Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Ranthambore Tiger Census 2013

I visited Ranthambore Tiger Reserve on May 11th and that was when I first found out of the waterhole census that was to be carried out on 25th & 26th May 2013. Later, I found a post on Facebook providing details on how to apply to volunteer for this census. As I have always wanted to experience being in the jungle at night, I immediately sent a mail to the email address provided expressing my willingness to volunteer for this. A couple of days later, I got a response wherein I had to send an application form and updated resume to apply for this. After two days of e-mailing the required documents, I called up the Deputy Conservator of Forests office to find out the status of my application. I was told that my name was put in 2nd list as I didn't have any relevant experience. Upon hearing this, I told them of the number of safaris that I have done in Indian National Parks and also South African ones. On hearing that, I was soon sent a mail confirming my acceptance to volunteer for this.

A huge chameleon in our hotel lawn
I reached Ranthambore on Friday, 24th May for an orientation/training session for the waterhole census wherein we were informed slightly about all the ranges for this census and the differences between some animals with similar physical appearance. This waterhole census was basically over 330 waterholes in Ranthambore National Park and Sawai Mansingh Sanctuary. As the census form was in Hindi, so we were also told names of some animals in Hindi/local language. After this, we were told a few Do's and Dont's in during the census and were told to collect at the division office by 0630 hours next morning. During this session, I was pleased to see the number of naturalists/enthusiasts who had travelled from all over the country to be part of this.

See those parallel logs of wood? Thats Jamoda II machan
I reached the division office on time and tried to find the machan that was allotted to me. After jumping over a few shoulders trying to peek onto the list that was pasted on a board, I finally found my name written next to Kushalipura waterhole. Upon speaking to a few locals there, I found that this waterhole is right on a road  meaning that there would be almost no movement of animals during day-time but leopard and bear come there after dark. However, as my personal motive was to experience being inside the jungle, I asked the Range Officer to change my waterhole to one that is inside the jungle at least. He then changed me to Jamoda II waterhole and told me the vehicle that was to drop me to the waterhole. This vehicle stopped on a Dhaba on the route to pick up food packets for us. A 5-7 kilometer drive and four of us, two volunteers for Jamoda I waterhole and two volunteers for Jamoda II waterhole were dropped at Kushalipura check-post from where a smaller vehicle was to take us to our individual machans over the waterhole. Everything seemed perfect till now. 

Even though I was hanging onto a branch for dear life, but a Paradise Flycatcher is not to be missed
Having waited for almost 2 hours for the smaller vehicle at the check post, it was already 1200 hours when the forest guard offered to walk us to our machan. Considering it was almost noon and the temperature was almost close 45 degrees, I didn't wish to walk. But, my colleagues were very enthusiastic to reach their machans early and I had to oblige. Walking under the sun for just under an hour was enough to make them understand that their decision had backfired and we called up the Range Officer to tell him about the situation. After about 30 more minutes, a vehicle came to us and dropped us to our waterhole where I was to sit with Bhushan from Gujarat. Upon asking for drinking water, the forest guard took our water bottles and filled them with greenish water from the waterhole where we expected all the animals to come for a drink. As if this and the scorching sun wasn't enough to frighten us, the machan looked unstable with the branch vibrating as we climbed on it. However, trusting the forest department, we climbed and seated ourselves on it. The vehicle had hardly left us and we heard a cracking sound. Next thing we understood was that we were on the ground and all our bones seemed mobile without any clear pain. Thanking God for keeping us safe, we immediately ran to the Jamoda I waterhole where we hoped to find the vehicle still dropping the other two volunteers. However, upon reaching there we found those volunteers sitting on their machan and no sign of the vehicle around. 

A highly active bird. Never sat on one branch for more than a few seconds
Realising that the way back was very long tough under the scorching sun, we decided to climb the tree on which these people were seated and sit on some its branches. We did this trusting the forest department vehicle to come to us on regular intervals as was promised to us. So here I was seated on a branch deep into the forest under scorching sun waiting to hear the humming of the vehicle engine. In the meantime, I was still hoping to see some animals no matter what my situation was. However, except for a few Paradise Flycatchers, Kingfisher, Great Tit and some other birds, their came neither any animal nor the forest vehicle. Finally around 1800 hours, a few Sambar deers came near the waterhole but they were too nervous seeing us and only a few drank water and the rest ran to the other waterhole nearby. It had started getting a bit dark by now and I had started to fret a little thinking of how to spend the whole night hanging onto a branch like monkeys. However, I had started to prepare myself to being a primate for the night.

One of those nervous Sambar Deer that came to the waterhole
Finally, around 2030 hours, I saw a car's headlights in the woods and trust me I have never been more pleased to see headlights ever in my life. When it finally reached us, I told them that our machan came down as soon as they left. To this, the forester, Omprakash Sharma retorted that "If you didn't have the guts to sit, then you shouldn't have volunteered". I was taken aback by his response but decided that arguing with him was not going to help. I simply told him that I am neither afraid nor do I wish to back out and he should provide me another machan and I am willing to spend the night on it. Even then he continued to talk crap for a while before telling me to join the forest guard who was seated at Aam Chowki waterhole. I agreed and I was dropped on this machan now. However, this wasn't exactly a machan but the top of one of those old ruins in Ranthambore. Hence, I was seated on it with the forest guard by 2100 hours.

