Under darkness of the South African night, we began Day 7 of our adventure.
It was just past 4:00am when the halls of Gekko Backpackers rang with the sound of morning alarms going off. Today was going to be no ordinary day, it was safari day and we were bound for the revered Kruger National Park.
At the heart of South Africa is the Kruger National Park. Covering just under 20,000 square-kilometers, it is one of the largest game reserves in Africa and home to all five of the Big Five game animals: The African lion, African elephant, Cape Buffalo, African leopard and rhinoceros. These animals, and the park, symbolize South Africa in such a way that they have appeared on their banknotes for the past 30 years.
After a quick coach ride to the park entrance, we were greeted with our transportation for the day, open-top safari vehicles, and our reserve guides. The friendly and knowledgeable guides gave us an overview of what was to come, as well as safety reminders, as we got comfortable in our seats. The Sun was just encroaching the landscape when the briefing was over and we were off on our way.
Not ten-minutes into the park did we drive before making our first encounter. A pack of hyenas. These scavengers are primarily nocturnal, but often venture out in early mornings. They live in female dominated societies and has a stronger bite than any of the Big Cats in Africa, up to 8000-lb/sq.in. Although is it not a member of the Big Five, it was still a treat to see.
As the truck continued down the winding dirt trail, a rustle in the shrubbery was noticed. The guide immediately slammed on the breaks as the rest of us leaned over in anticipation. Immediately, we identified the source of the movement. It was no other than the largest land animal on the planet; the African elephant. They are highly social creates residing in two types of herds; a matriarchal herd led by a dominant female with older females and younger males, or patriarchal herds composed of older males. Although the animals themselves can be difficult to see, their signs are not. Everywhere we looked, trees stood with their bark stripped off. In the winter, we were told, they tip trees to gain access to the nutrient rich roots. As a result, overthrown trees are peppered across the park.
Although our first encounter with these majestic animals wasn’t the closest, we were confident we’d get another chance.
The next animal we saw was the zebra. Famed for it’s striped pattern, the plains zebra can be found throughout Africa. The commonly accepted theory for their stripes is for camouflage, preventing predators from distinguishing individuals. However, a new theory suggest these stripes are used to regulate temperature. During the summer, the cells under the white stripes emit heat, cooling the animal down, and in the winter, the cells under the back stripes absorb heat. No mater the reason, zebras and their patterns have become synonymous with the African plains, and we are thrilled to have viewed their beauty in person.
Speaking of patterns, our grads stumbled upon a lone giraffe further down the trail. As a relative to the camel, giraffes have no vocal cord, and as such, cannot make any sound. This is unfortunate as they have the longest tongue in the animal kingdom, proportionally. Despite their lengthy stature, their necks contain the next same number of vertebrates as humans, seven.
As the Sun continued to beat down on us, we began to become ever appreciative of the tarp canopy above our heads that shielded us from the intense light, despite the winter season.
After a few twists and turns by our field guide, we arrived our second encounter with the elephant, this time in a herd. They were right by the road, which allowed us to get stunningly close. It was a herd of approximately ten animals, several of which were calves.
Our second Big Five encounter came in the form of the Cape buffalo that formed a blockade on the road. The Big Five were first classified based on difficulty and danger to hunt, and as such, the buffalo is deserving of such title. They are incredibly aggressive and unpredictable. On males, the horns grow from the middle of their head, forming a shell. This helmet is so thick that bullets often do not penetrate.
As lunch time drew near, we began to make our way to the rest stop located in the middle of the park. However, on route, we were met wit the second deadliest animal in Africa: the hippopotamus. With the ability to open their jaw wider than 180-degrees, they spend most of their days in water, leaving only at night to forage. They are highly territorial creatures, attacking anything that challenges their land claims. As they need the water to cool them down, they only come to surface during the day when it’s cold. Our grads were fortunate enough for the weather to be the perfect condition to witness sunbathing hippos.
After a light lunch, the grads were re-energized and ready for the last hour of the drive with their stomachs filled and mind focused.
Under the pounding of the noon sun, the later portion of the drive was less fruitful than the first. After spotting a group of 3 elephants next to a watering hole, we left the park with memories made and the experience of a lifetime under our belt.
Thank's again to all the sponsors of the trip! It wouldn't have been possible without your generosity.