August 12, 2011

I can't write a comprehensive description of the past couple of days, so I'll just include some highlights. Overall, the trip to Kruger was amazing, and provided me with some images I will not soon forget. 

Here are the animals that I saw...

white rhinos
water buffalos
water bucks
a jackal
a hyena
a civet
a genet
a cheetah
vervet monkeys
lots of birds

Here are a few things I learned that I find particularly interesting...

elephants need to eat 18 hours a day
zebras have stripes so that when they're together, predators are unable to visually isolate them
hippos have a 15km grazing range from water
if you get between a hippo and water, you're in big trouble
hippos can stay under water for 15 minutes without surfacing
a giraffe's tongue is 60cm long; he can clean his ears with it
as a last line of defense, water bucks will release a chemical into their body that makes them taste really bad
rhino horns are illegally sold to China as an aphrodisiac 
1kg of rhino horn goes for about $45,000
poaching is a huge threat for many African animals
when warthogs run, they stick their tails straight up into the air so that the other warthogs can follow them through the tall grass

And lastly, here are some really lovely memories...

The first day in Kruger, the only people in the back of the land rover were Camilla, Mark, and me. I had the back bench (the highest) all to myself and so was able to scoot from one side to the other as I wished. One of the first animals we saw was an elephant, who was very close to the road, maybe ten feet away. He stopped eating when we approached, sizing us up, his ears flapping slightly in warning. Sydney turned off the engine, but I saw that he kept his hand on the key, ready to start the ignition if necessary. I froze in my seat, open to the experience, but aware of the elephant's discomfort. The elephant didn't move for a few electric seconds, and then decided to go back to stripping the leaves off of a bush with his trunk. The power of its presence was palpable. 

The giraffes made me laugh pretty much every time I saw them. They have such a frankness to them, an unassuming and bland charm. When they chewed the acacia leaves, their bottom lips moved not just up and down, but side to side as well.

The impalas were so elegant, springing through the bush. When they were still, birds would alight on their backs.

Kudus have enormous ears. 

At one point, several young male elephants were at the watering hole, drinking, splashing themselves with water, kneeling in the mud, lolling around. They looked so happy tossing the water onto their backs and reveling in the cool mud. A herd of thirsty zebras cautiously approached the water, but when one of the elephants glanced in their direction, the zebras leapt away. The power dynamic was exceedingly obvious. 

The hippos lying in the sun was one of the funniest things I have ever seen. Dozens of closely packed grey and pink lumps. They totally didn't look like they could snap a man in half. Earlier in the day, when they were in the water, I watched the males fight. It was a slow-motion contest of who could fit whose head in whose mouth. 

We came upon a herd of about 500 water buffalo, lying down in the heat of the sun. We then skirted the edge of the herd, finding all of the lions who were waiting for a nighttime ambush.

We followed a pregnant female lion for about a quarter mile as she made her way away from the pride. Sydney thought she was on her way to give birth. She walked so gracefully, shoulder blades smoothly rising with every step, her mouth open and panting in the sun.

The vervet monkeys put on a show for us, leaping around their tree, checking us out. One of the adults brought out three babies to see us. I felt like they were the ones on safari, and we were the ones being viewed. 

We watched a baby elephant try to use his trunk with little effect. Young elephants lack the muscle control to eat with their trunks, and so get most of their nutrition through nursing. This little guy was bouncing around, surprisingly light on his feet, happily pretending to eat, his trunk swinging to and fro. 

At the end of the day, the sun streaming diagonally across the savannah, dozens of animals met at the watering hole to drink. Without even turning my head, I could see elephants, zebras, wildebeests, crocodiles, hippos, impalas, and egrets. Amazing. 

~ * ~

Tomorrow morning is my 32nd birthday. I will wake up in Africa and fall asleep somewhere over the pacific as I journey homewards. 

This country has two distinct stories, both of them captivating. One story is about the people, the long progression from tribal life to colonization to independence to Apartheid to reconciliation to gradual recovery. The other story is about the wildlife, about the day-to-day interactions that have nothing to do whatsoever with us self-important humans. And I suppose there is a third story, about how these stories intersect. I feel like I am just getting to know the beginning of all three. 

I am humbled by my travels here, and look forward to the day I can return.