Chasing Elephants and Decoding Dung: On Safari in Kruger National Park

In the waning pre-dawn blackness of the South African bush, Pat Masabo slides three long, golden bullets into the rifle chamber and locks the bolt handle shut. He clips his ammunition belt around his waist, hands me his backpack, and tells us that during the next three hours we are to walk in a single file line, and that under no circumstances could there be any talking unless he gives the okay.

We were about to leave the safety of our open-air jeep and venture on foot into the unpredictability of Kruger National Park, where hungry lions could attack, elephants could charge, and leopards could pounce. Pat and his trusty rifle were our only protection; the chilly morning air did little to cool my nerves.

That morning we left Pretoriuskop camp, located in the southwestern corner of the park, at around 5:30am, and soon the sun began to rise behind rows of scraggly acacia, painting the sky in streaks of oranges and yellows and blues. Then, with a wave of Pat’s rifle, we took our first steps into the wild unknown of one of the biggest game reserves on the continent. If one of us were to become injured, maimed, or otherwise devoured, the indemnity form in our pockets released South African National Parks from any liability; each of us had, indeed, agreed to put our lives in our own hands after signing on the dotted line:

“I understand that I will occasionally travel on foot or be outside in the veld where dangerous animals will be a risk and SANParks will take steps to ensure the safety of all participants, but will not be responsible for any injuries/loss/death or illness.”

Bush walks can be arranged one or two days in advance directly through SANParks at one of Kruger’s 17 well-maintained camps. The cost is 300 rand, which includes transportation, the services of a guide and tracker, and a makeshift breakfast (more on that below). The promise of unscripted intimacy with exotic wildlife was what drew us into this potentially precarious environment; soon, though, we realized this was as much an insightful bush education as it was a daring bush adventure.

After about 15 minutes we stopped and Pat pointed at a quiet, bearded Canadian, one of seven people in our small group.

“What’s your name sir?,” Pat asked.

“Jeff,” he answered.

“Ok. Jeff. Let’s say Jeff has booked himself at a luxury five-star safari resort. Maybe it’s his birthday, or maybe, hmmm, maybe it’s his wedding anniversary. Jeff arrives at this luxurious resort, and he checks in, and in his room is a very nice bottle of wine. Maybe a very nice Jacuzzi too.

Jeff picks up this bottle of wine and thinks ‘Oooh, this is so nice. This is great.’ And so on that bottle of wine there’s a piece of paper, a note saying happy birthday or happy anniversary. This is really nice paper, alright, in this really nice luxury resort. Well you know what? It’s shit. That piece of nice paper is literally made out of shit.”

Pat’s wry, rambling preamble segued into a colorful lesson on how paper is made from elephant dung just in case, you know, we wanted to try it at home. He picked through the still-steaming pile and sifted it through his fingers, noting how the contents shed light on not only the animal’s eating patterns and the health of its digestive system, but also, sometimes, the vitality of the plants it feeds on. About 100 feet away, Duncan, our quieter, more-reserved guide, silently scanned the horizon for signs of the roaming elephants who’d kindly dropped these ample specimens for us.

We were on their tail, but nothing yet.

Over the next hour or so we frequently paused to study more fresh piles of dung from rhinoceroses (male rhinos stamp and spread their feces to mark their territory, but females drop it and leave it), impalas (males demarcate by blanketing their domain with piles of small, pellet-sized droppings), and giraffes (their tater-tot sized droppings are surprisingly not much larger than those from impalas), but the animals who’d left them had vanished.

Finally, it was time for breakfast: a mini-mart feast of chocolate bars, Doritos, kudu jerky, juice boxes, apples, and lemon biscuits Pat had gathered from the camp convenience store. (Having paid close attention to the demonstrations throughout the morning, Vanessa—who along with her husband, Marco, was with us on our four-day safari—whipped out a bottle of hand sanitizer and assiduously, thankfully, offered it to Pat before he could dig into the communal bag of chips.)

