Myself, Lea (Belgium) and Moira (Canada) awoke before dawn for a 3-hour game walk near camp with two armed park rangers. It was my last chance to see a leopard, or maybe even a lion, though the idea of encountering any of the animals up close was concerning. We started with a thirty minute drive as the fuscia sun slowly rose up from the horizon. The first animal was a spotted hyena crossing the road a few hundred meters in front of us. The driver sped up to see if we could get closer. Luckily, the hyena had stopped in the brush on the left hand of the road, giving us enough time to spot it dart down an embankment and across a dry riverbed.
Next, we turned down a dirt road with a ” do not enter”? sign, and proceeded to drive across the same sandy riverbed, only we got stuck three quarters of the way. We all got out and helped to push the truck free. Once on the other end, we receive the rules of the walk, single file, hand signals instead of talking, don't separate from the group (herd) lest you want to stick out like easy prey for a local lion, and follow the rangers' instructions. We set off, one ranger scouting ahead at all times, while the other waited with us for his report.
Ten minutes into the walk, we stumbled upon a group of bachelor buffalo, nicknamed Duggaboys. Hang around safari guides long enough, or read a book by one as I had done in Laos, and you'll learn bachelor buffalo are the most feared of the Big 5, or perhaps any of the animals in the bush. While other beasts give one or more warning signs before a charge or attack, the buffalo has perfected it's poker face.
The scout walked a little to our left, while we stood nervously by the other ranger who whispered to us the ” OK”? to take photos. I was the only one who managed to move around enough to get one, asking Lea to take it. We left after two or three minutes, one of the guides saying there was a 50-50 chance the buffalo would've charged us. Later, we learned these odds were coming from a guy who had previously been charged and trampled by a black rhino in the park.
We proceeded to walk further into the bush, an area the rangers said was new to them as well. Given Kruger Park is the size of Israel, I believed them. If they were playing up the experience for us tourists, I couldn't tell. We passed all kinds of animal prints, zebra, elephant, giraffe, buffalo. A light breakfast was offered amongst some rocks in an otherwise open field. While eating cheese and crackers, I asked about some large birds of prey circling in the distance. The scout said they could either by circling a fresh kill, or riding thermals. Either way, it was a point of interest so we headed straight for them.
Once we reached the line where the open grass turned to thicker bush, the scout turned around to us and said ” if a lion charges us, don't run.”? My heart was thumping, and adrenaline coursing, as we followed the rangers. Earlier, they informed us 99% of attacks happen to the front of a group, which explained why they both walked in front of us. Also, if one guide was in trouble in front, and the other was at the rear, he'd have to shoot over the customers which could get messy! Regardless, it was hard not to fantasize about a lion knocking off the last person in the line with a surprise pounce.
We crept along, wondering what the eagles were so interested in ahead of us. I wanted to see a lion, but I didn't want to have to remain still if I saw one running straight toward us. The chances were slim the rangers would need to shoot anything though, as only 1.2 animals are killed per year in Kruger Park, a statistic which speaks to the experience of the guides and their respect for the wild animals. Ten minutes later, we left the birds behind, one of the guides saying either the kill was too fresh for there to be a scent in the air, or the birds were innocuously riding thermals. Back at the truck, we traversed the riverbed with no trouble, and were dropped off back at camp.
Elson, our guide from the previous day, drove us back to Timbavati Lodge, where we had a nice buffet breakfast, before motoring the five hours back to suburban Jo'burg. I opted to stay at Bob's Bunkhouse, the hostel Lea had chosen
Upon first sight, it was far cleaner and friendlier than Gemini, and as I surmised, the other big hostels of the area. Lea and I bought some South African wine and cheese and toasted a successful safari while Bob and wife Joan, and their friends and adult sons, cooked up a braai in the backyard.