly bright and colourful, we’ve rarely got a good shot of them as they are always on the move, hunting for insects and other prey. Seeing these two perched on a road sign was a bit of a bonus.

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A few km before we got to camp we were stopped by another car. “Just a bit further ahead there’s a Lion in a tree”. “Sorry?”. “A lion in a tree.” “But lions don’t climb trees.” “This one does…”

And there she was, stood in a tree a little way from the road. She kept shifting around, half lying down, then getting up again, all the time panting and licking her lips. She looked incredibly uncomfortable and we assumed she’d been chased up there by hyenas or something, but we were later to learn that this was one of a local pride that were renowned for climbing trees. She was still there four hours later when we went out for an evening drive. Extraordinary.

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Well, we’d been hoping to see a cat in a tree but we expected it to have spots…

When we got to the camp, we parked outside the gates where the office was located. Gareth went to check in while Angela headed off to find the ladies as she was getting a bit desperate for a wee. On the way she mentioned to another tourist about the lion in the tree. They briefly exchanged sightings and Angela mentioned that we hadn’t seen a Leopard yet. “Someone just told me that there are two in the tree next to the Mugg and Bean cafe. Right now.” “What? By the cafe? Now? You’re joking?!” “No, apparently they’re there right now.” It couldn’t be true. They were here, now, in broad daylight, sitting in a tree just as Angela had dreamed. We would finally get to see them properly in the day, not a fleeting glimpse but there, in front of us. But that’s what she’d said. Angela sprinted to Gareth who was still being signed in. “Leopards! By the cafe! NOW!” The woman behind the counter completely ignored Angela and the urgency of the situation and carried on as slowly as she possibly could. She was not going to be rushed. “I’ll see you there” said Gareth. Desperate as she was to see the Leopards, Angela was more desperate for a wee. “I’ll meet you outside”. And, rather like the receptionist, mother nature would also not be rushed. It must have been the longest pee in history. “Come on, come on! They’re going to be gone!” Eventually she made it out and we dashed through the gates into the camp, abandoning the car where it was. We looked around for the cafe but all we could find was a basic area selling light refreshments. “Where’s the Mugg and Bean cafe” we asked the attendant. “It’s at Lower Sabie camp”. Lower Sabie? It took a few moments to understand. Lower Sabie. The camp we’d stayed at last night. The Leopards were not here but 35 km and a 45 minute drive away. Even if they stayed put we didn’t have time to get up there and back before the gates closed, and in any case we were knackered. There would be no miracle ending to the Leopard dream. It was just not to be. Sad smile

It was our final morning in Kruger. We had booked the car in for a service at Nelspruit and needed to be there for 10. That gave us time to drive through the park rather than get out onto the nearby, and faster, main road outside it. We made the most of our last few hours and were at the gates at dawn again. A few cars had already gone through ahead of us and about 500 metres in they were stopped. Lions. A whole pride of lions, ten of them, were crossing the road and heading down a side road, the one we were planning to take. We (and an increasing number of other cars) followed them. Then they peeled off into the grass and scrubland beside us. They were on the hunt. It was brilliant to watch them, the big females at the front doing the stalking and the rest of the family strung out loosely behind. The big male, his huge mane dark and shaggy, was ambling along near the back, occasionally tackled playfully by a young and exuberant male cub. The zebra and antelope went onto high alert and stayed well ahead of them, watching, now and then running, stopping and looking back. When the lions got too close they ran towards the cars to cross the road. At one point we thought we might hem them in but they were ok and got through. We followed the lions, catching glimpses of them through the bush, for about 10 minutes, then headed off on our way and left the rest to it.

On our way out we saw a few eles, zebra and antelope and got really close to one of the most common birds we had seen in the Kruger. The Brown Snake Eagle. As the name suggests, they hunt snakes and have a short tail so that they can quickly lean back out of the way of a strike. Rather like the Rollers, they were everywhere but we usually saw them in flight or maybe as they took off before we’d noticed them, so it was nice to get really close to this one.

