Sunday, April 22, 2007


On Friday I finished my training class and headed off to the Ivory Tree Lodge at Pilanesberg for a weekend of safaris. The 2 hour drive up passes through some “black heritage” areas. These are sections of land that were given to the various tribal chiefs during the apartheid era. The houses in these sections would most likely be described as “shanty towns.” The majority of the houses are made of tin some don’t even have any roofs. Also along this route are a number of mining villages – there are mines for platinum, copper, gold, and granite.

Luckily I arrived at the lodge just in time for the evening Safari which runs from 4:30 – 7:30. I ran to the room dropped off my bags, grabbed my camera and went to meet Mike, my ranger. I was in such a rush I forgot to grab my monopod out of my luggage so I was not able to take many shots as the sun went down.

Day 1 – Evening Safari
You are assigned the same ranger for the duration of your stay which makes it easy to get to know others. Dinner is eaten with the group and your ranger, for those traveling alone I liked this. My group consists of 2 South Africans, 3 Americans (including myself), 2 Brits and 1 Scotsman. Two of the members did not arrive until dinner so the first evening safari there were only 6 of us. I managed to grab one of the seats in the front which gives you an unobstructed view of everything in front and to both sides.

The trip was a huge success and we encountered a number of animals and some little tidbits of information:

Giraffe – The older they are the darker their spots become.
White Rhinoceros- Most numerous of all animals in the park, the black rhinoceros is quite rare and we did not manage to see one.
Kudu – As we were watching the Kudu Mike informed us that during our snack break we would be trying some Kudu meat.
Helmeted Guineafowl
Francolin- AKA “Suicide” birds as they like to run out in front of cars you rarely see these birds flying.
Elephant – Males and females have different shaped heads.
Spotted Eagle Owl

The most memorable encounter for me were the lions. We were running late for our snack as we kept stopping so we didn’t end up getting to the rest area until dark. For me this was better as the stars and the moon were spectacular, it’s rare you get to someplace dark enough to see all the stars. There were no lights around so you could see the milky way and shooting stars. I also saw the Southern Cross for the first time. While eating our snack we could hear a lion nearby it sound like he was only a couple hundred feet away. Mike informed us that the calls he was making were basically a “hello” to other lions. They have different calls when they’re hunting and when they’re just talking. After finishing our snacks we started tracking the lion to try and find him. At night there is a spot light that you can shine to find the animals, we would drive for a little while and then we would stop cut the engine and lights and listen. After a few minutes we turned the lights on and the lion was standing right in front of us about to cross the road. He was huge, probably weighed around 220 kilos according to Mike and he looked to be all muscle. We watched as he strolled through the plains and when we lost sight of him we started driving down the road some more as Mike saw the direction he was heading and knew he would be crossing another road shortly.

As Mike was driving he handed the spotlight to those in the row behind him as we were up higher and could shine the light higher. As I was in the front row I periodically got to track for animals with the spotlight. There’s a lot of pressure with this job as you want to make sure that you don’t miss something good hiding in the bushes or trees (I actually was shining the light when we spotted the owl). We did see the lion a couple of more times and then began heading back to the lodge. While on the way back in the middle of the road we saw the female lion and 2 cubs playing. The cubs were about 5 months old and just playing away. As we followed them I was surprised that the lights didn’t bother them and they seemed to ignore us, other animals are definitely startled by the lights and the car engines.

We ended up getting back to the lodge at 8:15, about 45 minutes late but it was well worth it. I was the first to leave the dinner table at around 9:30 as we were getting a 5:30 wake up call to go out on the morning safari. Mike warned us that we might be disappointed in the morning as we had such a successful evening ride. I was optimistic that it would be just as good.

Day 2 – Morning Safari

As we started out Mike told us that there were reports of wild dogs right past the entrance and all the rangers were excited as they are very rare. We could see all the trucks lined up, after a few minutes waiting the dogs took off and we followed them down the road. Those suckers were fast – it was impossible to get a picture of them. Eventually the other jeeps turned around and left we waited for a little while longer and as we turned around saw the dogs running right back our way. The ran directly in front of our jeep and across the field. Mike got on the radio and informed the others what direction the dogs were headed. The rangers from all the parks and lodges are in constant communication over the radio to share rare and interesting sightings.

We got a call that a leopard was spotted and we were near the area so we headed off in that direction. There were about 5 other safari vehicles and 3 personal cars in the area trying to catch a glimpse of this rare animal. We waited patiently for it to stick its head up as it was lying in the grass and then all of a sudden a warthog started walking by and we thought we would be lucky enough to be treated to a hunt. At this point the leopard took interest and popped his head up and at the same time a guy in the car in front of us stood up out of his sun roof and completely blocked my view. Now he could have seen just fine from the car like everybody else but he wanted a better view. When I told him he was blocking the view of everybody behind him he turned around and said he wanted to see he stayed standing there until the leopard lost interest in the wart hog and lied down again. At this point a number of cars drove off but we stuck around for a little while and our luck paid off. The leopard decided to find a place to sleep in the shade so he stood up and walked off. At this point the other people in the car joked that we should go and find the guy that blocked our view and tell him what he missed – karma will get you every time.

