The second part of the expedition centers on South Africa’s premiere national park, Kruger, which borders Mozambique to the east and the Dragon Mountains to the west. Our first entry into the park is aboard a 4 x 4 and we speed through the bush to catch an African sunset high atop gigantic granite bolder. Awaiting us there are two guys who have set up bar-complimentary glasses of sherry and Amarula—South Africa’s answer to Bailey’s Irish Cream—are placed on top of table clothed setup and a make shift hut serves as a beer and wine bar. Welcome to the Hard Rock Cafe, Kruger style. It is dark as we thread our way back to our safari camp on hard, dusty roads. Our driver, Kaiten, suddenly slams on the brakes. “We’ve got elephants on both sides of us,” says the guide. “Stay quiet and no photo flashes, please.” In the deep dusk I can see long trunks pulling down branches above and to the right. Our 4 x 4 slowly inches forward. Kaiten suddenly senses that he has gone to far, and the bull elephant to the left might charge. The guide slams the truck into reverse and speeds backwards 20 yards. The bull trumpets loud sending chills down my spine. I have heard this sound in Tarzan films but the sonic volume of this call in the wild is immense. This is the real deal. Finally, the small elephant herd on the right crosses the road to join the bull. A young juvenile stops in the track, looks at us and flares out his ears to make him appear larger than he is. His mother is teaching him well.
The next morning at Oh-Dark-Thirty we gather for a bush walk. Our two rangers, Jacob and Simon, pause to load their .485 caliber Winchester African rifles before we begin. I am told that armed guides are required on bush walks according to South African park regulations. What a difference from Botswana where our guides there were armed with mere sticks. I find today’s armament strangely comforting until I discover that both rangers walk at the front of our single file line in case of a jammed gun during a charge. Of course, I am positioned totally at the end of a long line of hikers. “What if some beast attacks from the rear?”, I ask myself. Childhood jungle films come to mind. I remember that it was always the last guy in line, usually a pigmy carrying a large load on his head, would meet some gruesome fate–a poisoned dart, a fatal squeeze from an anaconda, ripped flesh from a lion’ claw. As we walk along in the tranquil golden dawn, I am constantly scan the bush behind me. When not doing that, I look at the deep grass we walk through. Cape cobras and black mambas live in the Kruger bush. When we stop for a break I ask Ranger Jacob about those badass serpents. “If you get bit by a black mamba, you have about an hour before the venom will kill you. We have real fast helicopter medivac here so no worries. The problem is the mamba will usually try to bite twice. If that happens, you only have ten minutes. Then about the only thing you can do is sign your will.”
The rest of the morning we hear hyenas nearby, spot a few Cape buffalo in the distance and watch five hippos watch us. They are bobbing up and down in a water hole. “Hippos are the most dangerous animal in Africa,” explains Simon. “The male here, he’s the one with red around his ears, feels threatened right now. We are encroaching on his territory and he will protect the females in his group.” We watch the hippos grunt, blow bubbles and stare at us. It is time to get back to the lodge.
The next day we are back in a 4 x 4 with our guide/driver who gives his name as simply ‘D’. Our group hopes to see all of the Big Five today–elephant, rhino, leopard, lion and Cape buffalo. These are deemed as the most dangerous African animals to hunt. They are the ones that Ernest Hemingway wrote volumes about.
For many tourists, seeing all five is a quest that is often not fulfilled. The African goddesses must be guiding D today as we see all five in five hours. In fact, we see a leopard who puts her fresh kill, an impala, high in a tree. Moments later we see her 8-month old cub. Our last Big Five is a lone 3-year old lion is taking an afternoon nap under a tree. He finally raises his massive head to see what all the commotion is about. I have been nearly two weeks in Africa by this time. It is my first lion siting.
But we also see other animals equally as splendid as the fab Big Five. There are impala, sable, wildebeest, striped mongoose, giraffe, zebra, monkey, baboon, hyena and, of course, kudu. These large African plains antelope are seen everywhere in Kruger. The males have long, spiral horns that reach for the skies. Both sexes have thin, white vertical stripes running down their buff-colored flanks. I ask our guide D about these beautiful animals. “There are over 8,000 greater kudu in Kruger. At times, locals come in from the borders of the park and hunt them for food. Of course, that’s totally illegal.” I learn from D that others, professional poachers, go after the exotics, especially the rhino whose horns are valued by the Chinese as an aphrodisiac. D claims that 2-3 rhinos per month are killed illegally in Kruger. “That is simply unsustainable. I spent four months on the anti-poaching patrol. They would drop us off in the middle of the bush and we would live on the ground with bare essentials. I learned how to craft a toothbrush from a twig and make toothpaste from bush leaves. We track the poachers just like they track animals.” “Did you have any close encounters?” “Oh, yeah. Once I was alone and came upon two poachers. They immediately started shooting at me to kill. I shot one through the neck and the other through the leg and then called the helicopter medevac. I never learned what happened to them.” I am at a loss for words. This first-hand information adds an entirely new dimension to the issue of wild animal poaching. It is conservation warfare pitting preservationists against opportunists. I have tremendous respect for people like this guy who lays it on the line to preserve the natural world. After watching elegant antelope survive the rugged bush here, I see the connection to our guide and want to pay him a compliment. “That’s an amazing story, D. Nobody can kudu like you do.” He laughs at the quip and gets it. D drives on silently as we get to witness the rest of Kruger’s glory.