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We left the park and headed to the garage. We’d given Kruger a large chunk of our time but that was it. Time to move on. We’d had some amazing encounters and the odd disappointment. But one of the things that really summed up the park for us was the view from our last camp, Crocodile Bridge. It was right on the southern boundary of the park and the view beyond was such a contrast. On the Kruger side was grassland, scrub, trees, wildlife. On the other side was wall to wall agriculture and villages. And further round mining and towns. Humanity was knocking at the door of the park and the only thing protecting South Africa’s native wildlife, at least a large part of it, is the refuge that the Kruger and places like it give. The Kruger seems huge but when you consider the requirements of the animals it supports, especially the large herbivores and predators that are so associated with Africa, you’ve got to wonder, is it big enough and can it be protected from the advance of humanity around it?

 

And finally…

Before we leave Kruger entirely, there are a couple of pics from a camp that we forgot to include in earlier blogs. They were both taken at Letaba, in the middle to north of the park. The first is from the Elephant Hall in the camp, a really impressive, informative, interesting if somewhat depressing museum which included the skulls and tusks of some of the biggest ‘Tuskers’ that have lived in the park. One of the “Magnificent Seven” (all with tusks that weighed over 50kg each), Shawu had the longest tusks ever recorded in the park. He is thought to have been over 60 year old when he died, (you’ll be pleased to hear of natural causes). Would have been something else to see him alive.

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And on a slightly lighter note, most of the camps had resident wildlife that was pretty tame. Few can have been tamer than this Bushbuck ewe, which crept up right next to us one evening as we were having dinner. Apparently she had a penchant for ginger cookies… So we were told.

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A Walk on the Wild Side

After a night at a lovely campsite on the edge of Hazy View we headed back into the Kruger. We’d booked what we could get, based around a couple of day’s availability in the Lower Sabie camp, which we’d heard was good for cats. Our first stop was at the main rest camp for the park, Skukuza. Known as The Circus, our drive in gave us a hint of what this area of the park was like. There was a fresh Leopard kill, an Impala antelope, that the Leopard had hauled up a tree right next to the road. (They do this to prevent Lions and Hyenas stealing their dinner). When we came past there were about 20 cars there, some blocking the road completely, waiting for the cat to re-emerge. We decided to move on. Apparently it can often get much worse, with dozens of cars vying for a view.

The camp was really busy but by some miracle we managed to find a camp site tucked down on one corner, away from the hustle and bustle and the tents who had brought satellite TV and the sports channel with them. There was obviously a football match going on that someone wanted to share with the whole camp. How kind… Or maybe they were desperate not to be outdone by another group that seemed to be putting on a rave.

It was our least favourite camp in the park and we didn’t actually see much in the area. The only nice thing was a place called Panic Lake, where there is a hide overlooking the water. We went early one morning and it was beautiful. Really atmospheric with mist rising up through the early morning light and kingfishers silhouetted on prominent perches. There were also terrapins making use of a floating ‘island’…

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Panic Lake

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Is it an island?….

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No, it’s a hippo!

Our next camp was Pretoriuskop, a pretty, hilly part of the park. It was lovely and quiet despite the presence of Guinea Fowl in camp. Angela asked them very nicely to be quiet and it worked! No squawking, not even in the middle of the night. Nice Guinea Fowl.

