Got this article off IOL this morning - it is really written with love by a true convert. You can almost smell the bush in his discriptions.
Very nice piece and worth a mint in publicity.
Tracking the Milky Way from Kruger Park skies
July 25 2005 at 10:10AM
About 15km south of Olifants camp in the Kruger Park, just off the road to Satara, ranger Julius Mkansi parks the 4x4 in a clearing among the reddening, wintry mopane trees.
His assistant, final-year nature conservation student Brenden Pienaar, hops out and removes three mountain bikes from the trailer, one for each of us.
It's 6am, and the low-hanging mist and moisture in the air hint of unseasonal rain. With the slightest chill we set off down the rocky dirt road, immediately to be confronted by a large hippo bull lumbering across the track, on the way back to nearby Olifants River from his nocturnal feed.
An hour later we drop our bikes and make our way down to the river where we are treated to a classic duel: one hippo bull trying to keep another out of his pool.
'With each star of the cross and the two pointers representing the head of a giraffe'
This activity is an example of the manner in which Olifants camp manager Hein Grobler is pushing the park activities envelope. Later on this evening - clear skies and returning hippopotami permitting - I will be taking part in the camp's stargazing activity, which I'm told involves a monster telescope, biltong, snacks and drinks and trained guides to explain our southern skies. Welcome to the 21st-century Kruger Park.
When South African National Parks started renting out limited sections of the Kruger Park to game lodges a few years back, it was followed by the expected howling controversy: how can the government rent out parts of a national treasure meant for the enjoyment of the population?
Irrespective of the fact that the park hadn't been enjoyed by most of the populace since its inception, the argument of traditionalists and conservationists had merit, not least being the concern that a precedent was being set by reserving sections for exclusive use and thus depriving less moneyed visitors of the chance to enjoy their national heritage.
But life continued in the park with not much change: local and foreign visitors driving the roads, seeing game in the south, birds in the north, elephants all over and locked up safe in camp by sunset, forbidden to drive again until sunrise.
The issue of private lodges faded into the background, with guests happy to pay large sums to enjoy sumptuous accommodation, personal attention and game drives in swish 4x4s at all hours (plus the unheard-of Kruger privilege of leaving the vehicle for evening sundowners and morning coffee... with rusks nogal).
Yet, just as the leaves of the mopane tree change to that magnificent red every winter, so the rest of the Kruger slowly caught up. It came to be generally appreciated that considerable income could be generated by offering attractive activities beyond the legendary walking trails.
The ultimate offering today is to be found at Olifants Main Camp in the eastern part of the northern and central sections of the park, an hour's drive from Letaba and about 20km from the Lebombos and the Mozambican border.
Camp manager Hein Grobler has introduced two activities that five years ago would have been unthinkable - morning, afternoon and daylong mountain biking trails with star-gazing snacks and talks.
"The Constellation of Crux, the Southern Cross," says Brenden - the ranger from this morning's ride and tonight's astronomy guide, leaning over the Meade 20cm telescope - "was a main focus for San people in early times, with each star of the cross and the two pointers representing the head of a giraffe".
While I admittedly can't quite work out the head in tracing the constellation, it does serve to remind us that it wasn't only Christopher Columbus who made use of the stars. Yet the enthusiastic young student, one of six rangers at the camp trained to use the telescope, has more local lore to hand.
"When Canopis is rising in the east (at the beginning of summer), it is a sign for the Shangaan boys prepare for initiation."
The rising of the Seven Sisters is a sign to prepare the lands for planting.
"Daar's 'n gat in die wolke", noticing a gap in a thin cloudbank to the north, Brenden tries to focus on a Saturn suddenly revealed, but as quickly as it presented itself it disappears.
All is not lost, for the moon is full tonight and huge on the horizon. While the brightness of the sky does mean the Milky Way galaxy and other more distant stars are invisible to both naked eye and telescopes, the moon is so large it one-third fills the 'scope.
Juanita Grobler, wife of camp manager Hein, markets this nocturnal Kruger "experience" for the private-sector operation - Astronomy Africa - that runs this outfit as a joint venture (it donated the telescopes and trained the rangers) with Olifants Main Camp.
With an assistant, Juanita loads the tables with snacks, candles and drinks, a welcome surprise at the N'wamanzi viewing point overlooking the Olifants River. Hippos grunting, me dressed in shorts, big moon rising and a glass of wine in hand: there's much to be said for winter in the Lowveld.
The same goes for Olifants camp. I just wish my 10-year-old nephew, who really enjoys the stars and has his own telescope, could enjoy it with me.
We (my parents, sister and son and myself) have come down to Olifants for a family farewell, before my sister and my wildlife-crazy nephew head for life in New York City.
But the residents of the bush naturally win over the stars in his book of preferences, and on this, his first visit to a game reserve, I fully understand why he opted for the night-drive with his mom and grandmother.
It was a good decision too, as on returning from the stars I learn that their drive added hyena and Pel's fishing owl to the leopard, honey badger and elephants he'd already seen.
It took me seven years to see my first Pel's (a special on any bird enthusiast's list) and I've yet to see a badger. Then again, I did get to see Jupiter's equatorial belts and learn that Antares, the heart of the Scorpio constellation, is 7 500 times brighter than the Sun.
If you go
Contact: Olifants Camp: Olifants Rest Camp: 013-735-6606/7
Reservations: SANParks Central Reservations: 012-428-9111
Information: For further information about this and other exciting happenings, call Astronomy Africa: Astronomy Africa (Pty) Ltd,
tel: 011-312-0116, cell 082-901-3796