Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Walking Safari near Kruger National Park

We left Pretoria in the morning after the United States game against England in Rustenberg and drove north toward our first major tourist adventure, four day walking safari in the very far northern section of Kruger National Park.  Our drive began on highway 1 through Polokwane to Louis Trichardt, a/k/a/Makhado, where we turned east to Thohoyandou; there we spent the night at the Bouganvilla Lodge.  I had persuaded myself that this location might be culturally interesting, but it was a very long haul from Pretoria and we arrived exhausted, with very little light remaining, so there was no chance to explore the town beyond finding something to eat.  Leaving Thoyoyando the next morning, we began to see the local population in less developed contexts than during our previous days in and around Pretoria. 

We entered Kruger itself and began to see occasional wild game including zebra; but we had to make good time to meet out guides at lunchtime in the Makuleke Concession just north of the official park boundary.  I had aimed to have our Kruger safari adventure be in the park itself, where the prices were lower, but those tours were all booked up by the time we knew what our game schedule was; I did research the best I could and chose this outfit because they were able to match our availability dates, placed precisely between the first and second schedule US. games. 

The Makuleke were ejected in 1969 but won a major land claim after the fall of apartheid; they decided that, rather than moving back in, they would go with the flow and take benefit from the tourist trade.  They signed a 49-year contract with Safari & Adventure Co., which built and staffs a permanent camp lodge at Pafuri. The deal is that within ten years the Makuleke are to be trained to take over the operation.

Our camp hand, Nancy, was also the head of housekeeping at the lodge and was proud of the fact that she was the first African woman to be in charge of a department as part of the transition.  (Because I am re-posting this account five years after our tour, I tried to figure out whether the Makuleke are really five years away from taking full control of the operation; I was unable to learn anything.)

We arrived Monday afternoon and met our guides, Walter (head of ecology for the company) and Frazier Gear (trainer).   We drove for a while and were dropped off to begin our first walk as our bags were driven ahead of us to the camp.  Our walks were conducted single file – one of the guides in front, then the four of us, then the second guide walking behind us.  Each guide toted a rifle; The guns were needed for safety, because of potential danger from the animals (and perhaps form poachers?); but each was proud that in the twenty years of guiding between them, neither had ever had to fire the gun; they had kept their charges sufficiently safe by plotting their walks carefully and avoiding antagonizing the animals (see more about that below).

In the photo of our walking group below, we are passing a termite mound, of which we saw many throughout the concession. 

Here is a termite mound next to a nyala tree

Termite mounds might house as many as 200,000 termites at a time; there are vents for cooling, which is helpful in the summer time when temperature can rise as high as 115 degrees.

This next photo shows a line of ants; there were about 800 of them, each carrying a tiny termite in its mouth, apparently the result of a raid on a termite mound.

As we were getting closer to our camp, we had a sudden detour, because the guides had spotted a breeding herd of elephants. 

We had to stay out of their sight but even more important downwind, so that they would not spot us and possibly panic about the safety of the young elephants.  We would have a similar problem walking back into camp on the third day of our walking tour – there was nothing to do but be patient as we detoured around them to find a safe path back into camp.

As we finally approached camp with the sun setting, we walk through a “fever tree grayeyard.”

According to one story, fever trees got their name as a mistake, reflecting early settlers’ ignorance of the mosquito’s role in spreading malaria.  Settlers apparently associated the trees themselves with malaria.  Another story of the trees’ naming relates to the fact that an infusion from the bark is used to treat fever.

Finally, we walked into our camp, a collection of tents with beds, a couple of bucket showers, and two latrines. 

There was an excellent dinner waiting for us.  Dinners were all prepared at the main Pafuri camp and brought in to be cooked over a fire pit.  The food was invariably excellent.  One night, lamb chops marinated in red wine and rosemary, another night chicken and vegetable brochettes, plus starch and vegetable and desserts such as chocolate bananas cooked in foil over the fire, another time strawberry mousse

Frazier stressed that unlike other private operators at the outskirts of Kruger, the Makuleke operation is eco-friendly, does not overstress the land by building too many beds, or, for example, installing extra water holes to attract game for easy viewing.  The camp is moved every two weeks if not more often to limit impact on the land. 

Each morning, we would rise before dawn; coffee and tea would be ready as we awoke, then we would have a quick breakfast, and walk a different part of the 24,000 hectare concession.  Normally we would walk several miles a day, resting in camp during the hot midday period 

Here is a photo of Joe, looking a we bit bleary eyed with caffeinated drinks on the fire, sitting with camp hand Nancy

On our first morning walk, we visited "crooks corner," a smuggling haven at the intersection of the Limpopo and Luvhuvu Rivers (and also of the borders with Zimbabwe and Mozambique).

There, we saw hippos bathing in the river;
that night some of the same hippos came lumbering near our camp to graze; we heard their low calls. 

Here is a kingfisher that was skimming over the water near the hippos

Another day we walked through grasslands and hiked over the Mabyeni Mountains, following an elephant path that is also used by refugees (and shoppers) coming into South Africa from Zimbabwe.  We saw lots of elephants, in addition to the breeding herd mentioned above  

We had no sighting of the major predators, but our guides Walter and Frazier pointed out lion, leopard and hyena tracks; and explained which skeletons were of animal that died of natural causes (skeletons relatively whole and together) and which had been taken by predators (skeletons torn apart and heavily gnawed).  There were antelope and birds galore. 

Here are a nyala and a baboon seen across the Luvhuvu River

And here a kudu

We saw many bunches of warthogs

(We hoped to see some of the bigger animals driving around Pilanesberg National Park the following week, after our next World Cup game).  On our last day, we saw a line of cape buffalo passing at some distance down a hill from where we were walking. 

Just as well they were at a distance:  “the most feared animal on the savannah– angry and bullet proof,” our guides said.

Walt and Frazier were experts at identifying birds and butterflies as well as the many mammals  in the area.  We saw several different kids of eagle, include the Verreaux’s and the African fish eagle, as well as  the Verreau’s eagle owl that sat in a tree above our camp every morning. 

My notes call this a Birchall’s Carcall (although I have not been able to find that name since)

Here is a lilac-headed roller

and here the Meeve starling

A leopard faced and a white tailed vulture could be found sitting in the branches of the same tree

Among the insects were this armored ground cricket

a dragon fly
and these golden orb spiders – the small dots in the second photo looking like drops of dew are actually tiny spiders.

I had much greater success photographing spiders four years later in the Pantanal in Brazil with help from a guide who was as much a photographer as a nature guide 

We saw many baobab trees throughout our walks, learned of its many uses, to humans and to other animals.   They can store vast quantities of water, enabling them to survive long droughts Elephants rub against the trunks to sharpen their trunks, and dig into them to find water – the stripped trunks as in the photograph below are common throughout the concession.


This huge baobab is the biggest in the Makuleke concession, perhaps 1500 to 2000 years old. 


When we passed by a clump of spiny mother-in-law’s tongue

our guides showed us how the leaves are so fibrous they are used to make twine


 Here is a group photo with our guide Walt and Frazier and Nancy, at the end of our walking safari

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