Sunday, March 9, 2008

Day 22 - Timbavati Reserve, South Africa

After leaving Entabeni early in the morning of the 8th for a three hour drive back to Jo'berg, we hopped a short flight to Nelspruit, the closest we could get to our destination of King's Camp in the Timbavati Reserve on the western edge of the Krueger National Park.  Nelspruit turned out to be about another three hours from King's Camp, but we did manage to arrive just in time for the afternoon game drive.  We had just enough time to drop our bags, change clothes, and hop in the Rover. 

Our ranger, Morné, introduced himself and off into the bush we went.  While Entabeni was much more open plains and grassland, Timbavati is dominated by scrub bush and small trees.  It's a tangled web of "roads" and double-tracks that had us completely turned around in circles, but Morné knew exactly where he was going.  We also had the benefit of a separate tracker this time, Selby, who perched himself in a little seat on the Rover's front bumper and scouted for tracks in the trail.  As it turned out, if Entabeni was to be our lion encounter, Timbavati and The Krueger would give us the rest of what we were after and then some.

Within ten minutes we had come across numerous herds of the usual kudu, springbok, etc., and even a massive water buffalo (check another one off the "big 5").  But Morné was on a mission to find a female leopard that had been spotted the day before.  Leopards are one of the most elusive animals to find as they are solitary hunters and quite content to remain hidden most of the time.  In the process of our search for her, a pack of roughly 30 elephants started walking across the road both in front and behind our Rover.  We were right in the middle of them, mostly female, nearly all enormous, but with a few babies hanging onto mama's tails as they wandered past.  One of the biggest even stopped in the middle of the road and turned toward us as if to pose.  No sooner had they passed by that we came across a handful of giraffe, peacefully gorging on their afternoon meal.  Then luck found us again.  As we drove forward, the female leopard several lodges in the Timbavati were simultaneously searching for just popped out in front of us on the road as if she was out for a casual evening stroll!  We tracked her for nearly a half hour, finally backing off so others in the area could move in for a view.  She was an absolutely magnificent creature.

Thoroughly satisfied with our first day's findings, we drove back to camp and, without question, the nicest accommodations we've had on this trip, or any other for that matter.  The staff and attention to detail here is nothing short of amazing.  Being relatively small, they can focus more attention on each guest, but as an example, we came back from the drive to found a hot bath already drawn for us and waiting.  After cleaning up, we were treating to yet another incredible meal and shipped off to bed in anticipation of Morné's 5:30am wake up call and our next morning drive.


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Saturday, March 8, 2008

Day 20-21 - Entabeni Game Reserve, South Africa

LIONS!  Alright, that's not completely fair as we did see some incredible animals in their natural habitat while here, but our "lion hunt" was one of the most unforgettable things we've ever experienced. 

We had a FULL travel day having left the Dolphin Trail in Tsitsikamma National Park in the morning, driven to meet up with the rest of the group in Plettenberg Bay (~1 hour), driven to the airport (~2 hours), flown to Jo'berg (~2 hours), then hopped the bus for our drive north to Entabeni (another ~4 hours), the first of two game reserves we'll be visiting.  Unfortunately, we arrived much too late for the evening game drive, so they stuffed us full of great food around 8pm and briefed us on the do's and don't's (e.g., no walking around the reserve - even to our cabins - without an escort...there are no fences).  We were then shipped off to bed with the news that a 5am wake up call would summon us for the morning drive.

The next morning after coffee (at 5:30am), we were lucky enough to climb into the Rover of the lead ranger, Jeffrey.  By the end of the day, he was our new best friend.  But we're getting ahead of ourselves.  We set off on the three hour morning drive in search of the high plateau game.  Not 60 seconds out of the front door and we came across small groups of gnu, or wildebeest, kudu, various boks, and other small antelope-type game.  A little less than an hour into it, we came across a pack of four white rhino munching on their morning grass.  Jeffrey drove up close enough that I can safely say rhino do not have the freshest of breath.  These were flat out massive animals, and when one started to square off on us, we quietly backed away and moved on.  Before the morning was over, we also came across a small group of giraffe, but they were a couple hundred meters away.

I think the translation of "safari" is "massive amounts of food interspersed with the search for animals."  We were fed WELL morning, noon, and night.  Now we know what being on a cruise must feel like.  The evening drive began about 4:30pm, and this time we were driving to the lower plains of the reserve about an hour away in search of the lion pride.  Great scenery on the way there, it wasn't long before we were running across more kudu and wildebeest herds.  Without any luck finding the lions, we stopped for an evening cocktail at sundown.  That's when Jeffrey went off tracking on his own.  We were barely out of the Rovers when we heard the lions roar off in the distance, less than 1000 meters away.  We packed it up quickly and while th e other groups went in separate directions along the main road, we drove headlong into the bush, directly toward the lions.  Completely offroad and virtually dark, we plowed forward through the bush, stopping periodically to wait for the lions to roar again and adjust our heading.  Jeffrey had Todd man the spotlight and scan the brush as we slowly made our way deeper into the bush.  After about 30 minutes, Todd passed the spotlight across a reflection that caught my eye and I pointed Jeffrey in that direction.  We drove forward about 75 meters when the head of a VERY large, but fortunately very sleepy, male lion popped up in our headlights as if to say, "Now who's disturbing my nap?!"

What an adrenaline rush!  It turned out we were within a stone's through from not one, but two males and one female, all peacefully napping.  Jeffrey figured they had eaten at some point that day and were quite content to have us park right alongside them.  It was a bit unnerving to a couple folks in the Rover...alright, they were petrified, certain we were about to be eaten.  But Abby and I couldn't unplaster the ear- to-ear grins off our faces.  Let's just say it took a LONG time to come down from the rush and fall asleep that night.

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