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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

You are entering Big 5 territory

The alarm sounded at 3:30am, was it time to wake up already?  I found my headlamp, my small overnight bag, and day clothes.  With little more to do than dress and brush my teeth, I was out into the pitch black within minutes to find 3 others to embark on a 2-day safari adventure.


Yes, I was headed to the emblem of South African tourism, where scores of visitors from around the world come to see thousands of enigmatic wildlife roaming the savanna.
Dead Leadwood tree on the savanna plains
This is Big 5 Territory: Elephants, Lions, Rhinos, Buffalo, Leopards

Kruger is where big things happen, big animals roam, and big vacations are taken.
There are more than 150 mammal species that roam the savanna plains, granite hills, Lebombo Mountains, and floodplains of 5 rivers.  In addition, an impressive 500 bird species and more than 300 tree species call this park home.  There are no fences, gates, cages, cement, food/water bowls, or humans to obstruct the view.  This is unaffected nature. 

Less than an hour later, our small rental car entered the triple gates of The Park, not wholly prepared for some of the sights we would see during the next 2 days.  What we did know: Except inside game lodges, under no circumstances can a person exit or lean out of their vehicle in any way, shape, or form.  To do so risks one’s life, and risks the life of the animal that attacks said foolhardy individual.

To set the stage, let me refer you to the famed 2004 wildebeest-lion-crocodile attack caught on tape by a tourist visiting Kruger National Park:
Warning: Do not watch this video if animals hunting on National Geographic unnerves you…  This video is shockingly chilling in its reality.

Thirty minutes after crossing into unabashed Park territory we were face-to-face (ok, car-to-face) with a giraffe and a zebra!  They were literally less than 50 feet away!  Barely 2 hours later, the unbelievable happened.  We saw a leopard.  Let me be more specific, we saw a leopard LESS THAN 15 FEET AWAY FROM OUR CAR!  It was walking along the roadside, and literally was within leaping distance of our car.  Before I knew it, my eyes were watering and tears started flowing down my cheeks.  This was beyond unbelievable to me.  Before the day’s end we had sightings, near and far, of dozens of elephants, hundreds of Burchell’s zebra and giraffe, 2 more leopards, impala, kudu, blue wildebeest, nyala, black-backed and side-striped jackals, ostriches, hippopotamus (does a plural exist?  hippopotamuses?), scrub hare, springhare, and dozens of bird species, including the endangered Secretarybird and endangered Southern ground hornbill.

African elephant and calf
Oh, and baby elephants, giraffes, and zebra, too!  That night we went on a darkness-infested game drive to include even more amazing animals within a softball toss’ distance including a sleeping hippo and heaps and heaps of great big beautiful elephants.

Adam, Mary, Me, & Serena overlooking the Olifants River

Four of us shared a bungalow inside the Park while, in the middle of the night, I woke myself sitting on/near my pillow and oddly pulling everything towards the center of the bed.  I was dreaming not of lions, blue wildebeests, and jackals, but of baboons naturally.  I imagined the four of us sleeping in a cage, and baboons were on the outside pulling all of our things through the crosswired cage spaces.  I laughed at myself the next morning as I told my compatriots of my midnight antics, but also realized the truth in it:  I am safely inside enclosures so much of my time at C.A.R.E., that in fact brick and mortar houses just appear to be glamorized cages.  Are houses not more than cages designed to create a barrier between the safe and unsafe?

The best time to spot animals in motion is at sunrise and sunset, and thus the next morning was another pre-sunrise wake up.  The day completed at 5:30 pm when the park closed and all vehicles are either locked in or locked out.  That day we saw tons more animals, and TWO different prides of lions, one of which was eating an animal carcass (perhaps kudu?)! We didn't see the kill, but we did see the remnant ribs.
A pack of lions eating at a carcass
Ok, I fully know that I sound like a great big braggart now, but I don’t know how to help it.  I felt so amazingly fortunate to be in that environment and to see the animals I was seeing.  It was surreal.  It was unbelievable.  It was 2 days of amazing reality! 
Blue wildebeest
Burchell's Zebra
Cape giraffe

Click HERE to see more photos (posted to Facebook)

(Copyrighted to National Geographics Big Cat Initiative)

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