It was near this camp that we had a really unusual encounter. We’d headed out early and after only 5 or 10 minutes had seen a hyena trotting along the road and disappearing into a culvert. It must have been a squeeze as it was a fairly large animal and a modest-sized pipe. We waited but it didn’t come out so we carried on. Ten minutes further on and there was something in the road. A Hyena mother and two cubs. She was nervous and as they headed into the bush at the side of the track we noticed another animal making its way down the road towards her, and us. Another Hyena? It was too small, or rather, too slight. We trained the binoculars on the approaching figure and were amazed to see a Wild Dog  trotting towards us. By now the Hyenas had all but disappeared into the scrub beside us, the tops of their heads just about visible a few metres away. The dog was chilled until she got close, then as she passed us and, more importantly, the Hyenas, she broke into a run until she was past and on the track again, then she slowed into a trot and carried on her way. From our previous experience with the dogs we were pretty sure she wasn’t afraid of us; this was her reaction to the Hyenas. I say ‘she’ as we later discovered this was probably a female that had been in a small pack with 3 males. They had left her to go in search of a group with more females… She was likely to find another pack and join them but for now was on her own.

Later in the day we moved on to Berg-en-Dal camp, another quiet place where we booked onto a game walk. We got up at some ungodly hour and joined a small group for a short drive out of camp. We were excited about what me might see. Some of the sightings boards showed people had seen lions and leopard on one of these walks, which would have been incredible and we hoped we might at least see one of them. After various jokes about being able to run faster than everyone else and the guide choosing a person to shoot as a sacrificial offering in the case of an attack, we headed off into the bush, slightly nervous and very alert. Both guides were in front, on the basis that any danger was more likely to come from there. We weren’t quite convinced and it felt rather exposed to have no back-up, but that’s the way they do it here and their reasoning made some sense.

As we went the two guides stopped to tell us about various aspects of the bush – some of the plants and their uses, and the tracks and signs that we passed. They stopped by a small hole and poked a stem of grass gently into it and pulled it out. If the trick worked, a Baboon spider (a large spider of the tarantula variety) would come out hanging on to the end. We weren’t sure whether we were disappointed or relieved that it didn’t. Smile.

Then we came across a large scrape filled with lots of dung. It was the midden of a male White Rhino. Unlike the Black Rhino, the whites are territorial and use these middens at regular intervals to mark their territory. They scrape a shallow bowl in the earth with their feet, do their droppings and wee, then paw their feet back and forth in their own muck to pick up the scent and spread it around their territory as they walk. The middens are not used by other rhinos unless by a male interloper challenging the incumbent or by a female when she is ready to mate, the different scents alerting the resident male to his appropriate course of action – love or war.

It soon became apparent that we were purely on the hunt for the rhinos. We eventually found them; a group of three including a calf. We crept closer and closer, keeping down wind, until we were about 15 metres away. They sensed our presence but weren’t entirely sure where we were. The mother was very nervous and quite feisty and was trotting from side to side to protect her calf and snorting quite a bit, which was somewhat alarming. We carefully followed the instructions from our guides and all hid behind a bush, which wasn’t really big enough for all of us, especially those of us at the back…i.e. me. And to be perfectly honest, if the rhinos had decided to charge the bush wouldn’t have protected any of us. But the guides clearly knew what they were doing and after watching the eventually settled group for a while we slowly backed away and left them in peace. It was another fantastic experience but we were left slightly disappointed that we didn’t see anything else on the walk, unless you count a couple of doves which, for the record, I don’t. Spoilt brats! Smile

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Rhinos in close proximity

We took the rest of the day off and had a nice few hours chatting over a cuppa with our neighbours, a lovely South African couple who, now retired, spent most of their time travelling in a big camper van between visits to their family.

The following morning we had another early start which paid off with 3 Hyena heading for their morning drink and several groups of White Rhinos and their calves grazing in the early light. Then we met another driver who told us about a group of Wild Dog just round the corner. Sure enough, on the main road ahead of us was a group of dogs in the middle of the road. We couldn’t believe that we’d seen them again. We were so lucky. They trotted around for a while, some laying down on the tarmac just as the ones we’d seen first time around had done. More and more arrived until there were 19 of them.

