Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Good, the Bad and the Better, an Easter Tour – Keith Marallich

I had two very charming ladies with me on tour for nine days, which included the Easter weekend – a kindly grandmother from the U. S. A. had decided to treat her 13-year old grand-daughter to a safari of the Kruger Park and Arathusa Safari Lodge in the adjacent Sabi Sands Reserve.  Lucky grand-daughter! We headed out to the Panorama Escarpment and the Lowveld from Johannesburg on the Thursday before the long Easter weekend, and the roads were very busy.
I was quite concerned about this tour as we had been informed a few months ago that the current restaurants in the various camps in the Kruger Park would be closed and that new, improved dining establishments would be in their place. We were initially led to believe that the new restaurants would be up and running by about March. During March (and now getting closer to departure) we received further notification that there were no clear dates for the opening of these restaurants, and that this event could be delayed by months, varying from camp to camp! I could just picture us eating our meals out of tins, with dry bread and maybe paper plates on our laps to lend a touch of class!
To make matters worse and add to my concern, these two ladies had a “wish-list” of animals they HAD to see, and among these were cheetah and bush-baby. I must also say that during my many exchanges of correspondence with her, the grandmother was very concerned about danger and diseases, from malaria to rabies and everything else in-between - as well as animals possibly being able to get into their rooms, who would escort them from the vehicle to the rooms, how safe was it, etc, etc. I am happy to say no-one became ill, no-one was attacked, as far as I know no-one contracted any disease, no-one had to eat out of tins or off paper plates and a fine time was had by all.
Now in keeping with my title, so shall the content be…
The Good:
(a)    The weather of course. Daytime temperatures varied between 32º and 37º C every day. We also experienced clear blue skies for all of the days, except for one day which was overcast with a very slight drizzle.

(b)   Wildlife and bird sightings were very good for most of the time, in both reserves, with fairly close-up viewings to be had. Especially prolific in the Kruger Park were baboon sightings (and who can’t sit for hours enjoying the antics of baboons?), lots and lots of Lilac-breasted Rollers and other birds, and then of course elephants – more than enough, almost around every bend in the road. Elephants were so often seen that we tended to eventually just drive past them without too much interest – unless they were blocking the road.

(c)    What I particularly enjoyed were the birds inside the camps and at Skukuza, even a Rock Monitor close to my bungalow in the middle of the day. I don't take mid-day naps, I prefer to sleep at night. In the day when not driving, I rather prefer to walk around the camp with my camera in the hope of seeing something worthwhile to photograph.

(d)   There was also a dead hippo in the Sabie River just below the bridge downstream from Lower Sabie camp, which had attracted a few crocodiles, and this spectacle was pretty interesting – just a little too far out of camera range. Crocodiles were taking a mouthfull of hippo meat, and then going into their "death-roll". Crocodiles cannot chew, so they bite a chunk of meat, and with the vigorous roll of their body, usually manage to get a sizeable piece of meat separated from the carcass, which they then swallow whole. 

(e)    A hyena had made her “den” in a culvert on the main road between Satara and Olifants and a young pup, which had no fear of vehicles, was quite happy to pop his head (and the rest of him) out every time someone stopped here. I took many photos of this chap, but alas, he was the only one to show himself at this culvert – and we visited here twice. In the Kruger Park it is not unusual to find that hyena's had made a den in the culverts under the roads and they tend to use these same dens on a regular basis.

(f)    A good clear sighting of a cheetah (one of the animals on their “must-see” list) near Satara, but too far from the vehicle for a decent photo, but what a privilege to see a cheetah in the wild. Ten minutes after seeing the cheetah, we came upon two lionesses lying in some shade – this all during the mid-morning. Another animal on their wish-list that we saw was a thick-tailed bush-baby – on two consecutive evenings – at Olifants Camp whilst we enjoying dinner. I did manage to light him up by torch-light (for my American friends, a torch is what you call a “flashlight”) so we had an excellent view of him on both occasions. 

(g)   The Restaurants of Lower Sabie and Satara. We enjoyed breakfast at Lower Sabie Camp on one of the hottest days of the tour, when the temperature was up to 37º C. For those who don’t know, Lower Sabie now has a fully operational Mugg & Bean Restaurant, with their full menu items available. Here I had the best coffee that I have ever had in the Kruger Park – the barista even knew his latte art! The Mugg & Bean at Satara had only opened the day before we arrived, but alas, this barista’s latte art skills weren’t up to scratch – he’ll improve, he only had 24 hours of practice. The Mugg & Bean On-the-Go at Satara had the full on-the-go menu items available as had the Debonairs Pizza, but the Mugg & Bean Restaurant only had three items from their main menu available at that stage. (I am aware that they too, just like Lower Sabie Camp, are now fully operation, having opened their full menu two days after our departure). Olifants and Letaba Camps will shortly be up and running. For those of us living in the towns and cities of South Africa, this is no big deal – we all know Mugg & Bean and Debonairs, but for those of us that regularly visit the Kruger Park, what an improvement Mugg & Bean is on what used to be on offer.   

The Bad: 

(a)    This has to be the roads in the Mpumalanga Province. In South Africa it is a fact that we drive on the left side of the road, but in the Mpumalanga Province we drive on what’s left of the road! In the middle of the town of Graskop there was a pothole as big as a Volkswagen Beetle, the road between Belfast and Lydenburg is still as bad as was reported on TV recently and the roads in the vicinity of Acornhoek are, to use a phrase popular with politicians in South Africa, a “challenge” 

(b)   Lake Panic, one of my favourite spots in the entire Kruger Park was a disappointment. There had been a tremendous amount of rain in the Kruger Park during the rainy season, particularly the last few months and there was just too much water at this hide. Those dead trees and grasses on which the birds had always perched, and the sand-bank that was visited by crocodile, hippo and an array of other wildlife, was under water. The result was that birds were only seen in the undergrowth in the far distance – way out of reach of my lens. This is the same issue that I experienced at the Sweni Hide in the Satara region - too much water. Hopefully the water subsides during the dry months and we can again experience the tranquility of these two hides.

