Forest in the bush
3:00 am. The city is silent.
My neighbours are leaving for Kruger too, and I slip two boxes of stuff into their car for collection at Satara. I look at the rest of my luggage and realize that in true Churchill fashion, there should be a parrot in a cage to complete the full picture…but I feel very brave, since I had a swig of Rescue Remedy to calm my mounting excitement enough to sleep a bit.
By 5:15 the whole convoy to Kruger turns in an easterly direction. Jubatus and I travel together and her family in the other vehicle. By the time I reached her house, I was taught a lesson in packing a vehicle, after thinking that a mouse will break the camel’s back, a watermelon and more stuff is added…The Rescue Remedy is utilized once more…
At Belfast, the temperature drops to 13 degrees and shivering holidaymakers walk briskly into the Wimpy with shorts and jackets to get a steaming cup of coffee. We have acon and beggs and chatter excitedly. Then we hit the country road, Dullstroom, Lydenburg and on to Sabie. The morning drizzle started to clear and the beauty of lush green hills soothe our weary souls. On the horizon, the mountains are covered with indigo clouds. Jubatus looked at me and rolled her eyes – the Long Tom Pass covered in thick mist is not a joke to navigate – but I smiled, knowing that it doesn’t matter what condition we meet, we would be all right. The road to Dullstroom looks like a meadow, truly a wild flower garden with a spectacular variety of species that will delight anyone. The added bonus of this wetland is of course bird sightings, and especially raptors. On our way, we spot Steppe Buzzard, Yellowbilled Kite and Jackal Buzzard.
As we wind our way down the mountain pass into the Lowveld, or rather Slowveld, the temperature starts to climb. We stop at a fruit stall and have a wonderful sighting of a Longcrested Eagle on a telephone pole. Onwards to Hazyview where we would stop for fresh fruit at the vendors and then the road to Kruger Gate. (Yes, there was still space enough for mango’s and litchi’s!)
Why not Phabeni gate some would ask, but for us, it is custom to enter at Kruger Gate. It is something about stopping on the bridge and waiting for the African Fish Eagle’s call to welcome us, the bridge that divides two worlds. And besides, we need to check the statue of Oom Paul, hoping that his solemn face would smile after all this time…but also, we needed to see the latest fashion of carvings along the road, especially the cheetahs and chickens, as these would have us in stitches. This time, it was not the serenely smiling cheetahs, but the kudus, with eland bodies and narrow heads that made us laugh for many kilometers afterward.
Soon enough, we were on the bridge crossing the Sabie River, and the dry sandy beaches I had seen in September, were replaced by a river, gurgling its joy as it rushed through the green reeds and over the rocks. Jubatus and I kneeled on the bridge to kiss the ground. The rest of our family looked skyward in embarrassment – whilst the two of us found out how damn hot tar can get in December! Our sacred moment rather fast forwarded, we stood up with tears of joy as we wiped our burning hands on the seats of our pants.
I left Jubatus and the rest of the family at Skukuza at about 12:30, eager to arrive at my final destination – there were still a few hours of driving ahead of me, and by now the temperature was a sizzling 32 degrees. On my way to the Sabie low-water bridge, a white rhino crossed the road and scampered into the dense Sickle bush. Lesson one for summer trips to Kruger, sometimes, trying to take a picture of a sighting can prove to be very frustrating, so rather enjoy the moment.
I slowly crossed the low-water bridges of the Sabie and Sand rivers – both were flowing strongly and the sound of water on this summer’s day seemed very very inviting, until a lazy crocodile floated to the surface. I sighed, content with the smell of water and knowing that this abundance will provide an oasis for the animals.
The road to Tshokwane yielded a lush landscape filled with impossibly green veld and trees and of course, herds of impala with packed nurseries of tiny lambs. By now, most of them were lying down in the shade, their eyes shut, guarded by three or four ewes and the ever present centuries. Did I imagine a shimmer of intense pride in their eyes as I watched this picture of life? Their coats glossy and bodies plump from the plentiful gifts of mother earth.
