Saturday, December 1, 2012

A Park for All Seasons

A Park for All Seasons

By Gillian McLaren

The mature male, with his muscular neck and dark coat, was beautiful. The young female, with her glossy fur, was delicate. Their couplings were fiery; a passionate swirl of spots with much hissing, spitting and unfurled claws. My reward for driving into Kruger at 4.30am in December? Exhilarating leopard sex!

It is impossible to say which is the best time of year to visit the Kruger National Park; in every season the bush is beautiful in its own way and there is always so much to experience.

In summer there are vibrant greens with abundant flowers in the molten heat and magnesium light. There are pools of water which draw an array of avian summer migrants to thrill the birders as they add to their life lists. It is poignant to watch mammal mothers with their babies,  although the only birth I have been lucky enough to witness was that of a wildebeest near Orpen Camp. Jackals were nearby and I feared for the safety of the wet newborn tentatively rising to its feet on unstable legs.

During autumn it is comfortably warm, and many of the trees have pods and fruits. My husband, Grant, is passionate about trees. He stops to photograph fine examples of the species he knows and to identify those which are new to him. Many a tourist has asked us in hushed tones what we have seen, and been disgusted with Grant’s reverent reply of "A magnificent Leadwood". Shrinking water pools make sighting of predators more likely near the main waterholes. Rutting Impala sound like lions and are fascinating to watch as they fight for mating rights. 

Lions tend to take up residence near the waterholes in winter. Most mammals have to drink at some time during the day, so you have a good chance of seeing a kill. The grass dies back which makes it easier to spot the smaller game, and early morning coffee with an Ouma Rusk tastes particularly good when the air is chilly.
My favourite colour is the fresh new-leaf green of spring. In Kruger it is exhilarating to see life after the dry, brown harshness of the winter bush. I love the smell of rain as it hits the parched earth. Flowers add interest and a variety of colour. The bush looks deceptively like a picnic spot. 

You never know what you may see in the Kruger Park. It is that anticipation - that excitement of hoping for a special sighting - which keeps me going back, year after year, to the pristine veld. Any time of day, you may find something unusual or memorable. 

One cool morning, I had my first sighting of the usually nocturnal African Wild Cat, at a waterhole near Muzandzeni. When I saw a honey badger, it was mid-afternoon on the famous lower Sabie 'highway' near Skukuza. I was so excited I stopped a game vehicle from a private lodge to tell the ranger, who looked at me as if I had told him I had spotted a tiger. Disdainfully he drove off just as the busy honey badger reappeared, scuttling fast as if on an important mission. 

At midday, from the hide near Letaba, I watched a pair of delicate cinnamon doves quietly feeding. One urgently fluttered away and the other began to flap in a strange fashion. It had been captured by a python! The muscular snake coiled around the hapless bird and squeezed until it was still, then the magnificent reptile detached its jaw and began to swallow. 

An elephant cow, dwarfed by the vast canopy of the Sycamore Fig, had been drinking from the muddy pool for a long time. Next to her was a sub-adult bull, watching her but keeping a wary distance. Periodically, she irritably sprayed him with water. He moved slightly further back, enduring her grumpy conduct. A small calf less than a year old tried repeatedly to come closer to the cow, but with angry trumpeting she firmly pushed it away with her trunk. What an unusual sight. 

Where was the rest of the breeding herd? Were the two youngsters her offspring? Why was she so foul tempered? She continued to drink excessively, and then put her trunk into her mouth and left it there. "Perhaps she has an abscess on her tooth," diagnosed Grant. "She probably has a fever and is drinking to slake her thirst". I longed to stay to observe this dramatic scene at Thulamila water hole on the S98, but the sun was rapidly setting and we had to return to Punda Maria before the gates closed. For over an hour we had been the only people there - one of the joys of Northern Kruger. 

I have seen Black Mamba and Mozambican Cobra on several occasions, while strolling along the path in front of Letaba Camp after dark. Yet some days we don’t even leave the camp. A plethora of birds nest in the variety of trees, butterflies abound and habituated bushbuck feed on the lawn. 

I have an irresistible attraction to the beauty and excitement of the bush, where all my senses are stimulated and where I know that in any season, at any time, I could experience one of those few sublime moments which make life worth living.

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Gillian Mclaren Travel and Science Writer