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They headed off in the same direction as we were going and we found ourselves playing cat and mouse with them, sometimes us following them, sometimes them following us (and several other vehicles, including a game viewing truck, that had come behind us). Then in front of us was the Alpha pair. We knew this as we’d read that only one pair breeds and the rest help provide for the family. There was no doubt that she was the Alpha female. She was heavily pregnant and looked like she could drop any minute, but she kept on moving ahead of pack, and he was right by her side. We watched them a few feet from the car. She kept urinating and he would reciprocate right on top of her mark. More great behaviour to witness.

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Alpha pair. Just look at the size of her belly.

We didn’t see much else that day but we’d had such a good start it didn’t matter. Off to Lower Sabie next. Cat country.

Blyde River Canyon

Jessica Hippo and her human family live just north of the Blyde River Canyon, the third deepest canyon in the world. The drive along the canyon’s lip is named the Panorama Route and not without cause. The scenery is beautiful, and the names of viewpoints such as God’s Window and World’s View give an idea of the scale of things.

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The Three Rondavals

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What a view

There were a few waterfalls in the area which were worth a visit and a stretch of the legs to get to.

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Some involved a little climbing

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The same waterfall from a different angle (this time without Gareth sitting in its edge…)

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This is Lisbon Falls

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This one’s Berlin Falls

Near one end of the canyon, where the Blyde and Treur rivers converge, is a spectacular demonstration of water erosion over millions of years. It’s a place called Bourke’s Luck (after a gold prospector Tom, who didn’t have much luck on that count!). The swirling confluence waters caused these dramatic formations:

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Bourke’s Luck

We’ve noticed so much Aloe growing in different areas on the trip, we thought we’d include some here.

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Another lovely day of beautiful views, despite the fact that you have to pay to visit most of them, which got a bit annoying. Off back into the Kruger Park next. At least our Wild Card is already paid for…  Smile

Animal ambassadors

Snake warning later in the post

After meeting Jessica Hippo we visited the Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation centre. This place was set up by a game warden who wanted to do something to help the many wild animals he encountered that had been harmed through their contact with people. They treat injured animals and where possible release them back to the wild. Where this is not possible the animals live at the the rehab centre and become ambassadors for their species, helping spread the word about the true nature of these animals and the problems they face. As a visitor you can tour the centre, getting a chance to get close and personal with some of these amazing and often much maligned creatures.

We arrived early and while we waited for the tour to start we were shown into the museum. This is a new and beautifully set out exhibit of the horrendous things that people do to animals. It contained a number of stuffed animals, all prepared with real skill and sensitivity, that had come through the centre but not made it. Animals that had been caught in snares, poisoned, shot, caught in fencing, and so on. They all had an individual story to tell. It was incredibly well done but deeply depressing and quite upsetting to see some of the things that had happened to them and know that these are just a tiny few of the numbers affected by human / animal conflict.

Leaving the museum for the start of the tour we first headed for the Cheetahs and got the chance to stroke them. It was a bit of a production line but we could understand what they were trying to do, educating people about these beautiful wild animals whilst keeping man and beast safe.

We then went to meet some lions and, much to Angela’s delight, a pair of leopards. To give an idea of the climbing ability of Leopards the guide threw a few pieces of meat into a tree. Almost in the blink of an eye one of the Leopards was up the tree and nibbling on the meat, whilst its mate sat below watching. It was an awesome display of their power and ability and gives us an opportunity to wallow in some pictures of surely one of the best animals IN THE WORLD (albeit captive ones…)

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After the Leopards we visited some vultures and got a chance to feed them. With a thick leather glove on, we each held a piece of meat as they lined up for their daily routine. They are quite heavy and it takes a bit of effort to hold them up!

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Cape Vulture

We also got to meet the famous Stoffel the Honey Badger. He’s famous for escaping from his enclosure (have a search on Youtube), pushing a branch up against the wall of the enclosure and climbing up it and also greeting a new female mate by pushing her against the wall and climbing up her to get out!

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Butter wouldn’t melt….

