It is almost impossible to get over the African sky, which put up a different spectacle everyday and each part of the day. Hues I had never seen before, sunsets to die for, and at night the whole universe spills over you as you look up.
In the heart of Kruger with no sign of civilization, artificial lights or pollution, the clarity is stunning. The sky is white at night; parts not studded with bright pinpricks of big stars are almost completely covered with fine, silver, star dust. While the sky above you is lit, the surroundings are pitch black, and the cold wind howls through the stark landscape. It is not fun I assume to be a small vulnerable animal in such surreal surroundings, hoping you do not bump into a lion on a midnight stroll.
This is, of course, exactly what happened.
The first thing I saw was two glowing green eyes, then silently like an apparition the ghostly form of a lioness emerged from the misty black surroundings. Bold and arrogant it padded towards the truck. Pure muscles and sleek lines, the animal exudes raw power and this one, quite aware of the fact, without pause or hesitation walked right at us till I could reach out and touch her if I wanted to. A contemptuous backward glance, knowing that her presence controlled our very breath, she plunged into darkness again!!!
Just a few minutes later we went through another breath taking experience. My torch caught the stricken eyes of some animal. I tried to lower it quickly to avoid blinding the poor thing. But that very movement revealed more glowing eyes, and more and more ….
Imagine, if you can, the black surroundings giving way to about 100 pairs of green eyes glowing out at you. What we first thought to be a group of Impalas turned out to be a herd of buffaloes, 200 strong, crossing the road ahead of our truck. Still photos would do no justice, I have a video where a circle of torchlight dispels the darkness slowly and the massive shapes of the African Buffaloes emerge, walking in and out of the lit circle, while in the surrounding shadows 100’s of glowing eyes blink lazily.
The Big 5, The Big 5, The Big 5…. This refrain can drive you crazy in your sleep. The Lion, African Elephant, African Buffalo, Black Rhino, and Leopard are the mighty 5 of the South African jungles. From Itineraries/guides and books to hotels, t shirts and souvenirs, and since 1990 even the South African currency displays the Big 5.
These elite animals were categorized by the difficulty in hunting them on foot, not by size. An African safari still is essentially that, a hunt for the Big 5. Tourists all over the world flock to play tag in the jungles. If you do not know better, a typical safari will go like this….
Look…someone spotted a Lion..click click click… Zooomm to another part of the forest where a herd of elephants are crossing….click click click..zoooommmmm.. Rhino..click click click…zoom…a little ahead Buffaloes…click click.
Unlike India the African Savannah are open grasslands with good visibility. There is not much forest cover for animals to hide, making sighting fairly easy. Except, for Leopards of course. Now there is a ghost, if there ever was one.
The trouble with these safaris is that you miss the rest of the forest in the mad dash to find a lion. Kruger has some of the most spectacular, colourful species of birds; and a huge variety of little mammals. Unfortunately since I was there in winter, we did not spot any snakes. Some of the most beautiful birds I remember were horn bills that looked like flying bananas every few meters, brilliantly coloured starlings, which burst into blues and greens as soon as they catch the sun on their wings, and an eerie grey and pink Goshawk with mean eyes. Experience wise I like Indian safaris better, especially Kanha, the guides make you so much part of the forest, every little thing, from the soil to plants to arachnids or poison ivy is explained and interlinked. You learn how the forest works, how it lives.