At Tshokwane I bought ice-cream, feeling like a child again, the memories of December holidays flooding back as I journeyed on. To my amazement the N’waswitsonso river had large pools of water! It was a first for me, but then, the environs of Tshokwane looked like a new landscape – I looked in amazement at the green grass which almost appeared like a manicured lawn. Leeupan, Silolweni Dam, Mazithi Dam, Nwatinungu water hole and Kumana dam were bursting their banks. Where sad sights had met me in September of winter’s sparing remains, there was a song of utter joy that carried over the land. I have been to Kruger numerous times in December and never have I seen the Park in such splendour. At Kumani Dam, a large herd of waterbuck lie in the tall grass and the hippos frolic in the water.
Close to the Sweni river crossing, a small herd of buffalo graze between the Lala palms – by now the urgency to arrive at my destination keeps me from tarrying, as the heat and long journey started to sap my energy. Yet, crazy as it seems, I refused to close my windows and turn on the air conditioner, not wanting to miss one sound, not wanting to exchange one breath of fresh air for anything less. At this stage, I considered taking a quick dip into Satara’s pool before I carried on with my last stretch, but one quick view to my back seat, made me realize that it would take me an hour to get through all the baggage to get to my kozzie. I need to note here that before I left Skukuza, Jubatus added a few more things to the vacant front seat…
My thoughts wandered, my eyes roamed, and then the two collided as they screamed: LIONS! Wide awake now, I backed up a little and there they were, a mating pair in the shade of a small shrub. A bit far-off for that spine-tingling-photo-moment, but, it was my “own” lions and I felt proud of my emerging “bush eyes”. Spotting cats in this dense grass is kind of good! I sat a while, hoping that the lioness would lift her head for long enough so that I could take a “reference” photo, but after a while, the inevitable happened – she slept on and the cars started to pile up. It was time to move on.
A few meters after the H6 turn off, an ellie bull was browsing in the shade of Knob Thorn. Well, a little impressed, I four-fived, all that was missing was a sighting of my namesake, but leopards have their own time in showing themselves. By now, I felt a little shaky, and pressed on. The heat was oppressing, yet all the while, clouds started to gather on the horizon.
If I had seen amazing transformation previously, the road to Orpen gate held some more surprises. I had vistas of park-like gardens, a veld blessed with the richest of greens, cool, inviting spots where dense leaves cast dark shadows. Passing Bobbejaankrans lookout, I start to anticipate the moment where the road enters the small stretch of riverine trees – fondly known in our family as “tree road”. This small stretch has a resident baboon troupe, it is also home to a small herd of Nyala and often we would find elephants and kudu in the shadows of the trees. The last spoil of this beautiful spot, is to drive very slowly with open windows to have the car filled with the rich herbaceous smell of the Patatobush (Phyllanthus reticulates). This is the “gate” to Orpen and my beloved Tamboti camp, it is when the bush finally embraces me fully and my soul knows that it has come home.
As always, the last reserve of energy is opened, and I feel vitalized again. At Orpen I am met by the friendly staff, and after a chat, booked into my tent. As I turn onto the familiar road, I am met by the gentle “teeyoo-teeyoo” calls of the Senegal lapwings. The moment arrives when I drive over the grid at the gates of Tamboti. I am finally and truly home. The little forest in the bush, the place where the energy of age old trees is tangible.
As I walk down to my tent underneath the canopy of trees, surrounded by thick shrubs and creepers, I notice that the pathway is lined with flowers - Black-eyed Susan’s flowering gaily. I smile to this very welcome touch. My tent entrance has an old Jackalberry tree that spreads its branches over the roof. I sit down on the steps and just breathe, feeling the cool shade on my skin. The dreaming, yearning and longing finally over, I am here and the forest has kept my soul safe.