Travel journal South Africa
by Claudia and PJ Potgieser
Where are we?
November 2009, South Africa
November 4 -
We did not come to South Africa alone. We talked our American friends Dave and Jenny into coming with us. From here we are going to travel northbound to the famous Kruger National Park. There we hope to see the Big Five (Lion, Leopard, Elephant, Black Rhinoceros and the Cape Buffalo).
National Park, day 1,2 and 3 (November 9 -11)
Even before we entered the park yesterday we saw a herd of elephants at the gate that was cooling down in the river. We could have used a swim too because it was 107F. In the first half hour of driving through the park we saw many elephants with babies, impalas, buffalo, giraffes and six rhinos. If it keeps up in this rhythm, we will be exhausted pretty soon.
Today because of the heat we had a hard time getting started. Dave and Jenny left 20 minutes earlier and saw their first leopard! We ran into a dead buffalo in the middle of the road, but there were no chew marks. At first we thought it is a road kill, until we saw the young male lion sleeping next to the road only 4 yards away! Occasionally he looked up, a bit bored. The rangers decided that the buffalo is in the way and started to pull him away. What a pity we think, but we were pleasantly surprised when the rangers only moved him off the road. They left him in the grass only 7 yards away from the road! The rangers from Yellowstone could learn something from that. As soon as they find a kill, they move it to the secret 'bone yard'. The lion, alerted by this action, stands up, and tried to figure out what had happened to his meal.
We parked close to the kill and waited patiently for the lion to come and claim his meal. But it looked like he was only interested in where the buffalo had disappeared and the lion vanished into the bushes. From 7.30 till 4.30 we patiently waited for the animal to return, but we were not rewarded. We were glad that we had rented a camper, because while waiting we could use the bathroom, kitchen and even take turns for a nap.
The next day at 4.30 we sped out of the gate to go back to the dead buffalo. PJ had put the coordinates in the navigation system, but a mile away from the site we were blocked. By what? Three rhinos were sleeping on the warm asphalt! By revving the engine we chased them away and continued as quickly as was allowed (30 mph). Arriving at the carcass we were blocked again, only this time by twenty hyenas guarding the road. There must be some lions at the kill! We moved in closer and saw two sleeping lionesses and the young male. The first hour nothing much happened. The two lionesses were trying to sneak closer and closer to the carcass, pretending that they were cuddling together. They didn’t fool the lion. Sometimes he opened one eye, growled at them as if he were saying: “Girls, I know what you are doing, but I am going to eat first”. Also the hyenas were trying to crawl in closer to the kill through the high grass.
All of a sudden the lion got up, walked to the back of the buffalo and started to eat. The hyenas were getting exited and started to run around, making their typical sound “Whoo-hoop, whoo-hoop”. One of the lionesses used the chaos to jump over the carcass and tried to get a bite. The lion reacted furiously with loud growling and showing lots of sharp teeth. But he cooled down and let the girls eat at the head of the buffalo. While they were trying to get through the tough skin, the lion was enjoying the soft intestines. Dave and Jenny were parked down wind and are got the full aroma (they were actually gagging!).
campers there was room for two more vehicles and the tour busses were
using that area for a viewing stop. They would watch for maybe ten minutes.
National Park, day 4 and 5 (November 12 and 13, 2009)
In various places throughout the park (i.e. the campgrounds) mapped sections of Kruger were placed on boards. With little magnets you could mark where you had spotted which animal. We were especially interested in the red magnets (lion), the black (leopard) and the white (cheetah). Around Pretoriuskop campground a leopard was often spotted, so we gave it a try too. We drove around and around and even saw fresh cat prints on top of the tire marks, but this beautiful animal still remained in hiding from us.
During one of
our rounds, when we were driving in the lead, Dave shouted over the radio:
"STOP, come back, lions!". PJ drove slowly back while we were scanning
the field, but we could not find these lions. "Right here", Dave
pointed to the
side of road. A lion couple was snoring away, oblivious of the world
around them. After fifteen minutes we discovered why they are so tired...
the beautiful maned lion stood up, mounted his girl and mated. This
quickie only lasted 5 seconds and then they fell back asleep, very tired.
