Day two: Hippo's at four o'clock. Don't shoot!

Trip Start May 25, 2005
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Trip End Ongoing


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Flag of South Africa  ,
Monday, June 13, 2005

Day two got going with an early start. Kyle had mentioned a sweet little bird hide on the lake that is the perfect spot to watch hippos at sunrise. Fantastic. ' Do you guys want to go tomorrow morning then? I don't want to force you, but if you want to then great. What d'ya say?' They never stood a chance.

It's four am when I subtly switch on the lights when I go to put the kettle on, and to their sleep credit, it wasn't long before they emerged, showered and ready to go.

It's quite some feat driving in complete darkness when there are animals wandering around. Although Kyle knew the paths, it is amazing just how strange the place looks from the glare of the headlights. We were the only people around, as regular visitors are not permitted to journey in the dark. But, for the research we had permission, but no one would be coming to get us if anything went wrong.

It was clear where the elephants had been from the HUGE piles of dung and torn vegetation which they had thrown onto the road. It was strange to see this in what is actually someone's front garden, right next to the school, playing fields, golf course, church. You name it, this part of the park has it. Even a small store, but then the place is so big that the permanent employees have to live somewhere. I just wasn't expecting it!

Anyway, the hide was as perfect as Kyle said. The sun gently rose on a still lake with hippos wallowing in the shallows and grazing on the bank. One tiny (well, baby) hippo was trying to eat some weed that just went on for miles, chewing, chewing, chewing, like spaghetti. When it finally couldn't bite through it spat it all back out and turned to go back into the water. Don't go! But then it stumbled so badly it fell into the lake with a loud splosh right on its nose. Ripples fanned out through the water and noses appeared from the deep, all coming to investigate which idiot was making all the noise, belly-laughs floating in disapproval. The birds started to fly down from the roosts, showing there was enough light to risk ground cover, so it was time to move on.

The whole purpose of the trip was to relocate some ground traps that had been set previously for a project investigating insect bio-regulation of invasive plant species. Basically, a trial to see if the introduction of an insect that would only feed on a certain invasive plant could contain the spread of the plant and prevent chemical use for control. The cactus in question is devastating to the surrounding native vegetation. Not only that, it attracts different pests and alters the entire balance of the areas. The traps set allow the insects to fall into the buckets, where they can be counted and patterns of dispersal are then detected. It's a great project.

In order to go and locate the traps using the GPS points recorded previously, a whole entourage had to be assembled. It is impossible to drive through the bush in the southern part of the park in anything other than a bakkie (an open backed truck). The thorns are so dense it prevents anything passing through and scratches cars and humans badly. So we met the rangers who would get us off-road and also take responsibility for our lives. Oh yes indeedy, you really don't go anywhere without trained guards with loaded shotguns. There are simply too many beasts who view humans as an easy meal.

As we pushed our way through to the study sites Mark asked me if this is what I was expecting. I had to answer no. I have seen the open plains often shown in books where thousands of wildebeest can barely be seen through the clouds of dust swirled in the air as they speed across the dry land. And here there were rivers and rocky outcrops and such unforgiving vegetation. But, it was every bit as beautiful and every bit as dangerous. A lot of the aesthetics of Kruger lies in the sheer size of the park and variety of landscapes, plus the changes that occur as the seasons move across the land. It was winter time, and dry, so a good time for animals to congregate around the water as they start to feel the pressure of the land.

We walked quite a distance as we located the sites. In some places the cacti had been pretty much eradicated, while in others the traps needed to be repositioned. The baboons had been having fun digging up the buckets, but there was a cunning plan!

Kyle and Mark had been making metal grids to fix over the buckets, which sounds simple enough. However, this had to be baboon proof (no hands, no arms, no easy release catches), but not prevent any insects from falling in. So, I couldn't help but laugh as everyone took their turn trying to knock the grids into rock-hard earth while standing in the middle of the cacti bushes in the blazing sunshine. It took about ten minutes to get the first one to sit in the correct position, but at least it worked. Well, until we tested it. The grid may be secure, but as the earth was so hard, the tiniest persuasion allowed the tethers to pull free. It wouldn't take the baboons long to work out how to retrieve their free lunch. Back to the drawing board and back to the base. We had to head home before it got too late.

There was just time for a brief Rhino scare. Through such dense bush, anything that cannot be identified is considered a threat, so when someone saw a movement in the distance the rangers demanded everyone get back to the truck. Leaping over mounds of Rhino poo on the way, I felt relieved to know that we had the experts on board. But, if I were a Rhino, how much fun would it be to team up with a lion. You provide the distraction and I'll take them out from behind!

What a great day. Even the drive home was magical. I bought some 'kudu chunks' which is a form of biltong (a dried meat) and was just about to settle back for the journey home, when the ground hornbills arrived. Wow, just the kind of bird you would want to invite to a dinner party. It is completely black with a bright red face and lengthy black eyelashes. I imagined it could tell quite a tale as they wandered up to the car, almost standing up to the height of the window. No hurry, nowhere to go. Besides, they just wanted to cross the road. And then came along the elephants, giraffe, kudu, warthog, snakes........and as if by magic the last sighting of the day was two giant bull buffalo sitting catching the last rays of the day.

Bliss, my animal, my research focus, just sitting there. One of the big five with the capacity to kill in an instant. My trip was complete.

The journey back to the city was hard. It was difficult to imagine spending time in the office over the next few days, difficult to think no more animals would be wandering by as we typed and processed the work. Too bad. We'll just have to make sure to go back very soon. What a great second office, Kruger National Park. Dreams can come true!
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