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Cruising Kruger National Park, South Africa, Part Three: Staring Down the Big Five; The Big, the Bad

One of the drawbacks to a long African safari is the lack of exercise. For some reason, hiking and running are not recommended activities in the African bush. It could be that these areas are home to carnivores and predators and that humans running through the bush look like a quick and easy snack.

We have seen some devoted athletes jogging around the safari camps, but I don’t think running around Africa with wild animals is a good idea (thanks to the book I’m reading “101 Kruger Tales”). I know that the camps are fenced, but the occasional leopard does get inside.

We were in Kruger National Park and having one of the most memorable months of our lives and we were in trouble. We only had a few more weeks before we left South Africa and flew to Tanzania. After driving around southern Africa for three months we were headed to the beaches of Zanzibar, and then onto Arusha where our plans were to conquer Mt. Kilimanjaro.

When we started on our journey in February, we were both pretty fit. We had recently walked 1,000 miles (1,500 km) across Spain and France on the Camino de Santiago and I must say that we were both looking pretty good.

However, sitting in a car for several months watching wild animals has had a profound impact on our waistlines and our level of fitness. My clothes that I was going to fit into after all of the “bad” African food, have never been unpacked and my safari clothes have started to get uncomfortably tight. I only have two holes left on my belt! Thankfully, I am still able to wear layers to hide the new bulges on the cool mornings.

In our defense the food and wine in southern Africa has been delicious. Not only is South Africa the cradle of human kind, but it is why the southern food back home is so good. Southerners learned to cook our delicious soul food from African slaves who brought their cooking techniques from Africa.

I blame Ol for our recent weight gain. I’m a stress eater and Ol has been buying his favorite snack, jellybeans, like he is the Easter Bunny. What could be more stressful than watching lions and cheetahs hiding in the bush ready to devour their next meal. The ostrich, zebra, and antelope are still alive, and the cheetah and lions are still hungry, but I’ve eaten potato chips, a bag of jelly beans, and an apple (I try to pretend that my diet is not totally terrible by eating a piece of fruit occasionally).

I don’t think I have time to get in shape for our upcoming hike. I have bad knees from years of tennis, and to hike the tallest mountain in Africa I know that I need to be in the best shape of my life. I have tried to do some lunges and squats in our room, but Ol is not helping matters with looking so comfortable in bed and not exercising with me. It is hard to have discipline and willpower while traveling. Oh well, who wants to climb a big mountain anyway?

I began talking myself out of the hike even though I had three weeks to get ready. If I worked really hard I probably wouldn’t die and I might even have a chance of summiting. Ol isn’t worried. We have hiked at high altitude before and he thinks that we will be fine.

At this point I am beginning to feel like the safari Ugly Five; the hyena, wart hog, vulture, wildebeest and the Marabou stork. I think my negative energy has even started to attract these animals. Everyday we see dozens of hyena and wart hogs. I thought it was hilarious that we met a grad student from Australia and she has been in the park for over a week and hasn’t seen a hyena and she is in the park to study them!

Not only do we see the Ugly Five daily, but we have also seen the Big Five. We have seen a few leopards in various parks, but they were really far away, so for me that didn’t count as a proper sighting.

Then, one afternoon, while I was engrossed in watching a large monitor lizard cross the road in front of our car, I had my window down and was waiting for him to pass. Suddenly, Ol elbowed me and shouted “leopard, leopard!” and pointed outside my window.

Not more that five feet away on my side of the car was a beautiful leopard catching some late afternoon sun next to a water pool. We didn’t even see the leopard when we stopped for the lizard. I made sure that Ol kept the car on in case I needed to roll up my window in a hurry.

The leopard and I just looked at each other. It was a stare down. The intensity could be felt. Then, after just a couple of minutes, the leopard got up and headed for the bush.

I finally felt as though my safari experience was complete. I came face to face with a leopard, had a stare down, and I won! Maybe I could conquer Kilimanjaro after all.

As we headed north in the park, we had many roads to ourselves. The colors were changing as was the topography. The north is known for big herds of buffalo, herds of elephants called “big tuskers” (giant bull elephants), baobab trees, and lots of giraffes.

The weather was nice, and after our morning game drives we would often find a shady spot under a tree along the river and turn off the car and nap (of course we checked for lounging leopards). It never took long for our naps to be interrupted with animal sightings.

We always enjoyed watching the elephants playing in the dirt and the water. One morning after parking on a high ledge we watched a large herd of elephants in the water below us. They eventually disappeared from the river bank. But after a few minutes we realized that the herd was climbing up the river bank right in front of our car. We were suddenly surrounded on all sides with elephants of all sizes. They gave us good look over and we must have passed the inspection, because they started grazing around the car sharing in our shade.

We found the elephants in the north end of the park to be much friendlier than the south. Instead, the elephants seemed as curious about us as we were about them. Everyday we would just sit and be entertained by these gentle giants.

We also saw large herds of buffalo with over 1,000 animals. It was like being stuck in a traffic jam. All we could do was turn off the car and wait until they passed. We enjoyed watching them make their way down the steep river banks, through the water, and up the other side. It was also interesting to spot the lions that were often following them, always ready to pick off the young, the sick, and the elderly animals in the herd.

We easily made friends with other tourists from around the world who were visiting the park. In the evening it was common for everyone to share stories of the day’s sightings over beer, wine, and barbecue.

We also had a strange encounter with a group of four men in an SUV. We found this group of men to be odd. They pulled alongside of us as most people do, to ask about any sightings. However, they were only concerned with one animal. They asked, “have you seen any rhinos”? Most people inquire about the big cats; leopards, lions and cheetahs. Only poachers are interested in rhinos. Of course I was convinced that they were poachers. I went so far as to write down their tag number.

The following day Ol slept in and I left alone for an early morning game drive. I noticed the SUV again in the area. It was stopping in odd places and driving unusually slow. I could tell that they wanted me to pass them, but I would pull off and look through my binoculars like I had discovered a new species.

At that moment, I decided to become a citizen park ranger and put a stop to these evil rhino poachers. However, now that I ran into the poachers I regretted leaving Ol behind and venturing out by myself.

After stalking the poacher truck for about an hour, I finally decided to approach them. To my embarrassment, my rhino poachers turned out to be two older couples that were avid bird watchers! They just happened to be driving a similar car to the one I’d seen the day before. They were excited to share with me their latest bird sightings. Maybe I have been out in the bush too long, or maybe I’ve been reading too many safari stories before bed at night.

We have also had several professional game drives, including some night drives where we saw the cute nocturnal animals. My absolute favorite nocturnal animal is the tiny bush baby. However, they are small and fast and only are active at night so we don’t have any photos of them. Maybe I need to get Ol a better camera.

South Africa, Kruger National Park, the people, and the wildlife have made a big impact on us. My waistline has grown as much as my heart. I have told Ol that I want to return here every few years. For me it will be a booster shot for my soul. I am determined to come back with friends and family to visit southern Africa and this magical and beautiful place.

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