Looks like the baboons came out to greet you

Trip Start May 12, 2009
Trip End May 24, 2009

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Flag of South Africa  , Kruger National Park,
Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The wake up call went off at 4:30 in the morning today.  Is this really a vacation?  After packing everything, we headed downstairs.  We told the front desk the night before that we would be checking out early, so they had all of our forms ready to go.  Our transfer they took us to the airport at 5:15.  

I guess I hadn't noticed this when we landed, but the Cape Town airport is being renovated for the World Cup.  It is in shambles right now.  The roof is gone and the airport is covered with a tarp.  The driver wasn't able to drop us out front.  The drop off point was pretty far away, but he knew a way to pimp the system.  He took us to the car rental drop off area which was right next to the departure entrance.  Inside there was one long queue for SAA.  Good thing we got up so early for our 7:30 flight.  We finally made it the the front and the agent goes to work for about 2 minutes without saying anything.  She looks up at us and asks us for our flight information.  While digging through my bag, she tells us nevermind, then she says that we don't have a flight for today, we were supposed to travel on the 13th.  Normally I wait till after breakfast to make smartass comments, so I politely told her that we did travel on the 13th, that was when we took our 15 hour flight from the States to South Africa.  Finally she found our reservation.  But then she told us that we weren't sitting together.  I asked her where our seats were and she said the window and aisle seat in the same row.  I asked if anyone was in the middle and she said no, so I told her we would like to keep those seats, knowing the plane was not filled to capacity.  This totally blew her mind, she couldn't imagine why 2 people wouldn't want to sit next to each other.  After arguing with her for 5 minutes, we finally told her to move the aisle seat to the middle.

It was time to board the plane and as expected the flight was fairly empty.  Amy was the only person in a middle seat in the entire plane, but almost all of the aisles were taken.  The doors are about to close, so she moved back to the aisle when one more person boarded the plane.  Of course he was the guy that took the aisle seat.  It was an early flight, so we just decided to sleep on the plane anyway.  The breakfast cart came around and woke us up.  We got scrambled eggs with a hot dog.  This was the first bad meal of the trip, but I guess that is expected for airline food.  

The weather was beautiful in Jo'burg as we transferred to a prop plane for our 45 minute flight to Hoedspruit.  There are 2 main airports in the Kruger National Park area.  The bigger airport is Nelspruit, but we were staying further north, so we flew into Hoedspruit.  I figured we had to fly in a prop plane because we were probably landing on a dirt runway.  I am not the biggest fan of prop planes, but the weather was conducive to flying in Jo'burg, so my nerves were at ease.  We got a snack on the flight of doritos style chips, a small candy bar, and some biltong.  As we were starting to land, a layer of clouds rolled in.  The wind blew that plane around like it was an old rag.  I decided to take a video of the landing so that if we went down, the FAA can see what happened.  We landed without a hitch and the pilot gave an announcement saying "Looks like the baboons came out to greet you" (they were lined up right on side of the runway).  Even though we landed, the plane was taxiing at a pretty fast speed.  Turns out that not only is Hoedspruit's runway not dirt, but it is extremely long.  Hoedspruit is a military base so it took about 10 minutes to taxi to our arrival area (there are no gates here as only 2 commercial flights land each day).  

We deplane and watch as the workers take our bags off the plane load it into the tractor, and drove the tractor about 100 feet where everyone could claim their bags.  The entire airport is one small hut.  The check-in area fits about 5 people, there isn't a metal detector, and the waiting area is an outdoor space with a couple of patio tables.  We all use the bathroom at the airport as most of us couldn't fit into the bathroom on the plane.  Once we got out we met Matthews our driver for the 45 minute trip to Jackalberry.  Matthews had already loaded our bags in the car and we were all set. Along the drive, Matthews told us stories about the area, animals, and about his life.  His parents sent him to Hoedspruit when he was young to go to school and escape the dangerous area he used to live.  While in school, his father was murdered.  Once he graduated, he made enough money to bring over his two younger sisters, and eventually his mother.  Despite what he went through, he loves the area and is happy his family is with him.  During the drive, we saw monkeys and giraffes on the side of the road.  We got to stop as these were the first safari animals of our trip.

