Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Chuckling Elephant

I've just spent two nights at Nguni River Lodge in South Africa's Eastern Cape, about an hour an a half's drive from Port Elizabeth.  I liked the lodge, the staff were friendly, the food good and the rooms luxurious.
Yet there was something missing, and it's hard to put my finger on what it was. I think it may have been the feeling of remoteness that one finds in game reserves like Madikwe. Nguni River Lodge is in a private concession adjacent to Addo Elephant National Park.  While the concession has dangerous animals species like buffalo, elephant and black rhino, it has no large predators which somehow distracts from the game viewing experience. You don't always see predators in other reserves, but knowing that they are there lends a sort of heightened anticipation, a titillating sense of danger.

To see lions one must leave the concession and travel to the national park proper, and the driver steers his four wheel drive open game viewing vehicle through the gates, across a fairly busy road and a railway track onto a nicely sealed road, which then winds past a visitors centre and restaurant. It's all a bit zoo-like. Once you're in the park you share the road with other private vehicles, the drivers of which generally have no idea of how to read the body language of large animals like elephants. They have no concept of an animals comfort zone - when it is happy to tolerate the vehicle and more importantly, when it isn't.

So you share your game viewing with Mr and Mrs Pienaar and their 2.3 kids from Durban. They get impatient with an elephant blocking the road and in trying to creep past, getting too close, disturbing the animal so that it either shuffles off into the bush so that you lose the sighting, or they make it angry enough to turn their Toyota Corolla on to it's roof.  We followed a huge bull with the biggest tusks I've ever seen as he trundled happily along the road. He was in must and dribbled urine copiously down his legs as he walked, yet he was happy to tolerate our presence as long as we stayed about twenty metres behind him. Then as he rounded a corner a brand new, gleaming four wheel drive vehicle appeared in front of him. It was clear that this car had never been driven off-road. The look on the driver and passenger's face was comical. They looked as though they had driven onto a railway line only to become stuck and see a locomotive bearing down on them. All they had to do was to pull over to one side and stop to let the big bull pass.  But they had no intention of getting their new car's wheels dirty by driving onto the gravel shoulder. No, they just reversed, and reversed, and reversed for about a quarter of an hour while we followed the elephant at a respectful distance. Our driver turned to me and said dryly "These guys are going to reverse all the way back to Port Elizabeth." Finally the old bull ambled off the road into the bush, probably chuckling as he went.

Later we found a large male lion making his stately way across the road. We stopped to watch him and he just lay down on the tarmac, enjoying the warmth of the morning sun. Before long a young couple drove up in a minuscule FIAT 500. Their arrival mildly disturbed the lion and he stood and stretched, taking a couple of steps towards the FIAT. At this point the occupants realised that the lion was bigger than their car and tried to scramble to the safety of their back seat - not easy for two people to do simultaneously in a FIAT 500.

All I'm saying is that places like Nguni and Addo are nice places to relax for a couple of days after a few days Garden Route tour or self drive, but my recommendation is that you don't make National Parks including Kruger and Pilanesberg your main game viewing experience in South Africa. Rather spend a little more and spend at least three nights in a "big five" private reserve like Sabi Sands or Madikwe where the only drivers are professional guides and you won't have to share the road with Mr and Mrs Pienaar in their Toyota Corolla.   

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