To Pat and Duncan’s chagrin, we hadn’t seen any wildlife, but sometimes, Pat reminded us, animals revealed themselves when least expected. With yellow lemon-biscuit crumbs caught in his stubble, he told about a recent close encounter with a leopard:

A girl had asked him if she could relieve herself behind a nearby bush, so as always he first walked over to take a quick look (without his gun). When he pulled the brush back he found a leopard silently sitting there, defiantly staring back at him.

He slowly backed away and asked Duncan to hand him the rifle. The leopard jumped to its feet, slunk its shoulders low, and began to pace. Gun now in hand, he fired a warning shot at the dirt, about 10 feet in front of the cat, but it didn’t flinch. At this point, Pat prepared the group for the first, warning them that if it didn’t back down he would “have to take a kill shot at the head”.

A few tense seconds passed before the cat sauntered over to a nearby tree, lifted its claws to sharpen them on the trunk as a sign of strength, then decided they weren’t worth the effort and slowly crept back into the undergrowth.

We fortunately experienced no such drama that morning, but Pat’s story was a timely reminder of just how quickly a leisurely walk through the bush could become a test of wills with animals quicker, stronger, and hungrier than we are.

Animal poaching is an ongoing threat to wildlife in South Africa. According to a recent report by Traffic, an organization that monitors the global wildlife trade, 210 rhinos were killed in the country between 2006 and 2009; SANParks claims that 92 additional rhinos had been slaughtered through May of this year, including 33 in Kruger alone.

Rhinos are most coveted for their horns, which are often peddled off to countries in Asia for medicinal use; all animals, however, are viewed simply as sustenance by the desperate, impoverished people in South Africa and neighboring countries like Mozambique and Zimbabwe. When I raised the topic over breakfast, Pat expressed empathy for those suffering people, but still didn’t excuse the act of poaching under any circumstances. “If it were me,” he deadpanned, “I’d give the death sentence for killing an animal illegally—or I’d just shoot the poacher on sight.”

Pat went on and thoughtfully discussed the difficulties that anti-poaching units face in Kruger with limited funding and so much ground to cover. He also praised the park’s decision to pave just a small percentage of the land—about 2% of the roughly 5 million acres—and to prohibit any visitors from venturing off those roads.

In places like Zimbabwe, as well as in private parks where no such rules are in place and off-roading in protected habitats is tolerated, eager-to-please guides often end up chasing down and eventually cornering frightened wildlife to please demanding clients who want close-up photos of a leopard, a lion, or a cheetah in its “natural” habitat.

The unfortunate reality is that poachers don’t just kill animals, they salvage whatever they can from those that are already dead. For this reason, Kruger Park officials collect tusks and horns from dead animals and auction them on the open market, with proceeds going back into the park’s reserves. Sometimes, it seems, the best way for Kruger to win is to beat their opponents at their own game.

We spotted a line of kudu far off in the distance during breakfast, a small herd of impalas peering at us curiously from behind a line of acacia trees, and a hyena bounced past us in the tall brown grass, but there were no lion attacks, no elephant charges, no leopard pounces. Our lives never hung in the balance, and Pat’s rifle, this time, functioned as nothing more than an impressive accessory.

Our guides were clearly disappointed, and so, too, was Jeff and two others in the group who sulked throughout the walk and acted totally disinterested in Pat’s lessons about the bush, about Kruger, and about South Africa. Upon returning to Pretoriuskop, they sullenly clambered off the jeep and skulked away, without so much as a thank you, nevermind a perfunctory tip, for the time our guides spent with us with that morning.

Kruger National Park is not a zoo, and wildlife sightings are never guaranteed, whether on safari or on a bush walk. The thrill of adventure and the risk of (semi-controlled) danger was the lure for all of us that morning, but in the absence of those close encounters, I gained a broader appreciation for the land, the animals, and the people who help protect and maintain this special place. Kruger seems to be in good hands.

In the end, our bush walk wasn’t about action and adventure; it was about education and understanding.

For more on planning a safari, check out BootsnAll’s South Africa travel guide, or look for Africa adventure tours.

Photos by: 1 – Vanessa Diaz, 2 – Anne Thell, 3 – mrschnips, 4 – courtesy of the author. All photos except 3 may not be used without permission.

Filed under: Africa, featured, Wildlife