#livinginlondon7 (but not there at the moment)

No-one stops to look at impala

The Kruger Park

It took a while to get here – three days of travel – two spent on a 36 hour train journey from Cape Town that should have taken only 26 hours and then, a day long 700km drive from Johannesburg. More than 2000km in all, literally, from one end of the country to the other. The weather is overcast, meaning a coolish and pleasant 20C, as opposed to last week’s 39C in the region.

Aside from a few drops last night, the Park hasn’t had much rain of late and is as dry as I’ve ever seen it. This is the wet season and there’s still hope; some years, the rains don’t come until December/January, but then they tend to be biblical.

Elephant at the Mopani water hole
Dawn in the Kruger Park
Beobab at Mopani
Sunset at Talamati

Friday – 18:15 and a brief halt to tapping at my keyboard as a lion roars thunderously nearby. We quickly head for the camp’s floodlit waterhole, but by the time we get there the fun is over and Leo has legged it.

Until you experience it, it’s unlikely you have any kind of idea what it’s like. When asked on his first visit to the bush, our son-in-law said that he had imagined the bush was like being in a “drive around zoo.”

Not.

The Park is huge. A business and massive revenue generator for the operators and nation alike, but the bush is just that. In many of the rest camps there is no electricity, save that generated on site with solar systems. There is no blanket cell coverage – this to try and deter poaching, which has decimated our rhino stocks and is now hunting down our elephants as well. The rest camps offer limited and very localised coverage for those of us who don’t want to be too cut off from the rest of the world.

The bush is dry, dusty and dense. If like us, you prefer to drive yourself, there are strict speed limits; 30km/h on sand roads, 50km/h on the main tarred sections. Faster than that and you’ll miss the flash of a zebra just a few metres away, or the unmistakable shape of a lion in the distance.

The Park teems with game, but the thickness of the bush coupled with a visitor’s limited ability to see deep between the trees and scrub – visibility from publicly accessible areas of the Park is estimated at around 3% of its 19,500 square kilometres – means there’s plenty of space for the animals to hide.

Kruger sunset
Kruger sunrise
Zebra crossing
Threatening clouds

The title “No-one stops to look at impala” will quickly become self explanatory. As a species, the beautiful, doe-like impala are by far the most plentiful – estimates as to the current population suggest upwards of 150,000. Singly, in pairs, small groups and large herds, there are impala everywhere. Often it’s all you’ll see for hours on end. It’s not their fault, but when you are desperate to see a one of the Park’s very few leopard or cheetahs, even a rare antelope, the appeal of an endless procession of impala can quickly pall.

Impala

Remember too; aside from around the rest camps and closing-off the Park to the outside world, there are no fences. Even the fences between South Africa and Moçambique were removed some years back, creating an even larger Trans Frontier Park.

This is Africa in the raw.

Stay in your car, or end up being trampled by a hippo (Africa’s most dangerous animal and no.1 killer), eaten by a lion, stomped and gored by a Cape Buffalo, or bitten by a snake.

I tend to start wilting as the thermometer breaches mid thirty degree Celsius numbers. As I write at 11:36, it’s already 36C and our self-declared rest day continues to underline our prescience. 38C is the predicted maximum for today and a whopping 41C tomorrow, there’ll be lots of mooching in our rondavel (circular, thatched chalet), sitting in the shade and endless thanks to the air conditioner that is belching cool air at 18C.

As it turned out, the thermometer hit 45C. It’s very, very hot and not conducive to doing anything.

Cooling down from a high of 45C

But then, this is Africa.

Changing gears; South Africa is now without any kind of political opposition to blunt the excesses, venality and stupidity of the ruling ANC. Officially, the Democratic Alliance (DA) carry the banner of opposition, but last month’s ructions in the party have seen the return of long time and much hated (on the Thatcher-scale) leader Helen Zille, now once more at the helm of the entire DA, following the departure of its leader, parliamentary leader, Chief Whip, and Secretary General (albeit to retirement). The ensuing days have seen a constant stream of press announcements; changes, new faces and newly appointed leaders. I suppose when the dust has settled, we’ll see a new look DA, or more likely, a slightly facelifted version of the old one.

Whatever happens, the DA will continue to fight the accusation that it is a party solely for whites, something the office bearers’ merry-go-round is only underscoring, as if that were that necessary.