(c)    Breakfast at Satara. (How can this be bad, it was talked up in the Good section above? Ed) Well, I made a mistake of asking the young lady to choose the table and she chose one in the sun. I tried subtlety to get her to change her mind and to choose the shade, but she was having none of that, so in the sun it was. We waited some time for our order, (remember, this was on the Saturday of the Easter Weekend, and the camp was busy) and as we waited it got hotter and hotter. When she finally wanted to change to the shade, all the tables were already taken and customers were queuing to get in (I told you Mugg & Bean was a major improvement – I had never before seen anyone in a queue at a restaurant in the Kruger Park for breakfast). The upshot of this was that we finished our breakfast in a hot, sweaty, uncomfortable mode, but the lesson was learnt – I will in future call the shots as regards seating.

(d)   A traffic log-jam on the main road between Lower Sabie and Skukuza, which took me about 45 minutes to pass. Now I was aware that every bed in every camp in the Kruger Park had been taken for this long weekend and that the authorities had imposed a gate quota at each gate, so the park was full, very, very full. This traffic jam was caused by a leopard, lying in the deep shadow about 40 metres off the main road, with only a flash of white from its belly visible and all and sundry trying to get a better look at it.

(e)    Dinner at Skukuza on both nights we were here. Skukuza still has the old restaurant and Take-Away section operational, both of which were very poor in quality and service, but we survived. I can’t wait for the new restaurant to open here. This below is an extract from a SAN Parks media release: “The Skukuza Selati restaurant will be operated by Ciao! and are expected to start operations in December 2013 and the main camp restaurant and take away will be serviced by Cattle Baron and Bistro. Operations will start in May 2014 because of extensive refurbishment”. When we were there the Selati Restaurant was closed and it did not seem as if any work was taking place or had been done here, but maybe both will be up and running at the same time in the near future.

(f)    The weather on one of the days was overcast, with a slight drizzle, and this day sadly had to have been the one full day at Arathusa! Do you know what a difference a photo makes when taken in good light as opposed to one taken in shade? 

The Better:

(a)    This has to be Arathusa Safari Lodge. I really urge any person, but particularly an international visitor who may only ever do a safari once in their life-time, to visit an authentic private lodge/game reserve - it can be any lodge in the Sabi Sands Private Reserve, but Arathusa is well-priced, comfortable, with great game drives and is excellent value. You will not get better, close-up sightings of wildlife than in the Sabi Sands.

(b)   The small lion pride in the riverbed in the late afternoon, which consisted of two females and three cubs, quite inactive, but still a great sighting. Man, those cubs are cute.

(c)    The leopard we saw in the early morning (which sadly was also the only leopard we saw during our stay here), but alas, this was the day that it was overcast and rainy. I must just add that speaking to other guests at the lodge (those that were not on our vehicle), they did see different leopards at different times, but our guide was intent on showing us the Big 5, which he succeeded in doing. However, for me personally, I would rather see a variety of leopards than, for example, a rhino, but hey, that’s just me. I was hearing from other guests that they had seen two leopards together (unusual, to say the least), a female with two young cubs and another, older male on his own – and these were only during the one drive! As far as leopards go, we only saw one young male.

(d)   The hyena den (this one a real den, not a culvert under a road as in the Kruger Park, a real den in an old abandoned termite mound) where a mother and her young cub interacted beautifully. I could have sat there the whole day, but hey, again, that’s just me. Unfortunately, this was the same overcast morning as the leopard sighting.

(e)    A murmur, band, pack, whatever, let’s just say a group of dwarf mongooses. These cute little guys were atop a termite mound when a tree squirrel ran up the one side of the mound. This caused the mongooses to bound (Do dwarf mongooses really “bound”? Ed) over to the edge of the mound to see what the squirrel was up to. They did this just because they are inquisitive – a tree squirrel is no threat to the mongooses. 

Hereunder are some random photos taken at the Kruger Park and Arathusa – enjoy.

This female baboon was in the Sabie River slaking her thirst.

These lads were grooming one-another and were obvlivious to the nearby humans

Does one have to say anything?

The thoughful one

This kudu visited the water about five minutes after the baboon

The young hyena near the "culvert" den in the Kruger Park

A surprised young impala

The Rock Monitor inside the Skukuza Camp

Whilst waiting for the gate to open just before 06:00 at Satara Camp - I photographed this from the vehicle

A Black-collared Barbet inside Skukuza Camp 

A White-backed Vulture in the Kruger Park

A Red-billed Hornbill

One of the many Lilac-breasted Rollers that I photographed

A male Ostrich in the Satara region

A European Roller - cousin to the Lilac-breated Rollers

A Brown Snake Eagle - note the yellow eye, common to all snake eagles

The small lion pride at rest on the first afternoon at Arathusa

The young male leopard at rest in an open area

and then heading off on a stalk

This when he was in a tree, after stalking tree squirrels

The mom and youngster at the den in the Sabi Sands

Gentle play

The youngster having a closer look at us

A young male in pose mode

and in bored mode

This is the rhino we saw in lieu of more leopards - Arathusa's other vehicle is in the background

The Dwarf Mongooses having a look at the squirrel - which is not in frame, it was at this stage at the base of the mound

Just a zebra

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