We were only missing 'the cigarette'...
Back on the campground we braai (barbecue) again. We were happy that the camper was equipped with an air conditioner, a luxury we haven't had for 12 years traveling and sleeping is a cool affair. At night it started to rain heavily with lightning and thunder, so immediately the power was gone and with that the airco stopped. You should not get attached to luxury in Africa....
Kruger National Park, day 6 and 7 (November 14 and 15)
When we drove south the temperature rose to 113F. Animals like the elephant, the Cape buffalo and the rhino have to protect their skin against the sun and parasites by covering themselves in mud. We had already seen that the elephant has a perfect tool for that, but the other animals just roll in the mud. The mud does not have the same color everywhere, so we were not surprised when we saw a ‘red’ rhino.
seen that lion at the carcass?”, a tourist going northbound asked us. No,
have not seen it, but it interesting.
In Kruger you have to make reservations for the campground a day in advance. We would prefer to go a campground depending on where we see the last wildlife of the day. Now, for example, we are ten minutes away from the Crocodile Bridge campground, but we have booked for a campground 45 minutes away from here. Fortunately we have rented a GPS navigation system with the camper, so we knew exactly how long we could stay at the lion family. We usually take 15 minutes spare time in case we will run into something special. We now have an hour to drive before gate closing time at the campground. We started driving northbound. Pretty soon we ran into the weird Ground Hornbill bird. Quickly we took some pictures and moved on. Then we had a hippo standing next to the road, a sight you do not see too often. Click-click, and going again. Oops, a vehicle jam. There was a rhino standing on the road, but that did not seem to be the problem because the people were looking at the river. Seven minutes to spare. These people also had to be at the campground in time, so what were they waiting for? We squeezed through and purposely did not look at the river, because we did not want to know what we were missing. Nice sunset. Click-click. An elephant. Get out of here, only three minutes to spare. Just in time we arrived at the campground and Jenny and Dave were right behind us followed a row of cars. Gee, what a stress!
The next morning we sped, as fast as the speed limit allowed, to the lion family. We were not aware yet that this would become the Big Cat Day. Fortunately it was still too dark to see what we were missing on our way down. Arriving at the carcass we saw two lionesses lying on the road. We were the first ones on our side, at the other side there were 4 or 5 cars and tour busses. The lioness mum joined the other two, still with blood on her chin. Her cubs continued eating for a while. When they were finished one cub gave his aunt a hug and cuddled with his mum. The lioness seemed to enjoy it with her eyes closed. Next thing on the cub’s list was teasing his sis and before we knew it there were 5 lions on the road. What a mighty feeling to watch these animals so closely just doing their thing. The other two lionesses are feeding now; the girls have arranged their pecking order perfectly.
We left the lions behind and traveled northbound. Within 15 miles we saw lions on a carcass four different times! But none of them was as impressive as the lion family. We drove to another part of the park and the surroundings were getting wider, dryer and sparser of bushes. This is the hunting area of the cheetah, but we did not see any animals, even the always faithful herds of impalas were missing. The road started to get boring and our eyes started to blink with sleep. But that sleepy feeling immediately changed when we saw a cheetah far away. We started patrolling the road for a while. There she was, right next to the road with a yearling! She totally ignored us and crossed the road a couple of times looking for a prey. Her cub followed her with a serious look on her face. They are such graceful animals! For the longest time she sat on an anthill watching her surroundings before she disappeared.
We were ready
for lunch now and a place where we could get out of the ‘box’ and stretch
our legs. At certain picnic areas you are allowed to leave your
vehicle. We stopped and I saw a magnet board and I walked up to it for a quick
look. A guy on a mission also walked to the board, definitely wanting to mark
his sightings on it. But somebody else beat him to it and already had put the magnets
there. The only thing he could now do was brag loudly, pointing at the
magnets and saying: “I saw this one (red=lion) and that one (another red
one) and this one (a black magnet!).
We had never dared to dream that we would not only see lions every day, but also so many Big Cats with cubs and everything so close to the road.