Full Moon
Sitting there, I started a conversation with the forest guard, Shiv Singh with the usual sounds of Nightjar keeping us company. While waiting for any wildlife to show up, we continued to chat for some time when around 2300 hours, we heard the dry leaves behind us cracking. Upon looking around, we saw a Sloth Bear appear out of the bushes. The bear walked close to where we sat without noticing us and went to the waterhole where he had a fill. After that, he moved further ahead without even giving us a look. For all the trouble that I had went through during last 10 hours, I was mightily pleased now for this was my first sloth bear sighting in the wild. Half an hour after this, Shiv Singh dozed off and was snoring heavily in another 15-20 minutes. Looking at that, I also decided to sleep around 0000 hours.

One of the Jackals that came early in the morning
I didn't find it easy to sleep as every sound would wake me up in the hope of a leopard/tiger coming around. Just when I was finally sleeping, I felt a tug on my shorts. I woke up immediately to find Shiv Singh pointing towards the waterhole. He told me that he could hear the sound of some animal drinking there though we could hardly see anything even after the full moon lighting all over us as the waterhole was under the shade of a tree. I tried looking for a few minutes but my head was feeling just too heavy so I lay down again while he continued to look. A few minutes later, he again woke me up telling that their is something at the waterhole for sure. This time even I could hear the sound of a tongue licking near the waterhole. Soon, we could also hear the deep sound typical of big cats like lions, tigers and leopards. Still, we couldn't see anything as the animal was under the shade. A few minutes later, we saw the silhouette of the animal move quickly which is typical of a leopard. As soon as it moved towards our right, the sharp sound of Sambar deer warning call came from that direction as well. So, we were now sure that this was a leopard at the waterhole. After this, I slept again fully satisfied having seen a sloth bear and a leopard during night.

Jungle Mouse?
I woke up at 0515 hours when the dawn was just coming up. I immediately sat up to look at the waterhole hoping to see some animal there for his early morning drink. But, there were only a few birds there. A little while later, 3 jackals came to the waterhole. They played around for sometime before moving further ahead towards our left. Soon, Shiv Singh also woke up and his mobile phone rang too. It was the forester, Omprakash Sharma who ordered him to walk to the Jamoda I waterhole and bring the two volunteers sitting there to our waterhole. I was seriously disappointed to see that these people don't plan to provide us a vehicle again even after all that happened with us yesterday. Shiv Singh asked me to come with him to fetch these other volunteers as he felt that I can talk them into walking again. I decided to cooperate with him and walked 3 kilometers in the jungle looking for pugmarks. When we reached them, they told us that they saw a tiger move below their machan during the night. I then assisted Shiv Singh in taking off the machan and throwing the sticks in different directions while taking the rope with us. This was done to ensure that we don't end up providing readymade equipment for any hunters that might plan to sit in the forest. Then, all four of us walked back to Aam Chowki.

Aam Chowki. This is where I sat all night
Looking for animals to come at this artificial waterhole
Though, it was just 8 in the morning, but the sun was already really harsh and it wasn't easy walking back. When we reached Aam Chowki, we found out that now we were to walk our way back to Kushalipura check-post from where vehicle would pick us to take us back to the division office. Now that was the maximum patience I could keep with the operations of Forest Department and I called up the control room to provide us a vehicle. The person there told us that it was only a few kilometers further away and that we have walked so much, why not a little more. At that point, we decided to end cooperating with the forest department and walked to the road where we hopped onto a local bus that drove us to Sawai Madhopur City.

Walking to Jamoda I waterhole to fetch the two volunteers there
The experience of sitting inside the jungle overnight is frightening but equally fun. However, the arrangements provided by forest department were really disappointing. I will put those in points here:
1.Nobody came to check on us after putting us on machans for 7.5 hours. If we might have hurt our head or any such part when our machan came down, we could easily have died due to loss of blood in that much time. Ideally, they should check on all machans in 2-3 hours for such emergency situation. Other than machan coming down, snake bites or animal attacks could also need such patrols.
2. It was their duty to take us to our machans in vehicles, but they simply refused to provide that and told us to walk when temperature was soaring at 45 degrees.
3. We were also told that we would be provided with drinking water while we were told to drink the greenish standing water of the waterholes where all the animals bath and drink as well. We can easily fall sick drinking it.
4. Even when we are telling them that our machan came down, instead of accepting that and being a little apologetic, the forester, Omprakash Sharma is shouting back at us telling us that we are trying to fool him.
Thats the Machan I was supposed to sit at and the one that crashed onto the rocks
And its branches had these fresh claw marks of a Leopard
Overall, the forest department didn't seem to care at all for the volunteers and anyone wanting to do this in coming years should be prepared to do this at their own risk and responsibility.