There were also some sub-adult cheetahs lying around in a large pen next to a pen with adult hyenas. All of these were minding their own businesses until some small children in our group went near the fence. It was really interesting and a little unnerving. Both the cheetahs and the hyenas tracked this little girl as she walked along the fence – obviously thinking something smaller than them and moving was food! She go a bit nervous and the father took her away from it. A real lesson that, despite their captivity, these were wild animals.

There was a reptile centre nearby and we asked the guys as the rehab centre if it was well run and worth a visit. They said yes, so off we trotted.

The warden was really knowledgeable,  enthusiastic and informative and told us that most people get bitten by snakes because they are trying to kill them (which is a fair defence mechanism in my book). He also told us that most snakes really don’t want to bite people as it mean giving up their venom. As they are not likely to eat you that’s a complete waste of a precious resource. He also corrected us about the Boomslang. As we mentioned in a previous blog, they are revered as having the most toxic venom in Africa but he told us that they aren’t the deadliest as you have to be really, really trying to upset a Boomslang to be bitten by one.

We saw stunning Green Mambas, a pair of Black Mambas mating, lizards, miniature chameleons, crocs and an alligator, all looking really healthy. Watching the mambas mating was amazing. They are linked for hours, sometimes days, and she moves around dragging him with her. Pretty rough on the male. Sometimes ‘things break’, hence the male has two… The warden says that they crush the eggs of any pair that has mated as they can’t release the young and don’t want to sell them to pet shops.

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Green Mambas (in case you hadn’t guessed) – OMG they were beautiful creatures

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Mating Black Mambas, linked where the two bodies come together (the inside of the mouth is black, not the body)

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Look at the camouflage on this Copperhead Viper

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Golden looking croc

It was a really interesting and thought-provoking day and it gave us a new admiration for snakes.

Jessica Hippo

Snake warning further down the page.

We weren’t able to stay in the park for the middle section of it as it was fully booked. It wasn’t the school holidays, but pensioners get a 40% discount after the Easter Holiday and apparently there were more people because they weren’t going to Mozambique due to police corruption fining motorists for random reasons.

Anyway, Blyde River Canyon was just outside the park, so we thought we’d go there. We first stayed in Jessica Hippo’s house. We’d seen a programme on the TV about unusual relationships people have with animals and Jessica was one, so we wanted to see for ourselves.

She was washed up on the river bank of an ex ranger’s house during a flood. By her size, she was premature and he discussed with the authorities whether he could keep her as she’d been separated from her mother. They agreed and the rest, as they say, is history.

She’s fairly pampered by the owners, but is always free to go back to the wild, which she does on occasion, but always comes back. It is getting into winter here and she sleeps on the veranda wrapped up in a blanket!

First thing in the morning, she gets a feed of lucerne. After finishing that, she saw a pile of sand left down by some builders and thought it was a good idea to have a snooze until it was show time.

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It’s a hard life being a star!

A gaggle of people arrived to ‘see the show’ and we joined them. We had the brief history and watched an Aussie documentary about the story. Then it was feed time. We took it in turns to feed her carrots (that was this weeks flavour as she changes her mind a bit to keep things varied and interesting).

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When she has a mouthful, then she chews and swallows it

After food comes a large amount of slightly sweet rooibos tea in a bottle, and if you’re a lady, you can kiss her on the nose too. Apparently she got attacked some years ago by some wild hippos and had to have several jabs as part of her treatment. The vet was a man and she’s never forgotten!

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After the food and drink, she pretends to have a snooze

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Look at that cute front paw!

Then she stands next to the pontoon for a back and neck massage

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Not surprisingly it feels like wet leather!

The crowd disappear and we’re left in the calm with the owner and some of the workers. He says the benefit of staying in the house (which we had all to ourselves for a few days) was the bits you see behind the scenes. He wasn’t wrong! There was an addition to the household of another hippo – a male 5 year old weighing 400KG called Ritchie. Jessica is 17 years old (it’s rude to ask her weight) and they are trying to get the two to get along as they can then let Ritchie go into the stream alone and Jessica won’t harm him.

