Soap Opera of the African Night

Last night a friend asked me what the nights were like in Africa. It is yet the best question I have been asked about my favorite travel destination.

Nights in the so called civilized world can be scary because the human predators come out. Turn on morning news of any major city and you hear who was robbed, killed, car jacked, stabbed, shot and more the night before.

When sun sets in the Okavango Delta, Kruger National Park or the Serengeti the predators also come out; predators of a different kind.

Nothing is more welcome than the huffing sound of a pride of lions defining their territory vocally to other wandering feline as the sun sets. Or in pitch black hearing the distinct short changing pitch coming from hyena calling reinforcements to a potential meal. Once you get familiar with the sounds you can sit, listen and  know with almost certainty what soap opera is playing out in front of you like a blind man reading braille.

The scene is dead quiet except for the cooing of a dove in the near tree and the crackling of what's left of the fire you cooked your meal on. A short distance away a baboon barks a loud warning to his troop, but not in time. One of the troop has been caught by the leopard; the whole troop is screaming in defiance and in fear.  Then scrambling noises can be heard as the balance of the troop reposition in the tree. To the left of the original struggle the sound of heavy claws on bark as the leopard takes his kill up into a tree to keep it safe.  It's quiet for a moment but I know the leopard has begun to eat the primate; first plucking the hair which falls to the base of the tree leaving clues. What are the rest of the baboons doing? The night does not divulge their fear and longing for their troop mate. It is only imagined.

The local clan of hyena have heard the commotion and smell the blood of the dead baboon. They call in a very distinct hum that starts at one pitch and ends in another. The sound travels great distances in the night. They could be very far, but your imagination hears them only an arms length away.

Hyenas from miles around stop what they were doing to head to the scene to help try intimidate the leopard into dropping her meal.  If you listen close you can hear hyena coming from many directions. As they gather, they attempt to gang up on the leopard. But hyena don't climb and leopards aren't easily intimidated so her meal is safe.  All goes quiet again.

What drama will play out next in this dark night with more stars shining down on the scene than spotlights of a Hollywood movie set?  This is the mystery of the African night. And even though these very same predators could include you in their meal plan, the thought of these predators is not as scary as the human predators of the night in the civilized world.

Skukuza Spitting Cobra - To Spit or Not to Spit

It was mine and my friends' last day in Kruger National Park during my holiday in 2009; I was probably on a bit of a high because it was such a great trip and also a bit of a low because I was leaving the next day to return to the States.  My friend and I had survived three weeks in Kruger facing off herds of buffalo, monkey thieves, rhino road stand offs, lion sightings and more so I may have been a bit cocky too by this point.

Skukuza Camp is the largest in the park and where we spent our last days.  That afternoon we set out for the restaurant walking the winding sidewalk along the river that is just inside the fence of the camp. I was a bit uptight about the plethora of monkeys in camp (for reasons you know if you read the blog Smiling at Monkeys) so I was carrying a small water squirt gun intended to use as a monkey weapon should I be harassed by these adorable but obtuse creatures.

Last Day Cheers
Strolling casually on the excessively hot November day we rounded one bend and in the same second we realized a snake was coiled on the cement walkway of our path the large dark colored snake quickly slithered into the reeds. I initially guessed it was a Mozambique spitting cobra but only got a quick glance and wanted to find it again to see if I was right so we leaned over the railing looking closely for the snake even squirting water from my monkey weapon into the reeds trying to get it to move.  Being that was my tenth trip to Africa with a vast knowledge of the wildlife stored up in my brain my friend had looked to me during the trip for safety.  I said, as we leaned over the fence looking for the snake, "Don't worry. A spitting cobra has to hood up to spit so as long as we don't see him hood up we will be fine." We didn't see the snake again and eventually we went on about our business.

A few weeks after we got home, My friend and I happen to be watching a wildlife show on snakes when the narrator stated that a spitting cobra doesn't necessarily have to be hooded up to spit. My friend and I quickly turned to look at each other, both our brains instantly transported back to Skukuza to us leaning over that fence.  He calmly asked, "What else didn't you know for sure?"

Skukuza Camp restaurant - The destination that day

 

Why Africa? Why Kruger?

Recent acquaintances often ask me, “Why Africa”.  And those who know of my trips more intimately ask, “Why Kruger National Park”.  I also hear quite frequently, “Don’t you want to see other places”.
These are good questions and all have very solid answers.  I’ll answer the last question first.  I am - what we in the States call - an Air Force brat, meaning my father was in the military and in being so for his twenty-one yearlong service career we moved quite frequently.  My brother was born in Japan.  We lived in many States and in Germany while growing up. 
All of my adult life I have been involved in a career that kept me packing and unpacking suitcases and boarding planes on a frequent basis.  To date I have been to every State in the United States except Alaska, which is on my short list.  I have maintained a passion for travel all of my life and been fortunate to do a lot of it.  I have climbed inside the great pyramids of Giza in Egypt, cruised the Caribbean, investigated the relics of Rome, zip lined the forests of Costa Rica, explored the Mayan ruins in Mexico, seen the mannequin de pis in Brussels, Belgium, had coffee at the shop attached to the royal palace in Vienna, Austria, walked the crazy streets of Caracas, Venezuela, been to a World Cup Soccer match in Stuttgart, Germany, took the trite picture of me holding up the leaning tower of Pisa, climbed up the spiral staircase to the top of the Vatican, walked along the canals of Amsterdam, kissed a dolphin in the Bahamas, snorkeled in Jamaica and so much more.



