Treehouse Camp near Krueger NP (6 days)

Krueger and surrounding area near Hoedspruit

8 April ~ To Krueger

An early start to the day, as in a 3am wake up call, ugh!  To catch a flight to Johannesburg then meet up with Viva Safaris and the various others who’ll join me in the coming days out seeing Krueger and meeting any nature who chooses to introduce itself to us.

A lovely 6-hour drive through the Drakensburg Mountains, then down to the lowveld to Tremisana Game Lodge for the night.  On the way, we already saw a lovely male kudu, some impala and a giraffe, not to mention the flora including many thorn trees and a couple smaller baobabs.  We’re near Hoedespruit, where I believe I’m scheduled to return to later in this journey, only for the price I paid, I think it’s a far more luxurious stay, but not necessarily better as I find the more budget travel brings a gal closer to communities and the surroundings of an area rather than being removed a level by a posh veil.

It’s a nice group I’ll be with over the next couple days, 3 couples and myself.  In order to do things I’d like to do in my life, it’s important to do it while it’s possible, however the trade off on many occasions is that I am alone and not sharing this with a special partner.  African safaris I do find quite romantic and would love to return one day on a posh adventure with my future hubby.  Well, that is not how it is for me now, so I make the most of it and make good headway through the many books I’ve downloaded so far.

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We stopped only for time check into our rooms, before heading out on an evening drive which included dinner somewhere out in the bush.  It wasn’t but about 7 minutes before we saw movement in the thorny brush to our right.  Lions!  3 females and it turned out to be 6 young cubs playfully strolling along with their confident mums.  They sauntered closer and finally broke free of the brush and out toward the 3 vehicles that contained a very captive audience.  The cubs were so playful with their giant paws and curious eyes, ready to pounce at any moment on an unsuspecting sibling, or perhaps try to jump up for a ride on mums back the way the baboons do… “how do they manage such a thing?”

The brochure said the animals don’t pose for the humans, but in this case the brochure was proven inaccurate.  These kids were cute and stayed in the road posing and playing… and napping for quite a long time.  At some point there were about 7 cars lined up, at which time they headed for the bush… I don’t blame them!  We drove on just a short ways and to our left behind some brush and in the green grass laid an impressive daddy lion.  Even in his catatonic state, he was beautiful.  We felt so fortunate to have seen the whole family, when suddenly daddy raised his gorgeous mained head and sat up in the direction of the cubs.  He posed a bit then walked toward the wee-ones happy to reunite with his family.  He walked just feet in front of our vehicle then stopped and waited for his hiram to walk to him and greet him affectionately.  The little cubs playing at his feet.  The whole family crossed the road again, daddy taking up the rear and waiting patiently until the last straggler had joined the flock before walking onward into the brush as the sun sank into the horizon.  What a sight!

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Dinner was romantic and candle lit under a lovely tree with braai going to cook a lovely local meal.  Two groups joined the evening including ours with two tables of 6 and one of three… looks like I’m the only single gal again.  Kinda a bummer in these situations.  D&D joined me for dinner and we had a delightful evening.

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On the way back, about 10-15 elephants munched away roadside in the dark trying to hide from our guides‘ light.  Mike has a good eye for spotting, but he’s not the most consciences nor respectful of the nature he brings people to see.  He’s good with the more popular animals, but tends to put down the game animals in a way I find rather rude and disrespectful.  He has a good bit to learn before becoming a really good guide, but he has potential.

9 April

Bengani as our guide made our early morning wake up well worth the effort.  We met for morning tea then headed out under a still dark sky on the truck toward an area we’d seemed a good part of the morning walking and learning.  I enjoy the bush walks as they do entail a good bit of education and connection to the nature that surrounds us.  5 safari-goers and two guides, one with riffle in hand, the rules told and reasons why before setting off.  Many birds sung to the raising sun, but not all because of the sun, as many bird calls are that of alarm or warning of other events happening under the cover of the thorny shrubbery.   A long-tailed shrike stopped to check us out, Franklin birds sung their morning screeches, “go away” birds communicated from one tree top to the next, oxpeckers indicated the presence of larger warm bodies browsers in the area, doves cooed, and so forth.