While I was hanging on the tree, these primates are seated on the ground

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

South Africa 5: Garden Route: Of Knysna, Paragliding and the Horror

Our stay at Knysna. Argentinian team stayed here during World Cup
The place we stayed at Knysna was a former Manor house and we truly loved the wooden floors and the wooden architecture. After having a filling breakfast at the Manor house, we left for a boat ride to Knysna Heads. We had booked ourselves on Threelegs Rivercat boat of The Featherbed Company as this was the only boat departing at the time suitable to us. This ferry took us on a 75 minute cruise to the heads and back. Also, there was a guide on board who was continuously announcing interesting info over the microphone. Even though we had to take Threelegs Rivercat, I would recommend people to make it more fun by taking either the Heads Explorer or Princess Lee. The Knysna Heads is a must visit place in Knysna considering their interesting history and their significance in bringing down many ships coming in to Knysna from the Indian Ocean in the past. If you have time, a visit to Featherbed Nature Reserve is also highly recommended. 

Knysna Waterfront
After we came back from the boat ride, we spent some time hanging around at the waterfront and then left for Gaansbaai where we would stay for the night. While moving towards Gaansbaai, we planned to spend some time at the Gericke's Point. This is actually a beautiful beach with one of the highest fossil sand dunes along it. Its best to go here when the tide is going back as at that time, you can find lots of sea life like crabs, shells, anemone in the rock pools. We spent over an hour here and I would recommend anyone visiting this place to carry a camera along which I sadly didn't. 

The narrow entry into Knysna, Knysna Heads
Back from Gericke's Point, and seeing so many para-gliders in the sky, we also decided to do it. We called up some local shops whose contact numbers we found using Google on our phone. Thankfully, one paragliding shop agreed to host us and asked us to reach the take-off point which is on a hill right above the fields besides N2. The drive to this point was very good as its on a single lane gravel road with dense woods to either side. We were pretty happy for having decided to para-glide here when we reached the actual take-off point. From this point, we had a brilliant panoramic view of entire Sedgefield with Indian Ocean in the distance. 

Who wouldn't love to paraglide with such a view?
As none of us had done this before, we needed a pilot to fly us. We also hired wide angle cameras mounted on a rod to help us take pictures while flying. Considering that the pilot was to do all the hard work negotiating the winds, we actually had nothing to do there but sit and pose for the camera changing angles once a while. The flight here in Sedgefield was very beautiful and worth every penny we paid for it or so we thought till now.

Take-Off point
As two of us were probably too heavy or the winds didn't suit them, they landed on the fields below and not at the point from which we had taken off. So, we waited for them to come back up and then left for Gaansbaai. It was already 6 pm by the time we left Sedgefield. The drive further ahead was comfortable and beautiful with various Bays and beaches passing by on our left. The vast blue ocean keeping us company while we moved is surely a surreal feeling. However, once it got dark, I focused totally on the road as I wasn't really comfortable with the idea of driving in unknown areas when dark. We stopped by at a petrol pump somewhere to have coffee and some snacks to fill our famished stomach around 8. The drive further ahead from here was just around 2 more hours. 

Me in the air
We were moving comfortably when we reached an intersection on the road where I saw a car coming perpendicular to us. By the time I saw it, I was sure that I wouldn't be able to avoid it no matter how hard I brake. I guess the other driver thought the same as he didn't brake either. My attempt to speed past him was almost successful when his front hit the trunk of my car leaving the car rotating horizontally on the road while moving ahead. The car finally stopped after having completed 4 rotations probably and having moved 100 meters ahead from the point of impact. Our first reaction was calling each other's name to find out if everyone was okay. I thanked heavens for everyone was indeed okay with minor bruises. Then we got out of the car to check on the other car involved. Even though the people in the other car were more injured than us but even they didn't suffer any major injury. In the meantime, the guys in the car a little distance behind us had called the emergency number. I was really pleased with the prompt response of South African police after this. Within about 15-20 minutes, there were over 5 police vans, 2 ambulances and 1 fire-fighting vehicle present at the accident site. Comparing this to India, where even police doesn't arrive for hours, this was a pleasant surprise. Upon his arrival, the investigating officer took everyone's statement regarding the accident and then left after analyzing the situation. 

State of our car
In the meantime, we were looking for our stuff that was strewn all over the place as the trunk opened due to the impact throwing all our bags and loose items onto the road and even 50 meters into the fields besides it. Later, everyone left except for two police vans that were probably there to provide us security as South Africa is still pretty prone to thefts during the night. One of the police officer was kind enough to provide us a torch to look for our bags in the field. We couldn't leave for our hotel yet as we were waiting for the towing vehicle of the Car Rental company of our car to come and take the car with it. The same police officer helped us again by calling her husband to come over in his private car to drop us to our hotel at 2 in the night.  He did charge some money for that, but we would have willingly paid him that in any case. Our hotel in Gaansbaai, The Roundhouse Guesthouse wasn't a very big hotel and there was hardly anyone to be seen there when we reached. Thankfully, the owner lived next door only and we disturbed his sleep by calling him up. Once inside the comfort of our rooms, we analysed the damages to find that the biggest damage was that my Macbook Pro was broken into two pieces. But, we were lucky to be alive after what we had just experienced. 

