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Thursday, January 12, 2017

11/25 & 26: Incredible Drive from Joburg to Kruger's Crocodile Bridge!

11/25: In the morning before catching a flight back to Johannesburg for the night, I wandered around the row of souvenir shops across from our hotel in Victoria Falls. I felt badly for the vendors as I was the only customer in the 60 plus stalls. I had to wonder how the mostly men made a living selling their souvenirs and lovely wooden bowls and sculptures with so few tourists during the dry season. Since there was no residential area in Victoria Falls, the sellers all lived a good piece away and thus incurred costs getting to and from the shops.

En route to the airport, the driver indicated the police checkpoint ahead. He said it was only checking vehicle registration paperwork, etc and his taxi was exempted from the check.
A little further on, we passed a Pentecostal church service in the forest by the highway with about 30 white-robed men and women. Luke, the driver, said their religion requires them to pray in the open. 

Our incoming plane for Johannesburg was late arriving at the gate. We heard, once we boarded, that it was because there were birds on the airport apron. The pilot said he would do his best not to hit them but, in the end, he had to wait for a lead vehicle to shoo away the birds before he was able to take off. That was a first for us!

11/26: After arriving at the Johannesburg airport late yesterday afternoon, we rented a car and made our way, very carefully (as South Africans drive on the 'wrong side' of the road!) to our hotel. We only stayed at the House on York one night as we headed out pretty early for the long drive to Kruger National Park in northeastern South Africa. It would have been a perfect spot to stay for several days as it was so large and palatial compared to a number of the dumpy places we had stayed in recently. The room even came with a complementary bottle of wine which we took with us to enjoy later. I could easily get used to staying at such upscale places!

One of the things that rather alarmed us as we drove through Johannesburg's residential area was the large number of electrified fences and gates by all the homes. That was something we hadn't ever seen anywhere else.

We had been told the most beautiful route from Joburg to Kruger was through the  back roads instead of the super highway. We were glad we heeded that advice as the scenery was indeed beautiful. 
After a couple of hours of driving, we stopped in the coal mining town of Belfast at the local Spar grocery store to pick up some groceries for the next few days. We were familiar with the Spar chain after shopping at their locations in several European countries.
The terrain was very rocky after we left Belfast and were on the back roads.

The country town of Dullstrom, well known for its historic inns, quaint shops and good restaurants, is a favorite weekend getaway for residents of Joburg. The sign said the town welcomed 'Responsible Drivers' - guess that meant no drinking and imbibing!

Taking the Highlands Meander turned out to be a great choice as the road took us past lots of small hills with cattle grazing. It was absolutely bucolic and utterly peaceful.

It was difficult to understand, though, how the twisty turny road through the countryside had a 75 mph speed limit.
We were all the more surprised when just a few miles later we saw this sign. You'd think the highway staff might have noticed a correlation between high rates of speed, few straightaways and the High Accident Zone!
The scenery was just gorgeous, especially with so many different shades of green; it was such a pleasant change driving through a country instead of just flying over it as we'd done so much of.

Neither Steven nor I had ever seen potholes signs before; for a fairly long stretch of road, we had to constantly swerve to miss them. Luckily there weren't too many other drivers on the road!

We stopped in the market town of Lydenburg for gas - $3.75 a gallon - and a bite to eat at the semi-fast food restaurant, Wimpy's. We'd had nothing but partially cooked fries for the last month so asked for them to be cooked crispy this time. While our lunch was being made, I popped in at the Super Spar grocery store in the same parking lot to buy some sandwich meat and a couple of other items for the next couple of days' lunches. 

I was surprised that there were no sandwich meats available except by ordering at the deli. While waiting, I had a morsel of the kangaroo jerky hung on up on hooks in the cooler as a local woman told me it was one of her family favorite's. I also had difficulty finding some jam as the directory signs in the aisles were all in Afrikaans, the Dutch-based language. Everyone in the store, clerks and locals alike, spoke English too so I was able to get what I needed. Naively, I had thought we wouldn't have any language issues here in South Africa.

There were lots and lots of switchbacks but soon heavy fog rolled in.