We arrived at our safari lodge named Jackalberry (which is a type of tree in the area).  Jackalberry is in Thornybush, which is part of Timbavati.  Timbavati is part of the Greater Kruger National Park, however Thornybush is not part of Kruger.  Whoever decided on this obviously doesn't know the transitive property in math.  Jackalberry is completely fenced in (except the entrance) so that animals can not wonder onto the property.  Colleen and Tom (the managers of the property, who happen to be married to each other) along with Crystal are there to greet us with some freshly squozen apple juice.  They take us over to the chairs to fill out paperwork (name, address, favorite alcoholic beverage, and signature in case we are eaten by a lion).  They also explain the shedule (I did not misspell that, they pronounce the word as the British do).  The wake up call is at 5:45 every morning.  At 6:00 tea and biscuits are served.  The morning drive starts at 6:15 till about 9:30.  Breakfast is at 10:00.  Then we are free all day until lunch at 3:00 and the afternoon drive at 3:30.  We come back at 8:00 for dinner, and then the bar is open until everyone goes to sleep.  

Then we are shown to our rooms.  The property consists of 7 chalets (small houses).  There is a honeymoon chalet, a family chalet, 2 bush chalets, 3 regular chalets.  Amy and I are lucky enough to get the family chalet which consisted of 2 bedrooms.  Colleen gives us a tour of the room and is sure to point out the complimentary African sherry, the safe, and the outdoor shower if we are brave enough to shower in the wild (there was an indoor shower as well).  Since we woke up so early, I decide to take a nap as we had a few hours till lunch.

Since these lodges are small, travel agents usually book all the rooms for a 2 day period to include as a package.  However, not all the rooms were filled up during the 2 days we were there.  There were 12 people total, and the second group of 8, who also came from Cape Town, but on the later flight (so they got to sleep in), came strolling in around 2:00.  This woke us up, which was fine as we didn't want to sleep the day away.  Amy and I went outside to lay by the pool until lunch.  The other 8 people were broken into 2 groups.  A group of mid aged sisters from Brooklyn and a 2 parents from Baltimore with their daughter and her husband, who live in NY.   JB and Lindsey joined the group at this time as well.  Convinced they got the honeymoon chalet, turns out they were in one of the bush chalets.  These 2 chalets are connected, but the fence that goes around the perimeter of the lodge cuts through their chalet.  So JB and Lindsey's back patio is on the other side of the fence.  They spent the afternoon watching all the warthogs and impala roaming around.  Lunch at the lodge is a lighter meal, which was unfortunate because all we had eaten for the day was a crappy airline breakfast and a candy bar.  But that didn't stop us from going to town on the pizza and salad that was prepared.  Joining us for lunch were Van and Niko, the rangers for the safari.  Van sits at our end of the table and we go through the formality of small talk.

After lunch, we grab our stuff and head to the front of the lodge where 2 Land Rover's are parked.  The trucks are open top with 3 rows of 3 seats.  Then there is a driver and passenger seat, and one more seat on the hood of the car for the tracker/spotter.  Knowing that there were 12 of us, I thought we would be split up into 2 groups of 6.  But since there were 3 groups of 4, the cars had to be broken into groups of 8 and 4.  We were the lucky ones and got a private safari.  Looking back, I feel kind of bad as JB and I high fived once we found out we were riding solo.  I got a glimpse of the son-in-law in the other car who seemed to be a little peeved.  Perhaps he was mad that I screamed out "Suckers" as we drove off.  Van was our ranger (the driver) and Themba (pronounced Timba) was our spotter.  Van tell us that there are just 2 rules.  Don't get out of the car, and don't stand up.  The animals think of the car as another harmless animal.  But if you stand up and change the shape of the car, then the animals might get defensive.

