Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - TRAVEL 2013 - LIZ CLARKE

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.

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