Tuesday, 25 February 2014

A Kruger trip I'll never forget (warning - graphic content)


fish eagle
Last November, we put together an epic 16-Day tour for 11 Italian tourists, beginning in Cape Town, traveling along the Garden Route, heading up the Wild Coast, through the Drakensberg, and ending in Kruger National Park. You’ll have to ask Hendrik about that drive, but for now I’d like to share what turned out to be a Kruger experience we will never forget.

Sunday, we arose before the sun and had an incredible day of game viewing. It is such a privilege to have a large, well-managed National Park in South Africa. Kruger is really one of a kind, and I think it’s something that everyone should experience. 
beautiful young male lion

elephant
giraffe, with a huge herd of buffalo in the background

dung beetles
hippopotamus, with a stork in the tree
millipede
impala, with his oxpecker friend
grey go-away birds
purple roller
lion having a midday rest
pride of lions - 7 visible
the hard-to-find leopard
lion family
two of the 21 rhinos we saw
cheetah. pregnant, or maybe just eaten?

Monday, the Italians went on another full day game drive in the park, while Hendrik and I decided to go for an early morning guided bush walk.
millipede
The bush walks take place between 5-8am, and are offered at several different locations in the park. The walk is lead by two
Kruger Park rangers. Bush walks are normally about seeing the birds, plant life, and small creatures in the Park that you miss when whizzing by in a vehicle. The rangers are armed, in the rare case the group should be threatened by one of the larger animals. In most instances, if a large animal is seen on foot, it can be observed at a distance.  Or if the encounter is a little too close for comfort, the group can slowly back away, to make sure the animal isn’t scared or threatened. In the briefing before the walk, the rangers said, “Whatever you do, don’t run.”

We had a nice morning of hearing various birdcalls, looking at the flowers, checking out the insects, and seeing evidence of the bigger animals – tracks, nests, dung. We were walking along single file, when we heard a rustling in the bushes about 50 meters away. 

“Oh look, there’s a hippo!” said the lady near me.

“RRRRRUUUUUUUNNNNNNN!” said the ranger. 

The hippo came charging at us like you can’t believe. No mock charge. No time to fire warning shots. I’ve always heard that hippos are fast, and I am here to confirm that they can outrun humans.

We scrambled up an embankment and into the bushes, and got behind a big thicket while the ranger covered us. 

We then heard gunshots…the rangers were firing at the hippo.

It had been running straight at us, and when the ranger stopped to fire, it avoided him and went around the tree for us. It was about 10 meters away when the ranger fired the first shot.

It stumbled backwards a few meters, looking shocked that it had been hit. 

Although it was clearly hurt, it made like it was going to come at us again.  After about 30 seconds, the rangers fired a final shot to end its suffering and to make sure we were out of harm’s way.

I have since learned that hippos kill more persons than any other animal in Africa – nearly 3,000 per year. The males are very territorial, and aggressive at defending their stretch of river.

I don’t share this experience lightly. There are a range of emotions we felt, during and after the incident.  I’m obviously sad and sorry for the hippo.  I’m thankful for competent rangers, who did exactly the right thing. If they hadn’t acted swiftly, one (or more) of the seven of us would have died. It was scary in the moment, but even scarier afterwards to think about how very close we were to being maimed or killed. 

I’ve since been questioning whether we should have been walking in the bush, when that kind of danger is present. I feel like we were naïve for traipsing around in the animal’s territory. But I also must recognize that this kind of incident on a bush walk is a rare occurrence – when we got back to the Kruger gate and spoke to the manager, he said nothing like that had happened in the fourteen years he had been there. 

I have to recognize our rangers, Patrick and Peter, who were so well trained and courageous. I can say with certainty that the rangers had no choice but to shoot in this particular situation. You could see afterwards that the experience shook them up, but they acted with upmost professionalism. Two of the other guests on the walk were game rangers themselves, and they complemented our rangers on how they handled a very difficult situation.

Would I recommend a bush walk for our guests? I’m not sure at this point.  Both Hendrik and I had been on bush walks before, and it has been a big highlight of previous trips. It’s really a way to appreciate the natural environment in a way that you don’t often get to do. It builds a respect for nature, for the intricate design of the natural world, for the way our ancestors used the various plants and animals. We have even considered doing a multi-day guided walk in the park, but for now, I’m going to sit that one out.

We have hesitated telling the world about this experience, because most people won’t understand how to put this into context. I don’t want to perpetuate the negative image of wild, scary Africa – this is an experience that happened in a National Park, and a rare experience at that. Not all that different from what a bear encounter could be like in one of the US National Parks. I also don’t want to glorify the killing of the animal in any way. I share this solemnly as a real, first-hand experience that I will never forget.

--Chrissy