Hands down, today was a great safari day! That is really best way to describe it. Why? Because even though I have seen many more animals in a single day during my previous safari in Kenya’s Masaii Mara during the Wildebeest migration, the proximity from the animals that we were able to get for many of the animals today was simply unbelievable. That aspect, coupled with the fact that we also encountered four of the Big Five animals made this truly a day to remember and will go down as one of my best individual travel days of all time.
The morning hike began with us hearing a group of African elephants out in the bush as we left camp at 5 AM. Our guides decided to track this group of elephants which they believed to be a group of bachelor males that travel together. The obvious inclination for tracking elephants is just to follow the sound they make as they walk through grass and trees. After all, elephants are the largest land animals on earth so how hard can it be, especially if there are a number of them tearing through the savanna? Well, as it turns out, tracking these giant pachyderms is notoriously difficult. Despite their behemoth size, elephants are extremely quiet animals when they want to be. The reason for this is because not only do elephants have thick pads on the bottom of their feet but they also have a tough, gelatinous material that acts as a shock absorber and dampens the sound when they walk. The second reason they are hard to spot is because their greyish-brown color allows them to blend in very well with their environment. In many cases, an elephant can be quietly standing only a few yards away and still be almost unrecognizable because they blend in so well with their surroundings.
In any case, we spent the good part of an hour tracking down this group. Finally, we noticed the tops of a few trees moving across the river bank from where we were hiking. We stopped and within a few seconds a group of about six bulls made their way out. Amazingly, one of the adults decided to take down a tree directly in front of our field of vision. As quiet as a mouse, the bull rammed its head against this 30 foot tall tree and after a couple of hits, completely uprooted it as it fell to the ground. All four of us were completely astounded by the strength and agility of this animal and how easily it was able to take down a perfectly strong and healthy tree. As the group of bulls moved on, we followed them from the safety of being on the other side of the river from them. Even if the elephants noticed us, they didn’t give any indication of our presence. Instead, they laboured slowly onwards up and down some rolling hills as we continued to keep pace with them. Sometimes all of them would be visible as the embankment cleared up, and then within seconds they would all completely disappear into the trees like ghosts fading into the night.
We followed this troop for about an hour after we spotted them. In that time, I believe there was only one short call that was made by one of the elephants. The rest of the walk was as silent as could be except for the breaking of branches and twigs as they walked past the trees. It was the longest encounter with a group of elephants I ever had and gave me a new found respect for these amazing beasts. However, our encounters with the elephants was not quite over for today. But, I’ll return to that later.
After veering off from them and continuing our hike, our guides Brian and Phil gave us a number of lectures on other plants and birds that inhabit Kruger National Park. It was nice to get educated on not just the major wildlife, but on all aspects of the ecosystem. It makes the hikes seem authentic and real rather than just a series of wildlife highlights followed by miles of walking around endlessly.
On our way back to camp, we came across another herd of Cape buffalo making their way through the park. We decided to follow them for a while since they were headed in the same direction we were. Eventually, we split up and returned to Tusker camp arriving just before 11 AM. So in a span of just a couple of hours, we managed to see two of the Big Five, although we had seen quite a few of the buffalo the day before.
Following our mid afternoon siesta where we spent a majority of the time in our tent reading our respective books, we then jumped in the Land Rover and were headed out to the north part of the reserve to hike in the hills. Just a couple of minutes out of camp, however, we ran into a group of impalas and clearly heard a very agitated male making barking noises toward a tree. We stopped to investigate but couldn’t quite make out what this impala was intently gazing at as it continued to make the alerts to his large group of females a few yards away. So, we turned the vehicle around and drove to a different vantage point where we could get a better view without the large number of low hanging branches in our way. As we did so, sitting right up against the trunk was a leopard! Immediately, we turned off the engine and watched as it confronted the impala about 30 feet in front of it. Where the impala looked troubled, agitated, and perhaps even frightened, the leopard on the other hand looked as cool and confident as could be. It didn’t appear as if the leopard wanted to run after the impala but was rather just resting under the shade of the tree and waiting for the cooler afternoon before it would begin its hunt. The leopard obviously saw us as well sitting in our open vehicle, but again seemed completely unamused by our presence.
As we sat their watching this beautiful animal, our guide told of a story of a traveler from the UK. He had come to Kruger National Park on a hiking safari for 12 consecutive years before he saw his first leopard. These animals are incredibly elusive and solitary, mostly hunting at night. To have seen one on our third day and at this close range was nothing short of unbelievable.
Moving on, we came upon another large herd of cape buffalo. We stopped for about 10 minutes to watch them as our small group faced them off. I was most surprised by how close some of the buffalo came to our vehicle. There seems to be almost no fear or apprehension at all on their part while we are within the confines of the land rover. A little while later, we arrived at the site where we would be hiking. This time, it would be along the banks of a brook and we would spend much of the next couple of hours observing smaller flora and fauna. It was a pretty area of the reserve and quite lush in vegetation. Returning back to the vehicle, we headed out to where Brian thought there was a herd of female elephants. True enough, after about 20 minutes of driving around and looking at the tops of trees to see if they were moving around from the elephants brushing up against them, we found them. This time, there was a fairly small baby elephant romping around its mother and exercising its trunk and it ran and struggled to keep up with its much larger mother and siblings. No doubt, the elephants, including the baby, saw us, and there were a number of instances where the baby cautiously approached us before running back to the safety of its family. We followed and observed this herd for about 30 minutes before moving on. It really was a very pleasant encounter and since we were much closer to these elephants than our previous one, the complexity of their personality and sense of familial relationships really shown through.
After our last sundown, we started heading back towards Tusker camp. But there was still to be two final animal encounters before we reached camp. The first one was with a lone giant eagle owl perched high atop a tree branch on the lookout for prey. This is the third largest species of owl in the world. Then, soon after that, another encounter with lions! This time, two lionesses were together in a small field laying around as we drove up. One of them got up for a few seconds as she found a more comfortable place to lay herself down. Though exciting to see these lions so close up, it was largely uneventful as the beasts lethargically lounged about and only eyed us occasionally as we marveled at them. Twenty minutes later, we decided to leave them and finally returned back to camp for dinner and to turn into our tents.
Without a doubt, this was truly a remarkable day in terms of wildlife encounters. What a way to end our walking safari!