Bengani stopped to show us an oval divit about the size of a huge serving tray.  He talked about the elephants who dig for roots leaving these shallow bowls.  The bowls then make for small water troughs after rains, providing water for the local tortoises, who’d otherwise have to walk relatively long distances to get water, the puddles may become mud baths for the worthogs, giving them a safer place to add a layer of skin protection rather than the open water holes, perhaps the hole will grow in size and become a more substantial water hole for others, a breeding ground for tiny critters and so forth.  He emphasized how everything that happens in the bush serves a purpose for others.

Of course when it comes to helping any area thrive, one cannot leave out the majestic elephant, the true gardeners of eden.  We studied some droppings from the last dry season (winter). A wet season poo would have been quickly degraded by the birds and rains and rolled away by the dung beetles.  We picked out the seeds of the marula tree above us, the elephant having eater it’s favorite fruit between Jan and March, the quickly “processed” it and out it popped, back to the soil from which it came. The seeds are picked out by squirrels who break them and eat the kernels.  Other seeds are spread about the bush and the fiber broken down and utilized by a variety of critters from as small as bacteria to termites to… humans who’d use the dry bundles to burn to treat sickness or ward off insects.

Then there’s the gardening part of the elephants attributes, eating the inner bark from trees, leaving areas where worms and beetles burrow.  The woodpeckers then come and knock on the tree driving the worms outward where they become meals for the birds.  Trees are knocked down as needed providing more food diversity for other smaller animals, like impala, waterbuck, duiker and such.  Their clearing provides healthy space for grasses to thrive, providing food for the ungulates who are game for the various predators.  With out the elephants nearly all would die, or there’d be a tremendous change in environment that’d change the face of this beautiful land called Afrika!

We wandered on, seeing many little flowers, a spider building it’s web.  There are some 300 or so spider species here, but only 6 that are venomous… whew!

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At a lovely large lead wood tree, we take a morning break complete with snacks and see not far from us, two lovely white rhino in the brush.  We hold still and take in their lovely presence.  They are behind bush a bit and a safe distance for all parties.  Still, they are a bit unsure, so after a time looking in our direction to hear and smell our presence, they move onward.  In the other direction on a hill across a small valley is a small heard of elephants munching they way through the brush.  There are 4 of them, part of a larger heard that has separated for the morning.  We think females because there seems to be a smaller one, perhaps a baby.  They too are a good distance from us, so as not to cause them disruption to their morning of browsing and gardening.  I couldn’t take my eyes off them though… they just seem to emanate peace.  I remembered my time in Botswana and began breathing slowly as I did with that big elephant that special evening nearly a month ago.  I summoned as much love and respect as I could in my heart and sent it to them in a telepathic light, as best I could… at least that was my intention.  I so appreciated them being there and gracing our morning out there on foot in the bush, it was yet another very special moment in Africa for me.

The guides were so kind to take us a long way around to get home, giving us a bonus game drive through some rather rough and less-used tracks.  We all were feeling so relaxed and content reflecting upon our morning’s walk.  We saw the rhinos again at one point and many birds, including my favorite, the yellow horn-bill (“zazoo”).  Also, mongoose, and tiny squirrels came into sight as well as graceful giraffe, impala, zebra, wildebeest, and a steenbok.

Breaky at the Lodge then down-time to relax and catch up on any sleep necessary.  Also, we depart this camp after an early afternoon drive and head to Mark’s Treehouse Camp, from where we’ll spend days exploring a supposedly abundant part of Krueger National Park, proper.

