Yesterday’s sighting board showed leopards and other big cats on dirt road S100 through the Olfants rugged veld, with its rocky soils supporting mixed thornveld and woodlands. Our game drive book calls it the most famous road in Kruger, and encourages us to drive all the river loops and peer deeply into the riverbeds and knob thorn and leadwood trees for leopards perching. Unfortunately, this Friday morning it’s a bust… few animals, but interesting terrain including a reservoir with hippos in the distance.
It’s hot, the boys are antsy and their antics drive us back to Satara camp and its cool round pool. Other families had the same idea, and it’s full of colors and languages. Nathan, Ben, Max and I play three flies up until the inevitable scrapes and bangs require a time-out. Time and distractions heal the hurt skin and feelings, and soon I persuade the boys to work with me to circle the perimeter and create a giant whirlpool. Passing a large family from Calgary I persuade them to join in… then the Zulu girls, the smiling Indian family, and on our third clockwise lap even the reluctant Afrikaans join in. Now the pool is a swirling soup of smiling, laughing humanity, and the joy magnate is strong enough to pull in the land lovers –sunbathing parents migrate over from towels and benches to join in. About 50 of us playfully mix in the circling current. It’s a good ice-breaker – I bump into an Afrikaans boy who asks about my accent, then asks if we have a Kruger in America… “do you have lions and elephants there?” I tell him about Yellowstone’s cougars, grizzlies and bull moose… “but we don’t have big lions, leopards, elephant, rhino or round swimming pools… Kruger’s the best.”
Friday afternoon we try again and point our van west on the tar road H7 towards Orpen gate. The terrain is quite mixed on this route – exiting Satara camp’s open savannah grasslands on basalt we see wildebeest and warthogs, then we pass through a stretch of Mopani dominated woodlands on granite. Here the sourveld has low game densities, but the acacia, bushwillow and mopane trees are also sparse so we can scan a long way to spot giraffe, elephant and antelope in the distance. Turning north on dirt road S39 we follow the mostly dry Timbavati river through mixed woodlands with sweet grazing, which attracts game and thus predators. Knobthorn and marula trees are denser here, so we must slow down a bit but the game is much closer – and we’re suddenly in the thick of it.
Naftali is our best spotter and from the back seat he’s calling out white rhinos and African buffalo in the distance. Then Nathan spots a big group of elephants and we stop and watch for a bit. Further up four very large giraffe are crossing and one stops in the road to graze, forcing us to pause and enjoy the moment for a bit. On our way to a hide we see no cats but plenty of elephant, giraffe, buffalo, baboons, blue wildebeest, impalas, greater kudu, waterbuck and other antelope.
Finally we reach the Ratel Pan Hide, a gated wooden structure that affords us a rare opportunity to safely leave our vehicle and watch for game. Checking for luring things that might eat us, we scurry from the van through the gate and into the blind, which faces west across a large Stillwater stretch on the Timbavati. The low sun pierces into the hide and it’s blistering hot in there… but we’re not going anywhere because four hippo eyes are staring back like at us like periscopes. Naftaly advises that with the cool of sunset they’ll be leaving the water to graze, so now at 6PM they’re starting to get active. Sure enough they begin to rise and move about… and now we count five of them. A croc surfaces near the Hide and there’s a croc-hippo staring match for a few minutes before he submerges again.
The Satara camp’s gate closes at 630 and we don’t want to be locked out as predator feed, so we’re on our way back… but we get delayed by a big bull elephant and his herd crossing the road. On the edge he relieves himself of what must be a hot tub’s worth of piss… enough to smother a small wildfire… amazing. We pass more elephant, giraffe, antelope and a field of white stork it by a lovely African sunset… some skittish zebra decline Sue’s photo opp.
Back at Satara camp we sent the boys off to watch the outdoor movie on big cats. They came back concluding the Leopards are the coolest… “Dad they’re super stealthy surprise attackers, and they drag prey twice their weight into the trees to avoid scavengers…”. Saturday’s mission is clear: complete our checklist of the “Big 5”. We’ve got lion, elephant, rhino and buffalo… we need a leopard.
The boys are hiding from the days heat in our air conditioned rondavel while Naftaly, Karen, Sue and I relax and reflect on our African adventures… we can hear their muffled laughter through the closed door. Then all goes quiet and Sue says “that’s when I worry.” Soon Ben slips out and whispers in my ear, “Dad you better come in and see this”. Max is sitting on the bathroom floor holding toilet paper on his forehead, applying pressure to stop the bleeding from a nasty gash… the fee for gymnastics in an enclosed space. We boys must simultaneously weigh the gravity of Max’s injury against the potential for motherly worry and scolding.
Ben runs interference while I discreetly locate the first-aid kit. Then Max and I carefully clean and disinfect the wound with antibacterial ointment. A fresh sterile gauze pad helps stop the bleeding; pupils are responsive and there are no other indications of concussion, so we judge that an emergency evacuation won’t be necessary. But we don’t want to add to Max’s impressive collection of scars, all know that Mom’s the best nurse around, and it’s time to seek her healing hands… Max is a mensch and his calmness makes it easier to break the news, so we bring Sue in and her best motherly instincts take over. Soon we have two butterfly bandages across the sealed wound, a few hugs and kisses and no stern lectures… disaster averted.
Saturday morning Max is up and seems fine, so it’s time we hunt leopard. Driving west again on tar road H4 towards our exit at the Orpen gate, chief navigator Max detours us on the parallel dirt road S106, which takes us through mixed thorn and marula woodlands on granite. Outcroppings, boulders and rocks provide a lot of false-positive pachyderm sightings among the bushwillow, acacia and marula trees. But the bird viewing is very good and we’re glad for our binoculars as we spot and identify booted, spotted and tawny eagle, hamerkop, vulture and the rare, regal southern ground hornbill. Alas, no leopards: we have a reason to return to fantastic Kruger. Or perhaps you can come and take up our quest, dear reader?