TREMISANA CAMP, HOEDESPRUIT, SOUTH AFRICA — There are two ways to explore the bush: by foot or by jeep. And just the difference of that one single meter of height lets you in on two completely different worlds.
In our week in Kruger, we traveled by both means: bush walks in the morning and evening game drives.
By jeep, you are of course more mobile — able to speed off at the hint from other drivers of a recent kill or a stealthy leopard. You’re higher up, safer, can cover more ground. You see things in macro — the unending herds of impala, the big five, incredible sights on the horizon. But you miss the details.
When you get off the jeep and on the ground, just that meter of distance opens up a whole new world.
On our second day, we had to get up at 4am — long before the sun cracked the sky — and meet up at the lodge with our guides, Rex and Mike. From there we rumbled off down the road into the bush as the sky turned a milky grey. A few kilometers in, we hopped out and prepared for our trek.
Rex, the lead guide, carried a .300 Winchester rifle — safety precautions if we ran into a situation we couldn’t otherwise downplay — a rare occurrence, but not an impossible one. Rex told us about a time when some skittish tourists got way too close to a black rhino, who charged the group — only stopping in a cloud of dust just feet in front of him.
The walk consisted of a four hour trek that took us (quickly) through the infamous range of a black forest rhino, over a wide Savannah where elephants had cleared paths for other animals, over a high ridge and down along a tributary of the Limpopo river, where hippos splashed playfully in the rushing current.
Along the way we learned all the telltale signs of the bush. Mostly about poop. How to understand what’s in different types of scat to realize what animal has been here, how long ago and, often, what that animals was doing at the time (feeding, hunting, marking its territory, etc.).
We learned to follow tracks — of big cats hunting along game trails, of the big hippos coming out at night to forage, of the difference between the larger white (grasslands) or smaller, more aggressive black (forest) rhinos, even how to follow the trail of the busy worker ants. We watched dung beetles in their frenzied work. We noted different types of flora — and Rex showed us how each could be used by the native population for anything from brushing their teeth to curing constipation to cleaning themselves after the cure.
And we discovered how to survive in the bush. Rex showed us how to “fish” termites out of the massive 3-meter high hills and how, if you rip off their pinchers, you can throw them into your mouth like popcorn for a quick and easy source of protein. Rex explained this as he munched on a half a dozen or so of bugs — and asked if anyone else wanted to try. I was the only brave soul and as Rex handed me the squirming termite, he advised: “Delicious. Just crush it.” I followed his advice, chomping that little sucker and swallowing. Honestly, not bad. A little woody, but a bush delicacy.
We learned how to read the signs that the bush gave us. And we loved it. Molly, Whitney and I were the nerdy kids in class — asking about every detail. Rex appreciated our attention to detail and curiosity, dubbing us his bushwalk experts.
After lunch, it was back to our perches in the jeeps to seek out Balule’s massive elephant troops. After bumping around the bush for an hour without a sighting, our driver Mike said he thought he saw some elephants off in the distance. Rex pulled seniority, saying that there was no where they were down in the ravines. But we convinced Mike to follow his nose anyway, and thank god we did.
We rumbled our way down an empty river bed and heard some crashing off in the bush. Mike killed the engine and we waited. Suddenly, we saw a big bull elephant munching his way through the trees. Everyone gasped, but that was just the beginning. Over the course of the next half hour, a troop of maybe 40 elephants of all sizes and ages rumbled right past us, crossing from one forest area to another.
They walked right past us, some no more than 10 meters away from the jeep, as if we were not even there.
The best part was watching the awkward babies — some maybe no older than a few weeks — jumping around at the sight of their first human visitors. One colorful little guy did a wacky little dance when he saw us and then, as we drove away in their wake, turned back to wave his trunk in a silly goodbye. Incredible.
It’s amazing what you can find when you pay attention, when you listen to nature and when you know what to look for. Armed with an eye for detail and the knowledge to read the clues the bush gave us, we were ready to continue on our South African adventure.