Gaansbaai with its choppy waters
We slept around 3 am hoping to be able to go for Shark Cage Diving next morning. When we woke up next morning, we found out that the choppy seas and strong winds meant that their would be no Shark Cage Diving today. Disappointed, we just called our Car Rental company to provide us a new car. This car was to come from Cape Town but it took quite longer than expected. When we called up the company again, they told us that the car had left CT on time, but there was a big fire in the nearby town of Hermanus due to which the car had to go back and take a different route to come to us. At this point, we felt like anything that could go wrong was going wrong for us now. Finally, the car arrived around 2 pm and we immediately hopped onto it to drive to our final destination of the trip, Cape Town. 

The fire rages on as we drive to CapeTown
Continue reading to next part: Of Scuba, Sharks and Penguins

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

South Africa 4: Garden Route: Of Bloukrans Bungy and Nature's Valley

In continuation from South Africa 3: South Africa 3: The beauty that is Panorama Route.

Shallow beautiful lagoon at Nature's Valley
Having enjoyed the beautiful Panorama Route, we reached back Johannesburg pretty late around midnight. But thanks to Google Navigation on my reliable iPhone, we were directed perfectly to our guesthouse for the night. This guesthouse was very close to the airport from where we were to fly to Port Elizabeth next morning. Checking in wasn't an issue at all but we found the owner of the place to be a bit spooky. While he seemed very friendly, but there was this slight awkwardness about it. This and the almost desolate feel to the surroundings thanks to it being midnight reminded us all of those horror films where people check into a motel and are soon followed by serious misfortune. Also, we paid just 500 ZAR for a night's stay for four adults and I thought that might probably have been a bait. Anyways, we locked ourselves into the dormitory provided to us only to open the door next morning when we were to leave for the airport. Thankfully, the night passed smoothly and our fears didn't turn into reality.

Sea was so violent and the water so cold that none really went into the sea 
However, it seemed like the adventurous part of the trip had just begun for us. When we reached airport and dropped off the car, we found that our flight wasn't scheduled for departure on the big screens all over the airport. We had booked our flight 3 months in advance with 1time airlines and that airline had gone bankrupt in the meantime. Forget refunding its customers money, they didn't even care to inform us about it. So we were at the airport at 6 in the morning with all our luggage but without a flight to take us to our destination. Thankfully, there was a South African Airways flight departing to Port Elizabeth in an hour and we were able to get tickets on it. Undoubtedly, these tickets were much costlier than what we initially planned to pay. 

Nature's Valley from up top
At PE, we picked our next car which was to remain with us for the next 5 days. So our Garden route started from Port Elizabeth itself. Panorama route is basically a coastal road that connects the Eastern Cape to Western Cape via bridges over really deep river gorges. Thanks to the geography and climate of this area, a Garden drive is also combined with visits to various wineries.

Bloukrans Bridge. See the Jumping Point?
As we wanted to skydive at Plettenberg Bay today itself, so we hurriedly took N2 to take us there. We had just crossed Stormsrivier when we thought of calling the dive school to confirm our dive. However, these people told us that due to bad weather (strong winds), we wouldn't be able to skydive today. We were massively disappointed and decided to visit Nature's Valley and then decide what to do next. While on our way to Nature's Valley, we saw the bridge from which the world famous Bloukrans Bungee operates. Just looking at it and knowing that this is the 4th highest bungee jump in the world, we soon consoled ourselves that it will now replace our cancelled skydive. We knew that this operates till 4 pm and it was just 12 yet, so we decided to head first to Nature's Valley. 

This is what you walk on to reach the point (Pic provided by FaceAdrenalin)
Nature's Valley is a small holiday village at the foot of Tsitsikamma Mountains tucked between Groot River Lagoon and Indian Ocean. A short dive and swim in the lagoon was enough to freshened us up and we called up Face Adrenalin to book our bungee jump. However, bad luck hadn't yet left us and the guy on the phone refused us a jump today as they were totally booked. We tried convincing him but he just wouldn't hear us. Finally we decided to just go to the bridge and request them in person. At the booking counter, only a slight persuasion was enough and the guy there gave us a slot.

Looking at the people jumping from the viewpoint behind booking counter scared the wits out of us but the adrenalin rush of jumping was enough to ensure that I wouldn't back out. We were harnessed here only and then we were taken to the jumping point located midway under the bridge. To reach the jumping point, one has to walk on a rope bridge under the concrete bridge. I guess its made like this intentionally so that any acrophobic person thinking of backing out would back out here only and not at the jumping point. The jump followed by the pulling back up to the bridge lasted just around 5 minutes and I am still unable to put the experience in words. To compensate for that, watch the video here. 

