Monday, July 18, 2011

Readers' safari Part 2 - Kirkman's Kamp to Kaapstad.

Before we left Imbali Private Game Lodge the members of my readers' tour were able to tick off a couple more of the Big Five, namely, a nice relaxed herd of elehants we came across at dusk (above), and a couple of herds of Buffalo.

From Imbali we travelled through the Kruger National Park and exited the park via a gate behind the old Skukuza Airport, which lead to the Sabi Sand Game Reserve.

The Sabi Sand is one of a number of private game reserves strung alond Kruger's western border, forming what's known as the Great Kruger National Park. The Sabi Sand is the stuff of legend when it comes to game viewing and the area has a reputation as a prime leopard spotting destination. I'd never been there until this tour.

For those who can't be bothered reading the last post, or tuning into my drunken ravings on Facebook (I'm worried now that I've learned to upload photos and post from my iphone), I've been hosting a tour of readers of my books from Australia and New Zealand around South Africa with my friend and partner in crime Wayne from the Africa Safari Co.

The Sabi Sand lies between the Sabie and the Sand Rivers and our destination was Kirman's Kamp (yes, with a 'K'). Kirkmans is run by a company called &Beyond (yes, with an ampersand) which manages a number of premier safari properties around Africa. I'd stayed at another of their camps a few years ago, so I was ready to be suitably impressed.

In fact, KK (Kirkman's Kamp, not former NSW Premier Kristina Keneally) blew me away.

The layout and buildings of the camp were quite unlike other posh (and not so posh) private safari camps where I've stayed. The camp is arrayed around an old farm house, once the home of a man named Harry Kirkman, who was famous for failing at cattle farming, succeeding at killing lots of lions, and infamous for his taste in headgear (all of the pictures of him around the house show him wearing a pointy had with a leopard skin pugaree).

Thankfully there's not more killing of lions or making hatbands out of leopards, on Kirkman's property (actually called Toulon) these days. Instead, guests lounge in the big house - a mix of colonial bric a brac and sleek, sympathetic modern additions - and dine on truly pukkah cuisine in its courtyard (and get sloshed in the bar before and after). Accomodation is in a line of rooms overlooking the Sand River.

In between all of that eating and drinking (and there is a lot of both), the real business of the visit takes place - game viewing.

As with our time at Imbali it was bitterly cold, but there was less of a wind chill factor in the open vehicle as we were driving slowly most of the time. Instead of racing through the relatively open country around Imbali, in the Sabi Sand we were making like our (photographic) pray, the leopard, by sneaking about, in the hope of ambushing our quarry.

The Sabi Sand camps are, generally speaking, expensive, and their well-heeled guests expect maximum bang for their buck. The rangers and their guides make no bones of the fact that they're not averse to hunting for big cats. (In fairness, though, out excellent guide Mark said he would go searching for whatever we wanted to see, especially birds, and he proved to be very knowledgeble on all matters twitching).

In the reverse snobbery of game viewing, self-drive visitors to Africa's parks (and this is me 99 per cent of the time) like to say that they're not actually out looking for lions and leopards, but rather just keen on pottering about the bush looking at trees and birds and impalas and crap like that (below).

There's an element of truth to this - Mrs Blog and I, for example, have the luxury of time when it comes to animal spotting so we're rarely in a rush to tick off the big five. However, the most laid back of regular visitors to Kruger and its surrounding would be stretching the bounds of credibility if they said their heart rate didn't increase a few beats when they found a leopard.

So, when some of our group stated they wanted to see more leopards (we'd already seen one in Kruger), Mark and tracker Eckson were more than happy to oblige. Another nice thing about Kirkman's was that our group of nine was spread over two safari vehicles. Ranger Ralph and his tracker took the rest of our readers' tour a-hunting.

Literally within minutes of starting our first drive Ralph had spotted a leopard, and Mark took us to share the sighting. He was a beauty - big male. Although he looks like he's growling in this pic he's actually displaying a flemen response - a type of grimmace which allows him to pick up the scent of a female in heat. So he's not angry, just horny.

In true Sabi Sand fashion we followed the cat through the bush. Driving off road is a no-no for self drive visitors in Kruger and is strictly controlled in the park's private concessions. In the Sabi Sand and other reserves, however, bush bashing is often the order of the day.

Interestingly, as Mark pointed out, one type of creature was directly benefitting from our off-road pursuit of the leopard.

A fork tailed drongo (a bird, left, and yes, it is a drongo) flittered around after our open topped Land Rover (a champion old Tdi called 'Old Smokey' for reasons any Land Rover owner will understand), catching insects dislodged from the bush by our progress through the grass and trees.

The next morning we actually missed out on seeing a leopard (Ralph's crew did get to see another beauty, but all I ended up catching was the tip of its tail as it disappeared into some thick reeds on the edge of the Sand River.

However, our group wasn't disappointed as March and Eckson tracked down a nice pair of white rhinos browsing just near the KK staff encampment.

We watched these gentle, mostly blind creatures meander around, hurting no one except the grass (their non aggressivenmess towards man and other species makes their slaughter by poachers all the more disgusting).

Mark was able to deliver a long commentary as the rhinos blundered closer and closer to us, before we finally left them to be enjoyed by some other visitors.

