Friday, 8 October 2010

Safari Day 1. Johannesburg to Bongani

After breakfast, Phil caught the shuttle bus back to the airport to pick up the hire car. With the new roadworks near the airport, the navi had no hope in sorting it out. Phil had 4 goes of trying to get onto the right ramp – he was no more than 8 minutes away from the hotel at any time, however it took him 45 minutes to get back to the hotel.

Peter, Mary, Jenny and Patrick arrived in their car shortly after. We were driving in ‘convoy’ up to Bongani Mountain Lodge, a lodge in a private game reserve on the south western corner of the Kruger National Park. It was an easy journey, on two lane highways most of the way. Once we got past the massive roadworks that stretched for about 100 km out of Pretoria, we were able to sit on the speed limit and cruise. The weather was hot, and we were comfortable with the air conditioner on.
We stopped for a break at Milly's Roadhouse, which sits near the top of the escarpment. From Johannesburg, which sits at 1600m above sea level, it felt like we had progressively climbed as we drove the three hours to Milly's. We were planning to go into the restaurant, but Peter checked his watch and realised if we had any more than a quick stop, we would miss the afternoon game drive. We quickly went into the shop and grabbed sandwiches, drinks and snacks. Peter and everyone in his car also grabbed heaps of ice, because their air conditioner had broken down shortly after leaving Johannesburg.

The speed and urgency lifted a little, and we dropped down the escarpment and through lots of orange groves. We saw our first road sign warning of hippos, and we knew that we were definitely in the right place! The roads were now single lane, with a wide shoulder. The ‘protocol’ is to drive on the shoulder, and people overtake at will, regardless of what is coming the other way (they will get over, I suppose!). You then flash your hazards for two flashes to say thanks to the car that pulled onto the shoulder for you.
We turned off the highway and drove about 30 minutes up winding dirt tracks. Apart from a sign at the turn-off, there was no indication that we were on the right road. Finally we reached a gate in a very big, electric fence, with a guard. We signed in (which really means sign away your rights if we are eaten by a big animal). We parked the cars, and all of our luggage was transferred to jeeps, and we travelled another 30 minutes up tracks to the lodge. We crested the ridge and before us, built on the edge of the great rock cliff, was the lodge. Arriving at the lodge, in the bush, was really relaxing – it really felt that you were a million miles from anywhere.
We checked in at the main lodge, and our bags were taken down to our bungalows. The bungalows only have beds for 2, so we had adjoining rooms, which were just above the viewing deck.
On the lawns out the front of our rooms was a nice mixture of elephant, buffalo, buck and baboon poo – demonstrating that the lack of fences around the lodge allowed all the animals to pass amongst the bungalows as they pleased.

From the main lodge we saw some small buck on the lawns – we would later learn that they were Impala and Nyala. We also saw some baboons – a massive male nonchalantly sauntered down the path. Cameron was shocked by the size of this baboon – way bigger than him – and he decided that baboons were NOT his favourite animal. When he heard the story that baboons were only scared of male humans (not females or kids) Cameron decided to stick very close to Phil on any walk (Nicole, Mary and Jenny were not too keen on them either, expecially after Jenny told a story how she had been surrounded by baboons one time).
We settled in, and prepared for our first game drive (with gallons of mosquito repellent – for the malaria mosquitoes we never saw). We met at the lodge for a coffee and met our ranger – Steve, and our Tracker, Aaron.
We walked up to the trucks – large open four wheel drive jeeps with a seat right on the front for the tracker, and 3 bench seats set behind the driver, quite elevated for a better view.

The rules are simple – no matter what happens, don’t stand up or get out, unless instructed. Whilst the ‘profile’ of the jeep is maintained, animals will not trouble the vehicle. Standing up breaks the silhouette, and getting out separates you from the truck.