It’s a shame. The party is populated by many, many really fine, well intentioned people, dedicated to a liberal future for South Africa. Aside from the inevitable political and internecine squabbling, their task is stymied by the way South Africa votes along cultural lines. Non-racial liberalism? I’d love to say yes, but know it’ll never happen as it looks today.

Tomorrow South Africa does battle with England for the Rugby World Cup. I have no idea who will win but expect it to be a real tussle. I’ll be watching it at the rest camp at Orpen, undoubtedly alongside the black, white, pink and grey South Africans who also love the game. We’ll drink copious amounts of beer, yell at the idiotic French referee and cheer our lads on regardless.  Both sides have world-class players, equally determined to win. England has Swing Low Sweet Chariot and Jerusalem for inspiration, we have gees*. The two anthems are well known, gees is our secret weapon.

Oppas mense. Suid Afrika kom vir jou.

Winning the Cup – gees in action

Sunday. I decided before turning-in last evening that I wouldn’t set my alarm for 04:00 to go out and look for a sunrise to photograph. It had been a long day; up early, an interesting and fruitful game drive, breakfast, drive for an hour to Orpen camp, watch South Africa win the World Cup, another hour long drive back to our own camp, an early supper, a congratulatory drink or two to the team and a couple of strenuous hours reading and just after nine o’clock, bed.

Rugby; a passion since I was at school. I stopped playing when I came to South Africa; one look at the rock hard winter pitches – it doesn’t rain here in the winter months – suggested the smart thing to do would be to quit while I was ahead. The pleasure of watching rugby hasn’t dimmed however and yesterday was no exception. 

Initially, I hadn’t expected South Africa to go so far. The round-robin stages turned out to be easier for the ‘boks than I’d imagined and aside from the opening game’s loss to the All Blacks, we did pretty well, albeit in a not particularly inspiring fashion.

England’s path to the final was much harder and their win over the same All Blacks in the semi finals, certainly made me awfully nervous about our chances in the final.

It’s often said that most teams competing in tournaments at this level have one great game in them. And so it proved. England’s demolishing of the All Blacks was a masterstroke. Sadly, the team had showed its hand and running out against South Africa yesterday, you could be forgiven for thinking there was little left in their collective tank.

So, South Africa holds the Webb Ellis trophy for four more years. It was a great game.

Cape Buffalo
Portrait
Beobab at Mopani

The last few days of our stay and we’re back in the deep bush at one of the Kruger’s more private camps, called Bateleur, after the famous raptor. The thermometer was at a wilting 39C when we arrived and sweated to unpack the car, 19C, twelve hours and a crashing thunderstorm later. It’s remained overcast, but rain and the game we’ve travelled so far to see, remains elusive.

And then. One of the most bizarre incidents I’ve ever encountered.

Heading south towards the Mopani rest camp, to make contact with the cell network and get our irregular dose of e-mail and messages, we see a large collection of cars stopped in the middle of the road. In the Park, this usually signifies a lion kill, or something everyone wants to see – definitely not impala. This requires good manners and lots of patience, waiting for occupants of the other cars to see their fill and leave, making space for the next visitor(s).

Not so. As we approach, it becomes clear that there has been an accident. At 50 km/h? Huh?

Maybe not so. A minibus carrying many members of the Park’s staff had been also heading southwards. The accident was caused by two things; a giraffe emerging from the bush to cross the road and secondly, judging from the skid marks, the minibus’ excessive speed.

Long story short, the bus hit the giraffe, tossed it in the air, only to land on top of another visitor’s vehicle coming in the opposite direction. What must have been close to a ton of already dead giraffe smashed the roof and cab of the bakkie and then seems to have rolled off into the bush. The Swiss driver was very badly hurt and spent several days in a Johannesburg ICU, before succumbing to his injuries.

The aftermath

Passing the carcass en route from the Park this morning, there is surprisingly little left and a huge flock of vultures making sure that that doesn’t last much longer.

The media reported the death of the driver in a Johannesburg ICU some days later. I’m beyond words at the poor man’s misfortune. The taxi driver who should be charged with (at the least) culpable homicide? No police at the scene, no forensics and I imagine the worst that will happen to him is his vehicle being written off.

Welcome to South Africa.

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