Posted by: Dave | June 16, 2010

Wildlife and Vuvuzelas

Ok… at the risk of falling behind too far, I’ll get this blog post done! I’m skipping a much needed nap in order to finally get this finished.

Sleepy lions don't update their blogs often either.

I’m sitting in our cabin at the Hilltop Camp in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, which is about 2 hours north of Durban. Just over one week into this South African adventure and I think I finally may be able to put some words to the experiences of a safari. While I didn’t really have time or access to update the blog, the main reason that this is my first post is that I don’t think I could have put words to the experience of seeing rhinos, lions, elephants, giraffes, etc in the true wild. And then add the World Cup to the mix, and it’s sort of “experience overload” in my head. I don’t even know where to start with this. I’ll try to keep it coherent and concise. I also have over 1000 photos so far.

It seems like it was just yesterday that I had the 16 hour flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg, but since then has been 5 days in and around Kruger National Park, 2 days in Durban and 2 days in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park.

Kruger National Park is world famous for it’s expanse and the wildlife within. Tourists can drive themselves around the park, staying on paved and unpaved roads as they look for the animals. In the private game reserves around Kruger (there are no fences to keep the animals in one place or another) there are no restrictions to where to you can go, but you must be on an organized safari with a ranger. There are advantages to both. There’s something to be said for looking for the animals on your own. It’s kind of fun to “discover” that elephant that’s 50 feet off the side of the road – and to have to adjust your own behavior as a driver to stay at a safe distance. And it’s fun to roll up to a car who is waving you down to tell you about the lions 2 kilometers up the road.

Photo taken from the safety of a tiny Hyundai!

The drawback is that you’re at the mercy of the animals and the mapmaker. The animals could be right by the road, a feet hundred yards off in the distance, or miles away from the tourist roads. With the guided safari, the rangers can track the animals and get much, much closer. Hluhluwe is much like Kruger with regard to staying on the roads, but it was in both of these two parks that we got to see the rare sight of lions feasting on a recent kill. I’m not sure I could even come close to describing those sounds and smells. Last night we watched a lion feasting on a water buffalo and the lion had its head inside the dead animal, tearing and chewing. It was such a raw and real scene.

That’s what’s most impressive on me in these parks: these animals are completely wild and this is their territory. Most of us have seen a rhino in the zoo or somewhere like that. We all recognize them as somewhat surreal and prehistoric. But when you see a rhino – especially a baby one – in the wild, and watch it walk and eat and live, you realize that this is a very real being. I’m not sure those words capture this revelation. In a nutshell, an animal that’s just a weird oddity in a zoo easily becomes the essence of wilderness and the incongruity of nature.

It’s probably clear that despite seeing lions feasting, lion cubs playing, elephants bathing, baboons carrying babies and all of the other strange things that happen out here, seeing truly wild rhinos is my favorite experience so far.

Our first wild rhinos... mom and baby. Love them!

On safari you’ll often hear about “the Big Five” which are the lion, elephant, water buffalo, rhinoceros and leopard. There are many more animals out there, but these are the ones that have the best agents, I guess. We haven’t seen the most elusive of the Big Five, the leopard. They’re the least in number of the bunch (only about 950 in the entire Kruger area) and they are solitary. We saw a ton of everything else though: lions, elephants, water buffalo, rhinos, giraffes, baboons, vervet monkeys, warthogs, impalas, kudus, hippos and more.

Hippos deserve a special mention, I guess. After the mosquito (carrier of Malaria), the hippo kills more people than any other animal on the African continent. That’s right, the hippo kills more people than are killed by lions or Great White sharks. Hippos can run up to 32mph (Usain Bolt maybe can run that fast). Actually, as one of our guides pointed out, humans are the slowest land mammal. So hippos come out of the water at night to eat grasses and things, and people often have accidental run-ins with them that turn out to be not-so-good. (Side note: one Argentinian tourist in our group asked the guide which animal was the most dangerous. The guide replied, “the one that catches you.” Probably the number one lesson of the trip so far.)

I had a minor incident with a hippo the other night, but at least I saw him and avoided him. At our lodge outside of Kruger, near the town of Hazyview, there was a hippo warning sign and our host instructed us to be wary if the hippos are in the yard, “which the sometimes are.” He also expressed that it doesn’t happen that often, but the Warning: Hippos sign in the garden is a good reminder. The other night I ran cautiously down from the main house to our cabin to grab something… and no hippos. When I returned 2 minutes later, there was a 2 ton hippos standing 30 feet from the door, directly where I needed to go. i have no idea where he came from, but he must have been close when I went by. Yikes. Needless to say, I took a much longer route back to the main house. No camera with me at the time, unfortunately. And I’m not sure I had the guts to try to capture that on film anyway.

OK. That’s a enough of nature commentary for now. I know it’s the pics that are the most interesting for everyone anyway.