Kruger National park, day 8 till 12 (November 16th – 20th, 2009)
Baby and juvenile animal parade:
About the rainy season: I will get into that later, but nature became
One day we slept in till six a.m. and we are doing our laundry. Jenny and Dave have been watching us for over a week how we do our laundry in a bucket: water and detergent in the bucket, putting laundry in it, close the lid, let it shake while driving and then in the evening rinse it and hang it on the clothes line outside. In the morning (if it is not yet dry) we hang the clean laundry inside in the camper. It works very well for us. Jenny decides to try it also. This time we leave the laundry hanging at the camp-site, because we will return there in the evening. While we are parked close to two lions which have killed a buffalo, it starts to drizzle. Oh no! The laundry will never dry this way.
We saw the rare Saddle-billed Stork and even more rare the Martial Eagle and
the colorful Bateleur (some kind of eagle).
The following morning we were at a water hole at 5 o’clock and there was a lion drinking! When he leaves, we try follow him with the binoculars. Seeing that he was not alone, because there was another lion… and another one! No, wait! There were four… no, there were five lions! From the road we tried to find out what their path would be and if there was a way to intercept them. Within five minutes we were surrounded by five adult lions. Wow! They all started to walk in front of our camper. A normal tourist would have been satisfied with the photograph of five lion butts, but we are not normal and passed the lions to be able photograph them from the front side. We repeated this a couple of times. What a great experience!
A troop of lions is called a lion pride and generally exists of a number of females and a male. The lionesses hunt but the male will feed first. But what do you do if you are a young male and haven’t gathered a harem yet? It happens more often that young male lions form a gang, which is called a bachelor pride. We start calling these boys the Gay Pride, because of the way they show off their bums.
We spent the night at the Letaba Restcamp in an area which is known for
the large herds of elephants. From inside the camper it is hard to guess
how large an elephant is, but we got an excellent impression in the
elephant museum on the campground. Many skulls with huge tusks were
displayed on the wall. Also in the park we saw huge live ones with
large tusks, which blocked the traffic sometimes.
Kruger has special feeding places for elephants: high, large, round concrete troughs, in which only the elephant can put his trunk. It was funny to see how the elephants would rest their tusks on the rim while drinking. Two elephants greeted each other affectionately and explored each other with their trunks.
While waiting at a drinking hole for an elephant which we had spotted, we began to wonder, 'what is taking him so long?". Suddenly Dave gave an excited call over the radio: “We are surrounded by elephants!”. A large herd with many babies had emerged from out of nowhere and stormed around their camper. We returned exactly on time to watch everything from a safe distance. They drank rapidly and took off. Why were they in such a hurry? Did they know something that we did not know? The next day we find out what they probably instinctively had sensed - the next night it started to down pour!
We drove further North to Punta Maria, the most northern campground. Kruger is 275 miles long, which is longer than the Netherlands! We saw a lot of animals, a gorgeous large Owl with tufts and pink eye lids and we posed at the Tropic of Capricorn, another fictitious line on the earth.
At 5 p.m. the sky suddenly darkened, the temperature dropped to 59 F and it started to pour. We drove rapidly to the campground. While we were making our camper nicely warm with the heater, we were not aware of the drama which was taking place in another part of the park but more about this later.
Kruger National Park, day 13 till 16 (November 21st - 24th, 2009)
Later we learned why we frequently saw killed animals so close to
the road. When being hunted the buffalo would obviously flee, and
when he hit the slithery asphalt, would frequently slip. So for the
lion it was an easy catch.
reception we had not been able to get any information about the weather
forecast, so after another lion shoot the next day PJ and I drove out of the park into
Phalaborwa to check the Internet. While outside the park I could upload
my website too. Good news: the weather was forecast to remain dry for a
Each afternoon we had to first check in at the campground and then reserve our stay for the next night. This was a daily struggle and it seemed to take forever. Each day we had to have a discussion to pay the same price as yesterday! When we verified the wildlife sighting board PJ saw that he had been right, there had been a leopard sighting "just around the corner".