 

After a nap then a brief lunch accompanied by the local cheeky fervent monkeys, who had a keen eye on snatching any food that might be available whether on offer or not.  I sat in a comfy chair to watch the youngsters play in the trees and had a hopeful adult come tug at my shirt in hopes of me dropping a tidbit or perhaps it was a distraction so another could swoop in and score a treat.  They are quite fun to watch and so agile in the trees.  Even the baby who still clung to it’s mum’s belly would let go and play with the older kids holding his own when it came to tree climbing.  The older kids on the block would play with him but assure his safety at the same time, being careful of his youth.  A family of worthogs also came into the scene, the lodge having put scraps of leftover food out for them a little ways from the surrounding fence.  There were about 3 adults and probably 8 babies in all, trotting around with their tails held high, then dropping to their front knees to eat.  On part of the family was snacking away, when they were suddenly frightened and trotted off a bit, the rest of the family had suddenly popped out from behind the bush.  We had to giggle that they were so startled by their own family… looks like family of all sorts like to play games with one another.

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The early afternoon drive (2:30 start), was short one as we were to be transferred to Marks Treehouse Camp later in the evening.  Mike was our guide, unfortunately as his enthusiasm is near none, except when one of the “big 5” are in our presence, then he’s filming like the rest of the folks from his phone.  He also is about as informative as a stick in the grass with one-word answers to our questions, put-downs of “lesser” game animals and little patience to wait and watch, unless it’s in his interest as well.  I long for our morning guide, Bongani who had a great interest in educating visitors about the workings of the wild and the importance of everything working together to thrive.  All that is lost on Mike, ugh!

 

Anyhow, the wilds aren’t so concerned with who’s driving the vehicle so long as they are respectful to their surroundings, which strict rules insure that is the case in these parts.  So we set out.  It’s a bit early for game viewing as many animals are hiding away from the heat of the day still, however the day was cooler with a little cloud cover so perhaps the animals will be out taking advantage and grabbing extra nibbles in the day.  We saw very little as we started out, then ahead in the distance as we approached a nearly dry waterhole, a clan of male bachelor elephants browsed through the high shrubbery.  Their big grey bodies can be surprisingly hard to spot in this environment emphasizing that they are often called the “ghosts” of the jungles.  They are quiet, graceful and amazingly transparent in their huge grey bodies.  We thought they might wander down to the water, but when the 4th guy showed up looking wet and muddy, we figured they may have already visited and were’t as eager to come down.  So we moved on… Mike being overly eager to move onward.

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One thing Mike is good at is spotting wildlife.  We saw an interesting colorful bird, who’s name I couldn’t understand, then the engine was shut off and we came to a slow and easy stop.  “Rhino,” Mike said.  We looked to our right and sure enough a lovely lady and it turned out her 7-8 month old baby.  To add to the excitement, these were black rhino (hooked upper lip and smaller size), the rarest of those in the south of Africa.  They are more browsers than grazers, hence the pointed lip for grabbing shrubs and they are usually either quite shy or very aggressive, but these two were neither of that with us.  The mom and baby just wandered about near our vehicle with little concern, the mom in front leading the way through the scrub, the baby following to some extent… well, when she wasn’t off investigating a termite mound or playing with foliage.  The little one would let out little squeaks as it chatted with mum to let her know what she was up to.  It was quite special to spend so much time watching these special animals.  We saw the tracks of the male as well lending hope to the future of the black rhino in this area that if the poaching can be brought under control, perhaps populations will recover in good time.

 

Speaking of anti-poaching.  I’m happy to see so much activity bringing awareness to the problem here in South Africa.  From signs posted everywhere possible, to airlines who sponsor programs on the forefront of the issue to huge works of graffiti painted under highway overpasses in massive lettering “save the rhinos!”  I hope in my heart of hearts, that poaching will cease before it’s too late.  This planet needs to have the big animals wondering the wilds in order to thrive, they truly are “gardeners of Eden” as the new documentary film of the same name reports.

 

10 April ~ At Mark’s Treehouse Camp

 

Moholoholo Rehab Center;  They do some very good work there rescuing and rehabbing animals then releasing them to either the wilds or it sounds like more often, the private reserves where they’re more protected from the territories of other predators in their release areas.  It’s a system that seems to cater to the situation here in South Africa, where true to human form, greed and control are prevalent, so fences go up, wild areas shrink and animal populations must be diligently monitored and controlled.  In a way, it’s a sort of odd balance between humans and nature in this world were human populations soar out of control, but animal numbers are reduced regularly or manipulated to be of a determined integer for the health and wellness of the animals in each fenced reserve.