After the leopard moved on we continued on the road as we had gotten a report of elephants playing in the water. It was amazing to watch them play, squiring water on each other, dunking one another under and swimming around. A few hundred feet behind the 6 playing in the water were about 20 more elephants having a bite to eat.

Since we had spent so much time waiting for the leopard and watching the elephants swim we did not have a chance to have a tea break and stretch our legs. You don’t realize how long you’ve been sitting until you try and stand up and walk down the steps of the jeep.

New animals sighted:
Wildebeest – This looks like a combination of a number of animals – it has the tail of a giraffe, the stripes of a zebra and the legs of a hyena.
Water Monitor

Day 2 – Evening Safari

The evening safari started out normally enough we saw a little of this, a little of that. Nothing that we hadn’t seen before. We were headed up to the top of one of the mountains to try and catch the sunset from up there. Unfortunately we got a little side tracked and missed the sunset, Mike spent about 5 minutes at a termite mound explaining all about termites – I would have rather sent the sunset but others were very interested.

After a couple of drinks we headed back down the mountain along a very windy road. All of a sudden we made a turn and there was a male elephant standing in the middle of the road. He started approaching us forcing us to back up this narrow windy road. The number of feelings rushing through me at this time were numerous – shock, fear, amazement – the knot in my stomach was huge. I had never been this close to elephant before, it is definitely a humbling experience to view an animal like that up close as he’s chasing you – ok it wasn’t really chasing but if felt that way. Mike kept backing up as the elephant approached us trying to find a spot where we could pull over to one side and the elephant could pass us. He tried to assure us that this elephant was very calm and once we got off the road we would be able to get by, after going around 2 turns we were able to pull over and the elephant headed off the road and we were able to pass. Relief set in, unfortunately it was very short lived as we rounded the first corner another elephant was in the road, following the elder male.

As we started to back up we had to keep an eye on the elephant behind us to make sure he continued heading into the grass and did not turn around and head back into the road leaving us nowhere to go – he cooperated nicely and continued on into the woods. As we learned elephants follow one another so all we had to do was back up to the same spot and hope that elephant number 2 would indeed follow the older elephant up the hill – as luck would have it he followed and we were able to pass. As we continued down the road we wondered if we were going to encounter yet another elephant – there were 3 elephants hanging out when we headed up the hill for our snack break. The third elephant had either gone off on his own or was a little slow in following the others and we were able to make it down the mountain.

The rest of the drive home was very uneventful, no other significant sightings on the way back to the lodge which was good as it gave me time to relax after that unbelievable experience.

New Animals Sighted:

Day 3 – Morning Safari
Woke up to a light sprinkle and a slight chill to the air, I wasn’t sure if this was going to be good or bad for the animals. Mike said that the cheetahs are more apt to come out in the rain and the large cats will be more active in the cooler weather. Everybody was in agreement that we wanted to see some big cats. I for one had enough of elephants the night before and didn’t care if we saw any today. There was word from other rangers that a pride of 7 had been spotted so we headed off in that direction. After about an hour of driving we gave up on that area and headed off to see what else we could find. There was word of a cheetah in the area so we tried to find that – again no luck. I was starting to get rather disappointed and realized how lucky I had been on the previous excursions and this is probably more typical as I had heard from others that it was rather hit or miss.

Continuing down the road we got word that the pride of lions had just been spotted and they were just up the road from us. Even better they were guarding a kill that they had made the night before. The lions were about 500 meters from the road so we couldn’t see much details however we were able to clearly see them – pictures are slightly fuzzy but you can tell that it’s a lion. We were satisfied that we had seen our big cats so we headed back to the lodge for breakfast.

New animals spotted:
Red Hartebeest
Lilac-breasted Roller

Overall the safaris were spectacular and an experience I will never forget. I probably saw close to 1000 animals, at least 26 different species - much more than this but we didn’t get the names of all the birds that we saw flying around. And don’t forget 1 very close encounter with some elephants.

Oh and on the way back from the resort I saw monkeys and an ostrich.


Morgan said...

Fantastic!! What a great time you had.

I saw John Travolta last night, but it's not the same as fearing for your life. (Yes, I really did see him. He was sitting about 20 feet away from me).

mom said...

Awesome!!I loved reading about your adventures. Cannot wait to see pictures. Andy would like to hear what your lodge was like. Talk to you soon. Love MOM

Amy said...

That sounds like an amazing experience! Where are you going to post the pics? Oh and Morgan congratulations on your sighting as well. Did you get any pictures for documentation?

Morgan said...

I assume that elephant is for Myra. I guess that they fold up somehow so that you can get it into your bag. She'll be so exited.

BTW, the unwritten rule on St. John is to not bother celeberties, so no pictures from me. Dawn says that she will be posting the photos on when she gets back to London (the internet connection in Jo Berg is slow).

Expat said...

I would like to say that if you want to talk about celebrity sightings this is NOT the place for it. I don't see how that compares to almost being trampled by an elephant! :)

Yes the request for an elephant came from Myra and no I don't think I can smuggle a real elephant into England and then the US. Diamonds are probably out of the question as well.

Amy said...

We can talk about whatever we want in the comments! They're unmoderated. And if John Travolta is more interesting than a bunch of wild animals in the bushes then you're just going to have to write about things that keep our interest!