Outside in Africa
By Ayesha Singh
16th September 2012 12:00 AM
Imagine this: You are right in the middle of a national game reserve. All you can hear are sounds of unrecognisable creatures, uncomfortably close to you. One step outside your comfortable lodge and you come face to face with the greatest of all cats —the giant African Lion, peering at you. It’s not him that needs to worry for a change. After all, you are trespassing his territory. In that very moment you expose your vulnerabilities to the gigantic predator of the bush and meekly retire to the confines of your lodge, feeling only marginally safe. Welcome to the Kruger National Park, home to 336 types of trees, 49 kinds of fish, 34 species of amphibians, 114 kind of reptiles, 507 birds varieties and 147 mammals.
Close to three hours from the Hoedspruit airport (that is if you don’t lose your way in the sprawling bush like we did despite of an otherwise reliable GPS), the drive to the park is as exciting as its scenic. If you are as lucky as us, you will spot a charismatic Giraffe, the height of a double-decker bus, lurching right besides your jeep. Immersing ourselves in the vastness of reserve, we brace ourselves for the unpredictability of what lies ahead. This 2 million hectares of land stretching 352 kilometres from north to south, comprising the ‘Big Five’—The African Lion, Leopard, Elephant, Rhinoceros and Buffalo, was going to be home for us for the next few days.
Whether it was spotting a crash of Rino’s within minutes of entering the park or sidestepping a Black Mamba, the initial sightings certainly set us up for huge expectations for the days ahead. The day starts to look even better when we drive into the rugged Hoyo Hoyo Tsonga Lodge in the Kruger Park that offers us a chance to experience the local Tsonga culture as soon as we jump out of our jeeps. The good thing about the lodge was the electric fencing protecting us from ‘unwelcomed’ visitors but that soon proved to be a myth when we saw an elephant becoming aggressive with the electric shock (I wouldn't blame him. Who likes to be intruded upon). So right after supper we were hearded into our respective lodges because as our friendly ranger aptly named sweet boy would joke—‘‘Anything can happen in the wild post dinner. Stay out if you want to fill up a lions stomach for the week.’’ We would laugh every time he would say that not taking him seriously. What we heard next was unthinkable. ‘Shhhh!!!!’ said Sweet Boy, ‘do you hear that’? It’s the scampering hooves of an Impala trying hard to get away from the clutches of a hungry Leopard.’’ And then there was silence. The black-faced Impala didn’t live to see the day. ‘Survival of the fittest,’ said Sweet Boy. Quickly realising we were not exactly the fittest in this scenario, decided to quietly follow one of the guides to our rooms.
As we shunted ourselves into our lodge, we had the dangers of the whole night looping ahead of us. That is the thing about being in the middle of nowhere. You don't know what’s going to happen next and you cannot get away from it. But with the security of traditionally designed rooms at Hoyo Hoyo situated on the Mluwati Concession, make you feel connected and disconnected from the outside world in a strange way. Furnished with king-sized beds and en-suite bathrooms with deep Victorian style baths and an outdoor shower, it is a place to experience a true cultural experience. You can also ditch the luxurious feather bedding for a more rustic reed mat. Another place keeping up with the traditions of lodging in a romantic style of a bygone era, is the Imbali Safari Lodge in the private Mluwati Concession. Situated on the banks of the N’waswitsontso river, it is a good spot for game watching through the day and the better part of the night. ‘Elephants are guaranteed as the lodge is situated on an ancient Elephant route. But we made a bee line for a more ‘outdoor’ experience, and headed to the Hamiltons Tented Camp furnished with a sumptuous canopy bed. It is an ideal vacationing spot for newlyweds as the rooms come complete with slipper baths and an outdoor shower overlooking the river. You can relax on the private deck and watch animals come right till your foot step. Too close for comfort, some would reckon. The highlight of anybody’s experience would be the bush picnics and champagne breakfasts out is the incredible wilderness, which if I may add, are as lovely without your better half.
With the break of the first soft morning light, we set out on our first African Oddisy. Seven of us, in one land cruiser, closed packed together and feeling blessed for that because the sounds and smells of the jungle only added to our fear of the unknown. Pristine open wilderness set the tone for a beautiful day ahead. The extravagant bird life made its presence felt within seconds of us stepping into the jeep. First to showcase its dramatic colours was the Lilac Breasted Roller, with its washed green head, easily recognisable by its loud harsh squawk, ‘zaaak’ sound. Juxtaposed to the softness of the Roller was the giant Marabou Stork, marching towards its prey purposefully. But as she senses ‘dander’ from the insanely loud rumbling sound of the jeep, it takes flight with its long legs trailing behind. Not to far from us we saw hordes of thirsty radiant purple birds scavenging on left-over scraps of food in a nearby camping area.
We’ve been out for just less than a hour and suddenly our ranger slows down the jeep, gathering all our attention. He hears something (always before we can rap our heads around the numerous sounds). It’s a lion he senses. After surveying the area for a couple of minutes, his wireless updates confirms its presence. A quick drive into the bush and we spot a lion moving silently towards its unsuspecting prey. Sooner than we know, he runs into the frightened heard of the Wildebees to make a kill. Seldom does he fail to get what he wants and today wasn’t an exception.
Traversing the amazing landscape, all of us lost track of time. It was only when the ranger pointed out to the nocturnal Mayotte Scops Owl, did we realise it was half past 8. Alas, it was time to return. The next few days were as exciting if not more than our first. Not only did we spot the Big Five—African elephant, Black Rhinoceros, Cape Buffalo, Lion and the Leopard, we also got lucky with the endangered wild dog.
With dusk descending upon us, we headed back to our lodge, away from the intoxicating scents of the bush, to divine fragrances of traditional African food, including the much anticipated game meat. Given my Indian heritage and still a relatively conventional palette, I was surprised at my sudden urge to try out popular options like the Kudu, a large African antelope whose meat is rich, and tender with subtle game flavour. Once we got past that, tearing through an Impala, seemed like childs play. Of course the biggest mistake on my part was to ask for it well done. It is important not to overcook this meat as it contains very little fat and is high in protein and iron. The quail was the least of our worries as it tasted just like chicken—‘something closer to home and heart,’ I thought to myself. The highlight of course was dining together under a star-scattered sky, chatting for hours, without a care in the world. The silence of the night in Kruger does that to you. And thank God for that.
Having experienced the bounty and plenitude of nature for several days, we were ready to bid farewell to the boundless wildlife and emerald forests that amazed and amused us relentlessly. What I miss the most is bumping around in a four wheel vehicle for the major part of the day, trying to track down an elusive predator. Since my return, many have asked me how may experience was. More of than not, I find myself at a loss of words. The best thing would be, I tell them, to experience the park and its incredible wildlife encounters, first hand, up close and personal. It will be an experience you will live to remember.
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