South Africa, and a safari, were never near the top of our bucket lists – there were always other places that beckoned, it was so far away – lots of reasons. But, when you have good friends who are so enthusiastic about the country, have spent time there and know their way around, and offer to plan the whole thing? Well, you end up in a van leaving the small airport in Nelspruit after flying overnight from London, to Johannesburg, to here, and there are impalas munching grass at the side of the road, as blasé to your presence as any white-tailed deer in Buck Hill Falls, Pennsylvania.
Once we left Nelspruit, we were still 2 hours from Londolozi, our safari “camp.” The majority of the drive was on main roads, past miles of eucalyptus plantations, banana plantations, fruit orchards, and in and out of various towns.
When we got closer, and turned off onto dirt roads, still a half hour or more from Londolozi, our eyes grew bigger and bigger.
There, in the distance, were elephants. There to the left were warthogs. There to the right were zebras. There, crossing the road in front of us, was a giant elephant and her baby. There goes a wildebeest. And there again, 10 feet from the van, were other elephants taking a muddy trunk shower out of a big puddle.
We weren’t even to camp, and we’d already been stunned.
Londolozi itself was fabulous. The operation has five different camps; we were in Founders’ Camp, and loved it. As we pulled in, staff was lined up to greet us and help us with our bags.
We immediately went to our rooms (giant beds with mosquito curtains, private decks with a little round plunge pool and outdoor shower, lounge chairs, table and chairs under a shady roof, large bathroom – little did we know that, with the schedule we had, we wouldn’t be spending much time there!). We changed and went back to the main communal area – a beautiful, high-roofed, open deck where meals and drinks were served, with comfy seating areas, all looking out on land covered in the “bush” vegetation we’d see everywhere, with lots of buff-colored rocks as well, and looking up to a long ridge where, over the next three days, we’d catch silhouettes of elephants and giraffes.
Each couple had a thatched roof “hut”. This was ours.
View from one side of the deck
We had a little time to enjoy a late lunch and an early glass of wine, get acquainted with the staff, chat with Helen, the camp manager, and meet our guide, Sean, and our tracker, Joy, then it was time to get in the jeep and head out on our first game run.
Our guide Sean Zeederberg maps our course
Since there were six of us travelling together, we had our jeep (actually a Range Rover), our guide, and our tracker all to ourselves for the three days, which was so perfect. The jeep, with its stacked tiers of seats, was surprisingly comfortable. We took turns each run with where each couple sat (top, middle, bottom), but there were no bad seats. Other guests at Founder’s Camp ventured out in other jeeps, each with its own guide and tracker; the guides all stayed in radio contact with each other to share sightings and other information (though, because of the dire situation with poaching of rhinos, they never share those particular sightings over the radio).
Our tracker, Joy, commandeered the lone seat out on the hood.
So we set out, bouncing down the dirt road, over the “cow catcher” at the entrance, went about 20 feet, and there was a hippo, just standing off to our right, munching on some greens, as if this was just some normal, everyday occurrence. Sean said that seeing a hippo out of water during the day was actually not normal. And with a butt like that, we can see why he – or she – might prefer the cover of night.
For the next 3 hours, in beautiful terrain, we saw sights we never imagined being so close to. So many different kinds of fowl, herds of impala, proud warthogs, kudu, more zebra, even a turtle inching along the side of the road. It was thrilling, mesmerizing, moving.
We got very close to some giraffes, loping in front of our jeep. Regal, elegant, beautiful, implausible – and totally ill-designed for getting a simple drink of water.
Oh, but about that impala in the tree . . .Early on our first outing, Sean got a call about a leopard sighting, so off we went to find another Londolozi jeep parked under a tree, where a limp and clearly dead impala was draped over a branch.
Impala hanging from lowest branch of tree at right
As we drove closer, we passed a hyena lying in a depression in the dirt, as nonchalant as can be (a cigarette and a drink would not have seemed out of place). He barely moved his eyes to follow us as we went past. He was saving his strength, waiting for dinner to literally drop out of the sky.
In a second tree, just over from the impala-tree, was the leopard, recovering from the kill and the placing of the impala in the dining room (hard to imagine pulling a dead animal of that size up a tree. With your mouth.).
See leopard draped over lowest right branch
Sean said the leopard would be resting for a while, so we could tear ourselves away from this sight, drive around some more, then come back when this diner was ready for a second course. Which we did. And, we have video. And it has some sound, in case you want to hear crunching.
But before that, we saw more zebras, lots of zebras. Moms, very pregnant zebras, teenagers, and kiddos. The manes on the younger ones seem big for them — like zebra mohawks — and quite fetching. The kids engaged in a lot of running, jumping, and playing.
We saw wildebeest. Adults and kids. Faces that one can only assume are attractive to other wildebeests.
Just in case we were getting bored, Sean drove us up to a level spot with a great view and pulled out the “sundowners” kit: a complete bar, with a suitcase of glasses, and snacks, and we had our little happy hour of gentility and civility in the middle of the bush, becoming only a little worried about a large, solo elephant that decided to do a drive-by in case there was anything interesting going on.
In terms of fear factor, except for an encounter we’ll highlight in the next post, the only creature that really scared us when it was close, and the only one that the guide seemed to be super vigilant about, was any solo male elephant that was in musth (do not lisp; pronounce like must). How do you tell if an elephant is in musth? Well, you will smell it. Quite clearly. From quite a distance. And on either side of the head, behind the eyes, you will see a wet trail of a hormone secretion (temporin) from the temporal glands running down the face. Oh, and you might see some dribbling from the, ah, gentlemen’s parts toward the rear. These animals are huge, and it is quite clear that if one decided to just run towards you and trample across your jeep, you wouldn’t have much say about it – that’s why, the few times we were near one, Sean and Joy kept their eyes on it, and Sean kept the motor running. Sean pointed out that these male elephants can stay in musth for months and months, wandering around by themselves trying to find someone to mate with. And I read online that the testosterone level of an elephant in musth can be 60 times more than the regular level. Which could make you just a bit edgy.
Now, back to that impala in the elevated dining room. After sundowners, Sean got the word that the leopard was feeding, so we returned to watch.
The leopard was hard at work. The hyena had finally thrown off its languor and, joined by a friend, was hanging out under the tree, waiting for any bits that the leopard might deign to let fall (for one thing, Sean said that the leopard can’t digest the grass that the impalas eat, so he’d definitely be pushing the stomach off the side of his plate). As we drove up, the other guide already had a spotlight on the main event, and even Annie, our group’s hardcore vegetarian, couldn’t take her eyes off this show.
It had been an amazing, eye-opening day, but it was now dark, our own dinner awaited us (we were hoping cooked, not raw), and it was time to head back.
Heading down from the leopard to drive across a little dam, we missed the “Hippo Crossing” sign and almost had a run-in. Luckily, they’re faster than they look, and Sean was as alert a driver as one could ever find, so we just snapped a couple photos and left him alone. A nice bookend to the first game run: open with a hippo butt, close with a hippo butt.
Oh. And then there was a great dinner. With great wine. And the news that we’d better go to bed (guided to our rooms by a staff person with a flashlight), because they were going to wake us up at 5 AM for the morning game drive. It had been a long day – 24 hours since we’d left London – and a whole new world. Magic.
[photos/captions by Dave]