Being pulled back after the jump
After the jump, we purchased our jump video and pictures and a few souvenirs to keep of this memorable experience. After the jump, we drove to Knysna where we would stay overnight.

Drive towards Knysna

Thursday, May 09, 2013

South Africa 3: The beauty that is Panorama Route

In continuation from: The Wildings of Kruger

Brilliant South African Summer weather
We left Gomo Gomo game lodge as early as we could to be able to visit as many sites of Panoram route while driving back to Johannesburg. As it had been drizzling all morning, so the weather was still overcast with dark clouds all over us. All this made the already scenic drive even more beautiful almost coaxing us to stop and enjoy the weather.

Kadishi Tufa Waterfall
It took us some time reaching the Control gate of out part of Kruger Nationak Park as we saw a couple of giraffes staring at us from over the bush. Once we crossed the gate, we reached Hoedspruit in a hurry from where we moved onto R36 towards Ohrigstad. Even though we hardly had much time, but we decided to take a short break near the J. G. Strijdom tunnel before Abel Erasmus Pass. Here we browsed the curios and local craft-works while enjoying the nature and the unusual Tufa waterfall. Tufa waterfalls are formed over millions of years as water running over dolomite rocks deposits calcium as layers of tufa on the surface of waterfall. I later found out that this waterfall known as Kadishi Tufa Waterfall is the highest tufa waterfall in Africa.

Magnificent Blyde River Canyon
Next, we crossed the Abel Erasmus Pass and then took a left onto R532 from where the actual Panorama route probably starts. There are a number of attractions on Panorama route, we simply decided to visit them in the order they fell while we move on R532. After we had moved quite some distance where our GPS device started to tell us that we are near 'Three Rondavels', I just rolled down my window glass and tried to ask a local for the exact location. And just as I feared, he either didn't understand what I was asking for or didn't know where it was. So we decided to move a bit further ahead and thankfully we saw a board with 'Three Rondavels' pointing towards the left. A barrier was crossed where we paid a 5 ZAR fee and drove to the point where we saw cars parked and many curios shops all around. A short walk over the stone path towards the end of the cliff where I saw one of the most majestic view I have ever seen. It was the Blyde River Canyon with the deep blue shades of river matching perfectly with the dense green foliage over red sandstone rocks. Also, the slightly overcast weather brought a surreal effect to the entire scene.
Rock Formations: Three Rondavels
On the right side of this is the 'Three Rondavels' which is a rock formation that looks like three huts of indigenous people called 'rondavels'. We gave ourselves sometime to absorb the view in from of us and then moved towards the next attraction.
Bridges taking you to the potholes
Now that we knew that there are sign boards put up for these attractions on Panorama route, we simply moved ahead with an approximate idea of the distance we needed to move and wait for the boards to appear. Next, we reached 'Bourke's Luck Potholes' which are potholes and rock formations formed due to waters from Blyde and Treue rivers cutting through them. These cylindrical rock structures formed over the decades are named after a gold miner named Tom Burke who found some gold here. These formations in itself are significant but when you have just seen Blyde river canyon, you might find them a little underwhelming.

The Potholes
Moving further on this route took us to Berlin Falls. Though, its just a 80 meter fall on the Sabine river, its quite beautiful as the water falls over red sandstone cliffs amidst lush green grass.

Berlin Falls
Next, we took a slight detour from R534 to go to God's Window. While I am talking about all these attractions, I should also mention that its the route that we were driving on was no less exciting than these places in itself. God's window is basically a viewpoint on a cliff around 900 meter high from where one can have a brilliant view of Kruger Lowveld (lowlands) region and even as far as Mozambique on a clear day. However, when we visited this place, gods took it a bit literally and descended their clouds low enough to give us a feeling of walking in the clouds. Also, one needs a climb around 500 steps to reach the view point. Though, we didn't go there but one can also visit 'Wonder View' which is the highest viewing point in this area at an altitude of 1730 meters just 2 kms north of God's Window.

A cloudy God's Window
A few kilometers away from God's Window is another natural marvel that's the Pinnacle rock. Its a freestanding quartzite rock towering almost 50 meters above indigenous forests. To the right of the Pinnacle is a small waterfall on the Ngwaritsane river. We spent about 20-25 minutes here and then rushed to Lisbon falls as it was getting dark already. For Lisbon falls, we had to go back about 5 kilometers towards Hoedspruit on R532 and then took a left turn to reach Lisbon Falls. At lisbon falls, the river snakes through vegetation before splitting into three streams to fall almost 95 meters. This is the highest and the most beautiful waterfall in this region which has a number of waterfalls.

The Pinnacle
Looking at all the natural marvels in the Mpumalanga region is an overwhelming experience where each attraction seems as breathtaking as the last one. Even though we visited all these attractions in a single day because of lack of time at hand, I would recommend visitors to stay one night at either Hazyview or Pilgrim's Rest and visit these sites over two days at least. The town of Pilgrim's rest in itself was declared a provincial heritage site with most of its original architecture largely unchanged.

