In Kruger, whatever you do, don’t walk in the bush

When you enter Kruger National Park, there are signs everywhere warning you that whatever you do, DO NOT get out of your car and walk into the bush, except in clearly marked areas. There are lions and lots of other wild animals. They will eat you. So don’t do that.

So what did we do? We spent three days walking in the bush.

In its infinite wisdom, Kruger runs a program that lets you do what it tells you not to do. Go figure.

On a Kruger Wilderness Trail, eight people go out to a remote camp with two rangers and proceed to walk around looking for wild animals, which they almost always find. With any luck at all, they return to their loved ones safe and sound. There are five of these wilderness camps, and on the advice of our friend Francois, we picked the Sweni Trail, which is popular because it’s in lion country. I hope you’re getting a nice full picture of this. We voluntarily walked around hoping to run into lions, although if we came across a rhino or a leopard, well, that would be fine too.

It sounds worse than it is. We were led by two guys with impressive looking guns who seemed to know what they were doing. Mind you, they were not actually Kruger park rangers. They were non-staff rangers pressed into service because Kruger was running its annual ranger training. That’s right, we were being led into the bush by substitute teachers.

Walking in the bush, like they tell you not to do.

Walking in the bush, like they tell you not to do.

Spoiler alert – the fact that I’m writing this post means we lived.

Apparently lots of people survive these wilderness trails. One guy in our group from New York had done this trail thing ten times already and was doing all five trails consecutively this year. At first I was charmed, but in retrospect it should have been a sign that he’d be a tedious, overbearing New Yorker. Sometimes there’s nothing worse than an enthusiast. This fellow was also an obsequious ranger groupie, lugging along extra bottles of wine, mangoes, lychees (!), cheese, and various other goodies and ostentatiously presenting them to the poor rangers at every opportunity. The rest of us got to watch. I’ve seen some world-class ass-kissing in my day, but this took the prize.

These things are called wilderness trails, but I have to confess that we weren’t exactly roughing it. The group packed its stuff into a trailer (including our luggage, extra food, and whatever we wanted to drink) and the rangers drove us about an hour into the bush, where we came upon a rustic but lovely fenced camp with four little a-frame huts, a covered dining area, and a toilet and shower area. There was hot water, a gas-powered fridge, and a cook who prepared our meals. As camping goes, this is pretty good. The camp overlooks a little river (where we watched an elephant take a bath one afternoon) and a wide plain, where we saw herds of zebras, giraffes, wildebeests, and more impalas than you could possibly count. It’s also pretty remote – we had over 100,000 acres of the park to ourselves.

Our cute hut.

Our cute hut.

We arrived in late afternoon, had the first of three simple but absolutely smashing dinners, and Janine and I climbed into our little hut to listen to the sounds of the bush at night. We listened to several prides of lions roar all night long. After they were done roaring, they got busy trying to make more lions. We have had some number of affectionate neighbors during this journey, but this was a first. We ended up being serenaded by leonine connubial bliss for hours on end. (I’m pretty sure that it was lions and not any of our campmates, for which I am eternally grateful.)

The rangers woke us each morning at 4 (nope, that’s not a typo) and we set out on a six hour hike through the bush. Not everyone wants to get up at 4 in the morning for a six hour hike with dangerous wild animals, but what the heck? The rules of the hike are pretty straightforward – walk in single file, no talking, and do whatever the freelance substitute teacher rangers tell you to do. In fact, we didn’t just walk in silence. Our guides stopped every few minutes to observe a termite hill, an interesting bird, lion tracks, or all manner of animal doody. I know more than a few people who would have been horrified to watch our trail leader, known as the “first gun” (yep, that’s what they call the trail leader) bend down and pick up a piece of animal poo to explain some important element of the animal’s diet or somesuch.

BJ and doo.

Our “First Gun” and doo.

