Kruger Christmas 4: 2016, Why You So Mean?

The news of Carrie Fisher’s death was a blow. 60 seems way too young for such a vibrant, witty, irreverent survivor to go. The zeitgeist of the year says that it’s uniquely awful. 2016 is being talked about as if it’s a curse, springing ridiculous political twists and mowing down beloved public figures.

Of course, more than a few people have pointed out that when many of our celebrities are baby boomers, born from 1945 to 1950, we’re going to start seeing a lot of attrition. Other wise folks have pointed out that social media is locking us into the 24hr news cycle–where outrage follows disaster follows farce. Sadly, most of the world now seems to believe that we’ve entered a dark time.

That’s because most people don’t know the underlying trends, and confuse incidents with the direction of events. Even worse, trends respond to sentiment, and this pessimistic outlook in the face of what could honestly be described as a golden age for humanity, could be dangerous.

Famine has more or less disappeared since the 1940s. For the first time in the history of humanity. Child mortality has plummeted. Birth-rates even in “developing” nations are rapidly dropping to the levels of wealthy countries. Absolute poverty is declining around the world. More people die in car accidents and suicides than from war and murder, and not because car-accidents and suicides have increased by much. Even cancer rates in developed nations, in direct contradiction to exploitative conspiracy sites like naturalnews.com, are down–partly because smoking rates continue to fall. Installing new solar energy plants is now cheaper than building any other kind of energy production per megawatt. Cheaper even than wind power. We can see a future of incredibly cheap, totally clean energy just on the horizon.

The future for humanity, barring unforeseen disaster, is looking pretty cushy. But this comes at the expense of the other organisms on the planet.

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Kruger is a time capsule. A little piece of the South Africa that was before the 20th Century. A place that was as rich a haven for indigenous trees and animals as it was for indigenous humans. Now the majority of South Africa is given over to human-made landscapes. Agriculture doesn’t approve of bushveldt trees and marauding elephants. Not to mention feisty lions. Without the environment, smaller mammals, birds, and insects are rarely able to adapt.

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As we find ever more ingenious ways to eradicate deprivation among humans, the situation for the environment is likely to deteriorate further. Clean energy may eventually halt global warming and reduce pollution. But it’s unlikely to reverse habitat destruction.

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Many, perhaps most, of the visible species of animals may become extinct in the next hundred years due to this encroachment. We’ll likely live in a world that is easier and safer, but considerably less interesting. So a place like Kruger has become truly precious. The wilderness that once threatened us is now a place of peace and nostalgia.

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Although we’ve already lost so much, it may be wise to soak up as much as we can now. Because much of it will be gone within my lifetime. People outside the Middle East should be much more worried about that than about Islamic State, which is losing its absurd battle to reverse the tide.

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Kruger Christmas 3: Bark! Bark!

Our luck wasn’t on today. We drove the 22km Sweni Road–allegedly famous for its lions–and saw little. This afternoon we drove 45km to Orpen camp and 45km back. This morning everything had happened on that H7 road, including the appearance of a large pack of Wild Dogs. We did see some lions on the other side of the river. They were living up to their names–lyin’ around. No dogs.

So today I’m all bark, no bite. The bushveld trees are beautiful in form, as illustrated superbly by my father’s recently departed buddy, Malcolm Funston, in his book. But they’re also beautiful in texture. So, stealing an idea from my old man, I present a series of pics of the wonderful textures and colours of these trees.

Jackal Berry Tree

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Marula

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Fever Tree

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White Seringa

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Russet Bush-Willow

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Knob Thorn

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Back to regular programming tomorrow.

Kruger Christmas 2: The Bird Is The Word

We’re having our Christmas braai (barbecue) in Satara rest-camp–my favourite place to spend the holiday. While Cape Town is a mad fiesta of tourist-packed partying, in this part of Africa they barely seem to know it’s Christmas. Just the way I like it.

Our circle of rondawels is beset by raiding Vervet Monkeys, and a scavenging Banded Mongoose. Satara is the best camp for animal visitors. We hope that the African Wild Cat will come around–pretending to be a domestic cat to attract food–and the lumbering Honey Badger patrolling for scraps.

