Saturday, 22 May 2010

A baboon stole my breakfast!

After leaving the Swazi border, I drive north to the town of Nelspruit, from where I start a 4-day tour of one of Africa's best-known game reserves - Kruger. The size of Kruger Park is difficult to comprehend... 350 kilometres from north to south, covering an area of nearly 2 million hectares. It was established in 1898 as the Sabie National Park by Paul Kruger, and now comprises the park itself, along with a collection of private reserves which together form the larger Kruger eco-system.

My safari experience at Kruger will be split between the main park and the Guernsey Private Reserve, located an hour or so from Kruger's Orpen Gate. After driving to our lodge from Nelspruit, we embarked on an evening drive in Guernsey. We came across rhino, wildebeest and giraffe, and about an hour into the drive our guide received a report of a leopard, resting not far from the reserve's boundary. We drove there to find a female leopard reclining in the grass - presumably after a kill. This was the closest I'd been to one of these beautiful creatures, and it didn't seem to be phased.

No sooner had we left the leopard in peace, our guide received another report of a sighting... this time a cheetah. We arrived to find more than we were expecting... a female cheetah and her three cubs, sprawled out on the grass with their bellies full. We watched as they cleaned and relaxed... the cubs not much smaller than their mother. After enjoying a beer and some nibbles from the front of the jeep (how civilised?!), we went for a short night drive then headed back to the lodge.

The next day was our full Kruger safari. Setting off at 5am, our small group of 3 (Margaret, Theresa and myself) were in the park for 6am, and set off in search of Kruger's legendary collection of game. Unlike the private reserve, our driver didn't have a radio and the spaces within which we were driving were much larger, and so our sightings were less frequent. That didn't stop us from seeing a herd of elephants, plenty of zebra and giraffe, and a solitary lioness ambling along a dry riverbed - all before breakfast! We stopped for breakfast at one of the main rest camps, and tucked into our picnic. Our guide Fanwell left us briefly to buy some airtime from the shop, and within seconds we were rushed by a male chacma baboon, who'd been hiding behind the nearby fence. Shocked, we grabbed whatever food we could, but he nabbed a bag of apples and retreated to scoff them in about 30 seconds! A few minutes later, and just as I was about to tuck into my second scone, the baboon (whom we'd named Bertie, which I still think is too jolly a name for such a creature) returned. Looking straight at me, ignoring Margaret and Theresa (baboons know that women are no threat...), he ran straight up onto the table and grabbed whatever food he could while looking me square in the eyes. I tried to wrestle something off him, but he bared his teeth and snarled... so I thought better of it! Theresa managed to salvage Margaret's bag before Bertie ran off... taking my scone with him! He retreated further when one of the park guards came to see what all the fuss was about - apparently they recognise uniforms, but they know that tourists are easy pickings.

Feeling slightly violated and shell-shocked, and wondering where we could file a police report, we climbed back into the jeep and headed back into the park. Our afternoon was dominated by three lionesses, who we found stalking a watering hole populated with zebra and impala. As two lionesses took position under a nearby bush, the third waited near the roadside, with the job of flushing the impala back towards her waiting accomplices. We drove alongside the single lion as she stalked the impala, but a car coming in the other direction managed to stop right between the lion and the impala - losing sight of her prey, the lioness turned and lunged for impala in the other direction, but they saw her and made an easy escape. Flustered and a little dejected, she sat down in a clearing, panting from the effort - and seemingly a bit embarrassed by the whole affair.

The next morning, Theresa and Margaret departed... Margaret excelling herself by spotting a teabag in a tree, when she didn't manage to spot a white rhino in open ground or a giraffe stood right next to the road in Kruger! Good skills Marge!.

My final day on the tour was spent relaxing at the lodge, and going for a second evening game drive at Guernsey. Just when I thought we'd had enough luck, the Kruger eco-system delivered me with more sights... first a large herd of buffalo, rutting for dominance, then a solitary male cheetah, spraying trees to mark his territory, and then one of the most enchanting sights in Africa - a male lion. Lying in some long grass, we realised that our lion had just survived a scrap with another male, as we watched him lick a series of wounds on his paws and legs. Once finished, he did what every cat in the world loves to do, and sprawled out on his back! There remain few animals as majestic as the lion... and seeing a male so close will never lose its excitement for me.

Kruger's reputation as one of the best safari experiences in Africa is indeed well-founded. It's sheer size and wealth of wildlife is difficult to beat, and my experiences there rivalled those of the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater. If you ever go to Kruger, keep your eyes open for a large, well-fed male baboon, with big teeth and a maniacal look in his eyes... and stay well away!

Enjoy your own safari experience with cheap flights to South Africa.

Reprinted with permission from SmithyWorldWide

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