We checked the wildlife sighting board at the campground again. Since this morning there had been three cheetahs sightings, two lions and two leopard sightings! We took the direction of the cheetahs. At noon we bumped into a small traffic jam at a crossing. Two cheetahs were sleeping in the shade of a tree 100 yards from the road so we just parked and waited. Cheetahs mainly hunt during the day because this reduces the chance that their prey would be stolen by a lion because lions generally hunt at night. But of course these two cheetahs were exceptions, and they continued to sleep in the shade for the whole afternoon. More than five hours later we gave up. Meanwhile, we had learned that these cheetahs were regularly seen in this area and one of them was crippled which was causing them to stay around the same location.
For this reason we returned to the cheetah spot the next day. They were
not under the tree anymore so we drove around for half an hour. All of a
sudden we saw a parked car along the road which we had driven not more
than twenty minutes ago. The man with the "thick yellow glasses" was
pointing to the two cheetahs, who were sleeping ten yards from the road!
It was embarrassing that we needed those veterans to find our wildlife…
the boys must have been there also half an hour ago.
At 1 pm we took a break at the campground to download the pictures and do our laundry. We met a Dutch couple who were just married. Jennifer used to be in the ARMY but is now a fire fighter. Kevin joined the special forces and had just returned from Afghanistan, and they were on their honey-moon. This morning they were also at the cheetahs (only one of the six cars that were there!) and they could hardly believe that we had stayed there yesterday for more than five hours. They have nicknamed our kind of people `freaks’. We thought that was very funny. We made a date to have a drink together in the evening. We had a very sociable evening and went to bed much too late.
The following morning the alarm clock went again off at 3.30am. Slowly
we drove farther south. A Cape Buffalo had a bad hair day and his head
was steaming as he stood blocking the road. Buffalos are thought to be
hot-tempered and often charge unexpectedly; therefore, they are
considered one of Africa’s most dangerous species. We took a wide berth
With a big smile on her face, Jennifer told us that we were not the only
`freaks’ in Kruger. Today they had met an eighty-year-old lady who was
parked for hours at a rocky outcrop. When they asked her what she was
doing there, she told them with a smoky voice: "There is a leopard cub
between the rocks and I am waiting for the mother to return from
hunting." Jennifer told us this tale to explain that they could not find
the cub, nor did they have the patience.
Kruger National Park, day 23 t/m 31 (25 November 25th - December 4th 2009)
We are anxious to find the leopard where Jennifer tipped us about last night. We had to drive back for more than hour, but we did not mind. Jennifer gave us pretty good directions where the den was, but that was not necessary, because we could see the parked cars as soon we rounded the corner. The leopard was indeed walking around, but there was no way for us to park our camper too. PJ double parked the camper and we tried to take pictures over the parked cars. Very frustrating. When the leopard disappeared behind some rocks, the parked cars moved on. PJ parked the camper at a very strategic location and the waiting begun. Dave and Jenny were parked about ten yards behind us and Jenny could see the tip of the tail of the leopard from her bedroom window. The leopard was enjoying the shade with her cub. As long as we knew that the leopard was still there, it was worth to wait. We took the cushions from the sofa, so we could use the tripod on a hard wooden surface. We wished we had done this earlier in the trip instead of balancing the camera through the open window. Five hours later (!) the leopard reappeared and posed on a red rock with her cub. We are taking the pictures of our lives. It was so picture perfect that it looked as if the pictures were taken in a zoo!
We thought we had seen it all, but then the leopard dropped down in the shade only ten yards away and started nursing her cub! What a gorgeous animals.
We had made reservations for a campground, 4 ˝ hours from here, but of course we would like to stay at the Lower Sabie Restcamp, only 3 miles from here. At 1pm we drove to the campground and changing our reservations is a piece of cake. We were a bit surprised about that. Back to the leopard, but we cannot get a good spot. Jennifer and Kevin were also present and we talked them into changing their reservation too. We went back to Sabie Restcamp early, so we could barbecue and drink some beers. We had a great time together. Secretly we were also pleased to be able to talk Dutch again.