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The 90km drive from Skukuza to Satara was mostly about birds. New sightings for us, like the bird I thought was either some kind of chat, or a flycatcher, and turned out to be a Chat Flycatcher. Some rarities, like this Ground Hornbill–the largest hornbill in the world and, yes, they can fly.

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We found a tree in which White-Backed Griffon Vultures shared the branches with a Steppe Eagle.

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Crouched on the remains of a carcass, the largest vulture in Africa, the Lappet-Faced Vulture. It has the largest wing-span of any terrestrial African bird. It’s huge beak gives it the authority and power to take a first turn at tearing open the hides of the dead.

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After yesterday’s extreme temperatures (The White Whale’s thermometer registered 50 degrees celsius), it was cool and overcast all day. Aparna spotted a Bateleur eagle (acrobat, or tumbler, from the French. Mountain Chicken in Afrikaans) drinking from rainwater collected in a rocky depression.

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A cluster of cars suggested lions, but turned out to be–as far as we could tell–a young Martial Eagle trying to catch a little grazing Steenbok.

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It’s a huge, powerful eagle, and a Steenbok is not out of the question. But this one was apparently too inexperienced. The Steenbok didn’t even feel the need to leave the area.

We saw a lot of giraffes. More than ever before. But no tremendously exciting animals until we were almost at Satara. We found this elephant with huge tusks eating a bush by the side of the road. When it took notice of us, and began approaching, we made ourselves scarce and headed on to camp.

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Kruger Christmas 1: Road Mayhem, Curiousness, And The Generosity of Online Friends

You can never go home again. But you can go back to the Kruger National Park, which is even better. This is our fifth annual pilgrimage to the near-changeless Kruger. The only place where the smell of a state-run public loo fills my heart.

We’re in Skukuza rest-camp, the largest camp, centre of park administration, and yet a wonderful place. But it’s hot. This morning it was 33 degrees celsius at 9 a.m., with 57% humidity, meaning that espressos needed to be drunk in the air-conditioned restaurant, rather than overlooking the broad Sabie River–the site of so many elephant shenanigans.

Our scheme since last year has been to stick to the highway East from Johannesburg until we hit Malelane gate at the South of the Israel-sized park. That way the journey to our first camp is through the park itself, where encounters are much more pleasant than on the roads outside. Ridiculous marketing concept though it is, we saw four of the “big five,” on the way from the gate to Skukuza–a 60km drive. Best of all was this old rogue:

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Just lying under a tree by the road, this old cat had one dull, presumably sightless eye. It doesn’t seem to have slowed him down. He looked fit enough.

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It was wonderful luck. Not long after we arrived, he got up, had a scratch, peed, and wandered over to our car (so that Aparna got a great Instagram-able phone pic) and disappeared into the bush.

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We drove with the windows open despite the 40 degree heat. The sky was all pastel thunderclouds.

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The thing that really makes me feel like I’m back where I should be is the call of the Woodland Kingfisher. The descending trill of this beautiful forest kingfisher is the sound of summer for me. Aparna took this in her ongoing quest for the perfect picture of one of these birds.

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Getting off the highway and into the park was almost blissful. The road was jam-packed with traffic. And people weren’t treating the blinding downpour in the hills west of Kruger with the respect it deserved. A long delay was revealed to be the result of a collision.  Shocked passengers of a minibus sat or lay on the roadside by their wrecked vehicle. A devastated man searched for belongings in the smashed remains of his hatchback. But the likely cause was a truck that lay on its side in the ditch by the bridge. I’d be surprised if the driver survived.

You always leave something behind on trips. We were eighty kilometres out of Cape Town when I started talking about getting some song-writing done in the park. I paused and said, “I didn’t bring my guitar, did I?”

After a call on Facebook, a friend I’ve never met, Sashien Singh, offered to lend me one in Johannesburg. We left the marvellous friends we stayed with in Melville, and met him in his family garage full to the brim with guitar-making apparatus and half finished instruments. One of the funniest guys I know online and wonderful in real life, it turns out.

Our stay in Colesburg was a trip back in time. The Merino Inn Hotel (why both?) had comfortable modern rooms, but the common areas were straight out of the early eighties. A life-sized buffalo sculpture. Animal heads. Bentwood chairs. And a jumping castle. It’s what I remember from then, but Aparna looked a trifle bewildered.

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