More of the same today. We left our camp at Skukuza and got on the road, still heading southwards, to the camp at Pretoriuskop by 6:50am. We have only managed to see some of the lower half of the Park on this trip. Our drive, had we stayed on the road, would not have been long – I think it was about 60 Kms to Pretoriuskop, but we took off and meandered through lots of back dirt roads in hopes of spotting something exciting – like our rhino that we just knew was waiting for us somewhere.
It was not exactly laden with animal sightings, however, but we got in some good birding. The most common one that we see is absolutely spectacular and probably my favourite: the European Roller, which is brilliantly multicoloured: pink, teal, violet, white – the underside of its wings when in flight are vivid violet and white. It tends to sit on open branches of dead trees close to the roadside, watching life roll by in four-wheeled vehicles. Another common bird that is quite spectacular is the Cape Glossy Starling – I had no idea a bird as common as a starling could be so gorgeous. We saw a secretary bird – way off in the distance but the darn thing is so big you just can’t miss it strutting around in the bush. There are five species of hornbills, the largest and least commonly seen being the Ground hornbill which is becoming extinct,but we saw five of them together at one point. Yellow-billed and red-billed hornbills are much more common and we frequently have to wait for them to get off the road in front of us. We did see a flock of about 10 - 12 trumpeter hornbills that flew into a tree near the road, but I wasn't able to get a photo of them because they immediately took off again. Guinea fowl are everywhere, very common, but very pretty with their blue faces and red helmets and spotted overall look.
We saw several different types of eagle: Black Eagles, the Martial Eagle and several Brown Snake Eagles gazing down from lofty perches looking for their prey. (Didn’t want to stick around to see them catch any!)
Anyway, we’ve been delighted with the birds we’ve spotted here, some of which are very exotic. Finally, somewhere around late morning we saw 6 elephant very close by but we are now in a geographic region that produces grass that is up to 6 ft tall at the roadside, so it’s hard to spot anything through it. However, it’s somewhat like our weather at home: if you don’t like it, wait ten minutes and it will change and, sure enough, the terrain alters radically around here as you move around.
We arrived at Pretoriuskop Rest Camp just before 2pm – our earliest day into camp yet – although we had been on the road for just over 7 hours at that point which was plenty long enough for me! Tonight we are in a ‘Hut’, rather than a safari tent, in a ‘community’ of rondevaals (little round stone huts with thatched roofs) but our hut is not a rondevaal, it’s one of two in the centre of a row of four adjoined thatched huts. We were lucky to get somewhere to be for a Saturday night though with our late booking, so I’m perfectly fine with it although I think, myself, the safari tents are actually a better experience. I told Bruce I’d had enough of being driven around dirt roads looking in the bush for today and that I’d like some down time to write up my notes and sort photos so he went off to do more driving and I stayed in camp.
I had a lovely time sitting in front of our hut, typing up notes on my laptop and chatting to other residents and then I was surprised to see a paper plate come drifting down towards me from an overhead tree. There was a gorgeous Vervet monkey up there (they are pale grey with white and their backsides are a gorgeous shade of sky blue) and the cheeky blighter had been helping himself to the garbage can in front of me. I saw him coming to have another go at the can so I went to put the lid back on it. He got there before me and it was a Mexican stand-off. He wasn’t leaving and I wasn’t sure how close I should get to try to shoosh him away. I could have reached out and touched him, but he faced me down then nonchalantly grabbed an orange peel from in the can, sat there and ate it and then took off back up to the tree. I put the lid on the can but it wasn’t one of the typical ‘secure’ ones we normally see in the Park, and the next thing he came casually back down from the tree and lifted the lid off and helped himself to more garbage. Next, I heard a bunch of snorting and loud blowing, and a couple of male impalas came charging through the clearing, one in pursuit of the other and butting at the one in front (it's rutting season). Fascinating stuff! And that was just sitting in camp, writing. Bruce made sure he was back in camp before the curfew this time but he was lucky enough to see a spotted hyena on the road which I have not seen.
BIG PROBLEM, though - disaster has struck!!!! When we packed up at Skukuza this morning I saw Bruce was loading up our cooler with the fridge contents, so I assumed he had emptied the fridge. He hadn’t - we found we had left behind our entire wine stock behind!!! Not only did we leave a just-opened box of 4 litres of red wine, but a half bottle of white and half a bottle of sherry (this has not been a dry run so far!) and, especially sad, is the fact that we had met a fellow in the camp last night who lived in Nelspruit near the Park and he was doing his regular monthly run into the Park to supply the various stores with the products he makes. He makes a kind of grappa that he said is somewhat like schnappes and he gave us a bottle of it, together with two jars of food that he sells (one being pickled beets and the other a curried kind of beans). Luckily the two jars of food were not in the fridge, but his bottle of what he himself called ‘moonshine’ was, so we have left it behind!! While Bruce was gone I walked up to the store and bought a nice bottle of sauvignon blanc, though. They have a huge selection of good wines down here (even though it sounds as though our common house plonque comes from a box, but in actual fact the box of wine we left behind was our first box wine and it had only just been opened). It's obvious, from the wineries we've visited and from the stores we've purchased wine at, that we get only a very small sample of South African wines in our own liquor stores in Canada.
