Dawn arrives – first news comes from the quieting of nocturnal insects, then an orange wash wipes the blackness from the eastern skies. I can see the tree-line silhouetted in front of me. Dawn is magical on the savannah, greeted by a first song, then a chorus of songs as the birds and daytime insects begin telling stories of the imminent arrival of a new day. Our Kruger senses are awakened.
The first smells arrive, the dew, damp, warm muddy water scattered sent of early blossoms, and even news of fresh dung, rotting flesh or damp hair can be picked from my first long intake of air.
I can feel dawn. The cold creeps around my skin and in an instant moved away by the morning breeze and the first rays of red sun rising in the east.
My eyes are adjusting, I can pick out the shapes and movement in front of me, and I can see this world lightening with every passing second. I listen to the first early footsteps scurrying through the scrub. The baboons are shouting in social hierarchy, and in the distance a lioness roars confirmation that her pride is nearby.
A lone hyena whoops a scouting call, a jackal answers but cuts the call short, and a hippo grunts his return to the water in territorial voice.
My safari has begun! A journey that will allow me to process this early information and then include the footsteps, fasces and feeding signs left behind from last night’s visitors.
What will I uncover? Where will I go? This is my adventure today!
There are two important reasons why I am still passionate about guiding in the Kruger National Park.
The first is that I know that every game drive or bush walk I conduct will be different from the last one.
The second reason is because even after 20 years of guiding – I know for sure that I’m going to see something, hear something, think about something, learn something and share something new with the people I am with.
Each time I conduct a guided nature experience in the Kruger National Park I immediately become part of an experience that is as new as it is exciting.
This morning’s walk starts out with a kaleidoscope of colour splashed across the grasses like confetti strewn along the wedding isle at the start of a lifelong dream. The associated aroma of the damp grass and herbs is sensational and we stop our walk before it’s even begun.
To paint this magic in words is difficult. These words would have to combine the very best fragrances with perfect colours and then gently wash your skin with the sounds and sensation of a slight breeze blowing the magic of life over your body.
Knowing that the grass beneath our feet is as precious as a warm blanket on a cold winter’s day and like our blanket, this grass will protect the earth from the rain, the scorching sun and the high winds before a thunderstorm.
Knowing that this grass is a palatial meal as well the building material for many of the residents of the Kruger drives home the message that yesterday’s morning walk started off with the sounds of the birds in morning chorus.
Free! I’m in a space where I can be free! Let’s walk on while the sesame, the gnidias and morning glory flaunt their stuff – scattered and creeping across the grass like living confetti.
Hang on! I forgot to paint the myriad of silver and golden silk thrown across the landscape in veil-like ribbons – just right, just enough to add the sparkling highlights to an already beautiful bride. This morning the bush is my princess, and today’s walk is the wedding. I’ve been invited again to share this wonderful, wonderful day.
Typically, we haven’t even taken three steps along the elephant path that will guide us on this morning’s adventure. We are seeing and hearing so much it’s difficult to get started on this walk in the Kruger.
Next we get invited to an impromptu bird party at a sycamore fig tree. The shriek of departing parrots and the frenzied tweets, twitters and raucous croaking from a menagerie of seed-eating and insect-eating birds produces a miracle of colour and movement within the branches of this ancient tree. Hornbills, rollers, barbets, green pigeons and puffbacks all talking, eating and advertising together; like people at a side-walk café on a busy esplanade.
We walk on, past the bird party and towards an elephant mud-hole on the washed and barren soils of a sodic-site. The world around me changes slightly. The thick green, strangle vegetation is thinning out and a better view ahead brings with it the first of this morning’s big guns. An elephant bull is walking purposefully towards the mud-hole ahead of us. The breeze is in my favour but I’m in the open – in full view of an elephant bull about to enjoy a bath. I move my guests back into the vegetation, and little to the left – behind a fallen tree. The elephant hasn’t noticed us. He stands still, listening. His trunk is up; he smells at the mud and then gently twists his trunk about to get a whiff of news from behind him. He moves to the mud hole and dips his trunk in, swishing a bit of the surface mud around and steps in. First he sucks up a bit of mud in his trunk and blows it out over his back.
Now the front legs are in the mud and like a giant grader he churns the mud into a thick, dark tub of base and squirts it across his flanks and belly. I have a good idea what he’ll do next and quickly look around for the ‘rubbing trees,’ tall leadwoods or tambotis with strong straight trunks that he will rub against once the mud on his body dries. Guess what? These trees are all exactly where I am so I decide to move off – quietly, backwards and away with the breeze still in my favour.
Sodic sites are normally close to the bottom of the typically undulating landscape of granite and fault-line weathering. So it’s not long before we are walking along the rim of a drainage line. I’m looking for a safe area with good visibility to cross the coarse, sandy, beach like bed so that we can continue up the slope ahead of us, and look for a good spot to view the landscape while we enjoy a snacks and water break before we complete our roughly five kilometre circular route back to where we left the vehicle.
This morning’s walk took in the best three hours of a day in the bush. From first light until just before the sun makes physical activity a hardship! We’ve still got the whole day ahead of us – time for a big breakfast, a siesta and a relaxing afternoon game drive.
We’ve explored and been entertained by a host of nuances, animals and plants. Here’s a list of some of the thinks we saw and talked about in just three hours.
Grasses and herbs – what they are, what they do and who uses them.
Trees and shrubs, the different soils, and resulting areas like sodic sites, catenas and drainage lines. Insects like dung beetles and wasps (that happened at the bird party) and we saw how the birds aggregated together for a meal. We listened to the sounds of the bush, and their significance, we watched a spider-hunting wasp fly past, an elephant having a mud bath, we watched as impala took flight at the first indication of our presence; we talked about our role as protectors and as predators in the bush. We talked about colour and light and who can see what in the bush. We talked about smells and pheromones and how they are used. We talked about all sorts of things but notably we all talk about freedom, and how wonderful it is to feel free.