We learned about more than just poop. We learned that’s there’s no morality in nature. Wild African Dogs don’t bother to kill their prey, they just eat them alive. Spider Wasps don’t just kill the unlucky schmo who happens upon their web – they paralyze the poor sap and then lay their eggs inside them. Now that’s cold. Then we saw the circle of life in all its Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom glory. One afternoon as we were driving for our sundowner (we did long hikes in the morning and short drives in the evening) the rangers spotted a group of circling vultures who were clearly feeding on something. We climbed out of the jeep and tromped into the bush where we found a zebra that had just died. There were no marks on the animal, and it wasn’t very old (our “second gun” bent over and pulled back the creature’s teeth to get a sense of its age – yecch) so our guides speculated that the zebra might have been kicked.

By the way, I should point out that our substitute rangers may be freelancers, but they were amazingly smart, nice, and experienced rangers.

The vultures completely engulfed the animal and were doing what vultures do until we approached, at which point they disbursed while we investigated.

vultures with zebra

This was a difficult, but astonishing spectacle.

We were returning from our evening drive the following night when we came upon lions feeding on a massive Cape Buffalo. In the background at least a half dozen hyenas skulked about hopefully, waiting for the lions to lose interest, which they never did. We returned the next morning to see what was left of the buffalo, which wasn’t much.

lion and buffalo 2

Reminds me of my days back in Hollywood.

During one of our morning walks, we encountered a massive breeding herd of elephants. There were more than sixty elephants in the group, which our guide said was the largest herd he’d seen in nearly a decade. Later that day, we watched a different herd frolic in a lake, and we were then taunted by the lake’s resident hippo, who was doing his best to scare us off. It wasn’t hard. Nobody wants to deal with an angry hippo.

I suppose it’s the element of danger that makes the wilderness trails so interesting and exciting. We also had a much different perspective on life in the bush than we got from the safety of our bush drives, and there was always the chance that we’d stumble upon something that we’d prefer to see from a distance. Our rangers carried rifles that were always locked and loaded, which was at the same time reassuring and a bit scary. Thus we had three versions of the Kruger experience – a fancy pants lodge, a very laid back guest house, and a fairly primal walk through the bush. Which did I like the best? Beats me. I think it’s a good sign that I’d go back to all three when I return, and I certainly plan to return.

When we finished the trail we spent one more night at the southern border of the park in another guest house run by a very entertaining chap where we watched elephants and hippos from our terrace. For the five hour drive back to Joburg I was at defcon ten, waiting to be pulled over by rogue cops, but I managed to elude them. We also passed through the worst rainstorm I have ever seen. At one point the weather got so bad that all the cars on the freeway came to a stop to wait out the storm. By the time we made it back to the airport I was exhilarated, exhausted, and eager for the trip to mild-mannered New Zealand, where the wildest animal you’ll encounter is an ill-tempered lamb, and where by all accounts the police try to only arrest the guilty.

A Game Drive with an Unarmed Barefoot Dutch Cop and Other Adventures

A trip to a fancy safari lodge was something of a dream come true, but you can’t eat bon bons for dinner every night, can you? Certainly not. Besides, high end safari digs ain’t cheap, even if the meals are included. So we said goodbye to Alicia and Sipu and Sydwell and the rest of the gang. We said goodbye to high end sundowners (oh, and welcome home from the game drive cocktails – I forgot about those), and sunuppers and the gourmet meals and the outdoor shower and the pith helmets (okay, there weren’t any pith helmets), and we drove up the road to a guest house called Kerhula Lodge in the Balule Parsons Reserve, another private reserve that borders Kruger. I picked it because it was cheap and it sounded mellow.

What I didn’t realize was that it was being run temporarily by a couple of Amsterdam cops. Say what?

Yes, the owners of this place, who are from the Netherlands, were on vacation, so they left their home and business in the care of their friends, Marieke and Jovan. He’s on the Amsterdam police force, where among other things, he serves on the soccer hooligan squad. His wife is a Dutch Kyra Sedgewick – she’s the chief of detectives.