Lisbon Falls
The best way to enjoy Panorama Route would be to visit it while on your way to/from Kruger National Park with a night's stay at any of the tourist friendly town here. Take your time here. In most cases, you will visit this area only once in your life.

Continue reading the next part: Garden Route: Of Bloukrans Bungy and Nature's Valley

Sunday, May 05, 2013

South Africa 2: The Wildings of Kruger

In continuation from: South Africa 1: Reaching Johannesburg

The pride
A nice 7 hour sleep was all that we needed after the long and tiring journey. This much needed sleep set us up well for our 5-6 hour drive to Kruger. By 6:30 am, we were on road driving our hatchback on the smooth roads of SA. Anxious as I was regarding finding our route, I was carrying printed maps from India, Google Navigation on my phone and a GPS device to avoid any mistakes. Another reason for carrying so many devices was our fear of being robbed/harmed if we try asking for route from any local on any deserted road. However, that ended up just being an overcautious approach as we never felt threatened at any point during our entire 10 day trip. But carrying navigation devices helped as sometimes we would drive for miles without seeing any human to help us.

Brilliant setting for dinner
The drive was comfortable and we reached our lodge in Timbavati Game Reserve of Greater Kruger Park around 1 pm. Considering that our 500km drive was completed within 7 hours with couple of stops in between speaks greatly for the roads and traffic in SA.For most part, we drove through beautiful South African countryside with lush green hills and dense woods to keep us company. The only place where we struggled was when we entered the control gate and were trying to find way to Gomo Gomo Game Lodge. While we were looking for the lodge, we managed to see a zebra and a few impalas in the bush.

Vampirish looking white lion cub
At the lodge, we were received by HJ who was to be our ranger and host during the stay at Gomo Gomo. Some short formalities were completed while we sipped the welcome drink and tried identifying some birds and animals hanging around in the waterhole behind the lodge. Then, we were shifted to our chalet facing the waterhole made mostly by green building materials. Just like last night, we crashed in the beds immediately only to be woken by the smooth sound of drums which was the alarm call for lunch. As we were hanging around at the porch after lunch, we heard the sound of tree branches cracking only to find a herd of elephants making its way to the waterhole. This herd had 5 adults and three young ones. The youngest of them all was negotiating his way to the water through the legs of the bigger ones and still managed to loose his footing only to be helped by the big lads. Our safari vehicles were readied while we were busy photographing these pachyderms and we were called to hop onto them.

A sub adult male lion walks away from us
A pregnant looking white lioness
As soon as the safari started, we looked for the trail of the elephant herd that we saw from our lodge. Finding an elephant herd isn't all that tough as you can always follow the direction in which tree branches have been damaged by these huge animals as they brushed past them. Also, as elephants digest only about 40% of what they eat, their excreta can also help in trailing them. As soon as our ranger, HJ had an idea of the path that the elephants had taken, we were off-roading in the powerful Land Cruiser riding over several bushes and small plants as we moved. Soon, we caught up with the herd who kept on moving while munching on some juicy leaves. We kept on moving besides them with our ranger maintaining caution to not go too close to the herd as the herd can get aggressive when they have young  ones with them. We were with the herd for about 30 minutes and then moved away to let other cars have a closer look at them. In this part of Kruger, the rangers ensure that no more than two vehicles are closing on the animals at any point. This allows the animals to not feel surrounded while also leaving space for the vehicles to move out quickly in case the animals charge at it.

A male Kudu
Leopard turtle
Next, we moved further deep into the forest where our ranger last saw a white rhinoceros. South Africa has two rhino species: White Rhino and Black Rhino. These names could be a bit misleading as these two rhino species have no difference in color with the basic difference being in the shape of their lips. Also, white rhinoceros are the biggest species of rhinos. Once in the area, the vehicle was stopped near a waterhole where the rhino was expected to come for drinking. A few silent minutes passed when an adult male white rhino approached the water. Even after their bulky bodies, these animals can move pretty quickly and HJ maintained comfortable distance from him as this rhino didn't seem all that comfortable with our presence around him. Once we were enough far from him, the rhino started drinking water which continued for quite sometime. After drinking, he posed for sometime to our cameras and then moved in the other direction. We had only moved a few hundred meters when we saw a movement in the bush. As we stopped, a female white rhino with two cubs moved past us with one of the cub's nervousness in our presence made obvious by the twitching in his tail. Interestingly, rhinos are known to fart when they get too nervous.

