The Art of the Game Drive

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Lion Cubs
A lion family resting way the afternoon
The ability to spot animals in the wild is a skill that can be developed. I happen to have a natural knack for it and have been lucky enough to travel with some of the best guides around who helped me hone the skill (it is why even on the back of a truck full of vaqueros in Guyana all looking I was the one to find the giant anteater hiding in the bush). At its root, it is all about contrasts and pattern recognition – quickly scanning the landscape (be it bush, forest, desert, underwater coral garden etc.) and noticing the slightest bit out of place. Some animals give you so little to look for that they are easily missed even by the seasoned professional; but with practice and attention you can learn to not only see the animals but instantly distinguish one from another and focus attention on those of most interest – big and small. Since this skill is purely visual a big component of it is mental and the cadence of a game drive is very important to its success. I have found there are two key moments that determine both actual and perceived success of an outing – the first sighting and the signature sighting. The tension before that first sighting can be immense – I’ve seen it even more with professional guides. It doesn’t have to be the most impressive find but until you see something to relieve the tension it will be hard to spot something good. The signature sighting is what comes to define the particular trip, it could be anything depending on the circumstances – a leopard pouncing on porcupine, lion cubs passing in front of your car separated from their parents – something so memorable that it makes everything else you saw that day feel more impressive while at the same time paling in comparison.

Leopard Kill
If the rightful owner doesn’t claim it soon I call dibs on dinner
That was what our first full day in Kruger was like – both those signature moments happened. Unfortunately, neither happened for us. Which highlights the other, and most determining, aspect of a successful game drive – lucky timing. We arrived two minutes too late to see the leopard pounce, sure we saw the leopard and porcupine going their separate ways but missed the once in a lifetime moment. With the lions, we spent a while watching the pride relaxing at the waterhole but got frustrated by the multitudes of cars that kept blocking us (one of the downsides to parts of Kruger) so eventually went on our way – just before the pride went on the move for the evening and crossed the road between the cars that blocked us. Given the mental nature of game viewing, a very important lesson is don’t dwell on what you didn’t see – it can drive you crazy.

Buffalo Herd
A small part of a very big herd
Not that I can complain about what we did see – all of the big five many times over, hunting lions, a leopard moving away from its kill left in a tree, an elephant eating alongside us just over the fence at Letaba, thousands of impala, multiple hundreds strong herds of buffalo, elephant breeding herds bigger than my high school graduating class with even more diverse size differences, nearly every antelope species that exists in the park (missing only Sable), hyena nursing outside their den, baby giraffe, a recently poached rhino sans horn (some sightings are sad reminders of how destructive humanity can be), dozens of vultures in a single tree, the list goes on and on. But as I am writing this watching two elephants drink at the floodlit waterhole in Punda Maria we haven’t yet had that grand signature sighting. Good thing we have many more parks and game drives to go.

Multitude of Game
Elephant, impala and zebras are found everywhere you turn
Kruger is amazing, it deserves its reputation as one of the premier parks in Africa. There is something surreal about driving into this great vast wilderness past a golf course being watered by a massive sprinkler system – but I think that is part of what makes this park so special. It is a true African wilderness readily accessible to anyone at any price range and comfort level. The public camps rival the best campsites anywhere in terms of facilities (we, or at least the kids, braved the winter temperature pools in multiple camps), cost and service. The only challenge is reserving the camps you want, particularly for holidays like our first weekend here when some camps are booked up as soon as they open a year in advance. Each of the ones we stayed in though were great – Lower Sabie had the most dense game, Satara had big cats and multitudes of plains game, Letaba had the nicest campsites with action right at the fence and Punda Maria was the most relaxed of the sites with a floodlit waterhole that attracted buffalo and elephant among others.

Rhinos on the Mananga Trail
These rhinos on the Mananga trail were seen by no other humans that day
Of course, with that popularity does come crowds particularly at sought after sightings (like any lions – see above) on the paved roads. The crowds also happen to be densest where the game (especially big game) is in the south of the park. Still, there are many roads in the park, even in the most crowded areas, allowing you to drive in near solitude for long stretches save for the animals. Probably the most secluded for us was the day spent on the Mananga Trail, 48 km of 4×4 track limited to up to 6 vehicles a day – with us being the only ones on it the day we went. There was something surreal about it – the feeling of total isolation on a narrow dirt path in the bush the way most of this wilderness was not that long ago. The honey badger running home in the early morning, the rhinos we trailed, the dozens of elephant and giraffe, hundreds of impala, buffalo and zebra that we saw that day were seen by no other humans.

Hyena Family
The male hyena watches over his nursing cub
Besides the game, there are also the people. We continue to meet many nice couples and families camping alongside us. They are always welcoming (whether sharing an egg or their whisky), offer friendly advice and interesting conversation. It has been great getting to know different South Africans exploring their own country in their own ways – the couple from Phalaborwa for whom the park is an extended backyard, the father and daughter from Port Elizabeth on a family trip with the grandparents, the Johannesburg retirees who turned the back of their van into a travelling bedroom – they all offer different perspectives on this diverse country.

I’m excited to be back in the Northern part of the park later in our trip – assuming things work out as planned crossing the Limpopo. For now, after a couple days relaxing at a spa based around a natural hot spring and digging for fossils in the Cradle of Humankind, we will head across the country to the Kalahari Desert and Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park before heading into Namibia.

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