Vail traveler bags the big five |

Vail traveler bags the big five

Luc Pols
Special to the Vail Daily
Special to the Vail Daily/Luc PolsVail travel: An elephant and her baby in Tangala Private Reserve.

The owner of the guesthouse who is supposed to arrange my trip to Kruger National Park is not doing what one would call a very efficient job. He knows that I want to leave tomorrow morning – eight hours from now – and so far there is no sign of him nor of an itinerary.

This coupled with the fact that after I make a date for the first time in over three years, the lady stands me up. Not an encouraging farewell to Pretoria, but we keep on smiling.

At the very last moment I am informed that I’ll be picked up at 5 a.m., but someone forgets about that. So, after a 2 1/2-hour delay, we are chasing the bus down the highway and just catch it when they are finishing breakfast. At last I’m on the way to Blyde River Canyon outside Kruger National Park.

There is a story about the Blyde River (from the Dutch meaning “happy”) – when pioneers were prospecting this area, the men went out ahead exploring and told their wives to wait until a certain date and then move on. When they did not return the wives sadly left and called the river they were at the Sad River. However, a couple of days later they met up and because of this occasion, they named this river the Happy River.

It is an exciting canyon, the third largest in the world and well worth the visit. Unfortunately the weather has deteriorated and the rain hides some of the views. This, however, seems to be par for the course this year. But if you’re ever around this part of the globe, don’t forget to visit here.

Just before arriving at the safari lodge, we run into our first animals: a giraffe and some rhinoceroses, the latter one of the “Big Five.” The sights are incredible and we are not even in the park yet.

The expression “Big Five” dates from the hunting days when these five species were considered to be the most difficult ones to catch and shoot. They are the lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros and buffalo. Hopefully I’ll catch them all over the next couple of days and I don’t think it hurts having the first one “in the bag” already, so to speak.

It is 5:15 a.m., and we’re off. What a sight … what a park. This place teems with animals and we spot bunches of impalas (there are more than 200,000 in the park) and lots of giraffes and zebras, as well as buffalos and elephants (the second and third of the Big Five).

We come across warthogs, baboons, kudus, elands, wildebeests and other four-footed creatures, but we also encounter a bunch of hippopotamuses and even some crocodiles. These last two are part of the new “Big Seven,” so all that is lacking are the lion and the leopard. This last one I am proud to say, I personally spot from the car at dusk when we do the sunset trip. Let me tell you that is not an easy thing to do. This is one magnificent animal – ferocious but beautiful. Not a bad “catch” for the first day out.

Hopefully I’ll get to see lions to complete the Big Five tomorrow when I move to another lodge, this one on a private reserve. I have been told that spotting animals in the private reserves is easier and that the animas are closer. We’ll see.

Wow … let me repeat … wow. This is absolutely incredible. I am very glad I did the Kruger Park, but in the private reserve you indeed come almost nose to nose with the animals.

As a matter of fact, at one point I am shooting some elephants and when I look up after a couple of minutes, there is this huge mother elephant with a suckling baby not three feet in front of the vehicle and blocking the road. Too close even to take a good photo. A little bit scary, I must admit, but absolutely magnificent.

There are two other instances that are very memorable and extremely exciting. The first one is another leopard, but this one is vying for an Academy Award. She seems to want to be the next worldwide photo model phenomenon and she is absolutely beautiful.

Then there are the four cheetahs and I have absolutely no words. This mother and her four daughters are putting up another incredible show and we just sit there with our mouths agape.

Let me tell you that if you visit this country, you have to visit Kruger Park. But make sure that you also visit a private reserve … and in that order. You will not regret it; on the contrary, it is an experience you will not forget for a long, long time.

Off to my third and fourth countries, Swaziland and Mozambique, after an overnight stop in Nelspruit. Next week I’ll let you know how those are working out.

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