Oh, another thing. Unlike Naledi and most other safari lodges, this place has no fences. Anything can, and will, wander right through the front yard. On the day we arrived, an elephant had just passed through. Elephants are really cute and soulful and all that, but they will also kill you. Um, so can lions. And other stuff. Marieke and Jovan seemed unfazed. “Yeah, the animals come through, but it’s okay,” Jovan said, as though he was describing a visit by squirrels.

Happy, Humble, Kerhula

Happy, Humble, Kerhula. Just before we arrived, an elephant had wandered through.

They must be really good friends. I mean, would you entrust your business, which just happens to feature wild animals that can kill people, to a friend? I admit I was mildly concerned. I was expecting to find a couple who lived out in the wild and were keen to the ways of nature, and the bush, and all that. They could pick up a blade of grass, sniff it, and tell you whether the rhino that peed on it was male or female. You know, stuff like that. On the other hand, if the animals broke the law, Jovan and Marieke were qualified to arrest them.

I put my misgivings aside because they seemed very nice and I got a good vibe from the place, and besides, they were cops. Our room was not fancy, but quite clean and comfortable. It didn’t have an outdoor shower, but it had a nice porch with a view of the same river we had just come from. A resident crocodile named Bruce basked on a spit of sand at the river’s edge. This was no pet, though. A while back, the owners’ dog got too close to the water and Bruce had him for lunch. There was a family of rhinos splashing around across the way. Same nature, only cheaper.

Bruce, the resident croc.

Bruce, the resident croc.

I think the owners’ Dutch-ness had an effect on the clientele, which was like a plenary session at the European Union. There was a Swiss German couple, a Swiss Italian couple, a Dutch couple, another couple from the UK in which the wife spoke with the most enterprising Dutch/Birmingham accent, and another couple from England. I heard the words “nay,” “acch,” and “crikey” a lot.

They were all really great, though, and on the first evening we sat around a long table outside and watched Jovan grill meats on the brai, as the barbeque is called in South Africa, and we exchanged stories of encounters with the South African police, which seems to be the standard icebreaker in these parts. Here we were again, at a dinner party with strangers.

Nothing about this place is particularly formal, which is just fine with me. The bar, such as it is, is the fridge in the kitchen. Take a bottle of wine or a beer and mark it on the little sheet on the wall. Game drives and bush walks are extra, but they’re only twenty bucks. Besides, you feel less guilty for sleeping in. The game drive was every bit as low key as the rest of the joint. One afternoon I asked Jovan if we could go for a drive and he looked slightly disappointed, because I suspect he had other stuff to do. But he was game (har, har) and we climbed into the Range Rover and set off. By contrast to Naledi, which had a driver armed with an elephant gun and a tracker who sat on a special chair bolted to the hood keeping a sharp eye out for animals, it was just Jovan in flip flops, which he tossed aside to drive the jeep. No gun, either. And while Jovan seems to know a lot about animals, one can only hope that the animals act a lot like soccer hooligans, so he can put his day job training to work. I mean, let’s face it, we were driving through lion, leopard, elephant, and rhino country with a barefoot, unarmed, Dutch cop.

At Naledi, the rangers and trackers all keep close tabs on each other with walkie talkies. When someone spots something, the drivers go racing across the reserve, threatening to catapult the unsuspecting guest into the bush if she isn’t careful. We even blew a tire once. Instead, Jovan took us on a zen game drive. Janine and I hopped into the vehicle and he proceeded to meander around the reserve with a peaceful quietude. Of course, within minutes we were spotting animals left and right. Here was a herd of zebras, there a group of giraffes, and kudu, and antelope, and elephants.

In the Balule Parsons Reserve near Kerhula Lodge.

In the Balule Parsons Reserve near Kerhula Lodge.