Thornybush, we are told, is 35,000 acres big and is completely fenced in.  This is much smaller than Kruger (which does not have fences), but the likelihood of seeing animals is much greater in this game reserve.  There are lots of dirt roads, which all of the rangers have names for, but most of the animals hide in the thick bush.  There are only 4 areas in Kruger that you can drive off the roads, Thornybush is one of them.  Just as we pull out of Jackalberry, we see a herd of impala, which are a type of venison.  We stop to take some pictures, but not for very long as there are 6000 impala in the park (we saw them everywhere).  We next saw some warthogs, then not 5 minutes later Themba spots a cheetah way in the distance.  Van quickly turns the car and next thing we know we are driving through the thick grass, over trees, and probably over smaller animals to get a closer look.  We get right next to the cheetah who is a mother with her 4 cubs.  The cubs are all 8 months old (just like the ones from Cape Town).  We follow them around and watch them for about 20 minutes.  The cheetahs could care less about the car as we drive right next to them.  The rangers are also friendly in Thornybush, and Van radios to the other 4 cars driving around this evening giving them directions to the cheetahs.  We had to stay for a while so that the other rangers could find us.  Since we were far away from the road now.

We continued on next to the elephants.  Elephants are usually found in one area, so Van knows exactly where to go to spot them.  At first we saw two elephants walking, but as we followed them for a bit we were led to the whole group of 20 to 30 of them.  In order to keep our distance, we drove on the other side of the river.  But Van told us to get out of the car so that we could hide in the trees and watch.  Elephants truly are amazing animals.  They just walk wherever and eat whatever they want.  I tried to get that amazing picture, but I had to remember to just watch as well.  

We get back in the car and continue on, seeing kudu, waterbuck, a male cape buffalo roaming by himself, and more species of birds than we ever knew existed.  We stopped right at sundown in an open field to enjoy some samosas and our favorite drink that we listed on the survey earlier.  It was now completely dark out and as we continued our drive, Themba had to pull out the spotlight.  He would weave it back and fourth looking for the tiniest movements.  JB commented how it was like watching tennis as your head went side to side trying to follow the light.  After 30 minutes of nothing, Van gets on the radio and finds that another ranger has spotted a pride of lions.  We turn the corner and in the distance you could see 4 glowing eyes from the two lionesses.  They just walk by our car like it isnt even there.  Then behind them walked the male lion.  He had that strut like his shit don't stink.  He had a few cuts on him, and Van tells us that there is another lion, named Marvin, that usually fights with this one to be the king of the area.  I would like to see what Marvin looked like after seeing the gash on this guy.  Meanwhile, Themba points out a caracal hiding in the bush.  Caracal's are very rare to spot as they are nocturnal cats who are smaller and typically stays away from the main roads.  Van says he sees them about once every thirty drives.  Although rare, we turn around and just follow the main attraction before heading back to the lodge.

Back at camp, we had a few minutes to change if we wanted.  Most people just stayed in there safari gear as it was quite cool at night (around 40 to 50 degrees).  Of course JB had to get out of his cargo pants, and comes back with his khakis, button down shirt, and sweater vest on.  We all sit at the long dinner table telling stories of what we saw until the chef walks up to tell us the menu.  For dinner we had a watermelon salad to start, then there was a buffet line of chicken, ribs, steak, and some potatoes.  The food was amazing, and I couldn't help myself going back for seconds.  Now I know why all of the rangers are such big guys.  If I had to eat that every day I would probably be pushing 3 hundo.  Fairly tired, I was ready to call it a night after dinner, but it was tough to walk away from all of Tom's stories, and Amy was kind of scared that a lion was going to jump us as we walked back to the chalet.  I eventually drag her home though.
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