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Kruger Return

10 June 2009, Kruger Park, South Africa

Dear Friends and Family,

Newsletters on consecutive days when nothing has been sent in so long?!?  Well, yes, but today was just so wonderful that we couldn't keep it to ourselves.   But I'm not sure we qualify as Ocelotians right now - we're sort of more Ocelandians!

Elephants of all sizes at the waterhole, Kruger Park
Elephants of all sizes coming to the waterhole

Our day started early this morning as we crept out of misty Skukuza Rest Camp for a drive along the Sabie River.  Driving into a little pullout above the river we noticed a herd of 10 elephants coming down the opposite bank in a line and walking towards us.  They stopped at the river to drink, then forded the river and started up the bank right next to us!  One or 2 of them kept their eyes on us as they herded the little ones across the road ahead of us, warning us to keep our distance.  Then they dove into the shrubs on the far side, shredding branches and stuffing them in their mouths as they walked.

Elephant stopped by the car! Kruger Park
Hey! This is MY trail!

Later in the morning we were checking out a small water-hole.  These are dotted around the park and are usually driven either by a windmill pumping water out of a well or by a small solar array.  They provide water in the dry season (which is now) and are often a good place to watch the animals.  This one didn't have anything worthwhile so we were about to leave when a Leopard hopped out of the bush, examined the road for a few seconds, then disappeared down a tiny dry stream-bed!  It was all over in perhaps 30 seconds, but we've probably spent 12 days in Kruger since we arrived 1.5 years ago and this is the first Leopard we've seen, so we were very excited.

At another water-hole we were watching a couple of hippos in the water when a big heron swept overhead and landed on the back of one hippo!  The next thing we know the hippo starts walking along the bottom (they can't swim) taking the heron along for a ride.  The heron placidly enjoyed the trip and although the hippos head and back often went below the surface, he made sure that the heron's feet were all that got wet.  I'm not sure if these 2 had done this before, but it looked rehearsed.  After about 5 minutes the hippo got into deeper water and when the water covered his legs the heron took off searching for a dryer perch.

A leopard crossed right in front of us. Kruger Park
WOW! A leopard crossed right in front of us!

Continuing north we found another herd of about 20 elephants marching in a line and realized that they were heading for a water-hole that we'd just passed, so we returned to the water hole and took up a good position to watch them.  Elephants are matriarchal and the herds usually consist of females and young.  Usually the boss female takes the lead but a lieutenant brings up the rear, making sure there are no stragglers and keeping order.  The baby's are so cute, running around and playing with the other young ones.  The very young haven't even learned how to drink by sucking water up into their trunks, so they have to get down on their tummies to get their mouths into the water to drink.  During the course of the day we saw perhaps 75 elephants in 4 herds drinking at various water holes.  Watching them play in the water is delightfully amusing.

Since we start so early we usually stop about 10:30am for what amounts to a brunch.  The park provides several places to do this but they're usually unfenced, so you dare not leave your food unattended.  While we were waiting for ours a monkey dropped down from a nearby tree, jumped onto a neighboring table, grabbed a slice of toast, and dashed off again, leaving the family staring with open mouths.  Even the Glossy Starlings, with their iridescent blue/green feathers and beady yellow/orange eyes can be cheeky, and we had to shoo them off our table continuously during our meal.

The endangered Ground Hornbill, Kruger Park, South Africa
Endangered: Ground Hornbill

While Asia has some rhinoceros, the vast majority of them (and the ones with the biggest horns) come from Africa.  Unfortunately, many Chinese believe that powdered rhino horn is an aphrodisiac and they pay lots of money for it, so rhinos are under tremendous pressure from poaching.  The White rhinos were almost extinct in the 1960s, but strong environmentalist action has brought them back and, while still endangered, they seem to be thriving - we see them most days that we're in a park.  Now it's the Black Rhino that's extremely endangered, so we were very surprised (and pleased) to see one.  He was standing in heavy brush and we couldn't get a photo, but there are several markers to tell the differences between them.

The names have little to do with their color (I don't know where the names come from).  White rhinos eat grasses so they have flat lips and they carry their heads down with their horns pointing forward.  They also have a relatively flat back.  Black rhinos eat leaves so they have pointed lips and carry their heads up with their horns pointing up, and their backs are concave.  They're also slightly smaller and more aggressive.  They have excellent sense of smell but poor eyesight and their primary rule seems to be "when in doubt, charge!"  We try not to annoy them...

When driving through the park it's always fun to see a group of cars pulled off the side of the road, because that usually means they're watching something interesting.  This afternoon it was 2 cheetahs, lounging in the middle of a burned off field.  The one was always lying down so we couldn't tell much about it, but the other was a beautiful, mature, graceful cheetah who appeared to be caring for either a mate or offspring.  Big cats in general are rare and cheetahs are especially so.  While we'd seen one yesterday, we've only ever seen them once before (and that was not in Kruger Park).

A cheetah cub crosses our road. Kruger Park
A cheetah cub running across our road! Lucky us!

A bit further on we saw perhaps a dozen vehicles pulled over at a small lake and we knew what that meant - Lions.  There was a pride of perhaps 10 that we could see, with 2 cute cubs and 2 juveniles.  The young ones were frolicking about with each other (and occasionally pestering mom) while the older ones rested, with one watching the kids.  Keeping that many lions fed must mean they have to kill every night, but we could see no sign of a kill (or of a male).  But there are so many impala around that I'm surprised that the predator population hasn't grown, as in the park they have essentially no enemies.

Lone cars pulled over are often watching something others aren't interested in, but we usually stop and ask them what they're stopped for if we can't see anything ourselves.  So when one driver responded that he was watching a leopard, we thought he was joking.  But no!  There he was, sauntering across an open field to drink from a water hole!  The light was fading but we had a clear view of him drinking, sitting down and thinking what he was going to do that night.  After about 10 minutes (and many photos) he sauntered off into the brush and disappeared.  The other car said the leopard had been spotted there earlier that day and he'd been waiting at that water hole for over an hour, hoping he'd come back.  And we just happened to drive up at the right time!

So our Big Cat total for the day was 2 leopards, 2 cheetahs, and a pride of lion - VERY good luck for just one day.  Other animals we saw today include giraffe, waterbuck, wildebeest, zebra, baboon, buffalo, Ground Hornbill, 2 parrots (very rare here), and a huge Marshall Eagle (feeding a chick?) in his nest just at sundown.  A great day!

Fair winds and calm seas -- Jon and Sue Hacking

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