At one point, Jovan jumped out of the jeep to inspect a dry river bed where a pride of lions had rested the day before. Janine and I wondered exactly what we would do if he found them, especially on foot. He poked around a bit then returned to the car, reluctant to stray too far. We resumed our drive for another, oh, fifty yards and there they were – a beautiful but terrifying family of lions. They got just a hair too close for comfort at one point and then one of the adolescent cubs darted off into a scamper – he was playing with one of his siblings – which nearly caused us to wet ourselves. Just another afternoon drive in the neighborhood, I guess.

We stumbled upon these lions on our game drive. Next time we'll wear adult undergarments.

We stumbled upon these lions on our game drive. Next time we’ll wear adult undergarments.

We only had scheduled two days here, but we could have stayed much longer. It’s the kind of vacation I can get behind – sit on a hammock at the water’s edge staring down at a crocodile with a beer in my hand, making sure not to fall out of the hammock or spill my beer. If I stayed here long enough, I might even read a book, or learn Dutch.

But we had to push off because we needed to get into Kruger for a three day wilderness hike. Yes, you heard that correctly – we were off to spend three days on foot in the heart of Kruger National Park. This was going to be rustic and very close to nature. We’re not really the camping and hiking sort, but it sounded too cool to pass up. And really, what could possibly go wrong?

Living the Lush Life in Some Small Dive in the African Bushvelt

Oh, Naledi Lodge, how do I love you? Let me count the ways!

You may recall that we had a bit of a rough time getting to our safari camp near Kruger National Park in South Africa. There was that little matter of the extortionist cops and the bad maps and getting lost and almost stuck in the mud and all that. There were brief moments of minor recrimination. There was sweating. Well, my brothers and sisters, all the cares of the world melted away when we finally arrived at the luxe lodge in the bush called Naledi. Upon arrival, Alicia, our Managress (that’s what it says on her card) handed us a welcome drink and led us to one of the most splendid hotel rooms I’ve ever stayed in.

People took our bags, they took our car (and washed it, we later discovered, which was good, because after our little jaunt through the mud it looked like a work by Jackson Pollock), and for all I cared, they could have taken both of my big toes. I was vulnerable little Tobias in Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett was singing “No one’s gonna harm you, not while I’m around…” (Of course Tobias goes mad and then dies, but that’s not important.) We were welcomed lovingly into the gentle arms of the African bushvelt. (Okay, that’s also a rotten metaphor. In the African bushvelt things get killed and eaten before your eyes, unless it’s you that’s getting killed and eaten before your wife’s eyes.)

No matter, we had arrived at a safari camp that offered welcome drinks. Our room had indoor and outdoor showers, polished concrete floors, and a glorious view of the Olifants River.

The view from our room. There are hippos out there!

The view from our room. There are hippos out there!

Even though we missed lunch by an hour and a half, within minutes there it was, hot and delicious. Thirty minutes later we were on the safari van off to explore the bush, and forty one minutes later we saw our first pride of lions.

Ten minutes into our first game drive we saw this guy.

Ten minutes into our first game drive we saw this guy.

After another hour and a half or so of driving around looking for wild animals, our tracker Sipu and our ranger Sydwell pulled to the side of the road at a picturesque little spot, set up a table, arranged some snacks, and poured sundowners. Things were looking up.

Sundowners in the bush. I think I'm gonna like it here.

Sundowners in the bush. I think I’m gonna like it here.

Life at Naledi went like this – we received a gentle tap at our door each morning at 5. (Yes, 5. If you are not a morning person, you will just have to suck it up. Game drives start early.) Coffee was waiting in the bar and we headed off for our morning safari drive at 5:30. By 7:30 or so the trackers would pull over for coffee and cookies and by 8:30 we were back to the lodge to clean up before breakfast at 9ish. Then we would take a little nap or contemplate a dip in the pool. Before lunch, guests can go for a nature walk with a guide or be dropped off at the water hole hide for a few hours. Lunch was at 2:30, followed by another little nap and then everyone heads out for the evening game drive at 4:30, highlighted by sundowners out in the bush at about 7, and then back to the lodge for dinner at 8 or so.

