Friday, January 31, 2014

Birds. All I Really Want is Birds.

Mom, Jeremiah, this post is for you!

According to a magazine found in the hotel we stayed at in Pretoria, there are some 507 species of birds in Kruger National Park. Not surprisingly, we saw just a small sampling of them -- some 68 that we could identify, plus many more that were too small, too quick or too not-in-the-book for us to identify. (Scroll down to the bottom of this post for the full list, if you dare!)

Here are some of the ones we got decent (sometimes even good!) photos of:


Swainson's Spurfowl (aka "Red-faced Chicken") a daily sighting.

Pearl-Spotted Owlet (aka "tiny owl") seen on our first night drive.

European Roller, commonly spotted along the roadways, this bird is beautiful

Southern Ground Hornbill (aka "the endangered weird-looking bird")

Ostrich (aka "fluffy rock")

Spotted Eagle Owl, as seen on our second night drive

Cattle Egret

Kori Bustard (aka "kori bastard")

Crested Barbet, often seen on the deck at Olifants Restaurants

Saddle-billed Stork

Saddle-billed Stork in flight!

Another European Roller
Southern Carmine Bee-eater
Cape Turle-Dove, mid song
White-headed Vulture pair
White Stork, preparing for take-off
Verreaux's Eagle-Owl looking super fluffy
Woodland Kingfisher
Lilac-breasted Roller, so pretty!
Inquisitive Green-backed Heron
White-backed Vulture
Greater Blue-eared Starling
Burchell's Coucal
Red-crested Korhaan
Paradise Whydah

And here are a few more unknowns. Perhaps you can identify them?
Mystery Eagle
Mystery Goshawk?
Tree full of songbirds of indeterminable species
Sky full of vultures awaiting feeding time at the vulture restaurant at the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Center.


Here's the complete list of birds we identified for anyone who is crazy enough to care:

  1. Egyptian Gose
  2. Comb Duck
  3. White-faced Duck
  4. Green-backed Heron
  5. Goliath Heron
  6. Grey Heron
  7. Cattle Egret
  8. Great Egret
  9. Saddle-billed Stork
  10. White Stork
  11. Marabou Stork
  12. Red-crested Korhaan
  13. Kori Bustard
  14. Crested Francolin
  15. Natal Spurfoel
  16. Swainson's Spurfowl
  17. Helmeted Guineafowl
  18. Cape Turtle-Dove
  19. Emerald-spotted Wood-Dove
  20. Red-billed Oxpecker
  21. Red-billed Buffalo-weaver
  22. Greater Blue-eared Starling
  23. Cape Glossy Starling
  24. Burchell's Starling
  25. Black-headed Oriole
  26. Red-billed Quelea
  27. Paradise Whydah
  28. Pin-tailed Whydah
  29. Southern BouBou
  30. Three-banded Plover
  31. Southern White-crowned Shrike
  32. Magpie Shrike
  33. Red-backed Shrike
  34. Southern Carmine Bee-eater
  35. Fork-tailed Drongo
  36. Burchell's Coucal
  37. Grey Hornbill
  38. Southern Yellow Hornbill
  39. Red-billed Hornbill
  40. Southern Ground-Hornbill
  41. Water Thick-knee
  42. Crowned Lapwing
  43. Double-banded Sandgrouse
  44. African Hoopoe
  45. Grey Go-away-bird
  46. Woodland Kingfisher
  47. Lilac-breasted Roller
  48. European Roller
  49. Chinspot Batis
  50. Cape Vulture
  51. Hooded Vulture
  52. Lappet-faced Vulture
  53. White-backed Vulture
  54. African Crowned Eagle
  55. African Fish-Eagle
  56. Martial Eagle
  57. Brown Snake Eagle
  58. Walhberg's Eagle
  59. Gabor Goshawk
  60. Black-shouldered Kite
  61. Yellow-billed Kite
  62. Steppe Buzzard
  63. Spotted Eagle Owl
  64. Verreaux's Eagle Owl
  65. Giant Eagle Owl
  66. Barn Owl
  67. Pearl-spotted Owlet
  68. Common Ostrich


Lions, leopards and hippos, oh my!

Our last night drive in Kruger National Park was another private affair. Just the two of us and our driver/guide, Chandrak. The drive started out without much hope as Chandrak had been informed by another park ranger that little was stirring. But we crossed our fingers and hoped for the best... And we were in luck!