In 2001 though I went to Africa for the first time; a three week group tour of South Africa.  There was no forewarning that trip would change my life; no sign the trip would be any different than the aforementioned trips.  But no place up until that point affected me the way South Africa did.  I felt connected to not only the place but also to the feeling deep in my heart that I felt while there; a feeling of great serenity and peaceful ease.  I had to see more of the great continent.  Seven weeks after I returned from that trip I was on a plane headed back to Africa, to Knysna, South Africa, where I rented a flat that I used as my base to travel more of the great continent.  The result of that first trip and subsequent six month long journey was my first book, “Domestic Departures – A Midlife Crisis Safari”. 

Since 2001 I have been to Africa once a year; occasionally twice a year.  I have been to fourteen different countries on the continent.  Why go back time and time again?  Because the bush of Africa – no matter which country – is a different experience each and every trip.  If I were to go back to the coliseum in Rome it would be the very same as I left it last.  If I were to go back to Pisa the tower would still be leaning.  Mannequin de pis is still pissing and the view from the top of the Vatican is still of the city of Rome.  But each and every trip to Africa is as different as each snowflake that falls from the sky because I am not going there to see anything man made.  It’s about nature and natures’ unpredictable show.
View from Fixed Tent
Why, again, for the – I don’t know – tenth time, perhaps, do I go back to Kruger National Park?  Because there is no place in this world - that I am aware of anyway - quite like it.  Kruger is a National Park – the first of its kind on the continent of Africa – the size of Israel where you can drive yourself amongst the wildlife without a guide.  There are great accommodations that can be booked facing the fence line of one of the nine public camps where you can witness a myriad of things while cooking dinner over the fire listening to lion roar, hyena howl and watching large herds of elephants wander right by within feet of your grill.  I’ve seen leopard, hyena, zebra, wildebeest, long tusked bull elephants and much more without even cranking a vehicle.  And in Kruger if you want to be even more secluded you can book an accommodation at one of the smaller satellite or bush camps where it truly feels you are the only person for miles and miles listening to the bush sounds of Africa and witnessing more stars in the sky than you ever thought possible.  In Kruger you can be on your own time and schedule; no guide, no group, no scheduled meal times; completely on your own!  If you want to pack a cooler and sit under a tree at a watering hole all day, you can.  And yet you have great accommodations; some even with air conditioning and if you booked such, your hut, tent or cottage also has a great view of the bush, a kitchen and full bathroom.  Most all the camps in Kruger have great shops filled with groceries, wine and liquors, souvenirs, candles or whatever you need.  They have gas stations and restaurants but still manage to maintain the feeling of wild seclusion away from all the distractions of life today.
Elephant walking by camp
Every time I go back to Kruger it is a different experience.  The last time – for example – I saw animals I had never, in all of my trips, seen.  A honey badger came to visit to see what was for dinner at one camp.  A genet watched my comings and goings from her perch in a tree night after night in another.  Neither species had ever graced me with their presence before.  There are also animals I still haven’t seen in the wild like pangolin and porcupine; reason enough to go back in my book. 
My first sighting of a genet
The bottom line is, I will indeed – if I am fortunate enough to do so – see and experience new places outside of Africa.  But to date there is no place I have visited that has affected me the way Africa does.  There is no place outside of Africa that I desire to see for the second time much less the fifteenth, sixteenth or whatever my count is today for visiting Africa.  There is no place I have ever been except Africa that brings tears to my eyes when I leave as if I were leaving the greatest love of my life not knowing if I will ever see her again. 

I can’t wait to smell Africa again when I get off the plane; to hear her sounds my first night in the bush, to feel my heart race when I see a lion again in the wild, to laugh at the antics of the baby monkeys parading around camp and to meet others in the camps who share the passion.  I already know though that last day will again be filled with reflective tears as I say Goodbye, So Long, until I see you again!

My last day of a trip - elephants came seemingly to say goodbye

NOTE:
I have three books on the market including the one mentioned in this blog.  They are all available in paperback and for download via the below link. 

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_2?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=dana+atkinson

 







Baboons on my porch!

