Moholoholo, Kruger, HESC, Klaserie
Life & Adventures in the South African Bush
Wednesday July 8 Moholoholo Rehabilitation Center
We rented a car for two days and set off with grand plans. I realize by this time I hadn’t been under the White Lion Protection Trust’s roof a week but the two French interns had been here two weeks and were getting cabin, or rather bush camp fever. I have to explain that ever since the Royal Pride was released from their small boma enclosure on the grounds into the open 700 ha enclosure a month ago, no one can freeing walk about outside of the fenced in office camp unless on lion monitoring check and even then you are confined to the trucks. And as already mentioned, we interns have no means of leaving the grounds on our own. So.. with that said, you can understand that it wasn’t me and the British intern Sophie, who arrived a day before me, that were ready to escape, but more that we woke up this morning and were told that the French girls were renting a car and that we had the opportunity to jump onboard. And even though it was only the day before that I said I was finally getting my feet wet around here, I wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to check out the area. Honestly, I headed into town that day to rent a car with the girls not really clear on what destinations were in our future.
First stop was Moholoholo Rehabilitation Center about a half hour away. One of Moholoholo’s aims is to reintroduce rehabilitated wildlife to their natural environments. They also create homes for orphaned, poisoned or injured wildlife, which through their injuries will never be able to return to their natural environments. As we got closer to the center, the Drakensberg Escarpment loomed ever closer until we were on a road running adjacent to the majestic rocky barrier. We arrived at the gate before our designated tour booking and decided to head back down the road to grab a snack. We found a posh little tearoom along the main road complete with a guest book filled with many international signatures. After my hazelnut milkshake I helped Sophie sign the book for the four of us! Then we hopped back in our little blue rented Toyota Yaris and headed back down the road. The tour lasted a couple hours providing us the opportunity to get an up close and personal look at many native species of large birds (eagles, vultures, storks, etc), cats (Serval, Lions, Cheetahs), Spotted Hyena, Wild Dogs, Honey Badger (coolest animal ever.. YouTube it!!), and even two baby rhinos that were quite lovable. We all enjoyed the facility and learned more about the increasingly pressing human/ wildlife conflict issues of the region because many of their furry and feathery residents found themselves at Moholoholo after being poisoned, caught in a poachers snare (the lioness, her ankle destroyed) , rescued from illegal private ownership (Big Boy the male lion) or injured by human infrastructure like power lines. While it is sad that the majority of their animals will never see their wild natural habitat again, it is wonderful to tour a facility that extends the opportunity of survival to at least these few fortunate rescued animals.
While hanging out with the Rhinos a rather familiar accent caught my attention coming from the direction of the two Moholoholo interns watching our group hover around the rhinos. Sure enough, the two guys were from my continent. One was a college student from Maryland and the other was from Calgary and was definately also University age. Upon hearing that I was from Pittsburgh, the guy from Maryland quickly blurted out “are you a Steeler fan?!?!” To which I replied “um, of cooooourse.. AND a Penguin fan!” like it obviously went without saying haha! Then I was chatting with the guy from Calgary and mentioned that I had a friend that lived out there (Hi Colin!!) that I knew from Muskoka. I then asked an equally unnecessary question about whether he knew Muskoka... of course he did! Again.. it’s a small small world!
On our way back home with time before the grocery store closed, we made a stop for some fresh veggies. It isn’t everyday we have our own wheels here (actually we will NEVER have our own car and transportation freedom unless its rented under one of our names) so we thought we would take advantage before heading home to get locked inside our double electrical fence gate amidst white lions. As I was wandering the aisles I passed the typical school supplies type section complete with Hanna Montana and High School musical notebooks, pencils, markers, you name it. Siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiigh…. Really, reeeeeally???? A few feet further down the aisle and I was looking at Hanna Montana and Brats dolls and High School Musical games. No words to explain the disgust and frustration I felt at that moment. All I could do was shake my head and continue walking.
Thursday July 9 Kruger National Park
I’m fairly certain that this morning was the first time my alarm was set to wake me up as early as 4am! I’m tempted to say that the morning I left for the Pittsburgh airport might have been the first, but then I remember that my strategy then was simply not to sleep that night (or both those nights for that matter since it took me a couple try’s). I must admit that as hard as it is to get up for morning lion checks at 5:50am, 4am is just plain miserable.. and dark!
I’ve been having trouble subconsciously accepting that I need to turn off my brain at 10:30pm every night in order to function enough to not fall out of the open backed safari Crusier on the drive to the main office in the mornings so telling my ever running brain to cut it out the night before a 4am wake up wasn’t easy. I thought reading might help to relax me but curse you Nicholas Sparks for your engrossing and heartwarming love story novels! The next thing I knew it was almost 1am. Sigh.