The fog got so bad that Steven joked it might indeed be very beautiful through this section of road to Kruger but we'd never know as visibility was close to nil! We saw a number of signs indicating there were overlooks but we didn't bother stopping as we couldn't have seen a thing.
We passed a second High Accident Zone and then, shortly after that, one that said The Staircase. We guessed the latter was for all the switchbacks through the mountains. I was so glad that Steven didn't mind driving as I was quite content to just be the navigator, photographer and note taker. 
It certainly made sense why the terrain was so lush and verdant as the area receives so much precipitation.
It was heartbreaking seeing this shanty town - at best - of Rodewal across from some of the most fertile looking farming land imaginable. For the last several hours, we had passes innumerable trout lodges, guest houses and inns. The township, i.e. the community set up decades ago for the area's blacks, was among the poorest we'd seen and that was saying something. 
After the 350 mile drive from Joburg, we were so glad to be finally nearing Kruger National Park which was founded in 1898 by Paul Kruger, president of what was then the Transvaal Republic. The park, about the size of Wales or Israel, is 80 miles wide by 200 miles long, is bordered by Zimbabwe in the north and Mozambique on the east. Divided into 16 macro eco-zones, each supports a great variety of plants, birds and animals, including 150 mammal species and more than 500 species of birds, some of which aren't found anywhere else in the country.

In 2002, a treaty was signed between South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique to create a mammoth conservation area, the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park. Once all the fences are removed between Kruger and the other countries' adjacent national parks, the Peace Park will be the largest conservation area in the world.
There were nine entrance gates to Kruger. We had chosen to access the park at the southwestern entrance, Maleane Gate, and then make our way through the park for about 40 miles along dirt roads to a private lodge just outside the Crocodile Bridge Gate on the park's southeast edge. Beginning last January, we'd done a huge amount of research  to help us decide where to concentrate our several day long stay in the park. The general consensus was that the southern and central sections of the park were probably best for animal sightings so that was why we first headed there.
In addition to having to book reservations way back then (even at that point, we didn't get the ones we wanted!), we had also purchased a Wild Card to allow us easier and more economical access into the park each time.
We could hardly wait to see if Kruger, undoubtedly one of the world's best game parks, would live up to its billing as 'one of the greatest experiences of our lives, providing ultimate 'wow' moments.' That was a pretty tall order!

When we had toured a good chunk of the Maasai Mara Game Reserve in Zimbabwe about a week ago, we had been so lucky to have had a driver and guide with us the entire time. Because he was always in constant radio contact with the other driver guides, he knew just where to go so we had the best chances of the most animal sightings. 
As first-time visitors to the park though, I could see ourselves feeling a little lost driving through the park as we weren't really up in our knowledge of mammals and birds. Nor had we brought either a pair of binoculars or a mammal and bird field guide which would no doubt been smart ideas! As the bush was of course unpredictable, we knew that one of the simplest ways of spotting animals was to look in the right places for the right species. We read in the park's Official Guide that animals and plants were likely to be found in specific areas based on the differences in the underlying rocks and rainfall patterns.

Our first animal sightings in the park were these steenbok, small graceful antelopes recognized by their very large ears and brick-red coat. They live alone in open areas except when breeding. 

Shortly thereafter, we spotted this lone Helmeted Guineafowl even though the birds normally congregate in large flocks. They move through the grass searching for seeds and insects while scratching the ground with their feet.

We, like I would imagine most people entering the park, were also hoping to see as many of The Big Five as possible over the course of the next few days; they consisted of the elephant, rhino, leopard, lion and buffalo. We were thrilled, therefore, when we saw an adult and baby elephants passing in front of us even though we had seen so many while in Maasai Mara.
Elephants communicate over several miles using infrasonic sound. They're generally peaceful animals but, when males are in must - a periodic condition characterized by highly aggressive behavior and accompanied by a large rise in reproductive hormones - the bulls are more aggressive. We hoped we wouldn't come across any males in must!
A little later, a group of five impalas leaped across the road. They browse and graze in herds of up to 100. When alarmed, impalas 'blow' or 'snort'. Impalas confuse predators when they run with leaps of up to an astonishing almost 9 feet high and 36 feet long. During the April and May mating season, the snorting and grunting of males is heard from afar.

