The Kruger National Park International Airport in Nelspruit is quite unique as far as airport buildings go. Thatch roofed and distinctively rustic looking from the outside, it is certainly symbolic of the kind of thing visitors expect to see when they come to Africa.
Once our party had all gone through the arrivals hall, I made a call to Pepe and was pleasantly surprised to hear that she and Richard, our transfer driver, had just arrived and were waiting for us in the parking lot outside the terminal building. Perfect timing!
With the whole gang of Safarians in tow we climbed into Richard’s Toyota Quantum and set off towards the Sabi Sands Wildtuin, excitement building with each kilometer passed.
A couple of hours later we arrived at the gates to Sabi Sands and after signing in began to follow the sign posts to our lodge, Little Bush Camp, which was around 25kms away on a dirt road. It was still pretty hot outside, but by now the excitement level amongst all of us had reached the point where the temperature didn’t really matter any more. All we wanted to do was jump into the Land Rovers and find ourselves a leopard or two.
On arrival at Little Bush Camp we were warmly greeted by the lodge manager, Hugo and his wonderful staff before we settled down to a lunch on the covered deck overlooking the Msuthlu dry river bed. Food at Sabi Sabi is an experience entirely deserving of its own blog post, but suffice for me to say here that it really is something special.
After lunch Hugo drove Pepe and I to our guide rooms at the Bush Lodge. Little Bush camp is a very exclusive place, in that it only has 6 suites, so the guides and any other staff have to be accommodated at the nearest lodge, which happens to be Bush Lodge, some 25 minutes drive from where we were. Not entirely convenient, but hopefully in the future, after we have completely annexed the lodge for photo safaris all year round, we can convince the owners to build on a couple of guide rooms for us.
So, we checked in, packed away some clothes, freshened up a little and headed back to LBC with Hugo. By the time we got back to LBC it had already started cooling down substantially and we met up with our charming game rangers, Richard and Rika and their respective trackers, Solomon and Eric. After a short brief from the rangers on what to expect our first game drive got under way.
Just around the corner from the lodge we encountered our first wild animal. I’m not entirely sure what animal it was, but the resultant 10 frames per second battery of Nikon powered machine gun fire from the rear of the vehicle certainly had Rika highly amused. I think she said something like “I’ve never seen people get so excited over an antelope before!”. Little did we know what was waiting for us only a little bit further down the road.
The sun began moving into the clouds on the horizon and about 30 minutes into the drive we came across a female white rhino and her offspring cooling off in a watering hole. As we approached they got out of the water and began grazing the lush grass nearby, which made for some excellent photo opportunities as the ox peckers went to work clearing them of ticks and other juicy parasites. I could watch rhinos for ages. They’re almost prehistoric looking. Sadly they continue to be poached to the point of near extinction by callous and equally prehistoric oriental cultures who foolishly believe that the horns of these beautiful creatures give them increased virility.
After a while we decided to head away from the rhinos, so one check box for the Big 5 got crossed off only a few minutes into our first game drive. Barely 100 meters down the road we came across a male skankaan chilling out next to a bush!! Skankaan is the Shangaan word for cheetah and oh boy, did the machine guns begin firing on sight of this fella! Personally I’ve never seen a cheetah in the wild, so this was a big moment for me too.
As the light levels ebbed away slowly the cheetah roused himself from his temporary lair and yawning profusely began to investigate what was around him. Photographers in big steel carriages? Not so tasty, but just up the gently rising land he spotted a group of “Bush Big Macs”.
Now for the uninitiated, the “Bush Big Mac” is the ubiquitous impala (a.k.a. gazelle), a medium-sized antelope found just about everywhere in the bush. They’re called Big Macs because not only are they the primary food source for many of the bush’s predators, but if you look at their butts, their markings resemble the MacDonalds M logo. This is not a joke. Serious.
The immediate impediment for our spotted feline friend was that to get to the impala he first had to go around the two rhino we had just been photographing at the water hole. Being rhinos they were of the firm opinion that there would be no passage between them. Mr Skankaan, being a shrewd kitty-cat decided that using the rhinos as a bit of subterfuge would get him closer to the chow without being observed.
Rika didn’t think he was going to hunt because apparently this particular male had pigged out just the day before, but we kept a vigilant eye as he steadily made his way towards the impalas. At this stage the light was practically gone. Even though my photo above shows it as being fairly bright, I was already up to ISO 6400 on the Nikon D700 and shooting the Sigma 120-300mm 2.8 at the limits of its sweet spot, around f/4. Were we really about to experience a cheetah hunt just half an hour into our first drive? Apparently so.
There are some times in a photographer’s life when not taking pictures and just absorbing a moment without a viewfinder attached to your eye is preferential. Reaching speeds of up to 120km/h (75mp/h) the cheetah is widely known as being the fastest animal on earth and nothing can quite prepare you for just how fast that is. I watched in amazement as this lithe cat suddenly burst into its sprint, aiming directly towards the impala. Rika and Richard gunned the 4×4’s into life and we also began our own chase, trying desperately to keep up with Mr. Skankaan.
Unfortunately Mr. Skankaan didn’t get himself a Big Mac on this occasion, but the 2010 Safarians certainly got more than they had bargained for. Exhilarated is the best word I can find to describe how I felt watching that scene play out right before my eyes. I’m glad I put the camera down and just enjoyed it, because things like this don’t get seen by humans every day and the chances of me getting a halfway decent shot of it were pretty slim. The experience however, remains forever etched into my memory.
We drove around a bit more as the evening painted the sky from a dark grey to an inky black. Off in the distance we could see an eerie red glow on the horizon caused by raging bush fires on a neighbouring property. This is always a big problem in the bushveld during the dry season and our hosts had been battling these fires for weeks, some of them coming as close as the swimming pool at Little Bush Camp.
With the night enveloping us Richard and Rika brought the Land Rovers to a stop, seemingly in the middle of nowhere and the trackers proceeded to transform the front of each vehicle into an impromptu serving table for the evening “puza” (indigenous South African word for drinks of an alcoholic nature, a.k.a. “sundowners”). With wet whistles and in between mouthfuls of game biltong and other delightful snacks from the kitchen at LBC, our 2010 Safarians regaled one another with expressions of amazement and exchanges of pictures of the scene we had just experienced.
And so ended just another day in the African bush. The next day would bring entirely different sightings, but that is a story for another blog post.