Run with your tails up, Warthogs
A giraffe in its most vulnerable position
After this, we moved to a different part of the forest where we got off the vehicle to have some snacks and a drink in the heart of the bush. It got dark by the time we moved from there, and a flashlight was brought out to give us a slight feel of a night safari. A half an drive with the light kept us excited with the hopes of sighting a leopard who tend to come out during the dark. However, all we sighted was a Mozambican Spitting Cobra sprinting across the dirt track. This snake spits venom into the eyes when it feels threatened. Having enjoyed our first game drive in Kruger, we reached back at the lodge where dinner was being readied. As we had informed the chef, that all of us were vegetarians, she took special care to prepare meals for us. For dinner, a number of tables were joined to create a huge circular table with candle lights on each table. Here every group of guests was joined by their ranger for meals and this setting also helped guests interact with each other. After dinner, the rangers escorted the guests to their rooms to ensure their safety in case any wild animal had managed to squeeze between the electric wire fencing. Even though it was Christmas eve, but we slept early to be able to wake up for our early morning safari.

The small family
The darker the colour of the patches, the older the giraffe
Christmas morning came to us with a brilliant gift that a lion pride with two white lions was sighted somewhere near. HJ told us to prepare our cameras as we drove to the area where the lions were sighted. On our way, we saw a solitary hyena which bolted into the bush on seeing us. Soon, we saw about 8-9 lions moving/lying/sitting in the bush. As we approached and crossed the lions, each of them crouched to prepare to attack in case we threaten them. According to HJ, this pride had about 25 lions in all and we were seeing 9 of them here mainly females and sub adult lions. The adult lions are normally patrolling their territory to ensure that their harem remains safe. The two white lions were a female and a cub. This sighting became really special when we got to know that there are only about 7 white lions in the wild all over the world. So, we were actually sighting 25% of all white lion population in the wild. As usual, we were with them for sometime while other vehicles waited some distance away and then we moved out to let them see these majestic animals. Next, we headed to another place where the two adult males of this pride were resting while on their patrol. As we took a turn, we saw a vehicle with the guests and the ranger looking into the bush. On reaching close, surprisingly we saw a leopard moving from one bush to the other to avoid being noticed. We tried to track him for sometime, however it was a really tough task as leopards can literally disappear even while. After a few short glimpses at the leopard, we moved towards the lions. 
View of the waterhole from our chalet
This was all that he came out of the water for us
The lions were pretty far from where the rest of the herd was as it took us almost 30 minutes to reach them and found them lying under a thorny bush. We also saw a single wildebeest, a few baboons, some impalas while we were moving towards the lions. These two were much larger from the rest of the lions in the herd and had that perfect mane that we expect from male lions. As we were photographing them, suddenly the lions growled and got up to take notice of us as a slight movement by one of us disturbed them. After this, we moved some distance away from the lions to have our customary snacks and drinks in the middle of the jungle. While we were having it, we saw a giraffe a long distance away from us. As our eyes adjusted to the distance, we noticed that there were more than one giraffes there. Thus, we had our next target to which HJ duly obliged as he expertly took us to the waterhole around which the giraffes were munching on juicy leaves and having a drink. It seemed like a family of three with one male, one female and one sub adult giraffe. While the adult giraffe was drinking water, I noticed how vulnerable these lanky animals feel while drinking water. This giraffe took almost 2 minutes at the water's edge  looking in all directions and adjusting his long legs before he finally took a sip. After this, we went back to the lodge feeling well gifted on this christmas morning having seen a lot of wildlife in this drive.

The prey: Impalas
The predator: Leopard
Back at the lodge, we had a light breakfast and then went to our chalet to sleep for a while. The usual sound of a small drum being played(sign of the meal being ready) woke us up after some time. A filling lunch of pasta and some boiled vegetable was followed by another short nap before we left for the evening game drive. When we woke up and came out of our chalet for the evening drive, we were told that the elephant herd was at the waterhole again today and we missed it. We hoped to be able to compensate for that in the drive. This time we moved to the area where we saw the leopard in the morning hoping to see it in the area again as the big cat seemed to be out for a hunt earlier. If successful, we should find the leopard still enjoying its meal somewhere there. As we moved towards that area, we crossed a waterhole where we could see the grey skin and nostrils of a hippopotamus emerging out of the water. Hippos spend most of their time inside water because their legs aren't strong enough to carry their weight for long and the buoyancy provided by water puts much lesser weight on their legs. As our vehicle engine revved close to the waterhole, the hippo emerged slightly more out of the water with his entire upper body visible and then went back to the earlier position soon. 

The apex predator
Stop disturbing me you humans
Lemme do the Cat Roll
Close to the waterhole, a family of warthogs was grazing which ran with its tail up as soon as they saw us. Further ahead, we saw a vehicle stopped towards the side as another was behind the bush. We understood that this vehicle is waiting for its chance to see the animal inside when the other vehicle comes out. Once we got inside, we saw the leopard was sitting behind a bush with a half eaten warthog near it. HJ told us that this was a female leopard as the male is much bigger in size. On our way back, we saw four lions resting in what seemed like a rain fed river which was completely dry at this time of the year. Of these four, two were adult females and two were sub adult males. We find lions resting most of the time during the day because it takes more energy to move during the day. As these big cats sometimes have to go without being able to hunt successfully for even a week, they try to conserve their energy by avoiding much movement during the warmer part of the day. 

