Monday, May 30, 2011

My Recent Tour to the Kruger Park and Mala Mala

I had been in contact with my clients for many months, setting up this tour, and the day had finally arrived to begin what I had hoped was a successful safari. We left Johannesburg en route to the Drakensberg Escarpment in Mpumalanga and from there onto the Kruger National Park. The Panorama Route provided some good scenery as usual – at the Lisbon Falls the waterfalls were flowing strongly, and despite some cloud cover, God’s Window was clear, as were the Three Rondawels. These areas can sometimes be covered in a mist blanket if there is cloud about, but on this afternoon it was clear and we could see for miles.

Kruger Park was Kruger Park – some good days and some bad days, but all in all, very enjoyable. I regard the Kruger Park as my spiritual home, and have spent many hours driving in this great reserve. For me there is no such thing as a “bad” game drive, and even if I travel for hours without seeing many animals, there is always a promise of something exciting around the next corner. The only blemish on the Kruger Park part of this tour was the quality of their food – they just cannot seem to get it right. However, one does not go to the Kruger Park for their culinary delights, one goes there to view nature in this large, game rich chunk of South Africa, truly the flag-ship of the national parks in this country. Food issues aside, game viewing, although not spectacular, was quite good at certain times. I am not going to list all that we saw, but some of the more exceptional finds were a good sighting of a serval, a puff adder on the sunset drive (in the chill of the night nogal!), and the good few hours spent at Lake Panic near Skukuza. Other animals that we saw, in no particular order, were plenty of elephant (which are now almost as common as impala), a very large herd of buffalo (about 1000 plus, maybe more), lion on the road near Skukuza, lots of zebra, giraffe, wildebeest and a myriad of other antelope and bird species, some fairly close and some quite far off the roads.
I had never been to Mala Mala to stay, but had been there quite a few times when picking up or dropping off other clients, and even these little 10 minute stops had whetted my appetite, so I was excited to be here. The Sabi Sands differs vastly from the Kruger Park in that you don’t have any other public vehicles about – and let’s face it, sometimes the public in the Kruger Park can be somewhat inconsiderate. There are also rules and regulations in the Kruger Park which have to be adhered to, (and this is perfectly understandable), but these rules don’t pertain to the private reserves, such as the Sabi Sands, so off-road driving is a normal occurrence here to see the prime animals. We were met by Lucky, who was to be our guide for our two nights stay, and what a nice chap he turned out to be, friendly, knowledgeable, informative, a good driver and a good eye for spotting game. We received a good briefing on what was to happen, an orientation tour of the lodge, its facilities and our rooms, before being invited to lunch. How this differed from our previous three lunches! Breakfasts and lunches at Mala Mala were enjoyed on the deck, and dinners were in the boma. The quality and variety of food was excellent, the levels of service outstanding – what more can one say? And the lodge? All I can say is that it was comfortable, luxurious and with excellent food and service. The rooms? Don’t ask me about the colour of the tiles in the bathrooms, the colour of the curtains, whether the linen was cotton or some other product, whether the furniture was modern and contemporary or Victorian, whether the duvets had Eider down, duck down or plain old Nando’s chicken feathers – I don’t know, it was all good. There was a double bed, with the option of twins, two bathrooms, one with a bath, one with a shower, a writing desk, clothes cupboard, wall safe, telephone and more. I was there for the wildlife, not to do an article for “House and Home”! All I can say was that the game viewing, coupled with the excellent accommodation and lodge set-up, were second to none. They even have wi-fi, a 24-hour free internet service, and for those who have to get the latest up to date rugby scores, a satellite (DSTV) television, library, pub, etc.

I will hereunder go through the more exciting sightings on our game drives, but please bear in mind that many of the animals that we saw are not going to be mentioned – there simply is not space for all of them and it is boring to read the animal names on a list.

On our first afternoon/evening drive we started off by stopping in the middle of a large herd of buffalo, one of whom was to lose his life later that night, but more of this later. Isn’t it strange how one can sit in a Land Rover amongst hundreds of buffalo without any thought of danger and photograph these animals to your heart’s content, which of course is what we did? We then later came across two adult lionesses with four cubs of about eleven months old. This was in the dusk, so I didn’t take too many photos, and those that I did take were not that good. When it was dark, we came upon another two lionesses that were stalking a herd of impala, but their initial attack was unsuccessful. It was by now pitch dark, so we did not stick around to see if they would make any other attempts. Leaving this scene, we chanced upon three male lions, swaggering down one of the roads. We followed these animals all the way to the direction of the herd of buffalo. At one point they had to cross the Sand River, which, due to the unseasonal good rains, was flowing pretty well. It was funny to watch the trepidation with which they crossed the river. The three were in a line, and of course the task fell upon the first lion in line to make the initial crossing. He first tested the waters, as it were, with his paw, dipping it in and then shaking it about. This he did a few times, before taking the plunge, followed immediately by the second male. The third male waited awhile to see if they would make it, and when they were almost out on the other side, he made his move as well. What followed then was much shaking and rolling about on the sand to get rid of the water in their coats. Who says you have to go to Botswana to see lions swim – they do that in South Africa as well? We followed them all the way to the area where we could hear the buffalo, but we were not fortunate (or is that unfortunate?) to see them kill anything. They did however kill an adult bull sometime during the night, as we returned to this spot of the kill the next morning.

