SA6. While in Kruger

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Excitement reaches its climax when we approach the Kruger National Park: this is what we expect to be the highlight of our trip. The moment to finally see the Big Five has come.

At the gates, right before the entry, we run towards the toilets – an opportunity we never miss whenever we are able to get out of the truck. We are a happy herd that is difficult to gather, so Takalani steps in: “Hé, guys”, he begins, as always, “Let’s go! The animal wait for no man.” I feel like I’m driven through South African bushes by Bob Marley resurrected.

He starts the engine and ships us to the adventure of a lifetime. We take the windows by assault, keeping the cameras ready to shoot, our eyes wrinkled by the effort to detect signs of wildlife. From the front of the truck, Takalani is launching books about spiders, scorpions, etc. We’re crazed, not knowing what to look at first. We are five-year-olds in adults’ skin.

Takalani is in high spirits. He brakes every 2 minutes, putting our balance to a test. He needs to drive very slowly, since the speed is limited in the park. After some long kilometres of bushes and a spectacular number of additional bushes of all possible sizes, we grow sleepy and let our guard and cameras down. Only impalas seem to populate the park. They are quite all right, but we’ve probably seen one to many. We moan at Takalani (whom some still call Takalini) that there are probably no big animals anyway and the whole Kruger is just one big impala reserve, a big scam for tourists.

Takalani knows how to pay his dues. He brings the giant truck to a standstill. “Hé, guys,“ he prepares the ground to break some important news to us. “Eh, this is impala.” By that time, we have counted close to 1.000 impalas, so our facial muscles refuse to show any emotional unrest. Our eyeballs grow bigger and our eyelashes beat the air in silence, waiting for the next info. “Eh, take a picture: it’s the only one that you will take today!” And he drives on, laughing, while we are all up in arms.

This was merely the beginning: the deeper we moved into the park, the less we believed that our chances to see the tail of an elephant would ever come alive. But Takalani is there to entertain us in our hopelessness. “Eh, can you see the green bush?” His question sounded as if he had spotted THE green bush that had something much more special than the other tens of thousands shaping the landscape that day. We just could not establish which one it was. “Up the hill,” he adds one more detail to make it all crystal clear: we could not see a damn thing in the distance. “There might be a rhino behind it”. Some of us zoom like mad, the eyes lost in the camera screen, looking for a small dot that might even remotely give the illusion of a rhinoceros. Plenty of dots to figure out, but none of them is moving, unless hallucination kicks-in from staring at them for too long.

Few more kilometres and…

“Eh, Sielke?”

“Yes,” our traveller from Germany confirms her identity.

“Do you see anything?”

“Yes, impala.”

“Fantastic!” (This, we realize, is Takalani’s most beloved idiom number two, slightly behind the “Hakuna Matata”). “I’ll take you closer, so you can see it better!”

To make our blood boil some more, he would also stop every now and then in places where there was absolutely nothing to see, not even an impala.

“Takalani, why are we stopping?”

“Eh, guys, look!”

“Where?”

“Down, on the road: there’s a turtle.”

Knowing that the park was five times the size of Belgium, we were looking at a long road ahead, trapped within the metal mobile framework that a very funny man was steering. We did end up seeing elephants (one of them almost got mad at the truck: a female protecting her babies), monkeys, buffalos, giraffes, hippos, kudus and some more impalas.

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When we arrived at the campsite, Takalani fetched us the best spaghetti one could find in the neighbourhood on the truck’s gas cooker. South Africa was teaching us how to appreciate basic things in life: wireless-free days and electricity-free nights, plain pasta with red sauce, sandwiches and instant coffee. By day four, we were starting to free ourselves from the conventions of our comfortable life at home.

Takalani kept on challenging us: the next day we get up at 5 a.m. along with the very first rays of sun. Caffeine is desperately needed, but hot coffee in a metal cup is hard to drink in the few minutes we have left till we hit the road again. Thinking that the Kruger does not exactly abound in gas stations, I sigh in resignation, jump in our overland truck and follow Takalani’s advice to “sit back and relax” and enjoy the ride.

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SA3. The Bush

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Camera flashes go off in the sunset-lit park and the truck leans on the side on which we all flock to photograph the impalas. Most of us had never heard the word before, and others had seen at best one stuffed impala at the Natural Museum. We were all amazed to see these beautiful creatures jumping all over the place, right under our noses. On that bumpy road we also saw zebras, giraffes and buffalos, which eased up the long journey a bit. We were mesmerized.

Definitely, surprises just kept coming our way! When we reached the camp, we meet the guy who had a hard time making it to South Africa: Janos. Janos is not the luckiest man alive. While he somehow landed in Balule (and even arrived ahead of us), three days later his luggage still didn’t. But he is happy, because he is also the only one who saw a scorpion jumping out of a wood fire while doing the braai preparations. Janos is reported to have had a safe flight back home to Germany and is still in one piece today.