I was on my feet at 4, pulling out of WLT’s main gate in our little Toyota at 5 and at the Kruger National Park gate at 6:05. The morning got off to a slow start with wildlife viewing but as we all gradually woke up enough to effectively scan our surroundings and made our way deeper into the park it seemed like the animals got the memo that we had arrived and were coming out to play. Even when there were lulls in the action, the Kruger landscape is just stunning and picturesque in the way that only the African bush can be. We also quickly learned how to navigate around the section of the park utilizing our map/ guide to find all the water holes, lookout points and picnic/ get out and stretch sites. While I’d love to sit here and dabble in poetic prose trying my best to illustrate the splendor and majesty of some of the areas and animals, I’ll do one better and show you! (pictures)
Over the course of the day I took more than 1,000 photos so those included above is just a taste really. So to rub it in a little further, here is a list of all the animals seen throughout the day.
Birds: Lappet-faced Vulture, Ground Hornbill, Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill (Lion King’s Zazu!), Glossy Starling, Lilac-breasted Roller, Ground Hornbill, American Fish Eagle, Tawny Eagle, Hammerkop and Marabou Stork amongst other tiny unidentifiable birds with our amateur birding knowledge.
Animals: Lions, Leopard (dead in tree unfortunately), Spotted Hyena, Elephant, Impala, Giraffe, Buffalo, Greater Kudu, Zebra, Waterbuck, Wildebeest, Hippo, Klipspringer, Duiker, Warthog, Baboon, Vervet Monkey, Dwarf Mongoose, Ostrich and Nile Crocodile.
While at one of the picnic sites that was more than overrun by Glossy Starling Birds I was actually pooped on. It was only a matter of time for literally a second earlier I had been thinking to myself how sitting at our chosen picnic table under a very large tree was probably unwise. Of course only once we were walking to the car did my fears become realized. Honestly I found it more comical than anything.. no biggie. A woman sitting nearby, who had witnessed the scene was really cute and brought me over a tissue that she had (the smallest tissue ever) and informed me of my good fortune and the luck that lay ahead in my future that comes from being pooped on. Haha sounds good to me! Luckily I was wearing a sleeveless shirt and the warm little gift that was left was perfectly aimed for the top of my shoulder maximizing splat surface area but still just missing my black shirt. Future good fortune while maintaining an unsoiled shirt.. can’t complain about that!
The lion and hyena sightings were actually just at the end when we were making our way to the exit gate. They were also the reason that we were a half hour late leaving Kruger and almost got fined at the gate. Sophie made a quick case for our lateness due to the traffic jam of cars haphazardly jamming a decent chunk of highway near the lions, which was only about 25km from the gate, appealing to the man’s more forgiving nature and we got out of there with a warning. Phew!
On the way home we caught a glimpse of South African driving etiquette.. or rather the lack there of! While trying to keep from being merged into going about 75mph we caught another phenomenal moon rising over the western horizon. The full moon had been a couple days earlier but this moon was equally brilliant with a burnt umber glow amidst a blackening sky. Two of the girls attempted to take a picture of the hovering moon but we all know that those pictures very rarely turn out but that didn’t stop them from giving it a shot. I know I have in the past and I think that’s why my camera stayed in its case at my feet on the way home!
We finally reached our main gate at 8pm but didn’t pull into our base camp gate until 8:30 or so because the Dominant male of the Royal Pride had a sense of humor upon our arrival. When our friend came to open the gate for us, the GPS picked up that the large cat was too close for comfort. As a result, we had to drive a little ways down the dirt road to the other main gate of the property to get let in but the big cat had decided to follow us and again the GPS was indicating that he was somewhere too close to open the gate according to our safety protocol. While we knew we’d laugh about it in the morning, we were tired and getting a bit frustrated with the little game of cat and mouse he was playing with us. So once again both cars headed back to the first gate and thankfully the big cat had had his fun and moved on in a different direction.
*I probably should have mentioned this in an earlier blog but I purposefully neglect to include names of roads, gates, base camps, cats and the people that are employed by WLT because of a confidentiality agreement that I signed. This also prevents us from publishing, posting or emailing pictures of the cats because the ever present threat against the WLT and our white lions from poachers, and canned hunting camps in the area (literally neighboring properties). While no one here necessarily shares the concerns over pictures with our CEO, I still need to respect the contract… though I’d looooove nothing more than to show everyone! I just wanted to let everyone know that we don’t call the dominant male the dominant male haha.. they all have very unique names. The dom. male of the Royal Pride actually has a price on his head because he was rescued from a canned hunting camp in the area so his name has even since been changed for his safety!
