Spring comes to the Timbavati Game Preserve on the western edge of Kruger National Park not a blade at a time, but in a surge of color. Overnight, trees and bushes that looked lifeless are now dressed in a green hue that grows bolder with each new day. Blossoms pop out; leaves take full shape; grass gets lusher, almost before our very eyes.
There is no time to waste, after all. In this part of the world, growing time is limited. Both plants and animals must take advantage of sparse rains and stingy resources.
But it is a magical time to be here, not only to watch the beginning of nature's grand color show, but also because it's a good time to view wild game. Lightly colored and foliaged trees don't provide the cover that fully staffed ones do, so we can see farther distances. Plus, after a winter of foraging for food among old and brittle plants, birds and animals find the succulent buds of spring a welcome change.
And viewing those animals is what this part of the world is all about.
Kruger National Park is the largest game reserve in South Africa. Covering some 7,332 square miles and stretching 217 miles from north to south and 37 miles from east to west, it is roughly the size of Israel or Wales. The official list of species it accommodates is awe-inspiring: 1,982 plants, 336 trees, 49 fish, 34 amphibians, 114 reptiles, 507 birds, 147 mammals.
We will not see them all in our little corner, or course. Kruger is roughly divided into six different ecosystems, each with varied flora and fauna.
The Timbavati reserve is actually a private game reserve at the edge of the park, sharing an unfenced border so animals can move freely wherever they want. This area is considered "bushveld," covered with shrubs and trees and rocky outcroppings, but also with adequate watering holes and streams. Here, we will not see the huge herds of animals that move across the plains. But we will see enough. In Timbavati, they tell us, 250 species of birds and 24 species of larger mammals have been recorded, and we have a very good chance of seeing many of them.
So it is with a great deal of anticipation that we set out for our first safari ride. We had arrived at King's Camp, which will be our headquarters for the next several days, just a couple of hours earlier, time enough to settle into our luxurious bungalows. It is a small camp, allowing a maximum of 20 guests. Our group of 12 takes up a lot of the room.
For the game drive, we are in open, tiered vehicles that carry six and offer wonderful views in all directions. A tracker/guide sits out on the front of the vehicle to watch for tracks and other signs of animal activity in nearby vegetation.
We have barely left the compound when we spot our first kudu, a member of the antelope family with beautiful markings. Farther on is a group of impala. Next up: elephants, moving through the bush, uprooting small trees with their trunks. Then a leopard perched in a tree eating her kill. And just as the sun was setting, a black rhino. There are only 250-300 black rhinos in Kruger, our guide, Cynet, tells us, compared to about 5,000 white rhinos, so the black siting is rare. Wow, we can't help but think, what an amazing place.
In fact, by the end of the next day's early morning ride, we have seen the Big Five. That is the goal of every safari, they tell us. Lions, leopards, cape buffalo, elephants and rhinoceros those are considered the primo creatures, the prizes of the kingdom, because of their size, their importance in the ecosystem, their potential danger and, in some cases, their rarity.
Those are the ones everyone wants to see, and it is an unbelievable experience to see them in their natural habitats. We are quite happy to check them all off our safari list so early. But there is much more to see. My own personal favorites are the giraffes, which move with such elegant grace considering what should be an awkward shape. We also see them individual males, several in a group, some with elephants and impalas.
We see zebras, nyalas, waterbucks, springboks, hippos (at least their noses, above the water), vervet monkeys, vultures, red hornbills, lilac-breasted rollers and so much more. Our first instincts are correct, this is an extraordinary place.
Our days at King's Camp quickly fall into an easy rhythm. We get a wake-up call at 5:30 a.m. and leave on our morning game drive at 6. We return for a late breakfast and then have leisure time to walk around the compound, lie in our hammock, take advantage of the spa, read, take a nap, whatever. Lunch gets worked in along the way maybe a watermelon and feta cheese salad or cucumber soup and banana bread.
We go out again at 4 p.m. The animals are most active in the early morning and early evening, so the drives are orchestrated to take advantage of that.
There is one hard-and-fast rule: No one is allowed to walk around the compound after dark without an escort. We must call one of the staff when it is time to go to dinner and must wait for someone to take us back to our bungalows after. Although it looks very civilized, we are in the middle of the bush, a fact we appreciate one night as we see an elephant move along, maybe a hundred yards beyond the grassy boundary of the camp.
Over the next few days we discover that we were extremely lucky early on. Not every game drive is as productive as those first two. On one morning we drive for a couple of hours without seeing more than a few impala. What, did their contracts run out, so they've gone home? we joke with Cynet. Do you need to pay them more?
But that's the way of nature: unpredictability reigns. After all, this is a game preserve, not a zoo. That unpredictability adds extra zing to the whole adventure and reinforces the notion that we are the aliens here. Life goes on around us, and we get an ever-so-brief, ever-so-amazing look at it. Even without the big animals, there is much to enjoy in this beautiful place.
Still, nothing beats the excitement of the mammals. When some are sited, word quickly spreads among the vehicles, which are in radio contact with one another, including those from other camps in the preserve. There are rules they must follow about moving off-road and as to how many can be at one site at a time, but they can get us unbelievably close. The animals have come to accept the vehicles as part of their world and feel no threat either from their presence or their noise. Were one of us to step out, however, it would be a different story, says Cynet.
But from our vantage point, there's no need to wish for a better view. We watch and marvel as little dramas play out in front of us. We watch as the leopard leisurely eats her meal in the tree, while a hyena wanders around below, waiting for scraps to drop. The leopard would prefer to haul her catch into the bush and eat on the ground, Cynet tells us, but she knows the hyena would fight her for it.
On another day we do see a leopard sitting at the base of a tree dining on an impala, a male leopard this time. After a while, he seems to be full, so he takes the carcass up into the tree and leaves it, while he goes down to the dry riverbed to sit and watch. His reverie is interrupted, however, when an elephant comes along and charges in his direction.
We watch two mother lions and five cubs lying in the grass. They have pretty much finished up their meal. A couple of the cubs are playing; another has stretched out on his back, looking relaxed and happy. They all look just like overgrown kittens.
Our encounters with male lions come on two occasions, both times after dark. They seem not at all bothered by the lights our tracker shines on them so we can see the magnificent manes and regal posture. One, in fact, is in the middle of the road, calmly grooming his paws. After a time, he stands up, roars a couple of times and ambles off into the bush. Enough entertainment for now.
One of our favorite shows is the day we see three young male elephants playing in the river. It is rare to see them in the water, says Cynet. But they are clearly playing: jumping on each other, splashing and having fun there's no other word for it.We have things in common, these wild animals and us. And they work their way into our psyche in ways that will remain with us long after we have gone. Long after spring has merged into the lushness of summer and summer into the dry season once again, we will ponder what we have seen and experienced in this little corner of the world.