I loaned Anthony my Canon 1DsMKIII camera with a 70-200 L f2.8 IS USM lens and a 2X Teleconverter II so he would be able to capture shots of the big 5 at a distance. Anthony normally uses his Fuji XPro, which is less suited for long range work, and his demeanor told me he was as excited about the day as myself! We were all waiting in the parking area of the Maroela Chalets, in Marloth Park and at 05:30 am sharp, Cliff showed up with his large Safari vehicle, it took us no time to load up and were off almost immediately!
We entered Kruger National Park through the Malelane Gate, as Cliff described our day and the Big 5; Cape Buffalo, Black Rhinoceros, African Elephant, Lion and Leopard. The day was heavily overcast and Cliff said that we would have a great day as the wildlife would most likely be in the open. On sunny days, the animals spend lots of time in the shade hiding from the sun and heat!
We slowly drove into the heart of Kruger Park, the excitement palpable with everyone looking into the bush for any signs of wildlife, cameras at the ready! The experience of Cliff as a guide shone through as he pointed out Wildebeest off in the distance, grazing peacefully in some brush. What was more amazing is that not more than 100 meters away was a group of Hyena’s lying lazily in the grass, clearly not interested in the Wildebeest at all!
Cliff continued to drive after everyone got the photographs they wanted, and he then pointed out some Vervet Monkeys frolicking in the trees with the nearby Giraffe’s watching them with what could be described as a look of distain! I chuckled at the thought of the Giraffes not being happy with all the monkey business! The proximity of all these creatures to one another did surprised me though, I did not expect to see so many animals so fast!
Cliff learned from another guide via radio, that there was a Cheetah with her cubs close to us, so we were off, driving quickly to catch a glimpse of the Cheetah family! Again Cliff surprised us all when he point out mother Cheetah a long way into the heavy bush, with her cubs snuggled up close to her. Ever vigilant for other predators, she would constantly be scanning her environment, eyes and ears working in concert with one another for the safety of her babies! We all took as many photographs as we could hoping for one that would stand out from the throngs of tourist photos one sees from Kruger Park visitor’s!
As we continued we ran into our first members of the big 5, the Black Rhinoceros, Cape Buffalo and African Elephants, all literally a few hundred meters apart! Three out of 5 in one shot! I was amazed at the size of all three, pictures do not do them justice. These animals are huge, making it easy to miss the smaller, yet just as interesting Warthogs, baboons and Tawny Eagle which were nearby.
We stopped at the Afsaal Picnic Site to stretch our legs, and we were treated to a couple of bull elephants fighting off in the distance. Bob helping me steady my heavy long range camera lens to get the money shot. Other noises came from a group of hippos lounging in the nearby river, barely visible in the dark waters! A couple a beautiful Yellow birds building a nest in the trees and a herd of Impalas rounded out our pit stop!
We were treated to more views of elephants crossing the roads in large groups and more stunning black Rhinos grazing in the grass, ignoring the throngs of tourists clicking away with their cameras. Cliff pointed out a Martial Eagle, Bateleur Eagle and a Cape Vulture all in trees just off the road. The radio suddenly crackled with the news that there was a big group of lions resting on some rocks not too far from us, and with a shudder we were lumbering down the road.
Like North American Bear Jams, Buffalo Jams, and Deer Jams, Kruger Park has its Elephant Jams, Lion Jams, and Rhino Jams, all of which conspire to make forward travel impossible. Cliff maneuvered the big safari vehicle through the stopped throng of private vehicles to put us in a position to get some shots of lions resting on rocks above a river. He even found a better vantage point for us to take some shots, with a lioness suddenly looking directly at me, as if she knew I was taking her picture. It was a bit unnerving! As we started to pull away, another guide whispered that there was a male lion not far down the road, off in the bushes mating with a lioness! We were off again! By the time we reached the area the King of the Jungle was relaxing in the bushes with no sign of the lioness at all. I was captivated by how large the male lion was, easily big enough to kill anyone with a single swipe of its massive paws.
Cliff took us to Mlondozi Picnic site for another restroom break and we were all glad to stretch our legs, and happy that we were able to see Kudu, more elephants, another Cheetah, and battling Hippos! A Vervet monkey was very interested in us, and I am sure if we had stayed in the area he would have come right up to us! As we started to leave I noticed a dung beetle crew moving a giant round piece of animal dung. It was fascinating to watch them work with one another to get the job done…nature’s garbage men.
We has seen 4 out of the big 5 by noon, but we were all hungry so Cliff took us to the Lower Sable Rest Camp were we had a nice lunch while enjoying the scenery of Kruger National Park! Cliff was surprised that we had seen so much in such a short period of time, unusual for any tour he has had. Soon we were back on the road, seeing more Giraffes, Elephants, Zebra, Impala, Kudu and a spiked Tortoise meandering across the road!
The elusive leopard, the last on our list of the big 5 happened to be stalking in the bushes off a trail we were driving! As we watched him hunker down with a nearby herd of Impala almost within striking distance, he would look back at us with clear distain. We were interrupting his day! I found his look almost human, with the scars on his face adding to the apparent emotion of the constant looks he cast back at us tourists. We watched him for about 40 minutes before we moved on, thrilled with the excitement of the moment and the fact that we had seen all of the big 5 in less than 8 hours!
As Cliff drove us back to the Maroel Chalets, we saw more and more animals close to the road as darkness began to fall. We even had to wait for a group of giraffes to cross the road not more than a kilometer from our residence! We unloaded our gear, freshened up and met in the common area for another amazing BBQ by our host Hennie. The conversation was exclusively about the amazing creatures we had spent the day capturing with our cameras. I was exhausted and it was not long before a full stomach of BBQ’d food helped me find sleep. As the darkness enveloped me, my thoughts drifted to our last full day in South Africa, visiting Ouma and the orphans of the White River Area, I did not dream…