On Safari in the Pilanesburg NP
As is only appropriate, within the first 6 days of our arrival to SA we went on a safari to take in the beauty of the Pilanesburg National Park and to ogle at all that is wild. Wow! It was as thrilling and gorgeous as I had imagined a safari to be. Seeing African animals in the wilds (of a game reserve, probably the closest they come to being free in SA these days) is scary, exciting and wonderful. They aren’t caged in small spaces and they aren’t fed by humans or rely on humans for anything. The animals are allowed their own herds, mating partners and territory and are free to live and die as they choose. I’m no animal activist but that sounds pretty all right to me.
The park is open from sunrise to sunset and has dirt roads that snake their way around dams and waterholes, pans and plains. Visitors are only allowed to drive on these few roads and only at a speed of no more than 40kms/hr. The park has herds of many different buck, elephants, prides of lions, loner male lions, families of hippos, flocks of birds, reptiles, etc. there are over 7000 animals! This surprised me – ‘Recent polls conducted by the South African Tourism Board have shown that Pilanesberg is now the most popular game reserve in the country.’
If you aren’t already aware the ‘Big 5’ and to a lesser extent the ‘Little 5’ are the animals that tourists really aim to see and tick off their lists. The ‘Big 5’ is the Elephant, Lion, Leopard, Rhino and Buffalo and sadly the list was originally created by big game hunters who decided these animals were most difficult to ‘bag’ due to their ferocity when cornered and shot. Shame. The ‘Little 5’ is the Elephant Shrew, Buffalo Weaver Bird, Rhino Beetle, Leopard Tortoise and the Antlion. It doesn’t have anything to do with hunting, though tortoises do have a nasty bite, it’s just a fun little list of tiny animals named somewhat ostentatiously after the larger kind. While obviously all these animals are pretty spectacular they aren’t the only things in the parks and Jono and I had a few favs that didn’t make the cut to this all important list. According to the internet a man conducted a poll and he found many people agreed with him and with me…a giraffe is much more exciting to spot than a buffalo.
I was lucky enough in my time in SA to visit the Pilanesburg twice. The first time was with Jono, Leizel, Hendri and Lois a lovely lady visiting from Canada. We got up before dawn and were in the park just after sunrise. It’s funny how quickly the thrill of seeing a Zebra or even a whole herd wears off throughout the day. At the beginning of the day we were like ‘ZEBRA –STOP!!’ by afternoon it was more like …. Nothing, no one mentioned them. We had binoculars and spotted a fair bit; rhino, birds, alligators, zebras, warthogs, giraffes, hippos, buck x 1000, elephants, jackals and many more.
Unbeknown to Jono and I, there are actually quite a few key rules or guidelines to follow when on a self drive safari. Things I probably would never have considered on my own but are extremely crucial to survival. Generally speaking when you are in a big car or 4×4 in Australia you are ‘safe’. We don’t really have any animal that are big enough to do you harm while you are tucked away in your car and so I hadn’t much considered the following; elephants and rhinos consider your 4×4 which is a similar size to them as a worthy opponent and will charge you and trample you if you; 1. Separate them from their herd 2. Come between a mother and her baby 3. Stop across an elephant ‘path’ 4. Basically just get in their way and 5. Annoy them – in any way. How does one escape an angry Elephant running at you while you are on a narrow dirt road in a car? You chuck it in reverse and then test your ‘steering backwards while incredibly panicked’ skills at the same time as a car full of people are screaming at you to go faster and drive straighter and miss those trees. But seriously, that’s actually what you do. I shouldn’t jest so much, its actually crazy how often over keen, silly or just in the wrong place/wrong time tourists get in trouble. Just prior to us leaving SA we heard on the news about a couple who had died in the Kruger Game Reserve after they somehow upset a large male elephant and it trampled their car flat, killing both of them. The killer elephant was then put down.
After a few hours of driving around we started discussing how desperately we wanted to see a lion, in the flesh and roaming around wild. Liezel and Hendri had just finished saying how rare it was to see one and how they had been many times previously and only seen a lion once. I was trying not to get my hopes up too high. I was sitting in the front seat staring out the windscreen (not wearing a seatbelt) when Hendri who was driving yells ‘LION!!!’ on top of his voice while slamming on the brakes. I twist around to see, while flying through the air, crumple against the windscreen and then leap desperately to the other side of the car catch a glimpse. I needn’t have worried about missing out. The lion, a scrawny male, was right next to the car. He slowly sauntered by, giving us the stink eye, then disappeared quietly into the bush. WOW!!! We were so excited!!! It wasn’t until he’d gone I realized how much my shoulder hurt from the windscreen. A Lion is really something to see.
We had a delicious picnic lunch in a fenced off area looking out over one of the largest dams in the park. It was lovely and hot with a slight breeze which carried the sounds of the animals and birds. African bliss.
A month or so later I was lucky enough to go again. This time it was with a random, hilarious bunch of go-go’s (Granny’s in Zulu) from the Tembisa township who, though African born and bred, had never seen African animals in the wild with their own eyes. It made me sad; it would be like an Australian who’d lived to 70 without ever seeing a Kangaroo in the bush. Crazy. The day was hilarious. They crammed into the big van and away we went. Once in the park they found joy in the simple things more than the big animals you would expect to elicit big sighs and expressions of awe. A lot of time was spent looking at baby alligators on the edge of a pan, birds weaving a nest and eating a fish, and buck who are really like the seagull of the game reserves. Not so much time was spent looking at the Rhinos, Elephants and Giraffes like I expected and we even saw Lions though not all of them bothered to look. They weren’t very good spotters – failing eyesight aside, they’d all look in the one direction- and were all asleep by mid afternoon. What I will never forget is the way in which they went crazy, literally the biggest collective reaction of excitement and wonder over… wait for it…baboons. What!? It was classic, a troop ran passed on their way to the waterhole and the ladies were screaming and lunging over to the side of the car that you could see best from. For one lady in particular it was like a dream come true, she said all she had ever wanted to see was a baboon!