Swathes of golden brown grass with just hints of green covered the savannah. The bush cover was not dense at all. You’d think it was the dry winter season, but the piercing calls of woodland kingfishers and other migrant birds chirped the songs of summer. And it was a whopping 45 degrees Celsius out there. The Kruger National Park, like most parts of South Africa, is going through its drought cycle and the heat wave it was experiencing when I visited a few weeks ago, made the stark situation indubitable. Yet, neither the heat nor the low rainfall made Kruger calamitous, even if only judged by the wildlife spectacular of my recent trip.
Unlike humans cooling themselves off in air-conditioned vehicles, you’d expect animals to seek refuge in the shade of mahoganies and acacias (vachellia, the new botanic name, doesn’t quite have the same evocative feel). You’d think that in the heat of the mid-day, chances of seeing wildlife out and about are slim, but within the first two hours of entering the Kruger park, our sightings exceeded our expectations.
A white rhino posed against giant granite boulders; both ancient and beautiful. Buffalo cooled off in a mud pool and lay so still as if they were playing stuck-in-the-mud. Lions chose an awkward spot to take a nap in the shade – close enough to keep an eye on their waterbuck kill, but along the busy main road to Satara. If it were me, I’d be annoyed by the constant hum of vehicles and trigger happy tourists. On a later afternoon drive, two bull elephants blocked our path on a dirt road, forcing us to take another route. But this was a blessing as a pride of lions stumbled out of the bush, allowing us a private viewing for a few minutes until another vehicle joined. In contrast, kudu, zebra and wildebeest caused much less commotion.
At 5am the next morning, the temperature gauge read 30 degrees, but grey clouds kept the temperature from rising much further. A morning drive on the fabled S100 road from Satara didn’t lead to any sightings of the infamous Sweni lion pride. Instead there were redbilled oxpeckers grooming the tanned rumps of impala; the curled horns of kudu gracing the stately antelope; and baby waterbuck running towards the safety of their mums. It was a beautiful drive nonetheless.
At Nwanetsi, my love for the bush was reignited. Perched on a cliff overlooking a bend in the Sweni River, with an impressive vista of the euphorbia dotted Lembombo hills bordering Mozambique, the lookout deck at the picnic site is magical. While the rest were having breakfast at the picnic site, I spent a few soulful moments on my own at the lookout point, taking in the freedom of the wide, open space; the purity of the wild, unblemished bush; the peace and silence that brings you closer to the Creator. But others soon joined in my reverie, enjoying the bird’s eye view of a herd of giraffe munching away; the crunch echoing up the cliff walls. Later they joined impala in quenching their thirst in one of the remaining pools of water in the otherwise dry river.
I could have spent hours there, and at the nearby Sweni bird hide. A herd of skittish kudu eyed us curiously from beyond the hide. Taking a roundabout route, they lapped at a pool of green water. Impala entered the scene, getting their shins covered in mud. A lakawaan (monitor lizard) skirted the shore, startling a lamb in the process. Hippos grunted from across another shrinking pool. A crocodile’s eyes emerged from the main pool, edging closer to where the kudu were drinking. But an alert kudu spotted it, sending the kudu darting for safety. If the rains do not materialise on time, these remaining pools could easily disappear.
But it wasn’t the entire park that was gripped with low rainfall. Our journey to the southwestern hills of the park told a different story. As we approached Berg-en-Dal, dark clouds formed a backdrop to the granite koppies, while streaks of lightning foretold the coming drama. Soon the mountains were covered in thick clouds and the heavens opened. The mountains and valleys around Malelane have higher average rainfall than the rest of the park, and provide a refuge from the drought to at least some of the animals. It’s been well documented that Kruger experiences cycles of dry and wet periods. In a way, it purges the system of weaker individuals, and gives preference to those species that thrive in drier conditions. There are still perennial rivers flowing in the Kruger National Park, and animals are better adapted to drought than humans. Perhaps the rains that fell were a reminder that nothing is ever constant, not even in the bush. And despite the circumstances, it’s still possible to find your soul in the bush.