Growing up in Messina I was close to the famous Kruger National Park, but did not visit it until just before we left for the United States. As a child, I saw buck and other animals when we visited friends’ farms. I remember being scared by a lion skin complete with head, on the floor of Oom (uncle) Hans’s farmhouse. I also remember seeing elephant parade down the main street past my father’s office, when the circus came to town.
Now there are many game parks spread across South Africa. The one we chose on this visit, the Pilanesberg Game Reserve is a national park situated on an ancient volcano that erupted 1300 million years ago. Pilanesburg is one of the largest volcanic complexes of its kind in the world. Its rare rock types and structure make it a unique geological area. Those eruptions created the hills and the crater covered in bush, trees and grasses where wild animals and 365 species of birds roam.
Unlike other large parks there is a unique overlap of birds, mammals and vegetation that occur because this is a transition zone between the dry Kalahari and the wetter lowveld, commonly called the bushveld. There are water holes and the large Mankwe Dam, gathering place for the wildlife. The creation of the Pilansberg National Park was considered one of the most ambitious programs in the world. Started in the 1970’s and called “Operation Genesis” the reserve was fenced and the introduction of species began. It continues today with a wide variety of animals including the big five; lion, elephant, hippo, rhino and buffalo.
Of course none of that mattered to our group. We had come to see wild animals and did not care how they got there. The animal siting on the first night gave us all the incentive, although it was winter, to rise early to catch the 8 am ride. Our group filled the open-sided jeep, with five rows of graduated seating. We wrapped up in the blankets against the wind and set off.
Some parks have a driver and a “spotter” but while our driver Sepo, looked for animal spoer (tracks) we all acted as spotters and yelled, “stop” when we saw something. The first siting was a herd of warthogs, not attractive animals with an ugly name. They are interesting however. They are the only pigs able to live without water for several months of the year; their eyes sit high on their heads, enabling them to see predators while grazing. The young live with the females and because they run in a single line the warthog lifts its tail like a tour guide’s flag, to lead them to safety. We saw them on all our game rides and one member of the group grew quite attached to them, because they are not what people go on safari to see.
We saw impala with their long corkscrew horns. I loved the springbok. They look like small deer, are lithe, run and jump and I love their dainty fan shaped ears. Once we called them deer too often Sepo told us the difference. American deer shed their antlers and regrow them each year. African buck keep their antlers.
I have always loved giraffe. They have a grace of movement and peaceful expressions on their small faces. We saw many giraffe on all the rides we took. We saw two young bucks fighting by twisting their long necks and bashing at one another. It looked like a dance. They were young and perhaps were brothers who were just play fighting like brothers do. Someone asked if they were pack animals because they seemed to be loners munching on trees. Sepo answered that they are both. They seem happy to be alone but if they come across another giraffe they appear to think, “Okay he looks familiar, lets hang out”.We learned that giraffe need trees and bushes to eat. They will not eat from the ground, so even if there is grass, they ignore it and starve. We noticed some had darker spots. Those are from closer to the equator. They, like humans also get darker spots as they age. Rounding one curve we looked at a hill and there were about five of them standing in a line on the ridge. It was quite a sight, like ancient warriors surveying their kingdom.
My next favorite animal is the zebra. Unlike the wildebeest I think they are works of art. I love the stripes and the way they are designed. They hang out in herds and are often with the impala, springbok and eland.. They are also the food for lions.
I enjoyed looking for animals and the drive through the countryside, which was so relaxing. Our guides stayed on the roads, so there was none of the bouncing over rutted ground. Although it was winter and the dry season there were waving grasslands and green leafed trees. The red, yellow and black rocks and hills stretched as far as the eye could see. We returned to Kwa Maritane Lodge after three hours of riding and spotting. We parked ourselves on the outside deck and watched some baboons drinking at the water hole as we ate our lunch. Ah Africa!