It’s been a week in Johannesburg, the business epicenter of South Africa. Now we’re heading off to the wilds! We’re off to Kruger.
Kruger is a national park – a reserve that is the size of England. We’ve packed our cases, tucked away our phones and computers, and headed off into the vast wilderness. The camera batteries are charged and a couple of extra SD cards are tucked in the carrying case. The Bush! We’ll stay in thatch-roofed rondavels, eat boerewors off the braai, and go in search of exotic animals in their natural environment!
A trip to Kruger wouldn’t be complete without finding the Big Five. The large animals on the top of the food chain: lions, leopards, Cape water buffalo, elephant, and rhino. But there’s no guarantee we’ll be able to find the Big Five animals.
We’re heading in at the peak of summer – Kruger’s rainy season – so the grass will be long and the bush will be thick. We’re a little unsure how things will play out as Kruger has just had massive floods – higher than 100 years where roads and bridges have been washed away, camps are inaccessible (You must stay in a safe camping place at night since there are lions and hyenas hunting!), and we’ve heard the rangers have gone on strike. Not necessarily the best conditions, but hey! We’re here! We’ve got a terrific opportunity to make it work.
As we draw near the park entrance, we enter kind of a buffer zone. Private reserves line the road leading to the camp and the wildlife spotting begins.
A giraffe browses next to the road and stops traffic when it decides to cross in front of us as the best nibbles are on the other side. We beat feet to the Orpen Gate. It will take us some time to get to our first camp before they close the gates (You must be in your camp by a certain time each evening or you must leave the park. There is no driving after dark.) and we just make it! We’re in!
We rise at four the next morning to prepare for our mission. We load our tiny little rental car with our gear, grab our bird and animal identification guide, throw in the camera, and we’re off for the seven hour trek to our next campsite. The early morning is cool and clear – promising a scorching sun for most of the day. We come across a herd of zebra taking some time while it’s still cool and watch as they chase each other back and forth across the dirt track. Good thing we stopped and stayed with the zebra a while as a herd of buffalo sauntered through. One of the Big Five captured on camera!
The day is long, the sun hot, and the dirt track is dry and dusty as we roll through slowly changing terrain – peering into the bush on the hunt for signs of lions. We must double back several times to find a new route as we encounter flood damage, washed out bridges, and closed tracks. We pull into camp hot, thirsty, dusty and tired, and collapse – grateful to be able to stretch our legs and rest our eyes.
A rainstorm the next day thwarts our plans to head over to Mozambique (all the roads are dirt so they will be quite muddy – probably too much for our little car to handle) and keeps the animals hiding. Morning rainstorms over the next couple of days make for cooler days and better photography.
We have a face-to-face encounter with an elephant.
We come across a lone male ambling toward us on the track. We pause and then back the car to give him space to move off into the brush to continue on his grazing. He doesn’t. He is walkin’ the road today and we are in his way. Yikes! The pictures at the camps and the warnings of elephants being able to toss cars flash through my mind. We back up some more. He keeps on toward us as we try to maintain the 30 meter space guideline. Nope, he’s not going for it. He likes this road – it’s HIS track – I think he’s laughing at us. We realize that we can’t back up forever so after a quick discussion we pull as far over to the side of the track as we can and hold our breath. A wall of wrinkly brown passes slowly by the passenger side windows and he’s headed on down the road – tail swishing, trunk swinging. We release our breath in a big whoosh and celebrate our good fortune! One rental car intact! Two relieved people.
It’s been days of hunting and finding hints of lions. But no viewings.
We check in with the rangers and watch the sightings boards to see where others have spotted game during the day and the day prior. We try to anticipate things that will attract them. Who they’re hunting. We’ve found fresh tracks in the dirt. They are BIG tracks and you can spot them from the car. We know they’re around but the grass is so tall and they are eluding us. A lucky moment brings us our leopard sighting as he bounds across the road in front of our car to the river. We come to a halt where he disappeared and peer into the grass. We hear what we can only guess to be sounds of his successful mission – getting a late afternoon meal. But he does not return nor drag his kill up a tree that we can see. We found him! Three out of the Big Five!
A park ranger-led night game drive found us a solitary male lion in search of his pride – pacing quietly forward as he melted back into the grasses. On the trek to our final night’s camping spot – Skukuza, we discover a family of rhino.
Rhino sightings are no longer reported as part of the effort to thwart the poaching scourge that has reduced their numbers to so few. We were happy to see that father rhino had a very long and very sharp horn. Mama and youngster were also unscathed. We watched quietly while they studied us. We gave each other quite a wide berth. We had captured our Big Five!
All along the way we saw other things that were as amazing.
We witnessed an anthill’s attack on a termite mound and the victorious looting that followed. What military precision! We were fascinated by the Sisyphusian efforts of a dung beetle to roll its precious cargo up and over the edge of the road while a companion beetle clung and spun but did not push. We played with the shongololos – millipedes thicker than your thumb and as long as your forearm. We encountered a whole den of hyenas and watched the pups scramble and play while the adults watched indulgently and corralled the youngsters.
Our little rental car, with some very skillful driving, delivered us through washouts, sand banks, and massive mud troughs without stalling, sinking, or blowing a tire. I’m not sure what we would have done if misfortune befell us with the car as there was no chance of getting out to change the tire, push the vehicle, or order a tow. The little car was so tough we named it Bush Pig – indicating it was low to the ground and could push through anything.
As I am reflecting on our stay in Kruger, I am struck by the similarities our quest for the Big Five has to Major Gift fundraising.
When it’s time to do some major gift fundraising, we all have our lists of who we want to see. They are our top donors, top prospects, the ones whose support could make all the difference. Very rarely do the members of our Big Five list fall into our laps. We must seek them out. So we gather our plan, trace our routes, and talk to others about the habits of our Big Five.
We hope for optimal conditions even in the rainy season with grass as high as your head. We may not have the right equipment – no Land Rover (no fancy donor development software), no binoculars (or beautiful presentation materials). We’re probably going to have to double back a couple times to find the right route.
But there’s one thing for sure. If we don’t venture out into the bush, we won’t see anything at all. So off we go. Even if the conditions aren’t the best and we’re making due with less than perfect equipment, we know it is up to us. And with a bit of luck, a lot of patience, and much perseverance, our Big Five list gets accomplished. Best of all, you meet some amazing folks along the way.
So… who’s on your Big Five list?