Upon entering the Orpen gate into Kruger, it was immediately apparent at how “Disney” Kruger could be at times: the curio shops boast mugs, t-shirts, magnets and pins – all graffiti-ed with “Kruger National Park” or the well known faces of the big five. This feeling of prescribed experience quickly faded, however, as soon as we stepped out (err, drove out) into the wilds of Kruger.
Much of the morning drive to our research camp in Skukuza revealed small groups of warthogs, massive herds of impala (until this point, we’d only seen small groups), and the occasional steenbok. The wildlife viewing began to pick up (much like an exponential curve) when we rounded a bend to find a momma chacma baboon caring for her tiny little one. The baby baboon played and tumbled around in his mother’s lap as she debugged him
As you might imagine, it was hard to pull away, but thankfully we did because we soon hit the peak of that exponential curve. Our little Hilux came to a large watering hole that looked suspiciously like an estuary (though it turned out to be a large pan). On the opposite bank a group of four large female elephants had just taken a dust bath and were busy drinking and spraying water backward, displaying an arc of water droplets that glittered in the bright sunlight. Soon, two of the elephants submerged themselves in the water and appeared to find relief from the increasing temperature. Several meters away two hippos surfaced, walking along the bottom of the shallow pan and occasionally jumping up to breath a relief of air. In the backdrop among the trees emerged a group of 5 giraffes. A variety of heights, they browsed the leafy foliage as they lazily made their way to the watering hole. And just behind the lengthy leaders came a herd of wildebeest. Their lighter brown skin contrasted with the sharp orange giraffes and it was easy to see their intent – filling up on water to prepare for a long hot day of grazing. A crocodile on the closer bank appeared uninterested in the busy procession and continued to bathe in the sun without a single movement to ensure he wasn’t a fake. A herd of impala covered the remaining open waterbank as they nipped at the short green grass, a welcome respite to the brown duff covering the rest of the land.
And just as we thought to ourselves that we were seeing African wildlife in all its glory (there were several bird species present as well, but we’re focusing on the less funded research subjects at the moment), a large herd of about 14 elephants with three little ones about twice the size of a full grown impala crossed the road behind us. They left behind the arid savanna for a cool drink at the water’s edge. Katie watched in amazement as the clustered group broke apart, the protected little ones being allowed to break ranks of the nucleus and drink their share. They copied the mature drinking behavior of their mothers and didn’t seem to play much.
As the day stretched into early afternoon, our truck raced towards Skukuza passing small groups of 4-7 zebra and several more groups of elephants. One pair of adult males grabbed our attention when they began to spar down by a dried up creek bed. We stopped to watch the two face off, coming together to knock heads and then wrap their trunks around one another’s heads. The larger male finally seemed to drive the other off (we had determined at this point that it was a territory dispute, as the inferior male seemed intent on exploring this new piece of land) and we continued down the road about 50 meters. In the same river bed, three adult females walked down the river bed, accompanied by the smallest baby elephant we had yet to see. We looked on in amusement as the little one tried to follow his mom up the steep far slope. We thought it almost had it when it suddenly tumbled backwards, sliding down the slope back to the river bottom. The adult females patiently helped it up with their strong trunks and guided it diagonally up the slope, using a familiar hiking technique: switchbacks. The approach worked and the little group soon disappeared into the trees.
We were romanced by the wild in the six hours we had roamed the park and were beyond excited to spend over a week driving and hiking through this rich land. We were assigned a little rondavel down by a river’s edge in the Skukuza Research Camp. Katie quickly dubbed it the snail shell, as the rooms inside wrapped around each other, coming closer and closer to the middle of the shell’s swirl. We feel asleep to sounds of hippos, bushbabies, and frogs, echoing much like the sound of the ocean you might hear when putting a sea shell to your ear.