To be sure of
a good spot at the leopard den, we parked at 4am at the closed gate. And
we were not the first one!
We said our goodbyes to Jennifer and Kevin, they had still a long way to go to Cape Town. We moved towards Berg-en-Dal restcamp for our final night in Kruger National Park. At a water hole we saw two elephants in 'musth'.
Musht is a periodic state of dominance in bull elephants that can lead to unpredictable behavior and increased aggression. A musht bull is recognizable by profuse streaming from the temporal gland located between the eye and the ear, constantly dripping of urine and a strong, musky odor.
The two bulls were waving their ears and rooted into each others faces. We maintain proper distance and PJ kept his foot on the accelerator. It was exiting to see how these bulls were challenging each other.
with Dave and Jenny to sleep in, but we woke up at 6am and were putting
around. Dave and Jenny had the same problem, so we left at 7am. In
Nelspruit in the Crossing Shopping Mall we did our groceries and
checked the Internet. We had hoped to be able to upload our website, but
could not get our laptop wireless.
Along the way we ran into a terrible downpour and it started to thunder too. We had never seen such a light show. The lightning were following each other in a murderous pace and were hitting the ground just in front of us. We wanted to go to a souvenir market in Hartebeespoortdam, but our navigation system sent us to a resort. Oh well, with this rain it would not be fun anyway. We fill in 'camping' into the navigation system and one was close by. Dave and Jenny were impressed, on the outside it did not say that there was a campground.
morning the sun was shining again and the Welwitchia Country Market
was around the corner. We were the first tourists and the boys were
immediately attacked by pushy salesman. They asked them in a sleazy way
to write down their name on a list and their country from origin as a
kind of research. But the next thing Dave and PJ had to donate money and
the man got really annoying. PJ got so angry that he started to call me
back and told me he wanted to leave immediately. I knew this would be
the only change to purchase souvenirs, so I talked him out of it. We did
stay. Many salesman overheard the argument with the irritating guys and
apologized to us over and over again.
We drove to
Pilanesberg National Park (a couple of hours northwest of
Johannesburg) which to our surprise was not part of the National Park
pass (Wildcard). While we were picking a spot to camp, Dave overlooked a
pole and drove a hole into the camper!! What a tragedy.
We have to get used to the fact that this park is very busy and actually we did not see much wildlife on our first day. But the landscape is stunning. everything is blooming and the mimosa fragrance was meeting us. Most roads in Pilanesberg are unpaved and our tableware rattled. I was annoyed by the tableware from the beginning: everything is made of breakable china, from the teapot to the pepper and salt shaker, the milk can, sugar bowl, coffee cups and saucers, whine glasses and tea glasses. The first week I had broken two whine glasses, so I had bought six new ones; that would keep me going for a while.
At a large
traffic jam we heard about a cheetah, but it must have been far away
because we could not find him. One of the tour busses brushed Dave's
camper and left a green mark on his bumper. The bus never stopped!
On Monday it got very quiet in the park. It also seemed that we saw more animals. We discovered a jackal den with three pups. Mother jackal came home with the head of an impale, but she did not share it with her pups. Boy, if looks could kill...she was giving her pups the evil eye when they came close.
A large herd
of elephants on the road is getting too close and we had to keep backing
up. We saw a rhino with her young taking a mud bath. She really dropped
into the mud and her young looked surprised but followed her example. We
spent some time at the leopard den, but could not find her. We took a
long lunch break at the campground and cool down at the pool. It is 37
C, so we really needed it.
Last night it rained and we have a waterbed again. The last day in the park we still could not find the black rhino, but we were satisfied with what we had seen in a month. For supper we had bought ostrich steaks. We had eaten this ten years ago and loved it. Dave and Jenny agreed with us, they thought it tender steak they ever had.
The end of the trip is nearby. We drove to Johannesburg and at 2 pm we arrived at the campground only 500 yards from Dave and Jenny's camper rental depot. The next day they unwillingly brought the camper back to the depot. The damage to their camper was taken in and they agreed on paying 300 Euro. Dave was very relieved.