First, we spied a hippo in the bush just a few year from the road. Hooray! Something was out. Then we spotted a second hippo. Double our luck.

Next up was a fluffy Verreaux's Eagle-Owl just chilling in the middle of the road only a km or so from camp. Standing more than a foot tall and puffed out, it was a sight to enjoy. Mostly gray and brown, this owl sported bright orange eyelids. Very cool!


Then, a third hippo. As our driver was informing us that they they can get disoriented under the spotlights, the hippo moved quickly towards us, seemingly charging the truck while spinning in a circle like a dog chasing its tail and nearly hitting the truck. But Chandrak was speedy and turned off the headlights, urging us to do the same with our spotlights. That did the trick and hippo avoided our rig and hustled off into the bush. We heaved a collective sigh of relief.

On the road again, we spotted impala and buffalo and the night-night birds that like to chase insects by flying in front of the truck. And then, off to the right, just lounging in a meadow I spotted a lion! A male lion which promptly got up and walked back into the brush. We reversed the truck in hopes of tracking him but we were too slow. We did, however, get a huge whiff of the lion's rotting kill. According to Chandrak, the lions must of been snacking on it, stirring up the rotting odor and making us want to gag. After a few more minutes of unsuccessfully hunting, we bid the lion adieu and headed back on our way.


Not to long thereafter, Chandrak alerted us to a leopard walking in the dirt road. Woohoo! A second leopard sighting and this one at night and on the move. We were positively delighted and followed the leopard as it walked quickly across the savana into the bush. We got a nice view of the leopard and what a beauty it was.


On the way back to camp, we checked out the night sky. More stars than I've ever seen before! Plus, the southern cross, pointer stars and Milky Way were on display. Another incredible day.


Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Holy Batman!

If Hitchcock lived in Kruger National Park, his movie would have been called The Bats, not The Birds.

Tuesday evening, as we sat in the balcony of the restaurant at Olifants, enjoying the last rays of the day's sunset and munching away at our dinners, a swarm of bats exploded forth from behind us. We were startled to see the dusky sky fill up with furry fruit bats fervently flapping their wings as they careened across the river below heading south towards the shrub forest.

Every couple minutes a new wave of bats would dive bomb our heads and joining the growing flock of flying mammals in the great beyond. Curious about where the bats were coming from, I hazarded a look behind me, only to have a madly flapping bat nearly collide with my face. In pure terror, I dodged the bat only to bash my head into the balcony railing, which hurt surprisingly a lot. (Apparently, the bats nest under the eaves of every building in the camp, including that of the restaurant where we were dining.)

To top off our bat viewing, we witnessed the impressive skill of a starling which caught a bat mid-air and happily chomped away it while calmly beating its wings to stay aloft. If only I was so nonplussed to be amid a swarm of bats.


Night Drive from Olifants

The last to arrive, we took our seats near the back of the truck filled with a dozen other tourists, mostly white. With spotlights in hand, we headed out into the bush in search of nightlife.

Unlike our first night drive, there were few animals about but the ones that were made the trek worthwhile.

Springhare. Imagine a squirrel mixed with a kangaroo and you've got a springhare. They are a type of rabbit (thus, the "hare" part) and they use their tail like a spring to leap forward. They make lovely little arcs as they bound across the night savanna, the black spots on the end of their tails acting as a sort of bouncing "." to underscore their trail. In one field, we spotted dozens of springhare jumping in every which direction, causing me let out a little gleeful giggle like a schoolgirl and Josh to smile over at his silly wife.

Hippos. Hippos come out at night to munch on trees and fill their very round bellies. According to our guide, hippos are very territorial in water, but not so much on land. Good thing, because hippos kill more people each year than lions (Josh Fact, accuracy unknown). We were fortunate to spy multiple hippos on this venture and get mauled by none.

Spotted Eagle Owl. Petite little owl with bright yellow eyes and an inquisitive stare, this owl (like most owls) perches on tree branches and absolutely hates it when you shine a bright light in its eyes. What a shocker. Still, shine our lights we did. And the owl blessed us by swiveling its head back and forth and glaring as us like we were such pests.


Monday, January 27, 2014

A Day at the Spa

Without much enthusiasm, Josh asked if I wanted to check out the Red Rocks detour. Sure, I replied, why not. So we turned our little rental car left onto the dirt road intended to take its travelers to Red Rocks. But we never made it. Instead we were derailed by the most glorious mud bath ever.

That's right.

A mud bath.

For ten.

Elephants, of course.