Zebras on the plains of Kruger NP

Interesting fact: Elephant tusks are in no way indicative of the age of the elephant. The size of the tusks is a genetic trait!

Lions on the road in Kruger.

Giraffes have the same number of vertebrae as humans!

Lion cubs!

Many, many more pics to come. It’s hard to manage the pics while traveling and on this tiny netbook.

The World Cup

The South African people are so excited about the tournament and seem to be genuinely excited that people have come from around the world to their country. I don’t have the time or space to explain the subtlety of what their country means… but as recently as 20 years ago this was not a nation that represented its population. Black or white skin, Afrikaans or English language – this is their chance to show off for the world. If you’ve seen Invictus you’ll understand the unifying effect that sport has on this country. If you haven’t seen it, check it out.

I need to comment on the vuvuzelas: the horns that you hear in the background if you’re watching a game. I hear that there are a lot of people in the US that don’t like it. I say, “they’re awesome!”Β  These horns (US$3 or so) are a part of the sporting culture in South Africa, and this is a South African World Cup… so they belong here. Sure it’s annoying when the person sitting behind you blows for no reason, but there’s something awesome about hearing the vuvuzelas from cars in the street, or from the kids in the park. It may stand for South African soccer more than anything else…. and we should all laugh and enjoy it while we can. Ok… that’s my stance on it. If it bothers you so much, just mute the TV and enjoy the match at 50% of the experience.

Back to the update:

This Irish guy was one of many who joined in supporting the USA against England.

We arrived in Durban on Saturday afternoon and were picked up by my buddies Wodey and Mackerer. After dropping up our stuff and picking up my 6 sets of World Cup tickets at the Ticket Centre, we headed to a bar in the Umhlanga area of Durban to watch the US-England game. Of course we picked the bar with the most English fans and we planted ourselves right in the middle of everything. It’s always fun to get under the skin of Brits who think that they’re entitled to be World Cup champions. The USA got a bit lucky, but sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good…and a 1-1 result is a perfectly acceptable start to the World Cup when considering that England was the opponent. We’ve got to win against Slovenia though.

Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban.

On Sunday, we went to our first of (at least) six matches: Germany vs Australia here in Durban. The stadium in Durban is brand new and has been made from almost entirely locally produced materials – and is a “green” stadium. And it’s huge and beautiful. The match was beautiful only for the Germans, as a mostly useless Australian team unraveled quickly and lost 4-0. The Aussie sports fans are some of the best … they’re fun, vocal and very proud to be Australian. The atmosphere at the match was fun from the start, but Germany’s early goal took the voice from the Socceroos’ supporters (but not the Germans of course). Great to see fantastic soccer from Germany though. Based on their display last night, I expect them to to do well at this World Cup.

Despite the busy schedule, we’ve been able to catch most of the games on TV. With the games on locally at 1:30, 4:00 and 8:30 it’s pretty easy to incorporate 2 of them into the day. We usually end up talking to someone who can’t believe we “came from America to see football.” Football of course being the appropriate name for soccer. South Africans, Germans, English, Dutch, Swiss, Argentinian, Mexican, etc… they’re all here.

You’ll probably notice that there isn’t one note in here about feeling unsafe (other than the hippo) or being in an uncomfortable environment. The people have been amazing, and as long as we continue to be smart travelers, it should remain the same. Granted, we haven’t been to Johannesburg yet, but so far all of the South African people have been fantastic. We just got back to Durban (I couldn’t upload this at Hluhluwe), and we head to Johannesburg early tomorrow morning for the USA-Slovenia match on Friday.

Thanks for checking in. More to come soon … and I’ll try to post more often

Road closed!

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Responses

  1. Thanks for the post, Dave! Still cannot believe that you’re actually seeing wild lions, tigers, hippos, etc. Looking forward to more notes and photos whenever possible.

  2. Just picked up your blog and enjoyed reading it. We were at Hilltop in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park 2 weeks ago – we had a team of 10 runners taking part in the famous Comrades Marathon, in rhino costume, of course. We were also blown away by Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, a programme we’ve helped fund since 2006, so it was devastiing to hear that a white rhino was poached the day after we left.
    Cathy Dean
    Director
    Save the Rhino International

  3. dave, dave, dave–you truly are vicarious Africa for many of us back home following your adventures. thank you for the window into the world where you are and, just as important, into your head. we—by which I mean ME–are missing you here but if you are even a little smart, you are not missing us at all (and barely remember who we are).

    wonderful, wonderful…………..lee

  4. Fantastic photos Dave! I particularly enjoyed the story of the tour guides’ response to the Argentinian! Great stuff!

  5. WOW it is so exciting to experience your amazing trip through your blog. The pictures are amazing. I really can’t wait to see more πŸ™‚ How is the back/shoulder/neck issue??? I can’t help it, I have to ask….. I hope the ginger helped the jet lag. Continue to have an amazing time and for the love of God man PLEASE keep taking those wonderful pictures. You really need to have a show someday πŸ™‚


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