On the afternoon drive, however, we struck black and gold when we followed reports (the vehicles in the Sabi Sand all communication by radio) of a young leopardess up a tree with an impala she had killed. Some of the camps in the Sabi Sand have reciprocal traversing deals which means they can cross on to neighbouring properties. We left the Kirkman's farm and crossed on to Lion Sands' land and found this lovely young lady, resting safe and sound above a pair of prowling hyenas who were waiting for some morsels to fall from her arboreal dining table.

Kirkman's proved to be lots of fun and very peaceful and relaxing in between game viewing and drinking. Even the walk home to the rooms in the evening was an adventure, thanks to a resident pack of Hyena loping about on the lawns. Manageress Colleen told us this was nothing - they'd recently had a resident leopard who used to sneak up to the lodge on cold nights and sleep on one of the outdoor couches.

All good things must, as they say, result in a hangover... I mean come to an end, and we reluctantly said goodbye to Kirkmans and headed to South Africa's most famous K-Town, Kaapstad (Cape Town).

I've written far too much in this blog and as I'm currently in the Shongololo airport lounge at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johanessburg it behooves me to go get another beer. If you'd like to see what my readers and I got up to on the luxurious Blue Train, and in Cape Town, then I would encourage you to befriend me on Facebook and check out the many pics I've posted there.

Monday, July 11, 2011

2011 Readers' Tour... Part 1

To tell you the truth I’d forgotten just how bitterly, unrelentingly, bone-cuttingly cold an open-vehicle game drive in July in the Kruger National Park could be.

I’d also forgotten how fantastic it is to be in the bush at this time of year.

Because of my publishing schedule and Mrs Blog’s work commitments, she and I usually visit Africa between the months of September and March. This means we cop the southern African wet season, but it also means we’re rarely dressed in anything warmer than shorts and T-shirts.

It sounded like a good idea at the time, organizing this year’s 12-day tour of South Africa for readers of my books for July. I knew the bush in the Kruger Park would be thinning out as the long dry winter turned the grass from emerald to khaki, and the mopane leaves to red-gold. It’s also a good time of year to come on safari because rivers and waterholes are drying out and the park’s animals are congregating around the remaining natural and man made water points.

But it’s cold. Damn cold. Africa cold.

Getting back to the positives it’s also a brilliant time of year to take photographs. The sky is clear and blue nearly every day and there’s narrow band of dust sitting just above the horizon that makes for dramatic blood-red sunsets and sunrises. So, if you don’t mind losing the odd digit to frostbite, it’s a great time of year to go on safari.

We started this year’s tour by flying into Johannesburg, which resembled London on a bad winters’ day. Not that it was daytime when we arrived (as it should have been). The Chilean volcano ash cloud caused our direct Sydney-Johannesburg flight to not be direct – we had to stop at Perth to re-fuel and this added about five hours to our journey.

We arrived late, but met up with two members of our party who’d arrived early… at least they would have arrived early if their flight from Perth hadn’t been delayed 15 hours by mechanical problems. However, better late than never, we assembled in Tribes Restaurant in the Emperors’ Palace Casino complex near Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport and got stuck into it.

I’d also (nearly) forgotten just how good South African beef is, and how cheap their plonk is (compared to alcoholic beverages in Australia). Once chilled (as in out, not frozen), I retired to my small but perfectly formed room in the Peermont Metcourt Hotel for a good four-and-a-half hours sleep.

Just like the last tour, this year’s crew are an excellent bunch of people. In fact, we have two returnees from the first trip. We assembled the next morning and caught an SA Airlink flight from O.R. Tambo to Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport (KMIA) near Nelspruit.

From KMIA we drove to the town of Hazyview, near the south-western corner of the Kruger Park. Hazyview’s a bustling safari town and home to Inspector Sannie van Rensburg (the heroine of one of my novels, ‘SILENT PREDATOR’). The point of the tour is to point out places where the action has taken place in some of my books so I showed the group where Alex Tremain car-jacked a four wheel drive (in ‘IVORY’) and where Sannie and Tom had a gunfight with a baddie on Sannie’s banana farm. I also pointed out what a safe country South Africa is to live in.

That afternoon we went to the Elephant Whispers elephant rehabilitation centre, for elephants with substance abuse problems (one was nearly shot for trying to overdose on oranges on a citrus farm). I’m going to blog more about Elephant Whispers on my Getaway Magazine blog in due course because I liked it a good deal, unlike some other wildlife rehab places, which, to paraphrase Ms Amy Whine-house, I would not like to go to again.

We stayed the night in Hazyview at Rissington Inn, owned by fellow writer and all-round decent chap Chris Harvie, who unfortunately wasn’t there as he was up-country – up several countries, in fact, in Tanzania. I love Rissington Inn. It’s quaint and old worldy. It’s the sort of place where you’d be executed under rule .303 talking on your mobile phone in the bar, yet still manages to come across as extremely laid back and welcoming.

Rissinton Inn

Next morning we had a long but enjoyable drive through the Kruger National Park to Imabli Private Game Lodge with my good friend and ace guide Greg from African Safari Adventures in Hazyview.

Imbali is a privately operated concession within the boundaries of the Kruger Park. It sits in the open plains near Orpen Gate, west of Satara. This is usually good lion country and it proved to be on this trip. I think we saw lions on all four of the game drives we did from Imbali. Of special interest were some cute-as-a-killer-button cubs who’d been parked in some long grass while their mothers went hunting, and their big daddy.

As a special treat, while watching a male and female lion interact with (ie eat) a buffalo, our intrepid tour guide, Mr W, happened to spot a leopard lurking in the background. Three of the big five in one location... not bad.