The other ‘rule’ was to watch out for overhanging branches – some of the thorns were up to five centimetres long, incredibly sharp and tough as nails.
The afternoon game drive – our first – was lovely. We learned very fast how experienced Peter, Mary, Jenny and Pat were at field spotting and identification. Their love of the bush and its animals and plants was infectious, and the boys rapidly became ‘junior experts’. Peter’s love of birds really rubbed off on Cameron.
We spotted lots of plants and animals, and the boys asked great questions. Very soon Steve and Aaron got the idea of what they were in for over the next 6 days – highly interested tourists looking at the bush as a whole, not just at the big animals. With Peter as an expert in the back, and Steve as the expert in the front, and Aaron able to spot tracks and animals with amazing speed, each game drive was a massive learning experience for all of us. Steve and Aaron were great with us, sharing lots of facts and our sense of humour.  Peter brought enough pairs of binoculars for us all, so we were able to look at things closely and really had an amazing time on every game drive. If you ever go on a safari holiday...a pair of binoculars is essential!
Half way through each game drive, we would stop at sunset and have a drink and some snacks, our favourite biltong, before the evening part of the drive where the spotlights were turned on to sea the ‘creatures of the night’. The late afternoon was great to see daytime animals, and the spotlight let us see the nocturnal animals as they started their evening activities.
This break in the trip was great for the boys, who were able to duck behing a tree and relieve themselves after the bumpy tracks and off the beaten tracks.  Not so lucky for us girls!  Steve reassured us that every bush was a lavender bush, but Nicole didn't trust him on that one.  After the first day, Nicole learnt not to have a drink before we set off.  But our stop in the afternoon was where we were introduced to Amarula. YUM!!  This was the perfect drink for break in the African bush!  Nicole and Phil grew accustomed to this drink very quickly! :)
Just for our reference, I am adding the collective noun to each animal,
because we had fun tryingto remember them all.
The animals we saw on the first drive were:
(a tower of giraffes, but we much preferred to refer to them as a kalidescope of giraffes, it seemed more appropriate..thanks Jenny!)
(herd of Kudu)
(a cluster of Nyala)
Dwarf Mongoose
(a business of dwarf mongoose)
(a herd of Impala)
Scrub Hare
(a drove of Hares)
Dung Beetle
(an army of beetles, although a S**Tload of Dung Beetles seemed more appropriate)
Other animals that we saw (but the light or distance wasn't right for a photo)
Lions ( in the Boma) (pride)
Genet (peter's favourite) (gang?)
Francolin (bird)
Red Bill Oxpecker (bird)
Not ‘truly’ in the wild, but in a holding pen, about the size of a rugby field (called a ‘boma’) were two beautiful golden lions from Kenya. There was a lone female in the park, and these two were brought in to form a pride. The lone female, known as ‘Mufasi’ (simply means ‘female’) is apparently very big and very scary. We didn’t manage to see her on our visit, but we were always on the lookout...  the lions in the boma were in quarantine for about 3 months, to get used to the surroundings before they were let out of the boma into the park.  We visited the boma a few times just on dusk.  The first afternoon game drive the lions were both near the fence.  We were quite close, and they looked quite scary.  In the split second that Aaron turned off the spotlight, and Steve turned on the headlights of the jeep.  One of the lions let out an almighty roar which scared all of us, and made us all jump.  Steve told us that was only a warning, not even a half of a roar....that was enough for Nicole to almost wet herself (remembering she had a couple of drinks before she had started the afternoon drive), she declared the baboons and lions were her least favourite animals! After hearing the small roar,  Nicole was happy not to see Mufasi in the wild.

We also had a great view of the stars, and Peter, with his interest in astromony, gave us a jeep-side lesson. We saw Jupiter and its moons through our binoculars, and saw the Southern Cross and the Scorpio constellation. There was some light from the neighboring townships on the horizon, but this didn’t interfere with the brilliant star-show, including a beautiful shooting star.
After the drive, we arrived back to a lovely dinner and a bottle of wine, whereafter we were escorted from the main lodge to our bungalows(with no fences, any animals including lions and leopards could be strolling through the camp).  We were not allowed to walk back to our bungalows without an experienced guard to take us, just in case.
 With a 5am wakeup call booked, early nights were definitely on the menu.

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