by Bob Sparrow (still in Africa)
All animal photos are mine . . . but you can look at them.
From Cape Town we flew into Mpumalanga International Airport (yes, that’s spelled correctly, I think they forgot to buy a vowel) in Nelspruit, then took a two hour ride to Notten’s Bush Camp in the Sabi Sands Game Reserve in Kruger National Park for the ‘safari’ portion of the trip. There are many Bush Camps in Kruger Park, but I can’t imagine any being better than the one where we stayed – Notten’s. It’s family owned and operated; the current proprietors are David and Mia Notten; it was David’s grandfather who bought the land in 1964 as a family retreat; David’s father and mother, Gilly & Bambi (no, I’m not making these names up) opened their home up and started the camp in 1986 and subsequently handed it over to David and Mia. There are some great family photos of the three generations on the wall in the meeting room. We saw pictures of Susie, who heads the serving staff, when she was a baby with her mom and dad and grandfather, who was hired by David’s grandfather back in the 60s. There’s a picture of Thomas, our game drive ‘tracker’, who arrived from Mozambique at 13 and started working at Notten’s as a gardener – he’s now 43. David’s cousin, Dale also works at the camp and cooked us a delightful barbeque on our first night. David and Mia, both personable and friendly were always on hand to accommodate our every need, and what made us feel most welcome here was that everyone immediately treated us like ‘one of the family’ – a really nice feeling when you’re 10,000 miles from home in the African bush.
A unique feature of Notten’s was that there was no, or little, electricity. There was one plug per room to charge cameras or computers, but all the lighting was by kerosene lamp or candle. No television, no clocks. We started out missing the conveniences of lights, electrical outlets everywhere and a little TV at night to catch up on the news, but after four nights we ended up missing the charm of our candle-lite room and the sounds of the savanna at night.
Dinners were a special event at Notten’s – tables in the eating area, which were separated for breakfast and lunch into tables for 4-6, where all pushed together in the evening so everyone in camp (20-24 max) ate together at one long table, thus promoting the sharing of stories about where people were from, places they’d been and places they were going.
The food was incredible – I’m going to try to duplicate their bananas French Toast when I get home, but I have a feeling I won’t quite capture the essence of it. Their lemon meringue pie was like nothing I’ve ever tasted . . . only better. OK, I think you get the point, the accommodations and staff were awesome, let’s move on to the reason we went there – the animals.
We arrive in camp around 2:30 in the afternoon and one hour later we were on our first ‘game drive’. Game drives are conducted by a ‘tracker’ driving a 6-8 passenger open-air Land Cruiser, with a ‘spotter’ sitting in a seat attached to the hood. A typical game drive lasts about three hours and covers miles of dirt and off roads, throughout the savanna and bush – wherever the animals happen to be.
We first encountered a male, female and baby rhinoceros and drove to within 15-20 feet of them and watched them grazing – they gave us a casual glance and went back to the job at hand – eating. Shortly thereafter we came upon four lions, three male, one female; we were told that the males fought over the female and we saw the ‘winner’ and the female go off to . . . make more lions. One of the spurned suitors dejectedly limped off into the bush. We first heard the sound, then saw a cloud of dust in the distance, we then witness a herd of approximately 400 Cape Buffalo stampeding right past us. When the last one had passed us, we saw the reason they were running – there was a leopard trailing them waiting for a baby Cape to get separated from the herd, thus providing the leopard with dinner. But the herd was keeping a close eye on the calves, so no Buffalo Burgers for the leopard tonight. We saw the leopard disappear into the brush and heard growls and hisses and then saw a honey badger running out of the brush and the leopard smugly walking out behind him with what the honey badger thought was going to be his dinner, a large king rat that he had killed. Thomas, our tracker, told us that a honey badger, pound for pound, is probably the fiercest animal in Africa, and that he could have kicked the leopards ass, but perhaps he had rat for lunch, so he reluctantly let the leopard have it. It was now dark as Thomas headed the safari through a maze of dirt roads, without streetlights I might add, back towards camp. After driving about 20 minutes, he stopped; we knew every time he stopped it was because he spotted something he wanted us to see. We just sat there in the dark wondering what we were supposed to be looking at. “Look over there,” he said, as he flashed a spot light to our right. We turned and no more than 15 feet from us was a large bull elephant just standing by the roadside.
What an incredible first drive; we join the ‘Big Five, First Drive’ Club – I just made that club up, but amazingly on our first game drive we saw all of the ‘Big 5’ animals (Elephant, Lion, Leopard, Cape Buffalo and Rhino – members of the Big Five were chosen for the difficulty in hunting them and the degree of danger involved, rather than their size).
The next day I took the opportunity between drives to do a ‘bush walk’ – it was just Thomas and me wandering through the bush, he is obligated to take a rifle with him on all such walks. As we walked along, we came across 6-8 giraffe, he showed me the tracks and scat of various animals as well as some interesting vegetation, like a weed that you can wash your hands with – it acts just like soap when you rub it between your hands. As we walked along through the bush I asked a number of questions about the flora and fauna. My last question was, “Have you ever had to use your gun?” To which Thomas, stopped, looked me in the eye and replied in a very somber way, “Yes, just last week.” I froze in my tracts as I now imagined all kinds of animals charging us and Thomas firing at them until he ran out of bullets. “What were the circumstances?” I asked. He replied calmly, but in a serious tone, “Last week there was a man who asked too many questions, so I shot him.” Then he broke out in a big smile and told me he’s never had to use the gun.
We had two more days in the Game Reserve – a game drive in the early morning (6:30 – 9:30) then back for breakfast, and a game drive in the afternoon (3:30 – 6:30). Aside from more ‘Big 5’ sightings, we saw, hippos, giraffe, impala, baboons, wart hogs, wildebeest, hyena a myriad of small furry animals and birds that we’re still trying to figure out what they were. We had a leopard come right next to our vehicle – I literally could have reached down and petted him – but I thought better of it.
On our last drive, as night was falling, the three Land Cruisers from Notten’s all stopped out in a clearing in the savanna for cocktails and appetizers around a campfire. A full moon rise added to the magic of the evening as David pointed out the ‘Southern Cross’ constellation – the first time I’d ever seen it. The Cosby, Still & Nash song by the same name echoed in my head . . .
When you see the Southern Cross for the first time,
You understand now why you came this way
‘Cause the truth you might be runnin’ from is so small,
But it’s as big as the promise, the promise of a coming day
We were promised another day, but not at Notten’s, our promise was as big as Victoria Falls, which was our next destination. The next morning we were off for Zimbabwe.
Next Monday: African Diary – Part 4 Victoria Falls and Out of Africa
HAVE YOU SUBSCRIBED YET?