We left the campground shortly after the gate swung open at 6am. The sun had just begun to rise. As we drove the paved road, a little face peered out of the tall grass at me. Ken slammed on the brakes and crept backward. The little face was still there; a mama hyena with two cubs gamboling in the grass behind her. Mama stayed still long enough to pose for a photo, but her cubs were brown specks waving through the grass. A short while later a spotted cat sitting in the road, noticed us coming and took off. We have minutely examined our photos of its backside and are guessing it was a serval, too small to be a leopard or cheetah. A bit farther down the road we saw a handsome gentleman baboon, breakfasting on a bush. He delicately plucked off the best leafs, one at a time, and we were grateful for a chance to photograph him. All of a sudden a torrent of baboons came down the road toward us; there must have been 40 - 50. Big and small, frisky and stately, they just kept coming. We rolled up our car windows,but they paid us no mind. They continued their march and impala joined it. It took our breath away to be in the midst of the baboon community.
We rushed back to camp, because we certainly did not want to miss out on our two day stay at Kirkman's Kamp. It is one of a number of private game reserves located immediately adjacent to Krueger National Park. Although it is on private land, the animals are free to move between the reserve and the park. These private parks are rather pricey. We are staying in a Chevy version; only $800 per person per day. After living cramped together, sleeping on bed sheets we haven't laundered in three weeks, eating delicious meals I have prepared on our two burner stove, we knew we would welcome this chance for civilized life. Best of all our stay at Kirkman's comes with two game drives a day with a professional guide doing the driving and a spotter in the back assisting him.
After a lunch that would rival any cruise ship feasts we have enjoyed, six of us climbed into a land rover and headed off into the bush. The elephant, impala, and giraffe came easily. The rhino was not so happy to see us. Our guide threw the jeep into low gear and we headed through the woods after him. Eventually he calmed down enough for a good photo and we were off again. The "road" crossed a river and as the water swirled around the door handles, we found ourselves almost at eye level with hippos cooling off in the rushing water. The sun sets about 6pm and the ride was scheduled to end about 7:30. As it grew dark we wondered what would be accomplished in the next hour since it is so hard to spot animals in broad daylight.
Hang on to your hats! The guides drive with radio sets and a report came in that a leopard kill had taken place. We were off the road and into the woods; the spotter swirling a large spotlight from side to side. The leopard was quite high in the tree, dragging a baby impala from one crook of branches to another, trying to find a spot where he could dine on it easily. He took his kill up high to keep it away from other hungry predators. We were surprised that the spotlight was bright enough that we could take photos in the total darkness. the leopard's eyes glowed, but he was only interested in dinner, not in us.
Another report came over the headphones; a pride of lions this time. The headlights on our jeep were no longer working. Apparently our ride through the river had caused the hot bulbs to shatter. No problem. Our spotter illuminated the bush with his light and we were off the races again. We zigged and zagged through the pitch black forest, struggling to get to the reported spot. Bushes and trees disappeared beneath our car tires. Spider webs and branches swept across my cheeks as we wove deeper and deeper into the darkness. Finding the lions seemed like a miracle and the miracle took place. Five of the eight lions in the pride peered out through the tall grass. This time the spotlight was not enough and my photos look like tan smudges.
As we drove back to the lodge there was one more stop. A cape buffalo was calmly standing near the road chewing grass. When tourists come to Africa, their goal is to see the Big 5 - buffalo, rhino, elephant, lion, and leopard - those animals most dangerous to humans. In our three hour night drive we had seen all of the Big 5. What more could we ask?