I awoke to the sound of rattling; or at least that's what it sounded like; something rattling.  Was it an earthquake?  No.  But it felt like one.  When I gathered my mind and eyes into the same quadrant of my morning brain I realized there were baboons on my porch.  The troop - one at a time - were jumping from a tree branch over the fence and onto, with a plunk, my porch which was only ten feet from my head; the only thing between me and the troop of baboons was the thick canvas of my fixed tent.  It was a big noisy troop and half of them were still on the other side of the fence, but not for long.  Each of the baboons that remained outside of camp took their turn going to the end of the tree branch then - knees bent deep - the monkey threw his arms in the air and sprang up and over the fence like an Olympic athlete and onto the porch of my tent with a plunk.
I was amused initially thinking it would be nice to have a cup of coffee and watch them from my seemingly safe bed, but the kitchen was out there..., with the baboons.  My coffee too was out there, inside one of the cabinets the baboons were so intently trying to open; unsuccessfully because I remembered to put the monkey proof locks on both cabinets before bed the night before. 
 
My alarm clock went off, about scaring me to death.  Before bed I had set it for four o'clock AM.  My intent was to head out of camp when the gates opened at four-thirty to see what wildlife I could spot; perhaps lions sleeping on the warm tarmac.  The baboons changed my plans.   

Prior, I had nearly tangled with a vervet monkey in the Kruger National Park at the Lataba Camp.  A baboon is much bigger than a vervet monkey, especially the male who at that point was peering into my tent through the mesh, having heard my alarm.  I sat quietly staring back at him with absolutely no intent to tangle with him or any of his girls.  Out of the blue he yawned, showing me his teeth, which were as big, sharp and long as a male lions.  This gesture I knew was a sign of aggression.

 
It even surprised me when I heard the voice come out of my mouth; like a brave alien had penetrated my brain and was speaking for me.  "THERE IS NO NEED FOR THAT.  GO ON!"  I shouted and motioned with my hand and arm sitting up in the bed.  He slapped at the door of my tent and made a barking noise.  I let out a whimper and pulled my bed covers up over my mouth; my eyes still peering out, hoping this big furry fellow had no further intent.  

 
I am pretty sure I stayed like that until the balance of his troop finished bounding over the fence, approximately twenty of them were then inside the Punda Maria camp.  Seemingly every other baboon that came over the fence gave my cabinets a go with no luck. 

After what seemed like two hours, the first of the troop moved onto the next fixed tent where they were having better luck.  Through the side window of my tent I could see one baboon with a loaf of bread.  She was spilling bread slices as she jumped onto that person's railing to forage.  When the others realized the party was at my neighbors' house they all departed company without so much as a goodbye, lastly the big male turned and left me too. 

At that point I needed a nap.  It was then four-thirty in the morning and the excitement of the baboons was a bit too much that early in the day.  Coffee and the potential lions sleeping on the tarmac would have to wait.  I pulled the covers completely over my head and went back to sleep.
 

Bones from a Kill


In 2009, during my seventh of ten trips to Kruger National Park I realized I had become so familiar with Kruger that, on occasion, I would stop roadside and remember seeing the very sight I was looking at from a past visit.  This park in South Africa is not small, it covers 7,332 square miles!  Regardless of the vast size though there are places so special they have become ingrained in my memory; forever if I am lucky.   

In 2007 I came upon a beautiful pond that was overflowing because of recent rains that left the sky a dull blue making the colors of the ground and trees stand out even more than usual. I was struck by the sight and took a few photos. In 2009 I was back in the park and stopped to look at a pond using my binoculars to see if any animals were present. I put down my binoculars and took a few photos.  The location struck a loud chord of recognition.  When I got back to the States and compared the photos there was no doubt it was indeed the same pond.


On that same visit in 2009 I went to Punda Maria camp in the far north of the park. It was my third visit to this camp; the first back in 2002 for lunch, the second in 2008 to stay in hut number one for two glorious nights and the third in 2009 staying in a fixed tent which was the ultimate visit to this camp. When I was there in 2008 I had the good fortune of watching a big scar-faced male lion eat on a buffalo carcass. For two days I drove to the location and sat for hours watching him devour his meal.  He kept the carcass from awaiting vultures, jackals and hyena by stashing his meal inside a mound of thorn bushes. In 2009, exactly a year later, on the drive up to Punda Maria on the H13-1 main road I remembered the event from the year before when, to my great astonishment, I came upon the bones from that kill. Again, I took photos not believing it could be true, but when I returned home to my computer it was indeed the same location and those were without doubt the bones from that buffalo.



This year I went to Kruger during winter instead of the normal summer trip.  This afforded me the ability to photograph my favorite baobab tree to compare the image with earlier shots.  You see now this has become a part of the fascination; the recognition of places, ponds and trees.

Kruger is a gift to South Africans and a gift to us too who happen to live on the other side of the world but get the great privilege to visit time and time again. I can’t wait until the next time to see what I can see; both new and again!