Three years ago we enjoyed the two days spent camping in the Satara camp so much that this time we booked to stay there for a whole week. The game viewing in that area is excellent with a variety of drives to choose from and a bonus is that the bird life within the camp is prolific. Then we had a Scops Owl roosting in a tree right next to our tent – this time there was a resident African wild cat, but more of that later. It is a complete change from urban living and sheer bliss listening to the whoop of hyena and the chorus of the high-pitched eerie calls of black-backed jackals at night, not far from the perimeter fence.
A terrific thunderstorm broke the intense heat of our first night in Satara: sheet lightning, thunder and rain accompanied by strong wind that buffeted our tent until the early hours of the morning. The rain continued intermittently for several days after that, leaving everything from tents to birds looking sodden. The African wild cat I mentioned earlier briefly sought shelter from the rain under a trailer net to our campsite, where it leisurely cleaned itself before disappearing. It appeared sitting under our truck a few days later – this time possibly seeking shelter from the sun – then settled into a clump of bushes next to our tent. It must have made this part of the camp its home, for we later saw it lying comfortably in the dust unperturbed by the human activity around it.
We saw large herds of both elephant and buffalo soon after entering the Kruger National Park through the Orpen Gate. As the elephants here have a reputation for being more aggressive and temperamental than the ones we are more familiar with in the Addo Elephant National Park – not that we witnessed any evidence of this – we nonetheless kept our distance from them and the engine running. A few days later we watched a herd of about fifty elephants gather at Nsemani Dam on the Orpen road – they are fascinating creatures to observe.
Several groups of them seemed to merge and separate in a prolonged ceremony of greeting: youngsters tussled with each other while small babies kept close to their respective mothers in that mass of enormous legs and swaying trunks. One group eventually parted from the rest and were quickly absorbed by the surrounding bush. The others edged along the dam to drink and it wasn’t long before a number of them had waded right into the water to drink and splash about.
A sudden loud trumpeting from the matriarch caused all the elephants to leave the water obediently and in a hurry to stand on the bank – bar one that had got stuck in the thick gooey mud. My heart lodged in my mouth while the hapless elephant tried lifting first one foot and then the other without success. Its companions remained silent and watchful; some had even turned away from the distressful spectacle.
At last the elephant turned around about 90 degrees and tried again. First it managed to free the front legs, then, scrabbling for a foothold in the knee-deep mud, it pulled one back foot free. To my immense relief it broke free shortly afterwards and made for the bank. At that point the waiting elephants moved off while the now freed elephant struck off on its own on a path parallel to the herd.
Unsurprisingly, impala were the first animals we spotted on entering the park. These mixed-feeders were described by the guide on a later night-drive as “the McDonalds of the park” as they provide food for most of the large carnivores. They are beautiful animals to watch closely, being rufous-fawn in colour with white underparts and delicate markings. It is the rutting season now and we often observed the dominant male chasing after his chosen female – snorting loudly , while she lead him a merry dance by running in circles through the veld with him in hot pursuit. The ferocious sound of that snorting reminded us of a night, many years ago, when we were stranded in the veld in Botswana and – not having heard it before – were concerned that the noise we were hearing came from something that might decide to eat us!
On one occasion we watched several female waterbuck lying in the grass chewing the cud while the male gave them the once-over. Each obediently rose in turn when sniffed by the male and lay down again.
The most affectionate and amorous mating display was performed by a pair of giraffe: they seemed to caress each other by rubbing their heads up and down the neck of the other; they wound their necks around each other; put their heads close together; and even looked as though they were nuzzling in a kiss…
Nsemani Dam proved to be a wonderful place for watching hippos: blowing water in sprays from their nostrils; making their characteristic grunting sounds; squaring up to each other with their mouths open – South Africans of a certain generation will always associate that wide-mothed pose with an advertisement for Chomp chocolates. Hippos are so interesting out of the water too, when one can see how large and cumbersome looking they are. Several had small calves in tow. Like baby elephants, these look cuddly and so ‘touchable’!
Game viewing was good, even during the inclement weather. Once we saw a lioness followed by six cubs cross the road and on another occasion spent nearly two hours watching five sated lions sleeping off their meals from the night before. Every movement they made, from lifting a head or drinking water, seemed an effort for they would flop down again or roll over, stretching languidly and relax once more.
Although signs in Satara Camp warn visitors to watch out for honey badgers (more commonly known as ratels in South Africa), we never came across them there. Early one morning though, we saw three of them trotting through the damp grass not far from the camp. It was a privilege too to spot two black rhinos close to the road – not for long though as they soon moved through the bush and out of sight. So much game viewing depends on the luck of being in the right place at the right time.
After the rain of the first few days, it was wonderful to experience the sunshine again and to witness some glorious sunsets.