Less than 100 yards in from the main tarred road, a herd of elephants were leisurely enjoying a mid-day spa treatment, happily rolling in a shallow mud hole. The youngsters playfully pushed their brethren into the brown liquid, tumbling over each other with all the grace of drunken sumo wrestlers. The adults sucked up mud in their trunks and stoically spewed it out onto their backs, flanks, undercarriages, and even right in their own faces.

The bathing went on. And on. And on. With what seemed to be no end in sight to a truly entertaining show.

A baby tries to get in the mud while a few mid-size elephants roll underfoot of a large mama elephant.

Until one by one, the mid-sized elephants wandered off to nibble the surrounding grasses. Followed by the juveniles, sticking close to their mamas. And then last, but certainly not least, the big males left the mud hole to chomp on the nearby trees, ably breaking off branches and striping their leaves asunder.

And so we headed on our way. Ultimately deciding that the elephant spa day was much better than anything we might see at Red Rocks, prompting us to make a languid u-turn and continue our journey north.


Spotted: Lounging Leopard

Our Monday drive continued, heading north from Satara towards our final destination for the day: Olifants. After the heady action of watching lions hunt down breakfast and spying on vervet monkeys play in the trees, we were completely stunned to spot a solitary leopard lounging in a tree, a mere ten feet from the main road.

A leopard!

Another amazing sight. Especially at 11am, when leopards are supposed to be bedded down in some tall grass hidden from prying eyes. But, again, we were in luck!

With binoculars in hand and a camera set to record, we watched the leopard pant away with its mouth wide open, trying to get some relief of the mid-day heat.

This cat is not cool.

But after a few minutes, the leopard gave up and left its perch in the tree to seek shelter from the sun in the tall cool grass beneath.

Just as quickly as we came upon it, the leopard gracefully leapt out of view, not to be seen again.

And so, our sightings of The Big 5 complete, we headed north in search of our next camp.


Sunday, January 26, 2014

Murder Monday

On Monday, January 20, we awoke early (5am), packed up our belongings and hit the road geared up for the long drive to our next Camp. Orpen, where we stayed the first two nights, lies on the western edge of Kruger National Park, just an hour's drive from Hoedspruit Airport. Our destination, Olifants, was some 226km to the northeast.

This Monday morning was like any other Monday I've experienced. First, I woke up happy without grumbling and ready to meet the day at 5am. I didn't try to hide under the covers or pretend I didn't hear Josh telling me it was time to rise and shine. Instead, I got up, dressed and collected my belongings. Sterilized a bunch of water using our handy steripen, drank some instant coffee and shoveled cold leftover rice into my smiling face, while Josh downed his yogurts and loaded up the car for the day's adventure. Little did I know what an adventure it would be.

Driving along the tarred road from Orpen towards Satara, we saw a couple cars up ahead stopped and what looked like a herd of African buffalo crossing the road enmass. As we got closer we noticed a graying lion walking along the right side of the road. The lion crossed in front of the silver Land Rover a few hundred yards ahead of us and then gracefully sat on its hunches on the left side of the road, tail in the street, eyeing the buffalo.

Lion eyeing the herd of buffalo, unbeknown to the driver of the white sedan.

Out of the corner of our eyes, we saw a second male lion stealthily prowling up on the right side of the road, passing less than ten feet from our car and moving into position masked by some bushes. This lion was younger than the first and seemed determined to make a move on the Buffalo herd.

The watchful pair.

For a few minutes, all was quiet, except the Buffalos' eyes which seemed to be darting back and forth from one side of the road to the other. Then the buffalo started boiling in their formation across the road, trying to move the smaller animals to the open field on the right, without letting the herd thin out. There seemed to be hundreds of buffalo spread across the road, out in the savana to the right and walking up from the river to the left.

In a moment of anticipation, the lions got to their feet and began walking purposefully toward the herd. The Buffalos got wild eyed and started bashing into each other and the lions took off running at them.

Did I mention there was a white sedan parked in between the herd and lions at on off-kilter angle watching the scene go down?

Well, in a matter of moments that car became the focal point of the lion-buffalo interaction as the older male lion, gray in its coat and hunger in its eyes, zeroed in one buffalo and, just barely skirting the white car, reached out with its huge paw and clawed at the buffalo tumbling with it around the back side of the car. With the lion at its heels, the buffalo skidded on the smooth surface of the road, fell over and got up as quickly as possible. But one was not quick enough.