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So Moholoholo has been successful giving animals of all kinds a second chance at life and is forever educating communities and working with them to find balance between village life at the edge of Krueger National Park with its various predators and living their traditions of raising cows as such a big part of their culture.  They also offer a volunteer program whereby folks can pay a bit for room, board and a “donation” that goes toward both reducing staff and helping with the funding. Their initial education to visitors is also quite good, but goes a bit far after that.

 

What I found quite disturbing for me was that they’ve tuned to exploiting animals by putting them on display for human entertainment in order to help with funding.  Of course the main moneys for these places come from large donations from elsewhere.  I think it’s not a good thing to have animals permanently caged in the smaller zoo-like enclosures that they have, and to add to that, to have them there to entertain visitors.  Things like petting a cheetah and feeding vultures inside the small caged enclosure that is all the territory they have at the moment.  A serval and a Lynx  were in small fenced enclosures, the lynx having been raised as a family pet.  The pens are right next to the walking path for visitors so folks tease them, poke at them and try to get a rise out of them for the benefit of some photo that will likely never be looked at or perhaps even deleted because it’s blurry or something.  One guy walked by the pen and kicked his foot in the face of the lynx to get it to hiss… I turned to him with peering eye and a shook my head from side to side in a disappointing way.  I said to him, “someday someone will kick you in the face in some way and laugh about it.”  The disrespect of people is obnoxious!!!  Those animals should be in bigger enclosures and far out of reach of visitors.

Moholoholo also breeds many animals to populate the private reserves.  They do it in the name of “conservation” of species, but truly a hand raised cheetah will never be wild, it’s artificial and deserves to be questioned.  Other animals they’ve actually taken from their mothers upon birth to hand raise them to be “ambassadors” … aka pets on display for profit.  I had to refrain from partaking in the interactive parts of the tour for moral reasons.  I do respect their rehab and education programs, but glad to have departed that place and wish they’d refocus on the animals and not the entertainment.

After that we were dropped at a tourist center in Hoedspruit for a few hours for lunch and to shop or whatever.  I had a lovely Italian luncheon and looked around the shops chatting with folks and reading until we were picked up at about 3pm headed for a private game reserve, owned by a family, for “high tea” and an evening game drive on their very nice property.

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It’s a lovely location sitting somewhere deep inside their 5,000 hectares of fenced land with known numbers of the “Big 5” and a handful of animals being hand raised somewhere who’ll replace any who are lost from the property in some way.  For example they have a male lion who’s quite old and grey with a bum foot.  With no competition, he remains dominant, but will not live a lot longer.  So they have another lion who’s being hand raised and is now about 4 years old.  So when the turnover happens, they’ll instantly have a new vibrant lion who’s already tame to the trucks driving around and will even come when called.

They have a female cheetah on the property we saw later in the night, who’s wild on the property (1 of only about 300 cheetah in the wild), but was hand raised so will come when called and even lay down so folks can give her a pet and get their good photos.  This cheetah is infatuated with a male cheetah on the other side of the fence inside Krueger Park and paced back and forth trying to get to him, but the electric fence prevents such activity.  That part was kinda sad, especially as the more diverse breeding would help strengthen the already weakened species.  This separation would be considered cruel in the world of humans.  In an ideal world, the fences would come down between the private reserves and the National Parks.  Yet, with humans all around fences are necessary and with animals who’ve been victim to human conflict, the controlled territories of the private reserves are a way to give a second chance to many.  It’s a mixed bag and I guess the reserves are far better than living in small cages having to rely on humans to feed them daily.  The private reserves though do put hay out near the water holes and entry gates to supplement the animals within the fences.  This is the way things are here and I think most intentions are good in the grand scheme of the current human-dominated world.