En route to the buffalo kill we came upon two lionesses on the airstrip, but as the light was still poor, and we wanted to get to the kill, we did not spend too much time with them. Before we got to the kill, Lucky heard about a leopard that had been found, so we first detoured to this. This was a young male and we had hardly found him when he decided that it was time to rest, so he curled up into a little ball and closed his eyes. We sat there for some time, but there was very little activity from him, so we moved on.

At the buffalo kill were the three male lions, as well as the two lionesses and the four cubs from the previous evening. At this stage only one of the males was feeding, and he was hogging this dead buffalo to himself, telling any cub that ventured too close in no uncertain terms that he was not happy, by snapping and growling at the unfortunate, hungry cub. This male was feeding at the rear of the animal, and two cubs did manage to sneak to the neck area, but their teeth were not developed enough to break the skin and tear into the flesh here, so they satisfied themselves by licking around this neck area and ended up chewing on some of the intestines of the dead animal.

Whilst we were sitting here watching all of this, Lucky heard a leopard call from somewhere near the river, so after a while we went looking for this animal. After some serious off-road driving we had to abandon this task as the leopard had disappeared without being found (leopards have a way of doing this, at will, when they want to). In any event, it was now time for breakfast, and we headed back to camp, but not before making a short detour to have a look at a herd of elephant. One young bull gave us quite a show, with him sloshing water and mud all over himself, before joining the rest of the herd. Then it was back to the lodge for a sumptuous breakfast, some rest, a sumptuous lunch, afternoon tea and again onto the afternoon/evening game drive (and my wife wonders why I am slightly portly around the middle!).

This afternoon’s drive turned out to be a quiet affair. We stopped at the buffalo kill just to see how far the lions had progressed with this mound of meat, saw some rhinos in the gathering dark, also some elephant and searched, unsuccessfully, for this morning’s leopard. Not all game drives can be exciting – there are some, even in the Sabi Sands, where you don’t always see what you want, but hang it, if sightings of lion, elephant and rhino, not to mention the general game, are quiet, then what is an exciting drive?

The following mornings drive, our last, turned out pretty good. As we left the camp Lucky told us that two leopards had been seen not too far away, so off we went. We found one young male up a tree, close to Rattrays on Mala Mala, whilst the second, older male, was hidden in some long grass. What had happened was that the guests at Rattrays were enjoying their morning hot drinks before embarking on their drives, when they heard and then saw the commotion of the older leopard chasing the younger one into the tree, so the word spread, and we were now with both leopards. This was so early that the sun had not yet come up over the horizon, and the leopard in the tree, pretty high up in the tree I may add, was still in shadow. However, he and the older male were having an argument with one another, and every now and then a growl would emit from the one or the other – what a way to wait for the rising sun. Once the sun touched the top of the tree and then eventually the leopard, it was time for some photos. The young male even obliged, when the light was at its best, to turn around in the tree and face our vehicle, so quite a lot of photos were taken.

The older male eventually tired of this and moved off in the shadows and we then followed him for a short while, before leaving him to go and search for cheetah. Unfortunately we did not find any cheetah, but travelled pretty far on Mala Mala’s large exclusive property, right up against the boundary with the Kruger Park – these two parks are separated simply by a dirt track – there are no fences, so animals move freely between these vast areas. What we did find in the open areas were plenty of plains game and one accommodating black-backed jackal, who did not mind posing for a few photos. Alas, this was now getting late and we had to return to camp for our breakfast. At breakfast I took some time, between the cold buffet and the hot breakfast servings, to take my last photos of elephant and bushbuck in the river. What a way to enjoy breakfast! We then, with heavy hearts, checked-out and made our way to Johannesburg where the clients were to be dropped off at the OR Tambo International.

Judy, Joanne, Dan and Mark – if you are reading this, thanks for being such wonderful company and you were a pleasure to be with – I hope to see you one day in the future.

My thoughts on Mala Mala? I have been fortunate in the past to have visited other lodges in this prestigious private reserve and they all are of a high standard and quality. Mala Mala’s lodge where we stayed was not the most luxurious of these lodges (although I suspect that Rattrays on Mala Mala may well compare with the most luxurious) but the level of service, the standard of food and accommodation as well as the quality of game drives stands back for no other lodge – in fact, Mala Mala may well set the bench-mark. There was no rush when at a sighting to make way for any other vehicles who may want to come for a look, and we spent as long as we wanted at any sighting. Our guide was attuned mainly to showing us the “big-5” and I suspect that this is what 99% of all clients want, so this was what he delivered. However, Lucky at all times was quite happy to stop when asked by any of his guests and to look at and discuss any plant, bird or animals that the stop was for. Having said this, there was enough luxury to satisfy even the most discerning of guests, but it was not out of place in the bush.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, looks like it was an incredible tour of Kruger . Some wonderful pictures, thanks so much for posting them up for us to see. I caught a similar picture of a male lion having his dinner on my recent Kruger park safari as well.