Lily and I are up before the wake-up call but we remain stuck in our tent because we can’t go out without a guide in the dark. Shindzela tents are outside the camp fence line, and they frequently see hyenas, wild dogs, elephant, and buffalo all of which could kill a human, especially a little kid.
That made Lily a little scared. Smartly, we decided to sleep her with me, and Emma with Trish. We expected Lily to have night fears on the first night. Sure enough she was up twice, waking me each time to make sure she was safe.
But this morning she’s all excited, babbling about safari as she puts on her three pair of pants. After last night’s frozen ride, we are putting on as many layers of clothes as we can. Lily and I sit stiffly on the bed in all our layers and wait patiently.
Did the lions eat Trish and Emma?
After about 20 minutes, Sam, in his thick Zulu accent, announces the wake-up call. It’s 5:30 am. We walk with him back to the camp. It’s only about 20 feet but he is carrying a flashlight and rifle. They take safety seriously here. They don’t leave the gated area without a rifle at night or go off the property on foot without a rifle even during the day.
In the dining hall, Mike has boiled some water and I make a cup of instant coffee for myself and hot chocolate for Lily. The four of us chat a little. Daylight emerges slowly and we wait for Trish and Emma.
After a bit, Mike asks gently ‘Do you think Emma and Trisha are coming? We definitely want to get a move on.’ Lily runs to wake them up and comes back out of breath. “They fell back asleep. But they are coming now.”
In the blue glow of daybreak, Trish staggers out of her tent still wrapped in most of her bedsheets and blankets, squinting disorientedly like a safari bag lady. There is still no sign of Emma. Mike starts up the Land Rover, hoping the sound of a motor will signal some urgency.
In a few minutes Emma joins us on the jeep. She and Trish cover themselves in blankets and moan slightly as the car takes off and the wind chill hits us each in the face. We’re off! The sun begins to shine.
This morning, nothing big is in sight. We do however get several nice bird sightings. First up is one of the most photographed birds in South Africa, the Lilac Breasted Roller Bird. It’s colors in flight are better than any Toucan or parrot. The tones are much more beautiful than garish jungle colors.
The second is one of Africa’s most common birds, the Yellow Hornbill, which you will recognize as Zazu from the Lion King. It’s also called the Flying Banana. There are grey and red hornbills as well. Emma’s favorite movie was the Lion King, and my brother Stephen played in orchestra of the Broadway show for a long time. So Lion King sightings are important to us.
Vultures are fascinating birds. They don’t fly well and need the help of updrafts to go any long distance. When you see them circling, they are trying to catch those drafts and get higher. As most schoolkids know, vultures eat carcasses which in the savannah means offal. There are too many meat eating animals but most like lions will eat the liver and heart but leave the entrails.
And of course, the savannah chicken, which is a pheasant-like bird that are edible and easy to find. There are thousands here in the Timbavati region. These three ate breakfast with us by the table once we returned from the morning drive. Our breakfast is some eggs and South African bacon, which is a little chewier and less smokey than the American kind.
Trish and I fall asleep almost immediately after the late breakfast. Lily follows one of the camp staff, Peter, around and talks to him relentlessly for three hours. Peter looks a little dazed when we find him.
Our first stop on the evening drive is the dam, where the winter sun begins to set beautifully against the grumpy hippo pond. Henry the hippo has a sad story. He is one of the regulars at Shindzela. Something like hippo Oedepus; he became enraged at his own male offspring and killed him. The mother left and Henry has been alone for a long time – years actually.
But tonight Henry has a second hippo with him! His pond has a female in it, and they aren’t fighting. Maybe there is redemption for the grumpy old guy.
Giraffe are common, but still exciting to see every time because they are so unusual. Nothing makes me feel like I am on an alien planet like being in the close presence of a giraffe. They make no noises because they have no voice box.
They aren’t the brightest animal so there isn’t a lot to study or admire about them. But those looks! They are so much fun to watch munch on trees.
Because Timbavati has a lower animal population than park-lands in the south, and the bush is thicker and more difficult to see long distances, our guides have to be excellent trackers.
Mike and Sam are both tracking specialists. Sam grew up nearby in a black township and has been tracking since a young age. Mike studied tracking as a ranger and came to Timbavati partly because it’s his specialty and he can practice here.
The sandy roads get little vehicle traffic and animals use them extensively, so Sam is always hopping off and he and Mike discuss what they ‘read’ in the road tracks.
“There were wild dogs here, a few of them. And they turned back over here. These are only a few hours old.” Mike says excitedly. He obviously loves this.
Even for a ranger, wild dogs are a special find. Along with Cheetah, they are the scarcest big mammal in the savannah.
They are critically endangered. The numbers in Kruger park are only a few hundred. To spot one as a tourist is one in a million – very very rare.
Wild or ‘painted’ dogs exhibit some of the most exciting behavior…. They are ferocious hunters, with the highest kill success rate of any predator (up to 90%. Lions are 30%).
They have the highest bite-force quotient of any large mammal, which means the bite harder for their size than anyone. Prey is usually tracked for a long time, and disemboweled while running by a group of dogs.
But it’s not the ferocity that makes them so interesting. They are one of the most social animals, with a sophisticated method of handling alpha. There is no bloodshed to determine the alpha, it’s based on willing submission. Studies show they teach each other and they use many communications and calls to cover huge areas of territory with only a handful of dogs.
But despite all these advantages, they are the smallest of the big predators and cannot beat a Lion or Hyena. They number as few as 3,000 in all of Africa and are considered the most endangered of the big predators.
“Wild dogs!” Mike nearly yells, obviously as excited as we are. Sure enough three of those 3,000 African Wild dogs are trotting on the road up ahead and come to a halt as we pass by for a close look.
The indeed look painted with distinct varied patches of brown, white and black – absolutely gorgeous. And they are definitely dogs, not wolves from whom they are descended. The sun sets and the grey sandy earth makes them look like hell dogs.
We follow for as long as we can, but the three dogs eventually get out of our view. We stop and take a break. Everyone is exhilarated.
Night falls and we see little else except the eyes of a hyena, but it scampers away too quickly.
Sam pulls the car to a stop and gets out. We have a flat tire miles from the camp in the darkness. We have to get out for about 20 minutes as they fix the flat tire.
“Stay close to the vehicle!” Mike warns. “This is peak predator hour.” We huddle close as they fix the Land Rover, which has a stripped nut preventing the tire from coming off. But they get it finally and we head home for our water-bottle warmed beds.