Well, make that Big Four, because leopards proved very elusive.
The three-week study abroad program in South Africa I attended in 2011 was the best thing I did last year’s summer and is one of the highlights of my graduate studies. What I especially loved about South Africa was its people, its history, its FOOD (that heavy meat diet!), and its SA-wait-for-it-FARI.
Kruger National Park is bounded by Zimbabwe in the north, Mozambique to the east, and the South African provinces of Limpopo and Mpumalanga in the west and south, respectively. I was really fortunate enough to have had this one-of-a-kind experience of exploring its vast landscape that’s teeming with wildlife and, not to mention, the Big Five – rhino, elephant, buffalo, lion, and leopard.
A 3D/2N visit to a game reserve put a cherry on top of the wonderful study abroad experience. My friends and I were assigned to two- or three-person lodges in order to get to know each other more. It wasn’t real camping, though, because lodges were furnished with necessities (or luxuries?) such as beds and sheets, running water, hot showers, and electricity. Our camp even had a swimming pool but no one dared to swim in it because of the cold. At night, we would have a braai (South African BBQ) and roast marshmallows while we hang out around a bonfire, playing endless games of Killer-Killer. Fun times.
I remember sleeping soundly on a very soft and comfortable bed on our tent, while keeping my ears open to what lurks in the darkness outside. My roommate and I would make sure that we’ve locked and zipped every possible opening in our tent before sleeping. Each morning, we would strike our shoes and made sure that a scorpion didn’t spend the night in them.
I also took short bathroom breaks because I had a mental image of a hyena jumping into the fence in our bathroom or the gold eyes of wild dogs reflecting the moonlight. Yes, I have a creative and wild imagination, making my stay all the more fun and exhilarating.
The best time of the year to go on a safari would be during the cool and dry season when the animals are easy to spot in large numbers. We went there in August when winter in South Africa was about to end. Waking up early is a must when you’re out on an adventure in a safari. We rode open vehicles during game drives and even drove off-road into the bushes in order to get an intimate view of the animals.
Circuses, Disney cartoons, and zoos portray a distorted view of wildlife. In their natural habitat, however, we get a different picture. An adventure in the safari carries with it a certain element of danger which only makes it more exciting. However, I highly suggest that you take heed of the basic precautions that your guide would impart with you before game drives.
First, always stay inside the car while driving in a park especially if its an open-top vehicle. Don’t ever leave your car in order to get that perfect and closer picture of the animals. Remember that in this kind of environment, we are the outsiders and provoking or threatening the animals is the least we’d want to do.
Second, standing or sticking anything out of the car is a really bad idea. I remember our guide telling us that the animals, especially the Big Five, perceive our vehicle as one animal that’s much bigger than them. Safety is paramount – sticking anything out of the car might drive them to be aggressive. Being chased down by a lion or trampled to death by an elephant is not a good flashback to have.
Game drives take all day and could be a little dusty so wear something to protect your eyes and hair. Be in comfortable clothes and wear closed shoes during the trip.
Stay with your group and don’t roam around even if you’re exploring close to camp. More importantly, enjoy the ride and have a great time!
Even if we didn’t get the chance to see leopards, we were lucky enough to see baby cheetahs – so swift yet graceful, so playful yet beautiful.
Not only were the lions hard to find, we also could not get too close to the King of the jungle because if lions attack when provoked, it would be really hard to keep up with their speed. During the day when we went out looking for lions, we rode a closed vehicle instead.
Even though the Kruger National Park is a protected reserve designated by UNESCO as an International Man and Biosphere Reserve and enjoys much better infrastructure than other game reserves in the whole of Africa, poaching and hunting still seem to be a big problem. While the park aims to preserve wildlife especially those of the endangered species, there still are poachers who would hunt these animals for short-term gains, posing a serious threat to earth’s biodiversity.
Birds and buffalos – symbiosis in action. African buffalos are one of the most dangerous animals in reserves because of their viciousness. Apparently, they cause much more deaths compared to others in the Big Five because of their ability to track and attack their hunters with their horns. On the other hand, the Asian water buffalo, or carabao as it’s commonly known in the Philippines, behaves differently as it provides a helping hand in working in the fields. My Program Director used to joke that while people fear African buffalos, carabaos fear kids who chase them down in rice paddies. People could actually ride water buffalos – they have a friendly nature!
I hope you find yourself one day on an adventure in a safari! I think it’s something that you must do at least once in your life. No amount of visiting zoos could compare to the sights and to the experience.
And when you do, remember to take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, and provoke nothing (and no one) but your curiosity.