Monday, 13 May 2013


Giraffe on safari spots rare Irishman


I was reduced for two days to my five-year-old state.  I was going to see animals in the wild!  We were going for two days to Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Reserves in South Africa!
I had been well warned, as is appropriate with all five-year-old boys excited to see animals - that I was not to set my expectations too high, just in case.  Wild animals do not perform on cue.
We had a picnic lunch and a good stretch just outside the park gates, knowing it would not be wise to open the car door for several hours thereafter.  Then, with binoculars, camera and wildlife guide in hand, we left the road, past the triangular sign depicting lots of dangerous hazards like lions and crocodiles, and officially entered The Wild.  Grrr!
Hazard symbols not found in
the Northern Ireland Edition
of the Highway Code
The reserves we visited were Zulu King Shaka's old hunting ground, and we soon lost sight of the perimeter fence and were in a landscape completely empty of power lines and rondavel houses.  The reserve is hilly and mostly forested with open savannah in places.  Africa!  My inner five-year-old could barely contain the excitement.
Twenty minutes in, we came across a car stopped near the hillside.  Clare pulled up and asked if they could see anything.
"Look, way over there, on the other hill, there's a rhino!"
My three companions saw it, just about, but I could not see any rhino, either with or without binoculars.  OK, maybe I could - but equally it could be a twig, or a stone, or a speck of dust on the lens.  My heart sank.  Was it going to be two days of convincing myself that an ambiguous shadows were in fact the Big Five?
And then, four zebra casually strolled across the path in front of us.  So close we would have noticed if they had fleas!  Beautiful, stately beasts despite nicks in their ears, rough patches of skin, a few surprising pock marks and bull's licks in their pelt.  Not picture perfect, better than picture perfect.  Wild!  Grrrrr!
Soon after, we met a family of warthogs, every bit as comical as Pumba in The Lion King, but even uglier and yet sweeter.  And not even the littlest hoglets seemed at all perturbed by the Chevy Spark inching past them.
Bam.  That's how these game drives are.  There was less gradual dawning of what was there and more 'BAM look it's a rhino'!  (A white rhino, to be precise).  Massive, just behind a scrawny tree.  The horn was longer and pointier than I expected, the beast more tank-like.  We stopped, awe-struck.  This was a legend.
Clocking us
He clocked us.  We froze; the blood drained downward to help our feet run, but we just had to hope the Chevy's frame was thick enough to take a two-and-a-half rhino horn - obviously it wouldn't.  He looked away ... but of course with eyes on the sides of his head, he was perhaps only now sizing us up. 
We drove off very, veeery slowly ...
As we continued deeper and deeper into Mfolozi, we saw a good number of bok (steenbok, springbok, kudu), water buffalo, and some incredibly colourful birds such as African hornbills (aka Zazu from the Lion King, hitherto my main source of knowledge about the African Continent) and icky vultures.
Alas, it was time to turn around.  In South Africa it gets dark early, and it gets dark quick.  I pressed for a last little look by a watering hole, a short detour here or there, in case we'd spot something else exciting, but nada.
Hope faded as we approached the park gate; we only really knew how close we were getting based on the time it had taken us to drive to the furthest point reached.  Hardly likely to see anything really big as we got closer again to civiliz.....
BAM!  Giraffe.  Close enough we could almost have leaned out of the window and touched him.  He looked old, his knees were knobbly and leathery, but he was agile enough to strain and lick foliage clean off the topmost twigs of the trees. Big eyes, graceful gait, we were transfixed.  He walked off at his leisure, craning his neck this way and that as if posing for the camera.  Jolly decent of him.
Stately - a lone giraffe
BAM!  Another?  It's ... !
Our cognition took a few seconds to catch up with the sight in front of us.  An elephant.  A big, brown, furrow-skinned elephant, just 20 metres ahead.  There had been occasional signs warning not to get any closer than 50m, but we didn't exactly choose the location!  Another car was just ahead, between us and this most spiritual of animals.  Clare told us of an article she'd read a week ago, about a car of Japanese tourists flattened by an elephant. 
He scratched his itchy head against a tree.  The tree came off worse.  He shook his head from side to side, flapped his ears, and the dust flew in all directions.
Awe.  This was one mighty beast, peaceful and serene but powerful.  Good, but not safe, as the Narnians said of Aslan.
Whether or not dusk was approaching, we just had to wait for him.  Eventually, this majestic beast stepped off the path and slowly disappeared into the trees.  I think no one spoke for a while.  Clare started the ignition and we rolled off in silence.
Not safe but good - we hope!
We came to the fork off the road, and turned tightly off the Mfolozi prong onto to the Hluhluwe path.  Another park awaited us, but as the sky became inky and rain started to spot the windscreen, we'd have to wait until tomorrow to meet the locals.
Or so we thought.  But just before the path to Camp became really steep, overlooking the craggy river valley below, we came across a family of giraffe.  Five or six, they were heading home too, in a line they silently strode along their own path, seemingly according to the age before beauty principle.
Camp was surprisingly well-appointed: a thatched cottage with microwave, tea pot, spatulas and wine cooler.  Apart from the hundreds of little bugs in our bed sheets (easily swept off, I hasten to add), we felt like royal guests of King Shaka himself.

On the bakkie before sunrise
The next morning, it was an early start for our sunrise safari with guide/spotter.  Hard as I tried, I couldn't get his name.  My ears just don't detect what comes after the clicks of Zulu. 
For the first hour, we saw little wildlife.  Overnight had been cold, and dew lay like balls of candy floss.  We had to content ourselves with the sunrise - but that in itself turned out to be worth the 5am start.
One place alone showed signs of non-avian life: a pool full of hippos.  Hippos at Dawn - is that the name of a book?  If not, it should be.  They wallowed, moving slowly, almost imperceptibly, then whoosh a spray of water from the nostrils.
For whom the word 'wallow' was made
Even on safari you have to stop mid-morning for coffee, except on this drive 'mid-morning' was about 8:15.  A guy from Durban was with our group, and he was lamenting the lack of sightings.  But he was a seasoned game spotter, and was glad at least that the animals here were truly wild.  He told us of game drives elsewhere in Southern Africa where authorities had sold off bits of national parks to private companies, who erected new fences and ensured a tiny area was full of lions, cheetahs and the other more impressive species.  Of course, limiting such big animals to small areas upset the eco-balance and it all became a bit mechanical, tracking solitary creatures by radio mic around a big safari park.
He almost made me glad for the lull in sightings.
After coffee, our luck changed.  We met a gang of baboons, bold and sassy, shameless in their behaviour, swollen red bums in the air.  I didn't warm to them immediately. 
African Sunrise
As the sun warmed the morning air, herds appeared.  This second day wasn't so much about close-up meetings, as observation at a distance of animals in their herds.  Rhino, giraffes, zebra - interacting unselfconsciously with their own kind.  In a way, the perspective was as thrilling as proximity had been the day before.  This was un-zoo-like.  This was The Wild.  GRRR!
The urgency was off.  We had seen many different species, up close and from afar; it was too late in the day now to see any big cats; so we could sit back in the bakkie and enjoy the drive.  If we saw nothing else now, we could go home happy.

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