5.30am when the alarm went off this morning. 6am before I pulled my sorry backside out of bed. It's to be a busy day today, with the bus set to depart at 7.30am. I had planned to head down to breakfast, but my stomach growls that it's still digesting the huge meal from dinner last night, which was spectacular. It's with heavy heart, but an expanded pallet, that I admit to trying Impala last night, one of the little bush animals. But then this is Africa, and the poor wee thing was already well roasted over the fire by the time I got to it, so at least it didn't depart us in vain. RIP Mr Impala - you were delicious ..........
7.30am sharp and the bus heads off, the first destination of the day being God's Window - a highlight along what is known as the Panorama Route, which includes many natural wonders, ranging from cascading waterfalls to impressive mountain gorges. We have the clearest, sunniest and calmest of days, which Nigel tells us makes us extremely fortunate. Even the slightest turn of the weather and apparently the stunning views, of plunging majestic cliffs and the Kruger National Park, become in need of a window cleaner.
As we make our way to the vantage point we pass a baboon, just sitting passing the time of the day on the roadside, next to some grazing cows. There are cows everywhere in Africa, and who they belong to I have no idea! Unlike in the UK, they seem to be free to wander wherever they wish, with most congregating and grazing on roadsides. They are definitely an accident waiting to happen if you are pushing the speedometer, which fortunately Dino isn't (or so I thought.....).
When we reach God's Window, I am so incredibly grateful for our sunny day, with the views as spectacular as promised:
At the entrance / exit to one of the vantage points, little stalls are set up, selling various African wares. But I resist the temptation to spend too much time looking and climb back on the bus for our next stop - Blyde River Canyon.
Enroute to Blyde River Canyon, Dino is pulled over by the police - for speeding! Given that we are a bus full of tourists, now stopped at the side of the road, the policeman agrees to let Dino drive on, on the understanding that he goes back to see him when we later stop off at the Bourkes Luck Potholes. Cheerful Dino is neither here nor there about it, and later tells me "he will just give the policeman something; it's a black market." And so the corruption becomes apparent!
The Blyde River Canyon is the third largest canyon in the world, after the Grand Canyon in the USA and Fish River Canyon in Namibia. The entire canyon extends over twenty kilometres in length, cutting through the Drakensberg mountain range, one of the seven major mountain systems in Africa. The bus drives around the rim, stopping near three different viewpoints, all once again offering very special views of this magical place.
I remember the feeling last year, when visiting the Grand Canyon, of not being able to capture the essence of a canyon in a single photo. It is simply too much of an expanse, even for the widest angle camera lens. Twelve months on, having spent most of the year practising photography, I still feel the same, but I do the best I can:
As we leave the Blyde River Canyon and make our way to Graskop for a lunch stop, the bus pulls in at the Bourkes Luck Potholes. Dino goes off to bribe his policeman, whilst we are afforded time to admire this natural water feature.
Through countless eons, the swirling whirlpools which occur as the Treur River plunges into the Blyde River, have caused waterborne sand and rock to grind huge, cylindrical potholes into the bedrock of the river.
Another beautiful wonder to photograph!
Dino returns from 'dealing' with the police, and we head to Graskop. This little place was pleasant enough, but for the streets being full of pushy African men trying to sell their goods to you. It unnerved me enough that I kept the camera in the rucksack for the duration of our short visit. But we were soon back on the bus, heading for our afternoon game drive.
Now one of the key reasons for me coming to South Africa was to do a safari, and see first hand African wildlife. I have never been a fanatic of zoos; each to their own, but to me there is something unjust about keeping an animal confined, so us humans can ogle them. I do appreciate the conservation work that is attached in some cases, but I've seen too many 'psychologically dead' animals over the years to take any pleasure in visiting zoos. So to be given the opportunity to witness animals in the wild is a great attraction, and the desire of course is to see, and hopefully photograph, Africa's Big Five (Lion, Elephant, Buffalo, Rhino and Leopard).
We meet our safari guide at the pick up point and climb up into the open top jeep. Now I didn't take a photo of our guide, but I can give you the visual, because it took me by surprise a little. He is simply a taller and slimmer version of Anders Du Plessis from the TV programme 'Wild at Heart'. There must be something in the safari guide job description I reckon. If you've never watched the programme, read on - all of this is lost on you. If you did, you can now visualise the man at the wheel.......
So we set off! I have the 500mm lens on the camera and it's going to have to be hand held in the jeep, so unless the entire group stops breathing when I shoot, camera shake is going to impact the quality of the photos. Hopefully not too much though.
The Kruger National Park is a relatively flat landscape, full of scrub and bush. It's just on the cusp of being in full bloom; just now a browny-green landscape, Anders tells us that in only three weeks it will be transformed into a lush green paradise. The game drive is 3.5 hours long and we set off about 2.30pm, after duly signing a disclaimer form! I ask Anders if there are many 'incidents' with tourists and the wild animals, and he tells me 'occasionally'.
It's not too long before we start to almost trip over the animals.......
This elephant was actually blind in her near-side eye, but she had adapted brilliantly, her ability to strip trees bare of their leaves just as finely tuned as any other of her herd:
Now's the time to really embarrass myself though, aspiring wildlife photographer that I am. Part of the safari experience is to shout 'STOP!' to the driver if you spot some wildlife that he hasn't. So our crew were busy shouting '"Stop - Elephants!" or "Stop - Zebra!', and the jeep would come to an abrupt halt, allowing us time to admire and photograph the animals. You can imagine my embarrassment when I shouted "Stop - Baby Rhino!" on seeing this guy (a Warthog, for those equally less informed!):
Well, in my defence, he was situated a little distance away!
The beautiful Kudo:
And a portrait shot of this serene animal, unfortunately a prime target for the lions on the reserve:
For every kill in the Kruger, there is a vulture hovering nearby, waiting to get to the pickings:
Now for some REAL white rhino, with a little hanger-on cleaning his ear (the Red-Billed Oxpecker):
And another, just to truly commit the distinction from a Warthog to memory........
And last, but by no means least, the most dangerous animal of the Big Five - the Buffalo:
Keep him sweet and he's just like a big cow with pigtails! Make him mad, and he'll have you! An amazing beast, but a very worthy opponent to its arch enemy, the Lion.
I am beyond hyper with some of the wildlife we have seen today, and have certainly put the camera to good use! Some photos will be keepers, some throw-aways, but at the end of the day it's not just about the photography, but this whole African experience!
A busy, busy day ahead, with a 4.30am start and an all-day game drive tomorrow. So just time for a quick bite to eat, recharge the camera batteries, then a good night's sleep in readiness.
Thank you for reading.