THE FIRST thing you see on the noticeboard in the Kruger National Park is an appeal to visitors to look out for a particular specimen of Homo sapiens.
In this case the Homo sapiens was featured alongside two other rare species, a wild dog and the Southern Ground Hornbill.
But not any old hornbill. The one ornithologists are keen to spot has a red and white band on its foot. And not any old Homo sapiens either. This one has a mermaid down one arm and a koi fish wrapped around the other.
The only difference between these Kruger Park rarities is that the creatures on the colourful posters, being the ground hornbill and the wild dog, are more than welcome and the Homo sapiens identified on the board is not. It is obvious to those peering at this A4 notice that Oom Rooi Willie – not his real name – is persona non grata in the Kruger.
“Could be a poacher,” suggested one of those present at his unveiling. “More like a nightclub bouncer,” said a woman visitor, peering at Oom Willie’s six-pack. “I mean, what poacher is going to go around half-naked with long hair and a leather hat?”
Deciding he was more a mix of Crocodile Dundee and a Hell’s Angel, it was time to find out more.
Reynold Thakhuli, acting head of communications for SANParks, which includes the Kruger, was just the man to ask.
“Mistake number one,” he said. “The notice was never meant for public viewing. However, since a number of people saw it at one of our camps and commented on it, we do need to put people’s minds at rest. The person in question is not a poacher. The ban was because of an allegedly violent incident involving one of our staff. We are strict about etiquette and behaviour within our park. I think it is best to say no more.”
Phew – that was one rarity to knock off the list.
Next venture was to track down the rare Southern Ground Hornbills, Bucorvus leadbeateri.
We had witnessed a lion kill close to our vehicle and watched a gorged leopard lying astride the branch of a tree, so maybe the ground hornbills were a bit too much to ask for.
But we found them – well, they’re as big as turkeys, so you can’t really miss them if you are in the right area. Our sighting was on the lower Sabie Road just after we had watched a baby baboon trying to do some nursery gymnastics up a small tree.
For the record, the Southern Ground Hornbill is listed as endangered. A number of projects are in progress in Kruger and elsewhere to conserve and re-establish the species in its former numbers.
As a part of this, a number of juvenile birds have been fitted with colour rings to study their movements, territory, foraging range and habitat.
We didn’t see any with rings, but we saw at least five in a single area.
Wild dogs, which we never got to see, hunt in packs and have the most structured social order of the carnivores. They’re led by a dominant male and female, while other members of the pack play a subordinate role to the alpha pair.
Sensibly, they tend to shy from areas dominated by lion and hyena, which is where we were.
“You would be lucky to see them,” our guide, Wabonke, pointed out. “We have about 450 to 500 wild dogs in Kruger and they roam over long distances – up to 250km – and may travel over 50km a day looking for food.”
Apparently they are more commonly seen in the Chobe and Moremi reserves and there are some in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and the Kgalagadi.
I have to admit their hunting behaviour sounds like something out of a Dracula movie.
They are known to hunt at full moon, making a range of chattering sounds, and have a distinctive long-distance greeting call – a sharp “hoo” – that can be heard up to 4km away. During the hunt itself, they are silent.
Once the target has been identified and separated, the alpha male takes the lead and the deadly endurance race begins. They virtually run their quarry to exhaustion.
Once the animal collapses, the dogs begin to feed, even before their prey has died.
And they do it daily, needing more meat relative to their size than lions.
The Mjejane camp, where we stayed, is one of the first privately owned bush camps in the park and overlooks the Crocodile River at the southern end.
Its history is different from the park’s, in that the land was once owned by an African chief, Jejane, and members of his clan, who launched a successful land claim, which was settled amicably, resulting in a timeshare development.
Even better, the nearby community is very much part of the investment, employed in the lodge precinct, and use their income to upgrade homes and provide schools and clinics.It’s a win-win situation.
The nice thing about the development is that the individual lodges are low-key, unobtrusive structures, but with great amenities, such as a splash pool on the veranda where you can sip a gin and tonic and watch elephant pass.
Oh, by the way, sitting out on the veranda one evening, watching – yes, believe it or not – a giant shooting star and a pod of hippos, I saw what looked like a great tail emerging from the still water, wave in the air then disappear with a splash.
Could it have been a mermaid’s tail or a giant koi?
No such luck. Just two hippos playing hide and seek under the water.
Next time I’ll have to see green pigeons and the dwarf blue butterfly with a wingspan of two centimetres, making it the smallest butterfly in the world.
They are around. You just have to stop, turn off the engine, listen to the sounds of the bush and wait. Not a bad idea.
STUNNING VIEWS: Mjejane River Lodge.