The place has a capacity of eighteen guests, but there were never more than ten when we were there. It helps if you like each other. We had our meals together and we went on our two-a-day game drives together. Thus, it turned into just another version of the puertos cerrados of Buenos Aires – a great big dinner party with strangers, although this one also featured wild animals. Fortunately, the strangers were loads of fun. One American couple and their two daughters are now living in Buenos Aires, of all places. Another young couple from the UK did an eight month around-the-world trip of their own a few years ago. The people we’ve come across have been similarly situated – they have a sense of wonder and a willingness to scratch that itch. They are usually lots of fun to spend time with, although the occasional exceptions can be almost as entertaining.

The folks who work at this place have a schedule like a merchant seaman – they work forty two days straight and then take twelve days off. They’re up every morning to prepare for the 5 a.m. game drive and they sit with us at dinner – including the trackers and the rangers – telling us stories of life in the bush and other tales of derring do. I can’t imagine this kind of schedule, but the staff seem to really enjoy their work, bless them. Nevertheless, it can’t be easy to be as cheerful and helpful as they are for forty two straight days. They were also shockingly good at their jobs. One morning, for example, Janine noticed a tear in our mosquito net, but she forgot to mention it to Alicia. By the time we had returned from the morning drive, it has been mended anyway. Now that’s good service.

The Naledi game drives felt a bit like the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland. We’d all pile into this tricked out Toyota 4Runner and go barrel-assing through the reserve looking for charismatic megafauna. Some news about the whereabouts of lions or leopards would crackle over the radio and our driver would floor the gas pedal and we’d go speeding and bouncing through the bush until we’d find our animal – and we almost always did. As I mentioned, we hadn’t been on our first drive of the trip for ten minutes when we were gaping at a small pride of lions, who were well aware of our presence, although they could not have been less interested.

On the first morning after we arrived we set out for our second drive in a very light drizzle. We were unfazed, but we should have been. After about a half hour of fiddling about, the drizzle had turn to rain, and then it was just Noah’s Ark time. Not every game drive yields a leopard, I guess.

Cold, wet, and happy.

Cold, wet, and happy.

Naledi sits on the Balule Nature Reserve, a piece of private property that borders Kruger National Park. Since there are no fences between the areas, animals are free to roam anywhere, and they do. During our three days at Naledi, we saw the so-called “big five” – lion, leopard, cape buffalo, elephant, and rhinoceros – and tons more. There were giraffes and kudus, hippos and impalas (called the McDonald’s of the bush, either because there’s one on every corner, or because everyone eats there, I’m not sure which). We saw lion cubs, a baby hippo and a very rare rhino baby.

These guys frolicked around just like little kittens.

These guys frolicked around just like little kittens.

One of the first rhinos born in the wild in this reserve in almost two hundred years.

One of the first rhinos born in the wild in this reserve in almost two hundred years.

Vervet monkeys played outside our window, and one little voyeur watched Janine take a bath. A trio of hippos spent an afternoon splashing around just outside our room. But we got nearly as much enjoyment out of watching a humble dung beetle roll his little ball of doo around as we did watching an elephant push a tree over like it was a skinny twig. The dung beetle, by the way, is a fascinating creature. It rolls a ball of elephant or rhino or some other dung around, deposits its larvae inside, and then buries the thing in soft sand, where, if it’s lucky, a honey badger won’t unearth the whole works and eat the bugs inside. The beetle will push and pull and roll that ball of doody to and fro, seemingly exerting its last bit of effort. Then, like a harrier jump jet, the thing turns into a helicopter and flies away. Ain’t nature something?

We only planned three nights at Naledi because it’s expensive, but also because we wanted a variety of perspectives on the safari experience. On the other hand, the price of our lodgings came with three very good meals a day and two game drives, so there’s that. But we couldn’t keep this fancy schmancy lifestyle up for long.

Next time – a guest house without fences (where elephants and everything else roam) hosted by a Dutch cop and his detective wife on a game reserve up river a bit.