Kruger diary: Satara Camp, Day 5

I was in South Africa’s Kruger National Park on a self-drive safari in early October, 2018 and kept a real-time diary, of which this is the fourth post documenting my experiences. See the firstsecond, and third diary posts See the first diary post here. Previous posts have detailed how I flew to Johannesburg from Raleigh, and then from Jo’burg to Skukuza Airport.

DAY 5 (October 4, 2018) – SATARA & ORPEN – MORNING GAME DRIVE

When the sun sets, being in the Kruger brings home what real darkness means. Sure, the bungalows have one outside light, but illumination is weak and limited to the veranda area. There are no street lights. Walking a few feet away from the rondavel after nightfall plunges me into pitch dark and requires a flashlight. Then slow and careful treading to scan for trees and obstacles, not to mention snakes and scorpions, is wise. In cities we have forgotten what absolute, inky-black dark feels like. It’s a shock.

Once clear of the dim light sources, however, looking up in the sky of an African night at the bright stars is a stunning reminder of what we miss due to the light pollution at home. The pall of artificial lighting has dulled our wonder at the night, and more’s the pity. I forget how glorious the heavens can be seen here until I come back.

I was lucky to see the sky last night. The clouds slowly dissipated through evening yesterday, but this morning a new cloud cover is overhead, along with high winds and a morning low of 48° F. Quite a contrast to the 96° of Tuesday afternoon.

Not everything here is perfect. I am very unhappy with something new to Satara: anti-poaching dogs. The brutish mutts are housed in the staff/ranger areas of the camp, well away from visitors, but that distance isn’t enough to mute their loud, incessant barking. The dogs’ angry voices awakened me several times last night, the first time I can ever recall such a disturbance in the Kruger.

I’m going to ask the resident ranger later today whether this is a permanent condition of camp life now.

The morning game drive was at first mostly a bust. I drove 52 miles and saw only 3 giraffes, 3 wildebeest, and several hundred impala (considering there are about 200,000 impala in Kruger, I expect to see a lot of them everywhere, and I usually do).

Then, at mile 53, I saw a brown and black fluffy mane adorning a large tawny head right by the road and knew I’d hit the jackpot. It was a young male lion, yawning. I figured it was exhausted after a night of bloody butchering and devouring something slower.  I pulled off the road to watch.

Pretty soon the lion attracted what’s known as a “lion-jam” in the park. I noticed the guy was favoring its left rear leg, and when it arose to leave, there was no doubt of an injury. The lion limped badly across the road and disappeared into the brush. Could have been caused by a zebra kick, or just a bad fall.

Unless the leg heals completely and quickly, it was a dead lion walking. A lame lion catches no food. Pretty soon I fear the handsome beast will be hyena food.

The view from a promontory coming to Orpen Camp (which I had to drive to again to send and receive email) was of the undulating, forested terrain, quite a contrast from the flat, wide open plains around Satara, just 29 miles away. That’s part of what I love about the Kruger: so many and varied eco-systems in such close proximity. Makes every drive interesting, game or no game.

Stopped on the side of the road at the lookout, I noticed the vicious thorn bush not yet in leaf for the spring. An early lesson of the Kruger was to avoid contact with every bush and tree to keep from getting seriously stabbed.

DAY 5 (October 4, 2018) – SATARA – AFTERNOON GAME DRIVE

Yesterday I stated my goal to be first out this morning at 530am. Well, I was first in line, but it was due to the afore-mentioned anti-poaching dogs howling that I arose at 415am. I was at the gate reading in my car by 445am, which put me in the number one position by five minutes. Three more vehicles had stacked up behind me by 450am. When the gates swung wide at 530am, I led a veritable parade of cars out to greet the early morning wildlife.

As reported this morning, though, the wildlife didn’t turn up to greet me. I must have turned down the wrong roads, because I didn’t see much except the injured young lion with the bushy mane.

On my arrival back at Satara I contacted the resident ranger to complain about the barking dogs. The ranger was out, so I discussed the problem with the good folks at reception. They confirmed many guests had squawked about the hounds, and the staff admitted being kept awake in their quarters as well. I left a message for the ranger to contact me on his return.  He never did.

When I mentioned the yowling curs to my bungalow’s caretaker and cleaner, Lilly, she laughed and confirmed they kept everybody at Satara awake last night. But the ranger is God in the Kruger, so the staff don’t complain directly.

Lilly thanked me for the three shirts I left with her. When I come to the Kruger, I bring clothing to leave behind for families like hers, and I tip the housekeeping staff every day, too. Though I did not ask for favors in return, Lilly very kindly made sure I had everything I needed, including extra soap and towels.

This afternoon proved more rewarding than this morning. I came upon scores of giraffes and later hundreds of wildebeest, impala, and zebra in herds of 20-100. As one large family of giraffe moved across the road from left to right, I was reminded to always look in the direction the animals came from before proceeding, and even then to go slow.