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“JP” our guide at Tshukudu Lodge, did a lovely job taking us around the reserve with his passion for showing folks this bit of nature and talking about so many aspects from the different grasses to the various trees and their uses and benefits to the animals of all sizes.  It was a lovely evening seeing some of their rhino, giraffe, waterbuck, impala, crocodile, lion, hippo and a massive perk was a momma white rhino at one of the water holes accompanied closely by a 1-day old baby!  OMG, so darned cute with his big head, nose bump that’ll one day sport a fine couple of horns and oversized feet all attached to a tiny fragile looking body.  What a complete treat to see the pair so clearly and for mom to be so comfortable in our presence to continue on about her drinking then wander past with baby in tow.

We stopped on that drive with a lovely sundowner complete with 3 types of snacks and drinks of all sorts to watch the sun set and the outline of the Drakensburg Mountains fade its darkening shades of purples until all was dark except the shining stars above.  Speaking of starts, we were a long way from any development, but not far enough escape the lights of Hoedspruit a few miles away.  Although all looked black, the stars were far from as bright as they were in the Bush of Botswana or Mkuse where the milky way shown in all its splendor as though someone did spill a stream of silver glitter across the night’s sky… yet they were still 1,000 times brighter than where I live in OC.

 

11 April ~ Full day drive in Krueger

The thought of a full day’s drive in the famous Krueger National Park was a thrill that myself and the 7 others were looking forward to seeing as a small part of the 2.5 million hectare Park.  It is actually much larger now open on one side to join into the Transfrontier park that includes a good bit of Mozambique and Zimbabwe.  The park itself is beautiful and just reeks “Africa” on so many levels.  The animals here are as free as animals can be in South Africa with room to roam and migrate to a very large extent.  It felt nice to be here, even it if is rather populated with visitors and roads paved with tarmac most of the way.  There are strict rules to being here on behalf of the wildlife, such as never exiting your car, staying on the designated roads, reinforced visiting hours, not littering and so forth, keeping the wellbeing of the animals at the forefront.  Again, it’s necessary to have so much visitation as possible as the fees fund the park’s maintenance and give the all important monetary value to keeping the animals wild and free on this great land they call home.

We were all keeping things positive and sharing what we could in light of having Mike as our driver and guide.  I question the “guide” part as he is anything but generous in the information he offers us.  He is overworked and it shows.  He is irritable, bored and eager to keep moving rather than being patient and watching the animals we all came so far to see and learn about.  On one hand I feel sorry for the guy, on the other if he put in the effort and showed he had passion for his work, he’d create opportunities to move up to better and better jobs with more perks.  So on that front, we all got what we paid for on this rather bargain safari package.  Included is a second day on Safari, but it too included Mike as the day’s guide, which I had to pass on.  He’s such a negative to an otherwise brilliant experience… and my bum hurt with all the sitting and bouncing around.  To balance him out, we have Pretty managing the camp with her beautiful smile and eagerness to always see to everyone’s happiness and wellbeing.  She and her crew even sang a lovely birthday blessing song to Derek the other morning.

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Inside the park, we did see some nice things, including many lovely elephants ranging from a big bull in musth to small babies, one probably just 6 or so months of age.  There was such opportunity to watch and learn, but Mike stopped only for a short while, then started the engine to move on just at the prime moments for photos and observation approached… it was so frustrating!  He has little care about the game animals, birds and unique foliage or the many spiders who’d strung massive webs between shrubs.

There was talk of 2 lions up the road from the big modern lunch stop including a M&B restaurant.  Mike seemed bored with the thought of getting there, even though Zane was super keen to see lion and was quite clear about that from the beginning.  After a nice lunch, we stopped on the way to see the 200 or so cape buffalo munching and ruminating away near a large grouping of trees.  Zane lost a little control and asked that we move on to see the lion, who where just a short ways away according to the pile up of vehicles at the side of the road viewing the catatonic lions snoozing under a tree.  Mike’s response was kurt and said something about “it’s not a big deal, they’re not doing anything anyway.”  That’s his perspective, but to a young guy traveling all the way from Australia with only two days on Safari to see things he may never have the chance to see again, a couple sleeping wild lion is a thrill.

