Because of the unpredictability of wildlife, it’s dangerous to simply stroll around in Kruger National Park. In fact, the lodges are surrounded with barbed-wire electrified fences. Entrance gates are closed at dusk and don’t reopen until 5:00 am.
But a good way to get out into the wilds is to join a nature walk, conducted by Park Rangers. After spending days in a safari vehicle, we looked forward to the opportunity of trampling off road.
During the night before our trek, we could hear the low guttural moans of lions just outside the fenced compound. We gathered just before dawn, and met our Rangers at the safari vehicle. They introduced themselves with multi-syllabic African names that we had difficulty pronouncing. After teasing us a bit, they provided the English-friendly contractions of Metwell and Mini. Once the gate open at 5 am, our group was the first to leave the compound.
In the dawn light, just down the road, we saw a pride of lions straddling the roadside. Unfazed by our presence they moaned and grunted. Even our highly-animated voices, headlights on the truck, and flashes on cameras, did not faze them.
As the big lions began to amble down the road, Metwell backed up the vehicle, enabling us to continue watching them from the front, rather than witnessing large feline butt views. We continued watching the lions for a few minutes, then continued on our way to the trailhead. We later learned that shortly after we left, the pride killed an impala. Some visitors witnessed the event.
When we arrived at our starting point, the Rangers parked the vehicle and loaded their weapons. We were instructed to walk in single file, and to maintain silence. If we absolutely needed to communicate, we were told to snap fingers, slap thighs, clap hands, or whistle, to get the Ranger’s attention. It seemed like way too many options, especially in an emergency situation.
We cherished the silence on the walk, because you could just listen to all the natural sounds of wind and animals without interruption.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the safari is how human beings are perceived by the animals. A group of people sitting and talking in an open air vehicle merit no notice. You can literally drive right next to animals, take photos even using flash, with no effect. However, when standing up in the truck, the human form is more recognizable, and animals react.
This phenomenon was very evident on our guided walk. Herds of impala and gangs of wildebeest warily watched us from a distance. It didn’t take much movement from us to make them scurry away. When they moved, the thunder of the wildebeest hooves was exciting. You could even hear their distinct moan in the distance.
Along the way, we stopped for a proper biscuit break. While enjoying our snack, I spotted a lone elephant approaching us. I snapped, slapped, and whistled, and the Rangers quickly gathered the group and rapidly led us in a different direction. They were very conscious of avoiding any potential conflict with the animals.
A heavy rain the night before made it a wet and muddy slough. It was good for seeing animal tracks including massive lion paws.
After the sprinkling rain ceased, Ranger Mini paused to remove her poncho. She handed her loaded rifle to Jane. It’s hard to imagine a more incongruous sight than Jane hoisting a high-powered rifle in her hands.
Metwell and Mini, brought us to a clearing where a bleached rhino skull lay on the ground. You could see where the prized horn was hacked off by poachers. We were told that the street value of rhino horn is about $1million. Poachers earn about $10,000 a pop. That’s about a decade’s worth of income.
Many of the poachers come over the border from Mozambique. To help stem the slaughter of rhinos, and to protect rangers, Kruger Park has instituted a “shoot first” policy. Park Rangers are authorized to shoot anyone seen with a weapon in the park. Last year 500 poachers were killed and another 1,500 arrested!