That is, I never assume the last animal I saw cross the road was the last one. Stragglers have often surprised me, and I don’t fancy getting stepped on by a giraffe.

This rule applies to every mammal in Kruger, large and small. Impala are notorious for jumping out from behind bushes right in front of cars just after a big herd of their buddies have moved off. “Wait for me!” they seem to say, as they bound after the others, inches in front of my grill as I slam on the brakes.

It’s amazing that huge creatures like giraffes can suddenly appear out of nowhere in the same way to join their friends on the other side of the road. I am even more cautious when elephant herds cross in front of me. There is always one more pachyderm too busy destroying a tree to notice its family has left. Better to wait and be certain than get smacked by a big gray wall of flesh with two ivory spears up front.

At one point just north of Satara this afternoon I spotted 30-some familiar-looking animals moving in parallel to the road, out in the open. I’d seen kudu in herds like that. They are easy to spot because of their slight hump and odd, camel-like gait. Kudu heads move back and forth as they walk, and that’s what I thought I was seeing.

Then I realized the horns were wrong for kudu, not spiral, but a gentle curve near the tips: Nyala!

Nyala are kin to kudu, but a bit shaggy, like they need a haircut, and a little shorter in stature than kudu. Thing is, I’ve never heard or read of nyala moving in herds, and especially not away from the water courses and swampy areas the animals love. Another wildlife revelation for me, then.

The S100 is one of the most productive roads for seeing game near Satara because it parallels the N’wanetsi River. Herbivores thrive all along its 12 mile length, and so do a pride of lions that preys on the grass-eaters. As long as I’ve been coming here, the pride, in successive generations, has been a mainstay of the river road.

Sure enough, today I passed two lion-jams of cars on the S100 watching the current generation of big cats sleep off a feast of zebra. What was left of the carcass was visible not far away.

The male lions had moved ahead of the females and were 100 yards or so off the road. People used binoculars to watch their big heads raise up occasionally.

A quarter mile away the female lions were doing the same, but much closer to the road. I squinted in the distance and enjoyed catching glimpses of the dozing lions, then moved on.

A couple of miles down the road I came to a big group of impala, waterbuck, and zebra grazing close by. That was more interesting to me than the lions, so I cut the engine and waited. Pretty soon I was surrounded real close by the three species working their way through the stands of dead grass.

I wrote this description while the animals around me placidly grazed and kept moving very slowly across the plain. Before long, they were out of sight.

That one experience made the afternoon game worthwhile for me, much richer to me than watching lions lying on their backs, digesting, as lions do. Yet not another car stopped by mine to be in harmony with the impalas, waterbucks, and zebras.

DAY 5 (October 4, 2018) – FAREWELL TO SATARA CAMP

Tonight is my fourth and final night at Satara camp. I go on to Letaba camp for one night tomorrow way up north, then south a bit to lovely Olifants camp on a bluff overlooking the Olifants River (“olifants” is “elephant” in Africaans) for one night, and finally back to a riverside rondavel at Skukuza for my last night.

I wanted to see what four nights at Satara was like since game viewing here is usually so good. I’ve never stayed more than two nights in a row here before and always left thinking that wasn’t enough.

My takeaway after four nights: I like being settled in one camp for at least two nights, three at the most. In four days I’ve explored every game drive around Satara, some multiple times. I love it here, but I am ready to leave.

I found out why the Kruger is so crowded.  It’s Spring Break on the S.A. school calendar. I should have checked it when I booked 7 months ago.

That said, I was able to book the accommodation I wanted at every camp except Satara, and yet I was pleased with the bungalow they assigned me here (F138).

What I had hoped to snag was one of the Satara “perimeter” bungalows. Rondavel G167 is so close to the wire that an elephant could just about reach over and grab the hat off my head if I was sitting on the veranda. And the grill (braai) is nearly touching the fence. Wonder if the odor of searing brats on that fire calls out to hungry hyenas when the smoke wafts through the fence.

Lots of tanned animal hides on the racks of the Satara grocery store, called the “Park’s Shop” for as long anyone can remember. Prices vary, but a big zebra skin goes for about US$1,000 and comes with a veterinary certificate authenticating origin and tanning/sanitization method. It’s legal to bring tanned hides with such certificates into the USA, except from elephants and big cats.

Some years back I brought back an nyala hide labeled as kudu. It was not expensive because kudus are plentiful and die naturally all the time. Not so many nyalas out there as kudus, but the store staff wouldn’t believe me when I told them of the label error.

All tanned skins sold by the South African National Parks come from animals that died in the Kruger (no hunting is allowed in the park). SANP directly benefits from the sales. All profits contribute to ongoing conservation. “Custos Naturae” is the park motto, meaning custodians of nature.

Tomorrow I travel north to Letaba camp, perhaps my favorite in the Kruger, though game-viewing around Letaba is usually not as good as near Satara. No matter; the camp is situated directly on the river with gorgeous views and grounds. I wish I had time to spend more than one night there.

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