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.

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