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Here’s Ritchie trying to steal some of the show!

As you may have read, we’ve been suffering from squealing rear brakes on the Landy. Every now and then Gareth whips the brakes out for another clean and lube up (getting quite slick at it now). We still haven’t found the right compound that works, but the Delphi make in Namibia didn’t squeal. So one afternoon it was brake time and we jacked the car up on the bottle jack to get the wheel off. As this was going on, Ritchie decided to come over for a look. It was the most surreal experience trying to work on the car with a 400KG hippo coming up to see what’s happening.

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Just don’t nudge the car off the jack

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Ritchie taking a keen interest in the work mat

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Jessica’s out as well now – time to get the wheel on!

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All he’s after is a little bit of affection and an ear scratch

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Sitting chewing the fat with the owner with a hippo wandering around – as you do

Ritchie seemed to be very fond of Gareth and kept pushing his face at him. Relax and don’t step backwards were the words of advice from the owner – easier said than done. The next time he comes at you with his mouth open, put your hand in and stroke the roof of his mouth. Are you serious? Yes, he was!

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Managed to not get eaten by a hippo – very surreal

Apparently, everyone thinks that hippos are one of the most dangerous animals in the wild and kill more people than crocs etc. The owner has been working as a ranger for over 30 years and doesn’t agree. The only time people get killed is if they get between the hippo and water or their young. One tourist tried to get a better close up shot of a mother and baby and got mauled when she got within about 10m of it – really, some people…

We were chatting to one of the helpers and noticed one of the dogs had got something. We went over and sure enough it was a Mozambique spitting cobra. Pretty deadly thing, but the dog gave it a really good chewing. The helper put it out of it’s misery as it was pretty chewed up. The dog, a bull terrier was shaking like anything from the adrenaline (we hoped). After about 20 mins, she calmed down and we found out later that was her 14th snake. She’d been hospitalised on one occasion, but it obviously hasn’t taken her edge away.

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Shame the snake got it

Overall, it was a very enjoyable and very surreal experience, but well worth it.

A Wild Dog Chase

At all of the Kruger Park camps they have a sightings board. This gives and idea of what people have seen that day and where. For the last 3 days there had been Wild Dog sightings along a track just north of Shingwedzi. We still hadn’t seen these endangered animals despite looking for them in various places during our trip so the hunt was on. Sightings of them are rare, even for regular visitors to Kruger, and we didn’t really rate our chances but this was probably the best opportunity we were going to get. Most Wild Dog sightings are in the early morning so it was an early start for us again. As the camp site was allegedly full (actually it wasn’t but who are we to say) we had booked a very cheap chalet, or ‘hut’ as the website describes them. In fact it was a very comfy semi-detached room with a sink and fridge, a shady deck with chairs and table as well as a braai. It wasn’t that much more expensive than camping and was great for getting up early as we didn’t have to pack the tent away.

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The ‘hut’, our accommodation for 2 nights

We were at the gate at dawn. Our route took us alongside a dry river bed. We stopped at regular intervals to look down along the river for any sign of life. After about half an hour we saw movement far up the river. You could just make them out with the binoculars – they were dogs. We hurried down the track to where we’d seen them. The presence of another car, stopped at the side of the road, confirmed the location. There they were, a bit of a way off as the river was wide and the banks high. But we’d finally seen Wild Dog after months of fruitless searching. They had the remains of something which they were chewing and pulling at between them. It was great watching their interaction.

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Then they disappeared behind the bushes along the bank below us, back the way we’d come. By now a couple of other cars had joined us and we all turned round to see if we could follow them. We slowly drove round the corner and there in the road was a dog. Then another, then another. There seemed to be dogs everywhere, and they were all around the car, 9 of them in total.  We’ve seen photos that people have taken of dogs in front of them in the road but never really imagined we would see them this close. They were playing with each other, lying in the road right next to us, trotting past the car and sniffing at it. They were there for about 10 minutes, showing no fear, just occasional curiosity, and getting on with their day. They are also known as Painted Dogs and you can see why.

