Thursday, February 05, 2015

The leopard mother

Venda Sun 22 - In the Kruger National Park

 Her cub was following so she kept to the undergrowth. It was early in the morning and we were just
yards away in our small city car. She seemed like an offering from the dry river and leaves. 

Of course we can't get out of the car apart from between lines on specific bridges and in rest camps. We drive for hours with cameras and binoculars trained on the landscape. In the plains, in the old woods, I itch to walk. But here, humans are prey.

Monday August 6, 2012 - Lions and refugees

We're missing Mrisi. It's the third time we've been to the Kruger but this time he's not here. 
Sightings day 1 - Wildlife: Buffalo, antelope, squirrel, zebra, eland, kudu, hippo, hornbills, bushpig, elephants, swallows, warthog, eagle, baboons, ostrich, giraffe, lions, alligators, herons. Trees: Brown ivory, leadwood, Natal mahogany, Jackal berry, Fever Tree forest.
We leave Louis Trichardt, head to the Soutpansberg Mountains, through the valley Mrisi once called the valley of the butterflies. It's hilly, lush and there are many mountain retreats. We climb and descend to the long flat road towards Musina, later the long flat road towards Pafuri.
Limpopo baobab on the road to Pafuri, with nests
There are always mountains in the distance but the landscape changes. We pass grapefruit plantations, fields of tomatoes with rows of women picking, fields of greens. Agricultural workers' homes are shabby and as we get closer to Pafuri there are villages on the main road that seem to be planted in dust, made of bare, scrubby ground with goats and wooden fences, the odd chicken and occasional pink bungalow.
As we drive closer to the mining area the main road is blocked by a double gate. We're pleased to see the Pafuri Gate of the Kruger. We've been driving since 5 am, arrive about 9.30 but almost immediately we see animals and on a bridge over the Levubu river, upstream from Mashau, we see our first elephants and a kingfisher poses for a photo. There are alligators below us looking like weed.
Elephants in the Levubu River
We take loops off the main road, follow the river, stop at Pafuri picnic site to eat our rolls. It's baking hot and quiet. There's hot water to make coffee, big old trees and the sound of birds. Pigs, buck, baboons and vervet monkeys are drinking at the river.
The landscape between Pafuri and Punda Maria camp is empty and dry. But the fever tree forest is shady and cool, a mix of lemon bark and big old hard woods, some with vines and aerial roots, many trunks snapped by elephants.
This vast expanse is a reminder of how people used to live. A ranger at the Pafuri site told R there weren't so many lions around because they'd been attacking refugees from Mozambique and had begun to see people as prey. The result - attacks on visitors at picnic sites and so the lions were shot.
When I have a shower at Punda Maria the red dust streams out of my hair, off my feet, hands and ears. When I washed my hands at the garage in Louis Trichardt, they were filthy from charcoal and breaking up wood.

Tuesday August 7 - An old elephant in the shade of a fig tree

Day 2 sightings after the Babalala picnic site: Traffic cops in chairs off the main road parked up in the trees, elephants, eagle, giraffe, baboons and monkeys, buck, lion past the loop in the main road, zebra, impala

We get up early for a morning drive. There's nothing at the waterhole but there are dust storms, tall tornadoes. We see a great plume of red dust as we drive towards Babalala. There are two people at the site and a shelter build around an enormous old fig tree. Hornbills on the fence are trying to get at our crumbs.
Waterholes and rivers are dry and there's nothing in the enormous Shingwedzi. The drive from Punda Maria takes us through kilometres of dry flat landscape. The gravel roads don't make comfortable driving in a small Chevrolet.
Shingwedzi camp is where we stayed years before. G and I are going on a night drive. She loves the guinea fowl/partridges and the baby baboons. My favourites are giraffes and today I saw a link between Wilma Cruise's long necked women and these phenomenal animals. They are always a surprise, like the elephants that appear out of the trees or in a dry river, or crossing a road.

An old elephant with a single tusk was in the shade of a fig tree today, scratching his back. It's hard to think of the invasion of humans. Thank god, though, we're not in Johannesburg with its icicles. The Mail & Guardian has headlined it the City of Cold.
Night drive sightings: Civet, scrub hare, bushbaby eyes, wild African cat, Sharpe's grysbok, a breeding herd of elephants, buffalo

Wednesday August 8 - We are yards from a leopard and cub

Morning sightings, Kannihood dam and beyond: Leopard and cub, breeding herd of elephants with two calves, water buck, grey rehbock, Sharpe's grysbock, Nyala, little egret, eagle, saddle billed stork, goliath heron, black heron, guinea fowl, wildebeest.
The elephant calf is well camouflaged
and hard to see in a herd
We drive from the Shingwedzi camp towards Mopani, past the Kannihood dam, and still on the banks of the river R spots a leopard crossing the track.
We're on a gravel road, the big loop from Shingwedzi camp that follows the river much of the way to Mopani, south towards the Tropic of Capricorn. The leopard heads into scrub on the higher bank, and then we see a cub. We follow the leopard as she moves in and out of the bushes until finally she disappears.
Last night I had a nightmare. It was vivid and long. Mrisi died from a wasp sting in his throat and came back to talk to me. I asked him what he missed and he said family and the taste of food. He seemed very sad. At times in the dream when I was with people I felt the most overwhelming grief. I broke down screaming several times. It was disturbing and I've been worried about him all day. When I rang he sounded sad and low but when R rang again later, Mum was there. She'd been on the allotment picking blackberries.

So it's the day of the leopard cub and elephant calves. No lions, rhinos, hyenas but water and great storks hunkered down in the marsh, then zebra in a dust storm around a waterhole. We drive to the top of a small hill and look out towards the border of Mozambique, over the flood plain, baked ground waiting for spring.
Mopani camp is clean, modern, neat, built around an enormous baobab and on the banks of a dam. G and I walk around the camp and sit on a bench by the baobab. We talk to two men who ask Giya to take their photo - intelligent, informed, interesting about SA. One has been to Brighton on the bike ride. We discuss transition, corruption, beautiful trees, taxis and traffic. Both have three cars, even though neither can drive.
The terrace bar is full of Africaaner couples and families with looking miserable. Johannesburg is freezing and there's deep snow in the eastern Cape, drifting, We see it on TV. I thank god we aren't anywhere else.

Thursday August 9 - scavenging quail

Sightings: eagles, stork, herd of giraffe, baboons, zebra, elephants, a lone elephant, termite mounds for miles on the Phalaborwa Road, hippos in the Letaba, harlequin quail and chicks.

Our last morning. I go to the dam before dawn, see a black and white kingfisher diving and hear hippo. The geese are noisy and a flight of small birds breaks up the sky. Dawn happens, but only me and the cleaner are around. As the wildfowl get busier other camp staff turn up. We eat sweet potato mash and onions for breakfast. Giya goes to the shop for eggs and comes back with Weetabix! A harlequin quail and chicks comes to scavenge at the kitchen - they're G's favourites. Mine are the blue starlings. Both, it seems have turned into scavengers. It's still. I enjoy my last shower before Brighton.
Back in the world - a mine, a gate, Spar, private lodges, garages. Letsitele to Tijane is miles of orange trees in lines. Letsitele is surrounded by mountains. Women carry nets of oranges on their heads. All SA oranges and lemons come from here. The earth is red.  

A long drive to Giyani and then back to Mashau. Giyani's shut, it's a national holiday: International Women's Day. To celebrate, R shouts at me in the car when I ask if we're going in the right direction because the road sign seems to be pointing us miles from Mashau. He says he walked this road as a child. It's 70 km to Elim and so I don't believe him.