03-28-2010: Timbavati , Kruger Park, South Africa

Pulled into Tanda Tula Private Safari Lodge here in the  TImbavati area abutting Kruger Park. I’ve been through this area before a few years ago but I wanted to visit a few more lodges in this area. Picked up my friend, Amy Fulton, from the airport Sunday night after she flew in from Atlanta. Amy is an internal spokesperson for Home Depot and given her comfort level in front of the camera, she agreed to come over and film a few spots for me here in South Africa. The goal will be for me to film her in a few safari lodges here near the Kruger Park and then to fly down to Cape Town and do the same. Once edited, the videos will be posted on You Tube in an effort to increase my web and social media presence.

Overnighted at the new City Lodge attached to the Johannesburg Airport. It was a good spot and provided excellent access to our connecting flight the morning. My presence here in Africa is starting to be felt more as upon entering the bus to board our flight, Camille, from Southern Destinations, reintroduced herself. I’ve been friends and business associates with the folks at Southern Destinations for quite some time and while I thought I recognized Camille, I appreciated her saying hello again. Her parents, Jim and Christie Martin were with her touring a few properties, as well. In a further coincidence Camille told me she would be staying at Tanda Tuli tonight too.  Arrived in Hoedspruit at about noon, picked up our rental car and drove the short 30 minutes to Tanda Tula. Upon entering the gate for the TImbavati we were met by the gate attendant, Given. Yes, Given is his name. In traveling through Africa another joy is taking in the names some of the black Africans are given. Here we met Given.  At Tanda Tula we were introduced to Smiling, the bartender, Pinky the barmaid and Civility, one of the rangers.

Big benefit to exploring lodges in South Africa is access. First world infrastructure allows for commercial flights into 3 airports surrounding Kruger, rental car availability and good roads in and out of the lodges. East Africa, and the rest of southern Africa other than Namibia, makes for more expensive and more timely visits due to poor infrastructure. Charter flights must be taken and cars and drivers hired.

The camp managers here at Tanda Tula met us upon arrival. Hayley and Dale are married and in a bit of a twist own part of the management company running the lodge. Most managers do not own part of the lodge or the management company. Hayley, from the Eastern Cape, and Dale, from Nelspruit, proved to be another addition to the long list of impressive South Africans found in these positions throughout southern and East Africa. Our ranger, Scotch, took our bags to our room and we took in the view from the grounds and pool overlooking the watering hole.

It was about lunchtime so we took a brief walk around the property and enjoyed some of the culinary fare of salad, pork and roasted vegetables. Views from the covered and open terrace were set over the lawn and swimming pool and into a watering hole of some 100 feet in diameter. Temperatures were rising and Amy was feeling a bit tired so she retired to her bed for an afternoon siesta. Our tents were set over the dry river bed and the beds, bathroom and furnishings were all quite comfortable for what they here call a “tented camp”.

Game drive started at 4PM with the usual gathering for tea, coffee, snacks and meet and greet with other guests. Panning the crowd,we had an American family of four from New York, a couple from Calgary and a couple from Edinburgh, as well as Camille and her parents. The last couple was Sharon and Ronnie from Johannesburg. The two from Scotland, David McLellan and his friend, Mo Grant accompanied Amy, me, Sharon and Ronnie out for the first game drive.

As is one of the many benefits of nature and wild animal viewing, each day is a new and unpredictable. Weather was a bit overcast which was nice as this time of year can bring temperatures into the low 90’s at midday. Yet, the remaining prevailing benefit to most all South Africa is a lack of humidity. With game drives starting early morning and late afternoon, the heat of the day is missed. My enjoyment of game drives is far beyond the animal sightings so I can be content just to drive. Winding dirt roads, lead to lush, green bush at this time of year and the result is prolific birdlife. Colors, calls, size and species are ranging enough to fill up the local bird guiding book of South Africa with 400 pages of pictures and descriptions. Scotch proved to be an exceptional guide this time of year due to his exceptional cognitive ability in identifying the birdlife. Scotch’s comprehension was so vast that he has memorized the page and bird number of each species in the southern Africa bird book. The feat is rather staggering if you consider each page holds the name and description of 5-6 birds. So, you are talking about roughly 2,000+ entries he has memorized, in order. We tested him plenty the next few hours and he never proved to be incorrect.

Just as we were being drawn into the birdlife via Scotch’s expertise, out of the corner of my and Sharon’s eye, we both caught a glimpse of something in the tall grass, something just of a head. There are certain animals in the African bush that are so numerous and easy to spot, impala, warthog and wildebeest to name a few, that there is the natural tendency to believe each movement seen is from one of the more prevalent species. We both must have joined in a similar timed double take and then both simultaneously spoke the word, “leopard”. Yes, and there it was. I was surprised to see it so early in our drive as many leopard sightings come after work in tracking them and above all, plenty of luck. Being solitary and nocturnal, the leopard is hard to find.

Not only was this leopard in full view at 25 years away, he stood at perfect attention for a few minutes before stealth kicked in and he began slowly walking parallel to the vehicle in pursuit of an impala in the distance. Eventually, the leopard doubled back and walked but a couple of feet away from our vehicle and onto the other side of the road. We followed him into the bush where he allowed us to stay with him for another 10-15 minutes. Exceptional beginning to our first game drive.