The lion and the buffalo got all tangled up, rolling around and over each other mere feet from the white car while it's driver looked on in stunned silence and fear, luckily snapping one telling photo as the duo stirred up dust and the lion tried to bring down the buffalo.

A life or death struggle. (Courtesy of Sarel Smit, aka guy in the white car.)

What looked like sure success turned out not to be. And as quicky as it all started, the lion exited stage left, leaping down the embankment towards the river.

It was all over. All the people in cars, let out of a collective breathe of air, amazed at what we had witnessed and dumbfounded to have stumbled upon this scene at seven in the morning. Aren't lions night hunters? I guess things aren't so simple.

After all the other cars had dispersed, we made a u-turn and crept along the right bank side of the road hoping to catch a glimpse of the lions in retreat. Instead, Josh spotted the two lions on the other side of the river gnawing away at their kill. They had succeeded!

Although we they were bedded down several hundred yards away, we could see their heads bobbing up and down in the grass as the two males, young and old, sat side by side tearing apart the now-dead buffalo. With wide smiles plastered across our faces, we exclaimed to each other what an amazing sight that was.

Lions devouring their kill.


I have never been so rewarded for waking up early.

Oh, and no matter what the lions say, it was definitely premeditated murder.


My First Night Drive

Sunday, January 19 I had my first night drive.

Looking for wildlife.

(It's not like I haven't been in a vehicle at night before.)

Josh and I turned out to be the only ones signed up for the drive, so we sat in the first row of seats, in opposing window-seats (although the rigs don't have windows) and we each got a spotlight to shine on the surrounding savanna. Our guide explained that since it was dark out, we'd be using the lights to look for animal eyes only. I thought to myself, that the animals might not take kindly to being blinded, but I decided that would just have to be too bad because I was curious about what lurked in the dark. Plus, my night vision is crap so the light was entirely necessary for me to see anything.

As we set out into the darkness, just the three of us and our trusty spotlights, I couldn't help noticing that we were unarmed entering into a wilderness filled with nocturnal animals who could see much better than us and were likely on the hunt for their dinner...

Luckily, we were not on the menu.

The first animals we spotted were impala, just outside the Orpen camp gate. Huddled together with wildebeest, our guide noted that the two species often stick together as they each have different strengths in spotting predators and they are safer together than alone. So there you have it: interspecies collaboration in action.

Shortly thereafter we were delighted to see a black-backed jackal, a rather rare sighting, and one that we were quite excited about it. Next Josh spied a genet, a cat-like long-tailed smallish animal that is even less common to spot. And we started seeing loads of shrub hares -- small, brownish rabbits that hop around at night. (Yes Mom, I did think to myself, "that's a real rabbit!")

At one point, our driver stopped and pointed out a small owlet. It was so cute, maybe 5" tall at most and something I would have loved to keep as a pet. But alas, animals here are wild, so I left it behind. Plus, I didn't think it would fit well in my already-stuffed luggage.

As we headed back to camp, we were content with our night drive and pleased with our day overall. Over the last 16 hours, we had seen two prides of lions, zebra, elephants, giraffe, water buffalo, a rhino, and hordes of impalas and wildebeests. Here are some pictures from the day:

Plains Zebra grazing in the grass.

^ Female giraffe checking us out.

^ Rhinoceros hiding in the bush.

^ Lioness taking her turn as lookout.

But the day wasn't over yet. Lounging in the middle of the road like it was no big deal were four male lions. A skinny bunch, our guide remarked that, as expected, the lions were upwind of the herd of wildebeest, likely resting up before attempting a kill. Apparently, lions like to warm themselves on the paved roads at night when the day's stored-up sunshine is released like that of a heated tile floor in a luxurious bathroom.

^ Lions enjoying the warm road at night.


With a cool breeze brushing across my face, I wanted to lay down beside them, but decided we had survived enough adventure for one day. And who knew what tomorrow would bring...


Saturday, January 25, 2014

Hello again!

We are back in civilization! Well, sorta. We're at the Kapama Game Reserve, which is fancy enough to have wifi. Intermittently. If you stand in the right spot. What this means to you is that I'll be publishing one-by-one all the blog posts I wrote while we were in Kruger National Park, living the more rustic life, albeit still with AC and refrigerators.

So get ready for it.... A dozen or so posts coming your way to recap some of the highlights from our six nights and seven days in the park.

And for those of you who don't want to scroll down to our earlier post with the map of Kruger and our route, here's a new one... Slightly improved to include the actual (mostly accurate) roads we took through the park on our adventures.



