Published in the Battle Creek Enquirer
I’m not sure it’s morning before the sun has peeked above the horizon, but our local Shangaan ranger, Elvis (really his name!), knocked on our reed and thatch hut at 5:30 a.m. and brightly said “Morning, morning, morning.”
The flickering light of oil lanterns allowed us to fumble our way to the ensuite bathroom. Staying at Umlani Bush camp in the Timbavati Private Game Reserve meant you lived without electricity. Pulling on layers of clothing, hats and gloves, we stumbled down to the traditional boma enclosure around the fire where other bleary eyed travelers gathered. We downed hot coffee and rusk, a cross between corn bread and a granola bar, before we trundled off to the 12 passenger Land Rovers.
The sun started its glorious accent into the morning sky. Our tracker, Eric, sat in a special seat off the front of the vehicle while Elvis drove. The rest of us huddled under blankets and peered around the brush, dry and brown because it was winter on the western boundary of South Africa’s Kruger National Park.
Each day, we had no idea what the morning would bring. We might bump around the dirt tracks and see only birds. The goal, however, was to spot the Big Five —lion, African elephant, cape buffalo, leopard, and rhinoceros. I was looking for the zebras and giraffes myself.
As we drew up to the waterhole, we came upon hundreds of cape buffalo. These huge animals stared at us as we drove right through their herd. Over in the waterhole I could see just the back of a large hippopotamus. Elvis maintained that this hippo really needed to go find a girl hippo, but he had “missed the train.”
When it was time for the bush coffee break. Elvis stopped the Land Rover and we all piled out while he set up coffee and more rusk. On the way back to the camp, we followed a rhino, but the closer we got the faster he ran away. Back at the camp we ate a full hot breakfast. It was 9 a.m.
Sleeping, reading or hot shower filled the time until lunch, another excellent meal on the deck overlooking the dry riverbed and the waterhole. My first giraffe ambled into view. Completely unplugged, we moved with the sun.
At 3:30 we hastened back to the Land Rovers with a livelier step. Soon we saw a herd of elephants. Elephants live in family groups, and this family included several babies as well as some old bull elephants with tusks. That afternoon, Elvis tracked both a lion and a leopard. We came upon a pride of lions, three lionesses and nine cubs devouring a buffalo that the lions had brought down earlier that day.
It was after the evening sunset cocktail break and nearly dark when Elvis spotted something going on in the riverbed. We took off at breakneck speed and came upon a leopard eating its freshly-killed antelope. That leopard was chased away by a bigger leopard, and then another leopard chased that one away. Now we had seen the big five. We would see them again. Before we left Umlani, we would also see wart hogs, zebras and a rare white lion.
Dinner was a candlelit affair, with local dishes like antelope and more spirits, eagerly poured by camp founder, Marco Schiess. Some time around the fire and we headed back to the hut and fell into bed. It was 8:30 p.m. An amazing, almost unbelievable day in the bush.
If you go:
Umlani Bush Camp http://www.umlani.com