Tonight, by way of a change, we went up to the restaurant in camp to have dinner and were pleasantly surprised by the standard. We had the ‘daily roast’ which was pork and, while I’m thinking about it, a word about pork: we are being seriously short-changed in Canada when it comes to the taste of our pigs. We have eaten lots of pork here and, no matter how it’s prepared it is ALWAYS tender, unlike the shoe leather we get at home. Same as with the lamb here – it’s both tender and tasty. What’s up with that? We’ve found food to be really inexpensive here in comparison to at home – especially meats.
While at the restaurant we watched a South African rugby game on the tv, as did numerous other campers. This game involved high level arch-rivals, the Bulls and the Lions. What a hoot! There’s constant action and it’s tremendously entertaining, energetic and athletic – (plus you should see the legs on those guys - wow!).
We left Pretoriuskop early today (about 5:30am) – our last day in the Park – and headed south. It was overcast and cool and threatening rain and there were no animals about – not even any birds.
Then – Eureka! We finally saw a rhino - and a BLACK rhino at that - at around 9:30am! There it was, after we had been inspecting every possible bush, just munching its way around a plain that was full of wildebeest which were casually laying around while this massive mountain of an animal was chomping its way across the grass through the herd. It was odd to see it here because the black rhino is supposed to prefer the bush, whereas the white rhino tends to go for the plains grasslands.
This turned out to be a banner morning for me because, at about the same time we saw the rhino there appeared, like a mirage, a coffee shop at the side of the road with REAL espresso (this is first coffee stop we’ve seen in the Park outside of the Camp areas)! This was my first really good strong coffee since I arrived in S.A. Nescafe, believe it or not, is the norm, but periodically I’ve had some coffee made in a Bodum but it still isn’t the real high test stuff that I’m used to.
After 'coffee and a rhino' we found ourselves stationary on a dirt road surrounded by dozens of chacma baboons. We turned off the motor and sat and watched the ‘kids’ playing tag and one big brother (or sister?) was protecting its tiny newbown sibling from others who were too rambunctious. Totally entertaining! Then a couple of large ones jumped on the roof of the truck and I asked Bruce to turn on the motor so that I could roll up my window. He didn’t and I got a bit anxious and he told me to ‘relax’, but I have been in a Landrover where the baboons ripped the plastic windows to get inside at our food (and we had food inside today) so I wasn’t prepared to wait to find out how nice they’d be about it - they have very sharp claws and teeth! Anyway, he did turn on the motor and I got the windows up and, as I looked behind me, it was actually quite funny to watch the baboons slide down off the top of the truck front end first, so their front ‘hands’ appeared to slide down the windows (can’t really call them ‘paws’ – they’re so like ours).
Around 2:30pm we saw a white rhino (in the bush – guess these rhino haven’t been told where they’re supposed to prefer to be) and a herd of gorgeous waterbuck. These are beautiful animals with an unfortunate condition – they have a huge white ring on their rear-ends just like a target has been painted there. Shortly after that we drove into a little pull-out overlooking a sandy section by a river (to take a 'risk') and there, right below us, was another massive black rhino! We could hear some people talking quite loudly nearby but couldn’t see them and they spooked the rhino, so it made off very quickly before I could get a really good focus on him with my camera. Still, I managed to get a shot off then, as we pulled out of where we were we saw a car just around the bend and that’s where the people were loudly yapping.
En route to the small camp and Park gate at Crocodile Bridge, we drove over a small causeway and there, right beside us, wallowing in the weeds was an enormous hippo! We could have almost reached out and touched it from within the truck.
That was such a fantastic final day (after the morning had actually started out very slowly) that, when we checked out at the Gate near at Crocodile Bridge (near the town of Komatipoort) we started to talk about coming back into the Park at another gate further along and staying one more night.
However, when we got to Malalane it turned out that the camp there had only five huts that were full, so we went on in to the town of Malalane where we found a very nice self-catering place called the Chill Inn for 500 Rand. Our room was large and modern with a beautiful bathroom and use of an exceptionally well equipped kitchen and a lovely outdoor eating area. Once again, Bruce braai’d and I put the other stuff together for dinner, but it was a dry meal because we had forgotten it was Sunday (and remember, we had left our liquor stock behind at Skukuza) and you cannot buy alcohol on a Sunday in South Africa (although I gather that law is about to change). I asked a guy at a service station if you can get around the rule and, at first, he was reluctant to say telling me it was not legal to buy alcohol on Sunday. I told him I didn’t know anyone there as I am Canadian and maybe there was somewhere that he knew of? He laughed and said there was a tavern in town that you could go to but, in the end, Bruce and I decided a little abstinence wouldn’t hurt us so we went without.