Billabong, a male white rhino in its prime
The herd crossing the tarmac
Next, we were just moving around the jungle tracks as we noticed a slight movement in the bush. As we brought it to the notice of our ranger, a huge male rhino emerged from behind the bush. HJ identified him and told us that this rhino was in its prime and they had named him 'Billabong'. This rhino had an injury over his eye which implied that he was fighting for territory with other rhinos in the area. Next, we saw a few female Kudus who seemed as interested in looking at us as we were interested in photographing them. A bit further, a male Kudu with its strong spiral horns crossed the track in front of us. These Kudus belong to the antelope family and are quite big in size for an antelope. Even after their huge weight of around 250-300 kgs, they are highly agile capable of jumping around 3 meters from a standing position. Back towards the lodge, we saw a big herd of African buffalos crossing the tarmac road while we were moving on it. African buffaloes are known to be born with a bad attitude with their moods highly difficult to understand. For this very reason, HJ maintained more distance from them than what we maintained even with the lions. A buffalo herd is generally led by a matriarch who moves the herd from one waterhole to the other while grazing on the grass around the waterhole. This evening, the weather seemed to be worsening and a thunderstorm seemed to be brewing with lightening all over the place. The beautiful setup for dinner was prepared even today with some contingency plan in case of rain I believe. However, it didn't rain while we had our meal under the cool african breeze and were then escorted back to our chalet by HJ. 
Don't be fooled by the innocent face: African Buffalo

As we woke up next morning, it was drizzling and even in the heart of summer, we felt cold. The seat gloves in our vehicle was provided with poncho for each one of us in them. Even the big cats are known to not like rains and we expected all of them to be hiding somewhere safe at least as long as the rains last. As we moved around the jungle with HJ and our tracker trying to spot some wildlife for us, we covered ourself completely under the poncho to prevent the cool winds from reaching us. After sometime, they managed to find us the four lions that we saw last evening snuggling up to each other while sitting in a tight huddle. The look on their face clearly said that we are not enjoying this downpour. As even we couldn't take much pictures under the rain, we took a few pictures and then sat silently observing the agony of the lions. As we had seen almost all of bigger animals in South Africa by then except cheetah and wild dogs, now I just wanted to see them. Even to this, HJ duly obliged as we were soon tracking a pack of wild dogs. Wild dogs are also fierce hunters as the pack chases the prey until it stops running or is surrounded and then they start to eat the prey even without killing it. Also, as we saw the pack in an area which belonged to some other lodge, so we couldn't go offroad to get any closer to the pack and tried to spot them using binoculars and the long zoom lenses only. As it was still drizzling slightly, we went back to the lodge a little early. While we were getting of the vehicle at the lodge, HJ received message over the wireless that a leopard was being sighted somewhere close to the lodge itself. He asked us if we wanted to go to which we immediately replied in affirmative. While we were closing down to the spot where the leopard was, we saw a lioness ambling around the area. It was clear that the lioness could smell the leopard but was unable to find its exact location. We finally spotted the leopard thanks to another vehicle standing there looking at it and helping us locate it. Leopards are much more reclusive than tigers or lions and rarely sit where you can have a clear view of them. Even this one was sitting behind a bush under a tree. We believed that it was also hiding from the lioness and planned to climb the tree in case the lioness gets any closer to it. The continuos downpour ensured that we didn't spend much time there and went back to the lodge soon.

Strength in Numbers: African Wild Dog
A rock monitor lizard
Today we were to leave the lodge for our way back to Johannesburg, so we freshened up quickly and checked out of the lodge as soon as possible. Before leaving, we thanked HJ and other lodge staff whole heartedly for hosting us well and fulfilling all that we demanded of them to the best that they could.
We don't like this downpour  

Tips to visiting Kruger:

Kruger is one of the biggest national park in the world covering almost 20000 square kilometres. Normally one has two options when visiting Kruger: 
First is to book himself into a lodge of a private game reserve wherein the lodge provides everything including meals, accommodation and game drives in the area that they own or share with other lodges. As these game reserves share the same forest with the entire Kruger with no fencing to stop free movement of animals, the probability of sighting animals is same in the private game reserves and the national park. However, the cost for these private lodges is quite high. 
Second option is to drive your rented vehicle yourself inside the park. In this case, you just pay the control gate entry fees and try to sight and track the animals yourself which is a fun experience. As you are doing this in your own car, you can drive for as long as you want but the only drawback being that you are not allowed to go off the road in this case limiting your sighting opportunities only to what you can see from the tracks provided. As you stay in government lodges or hotels outside the boundary of Kruger in this case, your total cost comes down tremendously in this case.

My Recommendation: Its very tough to say which option is better out of these two. My recommendation would be to do a little bit of both if you have time. Ideal trip itinerary would be to visit Kruger for a minimum of 3-4 days and distributing your visit between private game reserves and the open part of the park.

Continue reading the next part: The beauty that is Panorama Route