We did move on and ended up with a good spot at the roadside to watch the heavily breathing golden beings completely relaxed under the shade of a nearby acacia tree.  We made Mike wait for a very long time while we took in the moment eagerly watching for any movement, even a flick of an ear rose the excitement level for many.  The cars quite politely worked their way in and out to have a look… half the fun was watching the excitement of so many so eager to witness the wonderful life that abounds here in these parts.

Driving a long way around after that, I think he was a little irritated as he began driving faster and often had to slam on the breaks to keep from hitting an animal.  He rudely pushed past giraffe, kudu and even elephants angering some into mock charges and ear flaps.  I felt awful for the animals, but we’d soon enough be out of the park leaving the animals to their lives in their home.  We stopped for a few seconds to watch some female kudu to be told that the males are quite lovely with their big spiral horns.  Later we drove past two gorgeous males, but Mike would not stop… he had to keep going in his mind.

Driving back to Mark’s Camp from Krueger, about a 45 minute drive, Mike was speeding well over the 100km limit, while on his phone.  Sandra, sitting in the front, was so good to unzip the partition and bring to Mike’s attention that there are kids in the vehicle, he is speeding and please either drive or be on his phone, but not both at once.  I love the German’s direct approach to things and so glad she spoke up, as there were folks walking along the roadside in the dark as well, who were at risk.  Anyhow, the scolding got his attention and after that I think I could have run faster than he was driving.  Cars passed us regularly, but he was being safe again.  He also pulled off the side of the road to make his call to the camp’s gate to let them know where we were.  That sad man really needs to find a job he can be happy doing.  It’s one of those unpredicted things when traveling that leaves behind a story once past the situation.  I do wish Mike well and hope he will move on soon… and so glad that was not my only safari experience as it was for some.

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12 April ~ Lay Day

So today I’ve given a second day on safari with Mike a miss and stayed at camp to relax in preparation for the next phase of this journey where I’ll be at the rehab center with great hopes of it being a special experience in all the good ways… or mostly.  I said good bye to my safari mates from yesterday whom are all headed for Johannesburg today.  The other 4 new arrivals headed out with Mike and the camp suddenly became so quiet.  Well, aside from the beautiful sounds of nature.  The Nyala who joined us for breaky along with the monkeys have moved on.  I enjoy the 10-minute or so walk back to my “tree house,” and relax into a soft seat on my deck looking out on to the calm river with the sandy bank, the birds are singing away.  A troop of baboons have a brawl across the way, a kingfisher lands in a tree nearby, some black birds with bright red wings glide across the water into the trees leaving a swooping sound as the wings move through the air, alarm calls are triggered here and there by various feathered animals, perhaps a mongoose has threatened a nest or a threat of some other sort is nearby, another bird sings a song, others chirp, some whistle, the others respond.  The waterfall upstream and the gently dancing leaves of the surrounding trees in the light breeze makes up the back ground rhythms of the quietly overcast day.  The occasional fish blows a bubble in the still waters breaking the surface for just a moment, a cicada chimes in.  Amazingly, I haven’t seen or heard a single mosquito.  It is peaceful.

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I shared lovely moments with two families of nyala sitting on a rock overlooking the peaceful river, including a baby and mom who chose to wander over and graze just a few feet from me.  One of the males didn’t even stop his work nibbling at a tree, which is special considering most males seem to be extremely timid and cautious.

13 April~

Glad to have missed on the safari as they were rather severely rear-ended coming home last night.  This morning there are some sore necks and an injured knee, which is rather good considering the truck that hit them was completely totaled and the safari truck my fellow travellers were in was an old open vehicle without any protection from such incidents… yikes!  So last night at dinner, they sat traumatized drinking bottles of wine and I was rather blissed out from my day with nature.  Well, being that the day is one of transit back to Johannesburg, all is good and everyone can relax in the comfy seat with proper seat belts in a Toyota minivan.

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