Thank goodness the official guide we had purchased had brief descriptions and pictures of some of the park's mammals and birds so we could identify some of the ones we spotted. Otherwise, we would have been pretty well clueless! These nyalas are most often encountered in small herds in thick bushes near rivers. Male and female nyalas are very different in both size and color; the males, below, are much darker and hairier than their female counterparts.
Steven and I joked that we were 'Junior Rangers' checking off the animals we spotted in the very long list in the guide. We doubted we'd come anywhere close to discovering the 43 mammals, let alone the 100 or so birds and the 12 reptiles and amphibians. There was no way we'd be able to ID any of the 25 or so plants listed as there wasn't a cheat sheet or photos of them included. Lil Red: Where were you and Pat when we needed you?!
If you don't want to see lots of giraffe photos below, just scroll down to our next animal sighting! Even though we'd seen so many before in Zimbabwe, it was just as enthralling seeing them in Kruger for us. 

I was surprised to read that, despite the giraffe's height, it only has seven vertebrae, the same as humans. Special valves in the neck prevent too much blood pressure from going to its head when stooping to drink.
An adult and baby giraffe:
A warthog family out for a late afternoon stroll:
Since warthogs have such poor eyesight, they often approach quite close to visitors, rooting about on their knees. When disturbed, they spend a few seconds staring before running off with their tales held erect. Warthogs shelter at night in old aardvark holes.
It was only from this side angle that we noticed they had manes like horses. 
Part of a large herd of male and female impalas were the next animals we saw.
I think this is one of the cutest photos I had taken in a long time!

We first eyed a number of white-backed vultures in the trees before then spying a lot more of them on the ground too.

Soon after, we saw two more elephants in the bush to our left before they then switched course and lumbered into the road.

We wondered how closely we could get to pass them as it was getting late and we wanted to get to the lodge after such a long day. Sometimes, we had read, we needed to be very patient when seeing animals on the road, allowing them to pass before driving on. It was critical to remember that we weren't in a zoo and that we were in a territory of wild animals, even though many were used to the sights and sounds of cars.

It's easy to acknowledge in hindsight that we weren't nearly as careful as we should have been when we were so close to the elephants. This one stared us down as we passed and then began to give chase as we tried to leave it and the other one in the dust. Sure, it was exhilarating and got our adrenaline going but we should probably have exercised more patience as animals always had the right of way.
Waterholes: According to the park guide, as a result of droughts in the early 1960s, Kruger National Park Management began a 'Water for Game' program where drinking water in the form of boreholes and catchment areas was provided. This was done in areas where either water did not previously occur or didn't on a permanent basis. The policy resulted in numerous ecological problems arising over time. About ten years ago, Conservation Management decided to take steps to address these negative consequences by closing certain man made waterholes. Those are to be replaced by naturally occurring waterholes where possible and ecologically viable.

A totally dried up river bed:
So many of the trees were totally devoid of any vegetation.
While driving on the park's dirt roads, we needed to observe the 25 mph speed limit signs in order to be careful of any animals who might suddenly dart out onto the road. We also didn't want to fall victim to the speed traps, mind you either!
If you look closely or enlarge the photo by clicking on it, you can see birds clinging to the giraffe's side as it walked across the road.
More guineafowls:

We were amazed how very little traffic we had seen; there couldn't have been more than 20 or so cars in the 90 minutes we'd been in the park. The terrain changed markedly and very quickly at the southeastern edge of the park as we neared the Crocodile Bridge Gate. For almost the entire drive, we had seen a profusion of many different trees and bushes but that quickly morphed into wide open areas with few trees. (Sorry the next couple of photos are blurry; I decided to include them to show the disparity between the two areas.)

After spending the entire day driving for so many hours from Johannesburg to, and then through, a small area of the park, we were looking forward to the day's end! Our home away from home for the next three nights was just outside the park, located across the Crocodile River, behind the grove of trees on the right.
Unfortunately we didn't see any crocodiles lazing about in the river even though we drove across at a snail's pace.

This drive had been extraordinarily special because we had seen a good chunk of very scenic eastern South Africa from one of its biggest cities, through rolling countryside and then the foggy mountains, before entering one of the world's most fabulous game parks. How very lucky we were to still have many more days in Kruger National Park.

Posted on January 12th from Littleton, Colorado.

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