Thursday, January 16, 2014

A Tale of Two Airports

Okay, three really. But I don't have much to say about the Seattle-Tacoma Airport since its my home port.

1. Heathrow Airport, London.

After a nine-hour, mostly sleepless flight, we found ourselves in an empty, modern, sterile arrivals gate that felt like what I imagine a sanatorium or other less-than-fun institution would be like. I'm not sure why British Airways decided that, upon arrival in London, passengers should exit the cramped airplane into an expansive, all-white abyss, but that is what we found awaiting us. Following the herd of other sleep-deprived passengers we slogged our way to the tram.

Like the corridor, the tram too had a outerspace-like emptiness to it -- all white and gray lacquer finishes with lime-green handrails and blank walls. The tram moved surprisingly slowly, eventually bringing us to the main terminal from which we could go back through security to get into the mall-like atmosphere of the International Terminal.

Security. A little different than the USA. We got to keep our shoes on and had to place all our luggage in a large gray bin, but otherwise the rest was the same: all liquids in a plastic ziplock bag, jackets off, boarding passes checked, slow people ahead who didn't know the drill, etc.

We had hoped to find a hotel in the International Terminal where we could sleep away our 9 hour layover, but it turns out that the airport hotel was in another random terminal and we would have to go back through security to get it to, plus we needed special permission to get to that gate since our flight was departing elsewhere. So, while I held down the fort, Josh scouted the termin-mall for the comfiest chairs to nap in. We ate some crap food, napped and bid our time until they posted our gate info.

Check out the unusual lady figure in the London airport restroom signs. Apparently British women have amazingly large hips or wear hoop skirts all the time!

Also different than Seattle, they don't let you go to your gate until 90 minutes before your departure time. Instead you must shop at the high-priced designer stores in the termin-mall: Prada, Guici and a whole host of others including a shop where you could get £400 tins of caviar. No thank you.

I did, however, find a wool scarf I loved. But for the price, I settled on a photo instead. Perhaps I will recreate it when I get back to the States. :)

Eventually, we made it to the gate, but not before realizing that my iPad was seriously low on battery and that the charger dongle to convert UK to US power was tucked in the checked luggage. One cheap crossword puzzle book later, and we were aboard the final leg of our journey to South Africa.

2. O.R.Tambo Airport, Johannesburg.

Even more wearily this time, we exited the airplane and stumbled our way to immigration where we were faced with two queues for non-South African passport holders: visa required or visa not required. Hmmm. At this point were so tired and delirious that we couldn't remember if US citizens need a visa to visit a South Africa, and even though Josh has been here before, he was clueless. So, I asked a guy wearing a badge and he gave me the most unhelpful information. Apparently US passport holders can use either line. What?! Do I need a visa or not, I still wanted to know. But I was exhausted and Josh had joined the line for no visa required, so I just joined him and hoped it all would work out. And surprise! It did! No line switching required. No annoyed immigration officers. Just a smooth and mellow experience.

Oh, and did I mention that the immigration officers don't wear uniforms? Some of them were even wearing jeans. How nice. Then it was time for the loo, and the friendly a-line skirt wearing lady was back on the sign directing me to the restroom. What a relief!

A few other differences:

  • Luggage carts are free and plentiful.
  • Customs is a quick walk with no one scanning bags or asking to know anything about you. Just a half-dozen customs officers (in uniforms) joking around and laughing as we walked by.
  • Multicolored tile stripes on the floor directing us along to the exit. (Sort of a South Africa yellow-brick-road, if you will).
  • A huge beaded elephant advertising some local liquor, which of course I made Josh take a picture of me in front of:

As we exited the secure area, I was expecting to slam into a huge crowd of people, some offering taxi rides, others pulling at my luggage acting as my self-appointed porters, and still more people shouting to find loved ones in the crowd. But no. It was surprising peaceful, quiet and orderly. Not a single person offered us a lift, tried to carry our luggage for us or forcefully plied their wares. How nice!

Eventually we connected with the driver arranged by Josh's local contact and off we went to the hotel where check-in was surprisingly fast and easy, our room is nice and clean, the shower works like at home, and the bed was so cozy we overslept our naps.

Today marks my first day on the African continent, my first visit to South Africa and our the first day of our hopefully-year-long adventure. (I promise future posts will be much shorter. Thanks to those who stuck it out and made it to the end of this ramble.)