After a nice self-catered breakfast on the backpacker's patio, we motored to the gate and collected our maps of the park, complete with a checklist of the animals we hoped to see. No more than a few minutes passed before we started to spot the wildlife.
Tons of Warthogs were munching on vegetation, while a Black-backed Jackal was simply chilling out. My old friend, the Ostrich, was soon seen, as were the pretty yellow Weaver birds when we stopped at the first watering hole. John was very adept at identifying each animal or bird and sharing a quick fact about them.
When you're in a park with wild Lions, Leopards, Black Rhinos, Cape Buffalo, and hundreds of African Elephants (The Big 5), it makes sense that you don't get out of your car except for a few signposted occasions. The skeletal remains of male Kudus (antelope-type animal with long twisted horns) below us near the watering hole were a good reminder of why exiting your car is also at your own risk!
As we continued onward, John navigating his way through the loops and criss-crossing paved and dirt roads of the park's northern territory, we spotted Jackal Buzzards perched atop bushes and Vervet Monkeys running around on the ground. A little after 8am, we spotted a bunch of Cape Buffalo, our first of the big five animals.
We also began to see lots of similar animals to the Kudu, including Red Hartebeests, Bushbucks, and Elands. Same same, but different. By late morning, we were getting anxious to see some elephants, although any one of us would have passed on the pachyderms for the chance to see lions or leopards.
Yvonne spotted the first elephant of the day, off on a distant hill. To the naked eye, it appeared as a grey outline against the green and dark browns of the landscape. Using the binoculars I picked up in Hermanus, you could see more detail, including the tusks. We were all excited to have seen a wild elephant, our second of the big five animals. And John assured us they start to pop up everywhere once you see one.
Sure enough, we drove a little further to another watering hole and saw tons of elephants, and what appeared to be a small parking lot of cars and safari trucks quite close to the action. Now we were REALLY excited! John maneuvered us into a good spot and turned off the engine. We sat and watched the behavior for about 15 minutes.
Males tested males, little ones chased away the warthogs in the area, babies nursed from moms, they rolled around in the mud to cool off, and had noticeable trouble lifting themselves up and out of the muddy embankments. About 3 of the 6 families were at the watering hole. The park has about 450 elephants, and with some of the older males off on their own, it meant each family must've held about 50-60 elephants.
We started to follow the ones wandering away from the watering hole, watching them cross the road just a few meters from our truck. After they get muddy, they spray themselves with dry dirt which helps to clean the parasites off of them. We stopped at another watering hole where an area protected by electrified fence allows you to get out of your vehicle and walk to a viewing point behind a wooden fence.
After the toilets were used, we returned to find a lone Cape Buffalo hanging out in the water. And then it was back to the most active watering hole where we watched a new family of elephants arrive from over a nearby hill. Watching them in the wild, marching along in a group, is fascinating. It made me glad I didn't decide to skip the park (thinking elephants were boring). I was learning to appreciate the whole experience, and all the animals, not just the carnivorous cats we hoped to see.