Friday July 10 Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre: Cheetah Project
One thing that I have noticed and have come to love is the fact that no matter where you go in the Hoedspruit, Limpopo Region you can always see the Drakensberg Escarpment looming in the distance. It typically lies in such stark contrast with the flat horizon that it looks fake in all its muted purple and blue-ish hues in the extreme distance. It reminds me of the faithful presence of Mt. Meru no matter where I traveled in Arusha, Tanzania. This geologic giant like Mt. Meru fills me with a certain degree of comfort that I can’t readily explain. I guess it’s kind of like a feeling of familiarity, consistency and even security in a weird way. It doesn’t hurt that I never got sick of gazing up at Mt. Meru peaking through the clouds and I that I don’t foresee gazing wondrously at Drakensberg getting old either. Every time I notice Drakensberg in the distance its almost exciting for that initial moment like it was when I woke up to find Mt. Meru looking down at me on a clear morning.
The Hoedspruit Endangered Species Center (HESC) was great. The story of the place has a very Jane Goodall-esque story with the owner and founder being an older woman, who from an unassuming friendship with a cheetah cub as a young girl, grew love and want to help her beloved cat species. She eventually created HESC as a type of sanctuary and breeding program for these endangered felines. Today the center has also become a safe haven for some Wild Dogs, Kudu, two Caracal, two rescued Lions, a rescued retired circus tiger (left hunchbacked from jumping through hoops) and an orphaned Zebra, who was adopted by the female lamb and resident surrogate mother of the grounds! They also acquired a baby elephant a few years ago that they had attempted to reintroduce into a wild elephant pack in the Timbavati Game Reserve. Unfortunately after months of preparation, the baby elephant was rejected by the pack and spent the rest of his young life in the company of the HESC staff, who he apparently preferred anyway, before being given to another local elephant sanctuary. They also have a “vulture restaurant” that they keep stalked with the bones left over from the meat given to the carnivores at the center. We got the tour of the Center from an open backed Land Crusier and it was quite an enjoyable two-hour ride. I barely had time to switch off my camera before a Wild Dog cub did something irresistibly adorable or a cheetah looked straight at me with those innocent and lovable amber/hazel eyes.
Later in the day we finally returned the little Toyota that we had come to love! It may have been returned a little more worn than when we first hoped inside on Wednesday but that’s the nature of bush roads! Saturday was like any other day but Sunday was to be another early morning!
Sunday July 12 Klaserie Game Reserve bush walk: Tracks, Trees and Poop
Again, the alarm sounded at 4:30.. we were at our main gate by 5:15 and waited in the dark to be picked up on the road until 6:05. Our boss arranged for us to go on a bush walk at the neighboring Klaserie Game Reserve that is actually open to the Kruger NP. To our initial dismay, the car that came to retrieve us was an open backed tourist safari car. One thing I guess I haven’t mentioned is that it is freeeezing cold here in the mornings. Don’t let the whole African continent thing fool you. We are in winter (dry season) over here and while it can get up to a comfortable 75 degrees or so in the sun midday, it is freezing when the sun goes down. No really, 3 blankets on my bed, sleeping in sweatpants freezing (another reason it hurts to pull back the covers in the morning for early lion check). Thankfully the safari car was equipped with blankets that we all wrapped diligently around ourselves for the 45min drive over to Klaserie. All of our ears and toes were numb upon arriving. I’m not complaining here.. just trying to paint a picture haha! Once the sun way a decent distance into the sky we were all shedding layers and it was quite a pleasant time. As previously mentioned.. there isn’t much space around our bush camp to stretch our legs so this 2 hour walk was definitely just what the doctor ordered for all our sanities! We didn’t see any wildlife other than a distant Warthog, some Impala and Kudu but we all learned a lot from our guide about how to identify the common trees in the area, animal tracks and of course the plentiful scat.
Right now it is the morning of the 15th and we are all waiting around for our boss to take us into town for the weekly grocery shopping trip. Tuna fish and cottage cheese is getting a little old! The French girls are still on a mission to see the region and are setting out this weekend with the two young guys that work with us to Blyde Canyon on Saturday and a different section of Kruger on Sunday. Figuring we can’t exhaust all of our sightseeing options in the first 3 weeks of our 12 week stay, Sophie and I are going to save Blyde Canyon for another weekend. Though we are actually going to get the opportunity to visit Kruger again and meet up with them thanks to the son of my other boss. He is my age and we all had the chance to hang out with him the night that we were in town for the rugby game and then ran into him again at the HESC. He works for one of the neighboring five star safari lodge/ game reserves and had driven a handful of guests over to HESC for the same 11 o’clock tour. He has this weekend off and was nice enough to invite Sophie and me to join him for the day. Should be a good time!
That’s all for now! I hope everyone is having a fantastic summer thus far… I suppose little has changed in the 13 days that I have been gone, but I keep catching myself asking friends for updates from home like I have been gone for months. Honestly, it feel like I have been here for ages, in a good way (most days), but it makes me wonder whether I’ll still be enthusiastic with the otherwise mundane day to day routine here at WLT in a month! Time will tell.