Mjejane Camp, Mpumalanga - It might be nature’s way, but watching big cats rip apart the carcass of a defenceless creature is not on my bucket list.
Granted the Big Five is the major attraction in any of our wildlife reserves and it’s a given that visitors feel disappointed if a lion and a leopard don’t feature on the viewing list.
Discussing our itinerary on our first full day in the Kruger Park, starting at Crocodile Gate in the south, I mentioned that I was just as happy to see giraffe and zebra, as at least they don’t eat other animals.
“Don’t worry,” said my long-suffering partner, whose new bush lodge at Mjejane, was being annointed by close family and friends. “You’ll never see any of the big cats on the first day, probably not even on the last. Some people have been coming to Kruger for years and have never seen a leopard or a lion kill.”
Lucky for them, I say to myself.
The day started well with a sighting of a pair of Verreaux owls, also known as Giant Eagle owls, the biggest in Africa. There were two perched high in a tree. I would need my new zoom for this shot.
Not to be. I soon realised the zoom on my Canon was not strong enough and the owls, instead of two rare birds of prey, looked like a pair of very old cats.
If I wanted to see the owls’ eyebrows – important in the birding world for verification – I would need to spend upwards of R12 000 for an up-close-and-personal glimpse of these magnificent birds.
So beware. Those who think a standard zoom will bring the Kruger Park into detailed focus, no it won’t, not even with the steadiest hand in the world.
The same problem was encountered trying to take zoomed shots of a white backed vulture sitting on a nest with her baby. She and her offspring seemed fairly close, until I saw the image. Their heads looked like small upturned golf clubs, with no resemblance to any known bird species.
Unless the animal or bird was in spitting distance of our vehicle, photography would be limited. Apart from a tortoise that was as big as a rugby ball, better to buy the postcards.
But surprises are also part of the Kruger experience. Around the next bend, close to the road, a family of baboons was involved in an aeorobics class, using a small tree as the exercise venue. Even better, the tiniest member of the group, a baby baboon not more than a few weeks old, was enjoying his first freehold swing, watched over by his mom. I snapped that one okay.
Next there was a great close-up siting of a white rhino and its newborn baby.
An hour before, we had witnessed a truck filled with armed guards racing past.
“Sorry,” they had cried, waving their guns. “Poachers.” Within minutes there were the unmistakable sounds of gunshots. You couldn’t help but wonder if the rhino we were watching would survive the night.
But before we could get too maudlin, it was time to focus on another primeval animal. In the middle of the road was a lone elephant, which had pulled a large branch into the middle of the road and was eating it leaf by leaf, twig by twig. I remember someone saying that if an elephant was in your way, don’t try to go around it, just stay where you are. Don’t even reverse, because he might come after you.
I wasn’t popular. The temperature was in the 40s and I insisted we didn’t move while the jumbo continued to munch. Every now and then it would glance in our direction as though daring us to ease forward. We didn’t.
During the long roadshow we did get a long look at another Big Five member, the buffalo – dribbling profusely, with another behind it. I’m still not convinced that a member of the cattle family should take preference over hippo and cheetah in the Big Five.
A whole lot of vultures are called a volt, a venue or a committee and they were monopolising the next stretch of road. During the wait we tried to identify other collective names. Try these for size, a confusion of guinea fowl, a crash of hippopotami, a congress of baboons and a gulp of cormorants.
Enough trivia, the thought of the cool plunge pool at Mjejane was more than inviting.
Nature, however, had other ideas. A pride of lions had just brought down a buffalo on the side of the road, expired thank goodness by the time we arrived, and it was time for a bloody, late lunch.
Wow. The grunting, the noise of crunching bones, the ruffs and gruffs, growls of pleasure, it was a pretty horrible sight. No zoom needed for this one. A woman in the car next door was so overcome with excitement that she downed her window, pushed her arms out with camera in hand, only to fling herself back inside screaming as a male lion lunged towards her. You wanted to say, “This is not a zoo my dear. These are the real thing.”
At the next bend in the lower Sabie road more wildlife drama was in store. Right before our eyes was a large leopard lying along a branch having just consumed a buck, the remains of which you could see in the fork of the tree, dripping new blood.
Made me think of William Blake. It wasn’t a tiger, but its eyes were sure shiny bright and golden yellow.
Again no zoom required. Squeamish? Yes, a bit.
Mjejane has its own wildlife sanctuary. For those not lucky enough to see the real thing, it becomes an ideal viewing point for would-be wildlife photographers like me. The animals are either rescued or orphaned and can’t be rehabilitated back into the wild.
Here you can see wild dogs, which are as rare these days as hen’s teeth, hyenas, and of course lions, beautiful healthy males with manes like you see in old hunting books.
Again no expensive zoom required – and with a bit of photoshopping to remove the fence, it looked like an encounter of a lifetime.
“Better tell your friends you cheated with that photo,” said my partner. “If that was real, you would be dead!”
If You Go...
Best route from KZN to the Kruger National Park is via Swaziland. But remember to check your passport.
The driving time via Swaziland (Oshoek and Piggs Peak) to Malelane camp, which is the nearest camp to the Crocodile River, is, give or take, eight-and-a-half hours from Durban while the alternative route via Piet Retief and Barberton is more than 10 hours.
To find out about Mjejane: e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org - Sunday Tribune