The first night in Balule was peculiar. We started to develop European traveller behavioural symptoms: putting on tons of insect repellent, ingesting the malaria tablets religiously, checking the walls next to the bed, under the bed and “most especially” the bed itself and the sleeping bag on it for local species, carefully looking where we put our feet for fear not to crush a scorpion, slowly opening the bathroom door and checking whether the environment was clear of monkeys, snakes and any other potential predator (the bathroom had no roof, so beasts could actually invite themselves in), etc. We did eat the food, though, because we were rather hungry. But after all the wilderness stories told by the local guide, Donny, that were spinning in our heads, I did not manage to sleep.

Knowing that you overnight in a park adjacent to Kruger where animals wander freely keeps you on your toes. You hear the lion roar, which is magic, until the question pops up: how far is it from the tent? Other unidentified sounds challenge the brain to wonder “is this even normal?” while your body cries out for rest. The first night being very windy, I feared that Kim and I would wake up in “The Marvellous Land of Oz” like Dorothy and Toto, transported by air with tent and lion and scorpions and everything else that tormented my mind while I was floating between dream and reality. The imagination blooms in the bush with every unfamiliar sound, and they are all so. It takes a while to get accustomed.

The next day, early morning (army regime, not leisure holiday), we have instant coffee again and rusks, a combination that makes me fantasize. We were heading for a game walk. One more look at the useless stuff in my backpack and off we go to shake up the savannah.

We trail through the bush, marching one behind the other, silently enjoying the unknown. We stop when the guide pantomimes like he wants to pull something out of the ground. I see the net veiling a hole which our guide points to and I understand…With a thin stick he breaks the entry to where his target hides. And out comes the biggest spider I have ever laid my eyes on: the baboon spider. Holy Guacamole and Mother of mighty Jesus – I hide myself behind somebody else. The spider socializes and is transported from hand to hand, and surprise, Spiderman is repelled by our hand antiseptic and wants back in its hole, to which it is finally released. I breathe.

The game walk is a bit different from wandering in a big city center. We stop frequently for explanations of trees, bushes, insects, big-five footprints, and we all feel mighty adventurous and slightly more intelligent after our guides’ thorough and passionate input on basically every bit of nature. We bring back with us precious knowledge of the bush: what leaves should be used as toilet paper, which plants for sanitising water, we learn that the Marula tree’s fruits work as aphrodisiac and decide for the sex of the child if rubbed against pregnant women’s bellies, what to chew in order to have a fresh breath and how the shit bug (the dung beetle) spends a shit life, that the shongololo is a millipede, etc. We probably would not have known how to get back to the camp, though, had our guides not been thoughtful enough to lead the way and spare us from putting our freshly instilled field knowledge to a test.

But forget about the plants, the larvae and the shit bugs: we were heading for the big-sized quadrupeds. Two trucks, one for the Germans, the second for the others, took us to a game drive. Lots of radio communication between the two drivers to spot the wild animals. And while we look for one animal, we find another. In the wild, nothing goes as planned: the animal does not rendezvous tourists at a given time and place, so one just has to keep the eyes wide open (and the the tendency to jump out of the 4×4 to take pictures in a leash).

It felt like we were going hunting, or something similar, I suppose. Aw, the thrills of waiting for a big lion to jump out of the bush! And aw, again, the disappointment when at the end of the day, this fails to happen. Naturally, you bear grudge against the guide, since he could have simply taken the road where the lions were (he’s the one who knows the places). But well, we smelled the elephants from afar, so at least we know they existed. And when the buffalos get curious and approach us, we hold our breath. The proximity to wild animals has an exquisite thrill.

As the night was gently enveloping us, we started to spray ourselves sporadically with insecticide again. OK, so it takes time to become a bushman. We spent the evening around the camp fire and late at night, we looked up at the sky. And our eyes were left hanging on those stars that seemed to fall on us after minutes of intensive starring. Donny the Guide knows everything, whether on land or in the sky. He told us about Orion and the Milky Way and how to tell the next day’s weather. The African sky has so much to say – it will soon become my obsession. But then, I just hoped that looking up for so long would get me dizzy enough to put me to sleep effortlessly, so that I could forget for a few hours that there were crawling creatures around that could get into my ears, eyes or even eat me up whole.

A spider is hanging in the shower. It’s quite big, but does not seem to want to attack me, so I leave it in its corner and turn on the tap. No luck, it feels the water and starts to wriggle. That was a quick shower and I have set some records during the next days as well, sometimes because we were many souls queuing up to refresh ourselves and not enough facilities. Apart from the spider, no other beast having showed up on my radar, I went to bed. And there I lay, eyes wide open, cocooned in my sleeping bag, listening to the sounds of hyenas and lions. I was woken up by monkeys running on our roof and I inferred that morning had finally found me.