In no exaggeration, just as we were backing onto the road, our group was given access to another difficult species to see, the African wild dog. Disease has taken a toll on the wild dog population in southern Africa. This fact combined with their being on the move over large hunting areas, makes this sighting another one to savor. Three animals stepped out onto the road and, fortunately for us, stayed put for about 10 minutes of picture taking. These animals deserve a better name due to their multi colored coats. Some locals and scientists have come to begin calling them Painted Dogs, which is a far better moniker.

The dogs took off into the bush so we assumed this would be the last we saw of them as once the dogs get going their speed and stamina prevent vehicles from following. These three seemed content to take a more leisurely jog so we were able to stay with them for another 10 minutes or so. Great start to our safari lodge experience to say the least. On the way back to the lodge after sundowners we were again privy to a unique spectacle in coming upon six rhinoceroses together. Rhinos can travel in mother/baby pairs or a couple of bachelors but it not so often you see a six in a group. The sun was coming low so the light was proper for high quality photos.

Arrival back into camp came at about 7PM, followed by one of my favorite activities of bathing in the outdoor shower. The open air shower is commonplace throughout the lodges in Africa and I am its biggest fan. Pre dinner drinks and dinner was served in the outdoor boma. The menu was just to my liking as the meal proved to be a meat extravaganza of lamb chops and boerewors. These are the type meals where I would prefer to have 2 appetites to please. Jim and Christie Martin joined in our table with Camille, Ronnie, Sharon and Dale. Jim proved to be of great company as like most all farmers the world over, he was a man of substance. Also good to see the man had a sense of humor I could much enjoy and a real knack for telling sorties. He and Christie recently sold their interest in the farm they operated in Zambia for 40 years. Tough folk, these African farmers, as the necessity for adequate schooling had them send Camille and her sister to boarding school when they were each but 6 years old. That is some tough medicine. Jim, or Marty, as he is called, is battling a recurrence of cancer so he no longer drinks alcohol or eats meat, but like most toughened farmers, he was not a complainer. There were but a few of us left closer to 11PM, so we then retired for the early 5:30AM wake up call.

With tea, coffee and hot chocolate on a tray, Scotch awoke us at the appointed time. Again we gathered at the bar area and then went on the morning game drive at 6AM. Sunrises in Africa are to be relished on these trips and this one did not disappoint. With the overcast skies, the sun’s rays spread out long and wide over the distance.

A herd of elephant we met early. Within the herd was a small baby but 2-3 months old. The rest of the matriarchal herd is always protective of such a youngster and the efforts they take to shield it and help it is fun to watch. These animals are quite social and their family groups are as strong as anything human. Morning tea break followed our elephant sighting and further rhino viewings, this time a group of 10, yielded us a yet subsequent productive morning.

Once the hour reached about 8:30AM, we turned the corner into what we thought was but a dry river bed but there on the opposite bank sat our breakfast tables and camp staff beginning the cooking. We enjoyed the hour of breakfast eating outdoors under the shade of the tall trees.

The return to camp was followed a lie in the bed, some time for Amy at the pool and a bit of internet/computer time for me. Nice thing about these safari trips is that despite the early wake up call, you are back to camp at about 9AM after a 3 hour game drive, have eaten and have the ensuing 6 hours of forced relaxation. No sightseeing can be done and no long distance exercise can entertained due to the safety need to stay in camp. So, pool time, reading and napping are enjoyed and not to be felt guilty about.

The afternoon game drive again started at about 4PM, prior to which we enjoyed a good long chat with David and Mo, the traveling friends from Edinburgh. Turns out David suffered a hemorrhage in his lower back some 12 months prior which left him paralyzed from the knees down. Odd to be but incapacitated from the knees down yet David must stay in a wheelchair due to his not being able to feel his feet. Mo was of typical Scottish good temperament and I enjoyed the time very much. The resulting conversations over the ensuing 24 hours had us all in equal contentment with one another’s company.

The afternoon game drive was highlighted by a lion pride sighting. Three generations of lions (grandmother, two daughters and 8 grandchildren) were feasting on a recently killed (15 minutes prior to our arrival) waterbuck. The cubs were far too young to have contributed to the kill as 3 of the cubs were about 6 months old and the remaining 5 were about 2 months old. When we arrived onto the site, all of the family was vying for a spot at the table. Perhaps I did not realize that 2 month old lion cubs were ready to eat solid food because the littlest ones were going right at it. Grandmother sat off by the side, content to dive back in after the younger generations had their fill. The waterbuck was so big (maybe about 600 pounds), the cubs had to climb to reach a point to feed.  As there was no dominant, mature male in the pride, the cubs and mothers could feed immediately. We sat at the feeding site for more than an hour listening to the sounds and watching the activity of what makes this place remind us of the necessity of an ever evolving life. Being able to be so early and so close to this lion feed was an exceptional experience.

Another outdoor shower was enjoyed before a sit down dinner on the deck. Our chef, Ryan, performed admirably again with food fit for a fine restaurant in Atlanta.