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Wild Dog lying right next to the car

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Checking us out

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They were so close this was the widest angle I could get

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Completely un-phased by the cars, these guys were about to greet their mates

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I guess you can’t get flea spray in the Kruger

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One getting a bit of an ear chewing…

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Larking around

It was incredible. We could not believe our luck.

Back at camp we celebrated with a glass of Painted Dog Shiraz, bought from the camp shop. Perfick. We were joined by a very friendly and inquisitive squirrel that tried to climb on the camera each time I tried to get a shot.

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Nice end to a great day.

A Lion’s Tale

From Punda Maria we headed south to Shingwedzi camp, where we had managed to book one night’s camping and two nights in a room, as the camp site was allegedly full. We had a relaxed start on our first morning there, chatting to a pair of ex-pat Brits who had spotted the number plate. Our chosen route for the day was to a place called Red Rock, which met a sarcastic reception from the husband – “that will be a riveting drive” – suggesting we wouldn’t see much apart from some red rocks. How wrong he was. The track followed the river and made for a really pretty drive. We found a side spur that took us about 15 metres from the main track down towards the river. There were a group of elephants in the river bed, of varying ages including several youngsters, so we turned off the engine and sat and watched them. The little one was trying to give himself a dust bath, sucking dust up in his trunk and flicking it back over himself. He’d obviously picked this up from the adults and still had quite a bit of practicing to do as most of it missed him and went in the face of an older relative. Very cute.

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As they got level with us they turned and walked up the bank just next to us. They were very relaxed and we just sat there as they came by about 6 metres away. When he saw the car the little one turned towards us and flapped his ears, just to make sure we understood that he was a big fierce elephant and he was boss. Of course we did so, satisfied, he carried quietly on with the others. Then suddenly there was pandemonium. They all started running and trumpeting and growling furiously, up the bank and away from us. And there was another noise, a roar that was different from the elephants. We didn’t know what was going on. We knew it wasn’t our presence but we didn’t want to be in the middle of trouble so we sat and waited until the noise had died down. When all was quiet we gingerly started the engine and crept back up the bank. There at the top was a pair of lions, one each side of the car. They were lying quietly, so we edged the car forward and stopped next to them. They were totally relaxed and after a bit of a look at us got on with chilling.

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It’s very tiring being a lion…

We had them to ourselves for about 10 minutes before another car turned up. They were so close to us. Then he got up and walked towards the car, giving us a moment of alarm as the windows were open so we could get our pics. But we weren’t his target and he quickly turned and walked round the front of the car to say hello to his lady friend on the other side. From her reception he obviously hadn’t made much of an impression yet… 

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Not today sunshine…

The look on his face was brilliant. He turned away looking really dejected and walked past her and further round the car.

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Women! Who’d be a man?!

He sat down about 2 metres from Gareth’s door. He was so close that you can see the car reflected in his eyes.

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It was awesome. We eventually left them to it and headed back to camp. They were obviously building up to mating, even though he still had a bit of work to do on the schmoozing side. This meant they were likely to be in the same area for a while, so we headed back the following day. We found them snoozing, watched by a game viewing vehicle with a very friendly guide and a group of Brits in the back. We were told they had just mated so we had about half an hour’s wait for the next round. Sure enough, after about half an hour he got up and wandered over to her. Whether it was chocolates or flowers I don’t know but things had certainly changed since yesterday. She was very relaxed and rolled around on her back at his approach. Tart. She then presumably decided she wasn’t going to perform such an intimate act in front of a crowd of tourists and led him purposefully behind the nearest bush for the moment of passion, before they collapsed down again, legs akimbo, for another half hours rest.

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They would go on like this for several days, longer than we were prepared to sit and watch them, so we gave them their privacy (or at least left them with the 3 other cars that were watching), and headed back to camp for tea and medals. What a brilliant thing to witness.