We left our rental car at another lodge at the Pilanesburg park and were picked up and transported to Tsukudu Lodge. There were 132 steps up to the lodge (which is the only thing I’m not going to miss about this place). We arrived to our cottage (1 of 6 on a hilltop overlooking a watering hole and a great valley that attracted a number of animals.) and were there long enough to put down our stuff and return for high tea at 3:00 - generally some type of salad, some type of a hot dish, cheese and crackers, and some dessert. Then we were whisked off on our first drive with a family from Utah. Our guide, Shawn, who ended up driving us on every trip, asked what we wanted to see. Having missed the elephant the first time around, we said we wanted to see those and otherwise just show off the beauty of the park and it’s animals. Our first sighting was of rhino – there were 3 including a 3-month old baby that Shawn watched being born. Then she said “gotta go” because something had come over the radio about a sighting (the guides speak in Afrikaans when they’ve spotted something) and we needed to get there. A few minutes later we arrived to find…ELEPHANTS! And more elephants, and still more elephants! We were surrounded by probably 100 of them…on the road, crossing the road, next to us, behind us, in front of us. Several times we had some come to check us out. And they had several babies (one 2-3 weeks old) with them and they still seemed totally unconcerned about our presence. They were close enough to us that…well…did you know that elephants have very long eyelashes??? We probably spent 30 minutes just sitting there before we were ready to move on and the road was clear enough for us to do so. It was spectacular. I learned that elephants live about 60 years because they have 6 sets of teeth that last about 10 years each. When they’re done with teeth that’s it…they essentially starve to death although Shawn says they usually get “taken down” before then (a euphemism for hunted by predators). They eat constantly and they are incredibly destructive creatures. They snap off tree branches with their trunk to eat the bark and layer just inside the bark and also use a combination of their trunks and feet to rip bushes off of the ground. They apparently don’t have very good digestive systems and therefore need to eat 200 kilos of food a day (about 440 lbs of leaves and grass). Shawn insisted we smell fresh elephant dung which she handled – surprisingly fresh like hay.
Next up, giraffe, wildebeest, and a stop for a “sundowner” (drinks and snacks at a place to be able to watch the sunset). The nighttime drive is to search for the cats and other nocturnal animals. Lions and leopards are the prizes (I was wrong when I said last post that we were after cheetah as one of the Big 5 – it was leopard). If we saw any, it would be lions. Leopards apparently are very shy and are hard to find because they don’t vocalize the way lions do, and there is only one cheetah in the park). Did I mention that it was cold? Biting cold??? When the sun goes down and you’re driving in an open game vehicle with the wind, it is nasty cold. Pilanesburg park is a desert climate zone so the temperatures can go below freezing and above 120. Our temps were probably between 45 and 70, although the sun really warms things up nicely. They do provide nice wool blankets so that it’s not that bad if you’re dressed properly. The second half of the trip was after dark, and the way they do that is to have spotlights on the side of the vehicle, and then the guide sweeps a light (very powerful) back and forth. The goal is to look for the eyes of the animals. We saw black-backed jackel, a spotted eagle owl, and a steenbok, which is the tiniest member of the antelope family. The owls were often found sitting in the middle of the road as it is apparently easier to catch the rodents who are running across the street that way (seems like cheating to me…). No lions, though. Shawn was convinced that we would see some in the morning, though, and suggested leaving an hour earlier in the morning. So, we turned around and headed back toward the lodge - there were the elephants again. Still in basically the same area, still eating away, still crossing in front of us back and forth. One was apparently pretty tired and laid down to nap for a bit. We had no idea how long we were going to be sitting there and watching. Turned out to be not such a long time – 5 minutes maybe before it got up and ambled away. Then we saw a hippo out of water (eating, of course) and finally made it back about 3.5 hours later. We had enough time to drop off our stuff before we returned for our 6 course dinner! Gourmet, of course. Tonight it ostrich filet (pronounced fill-it here) with risotto…this was the fanciest place I’ve been to where I could hang out in jeans and a sweatshirt and not feel severely underdressed.
Here’s the general schedule for this place: 6 am wake up, 6:15 tea and biscuits, 6:30 leave on the morning drive (scheduled for 3 hours), 10:00 am brunch, 3:00 high tea, 3:30 leave on the afternoon drive (scheduled for about 4 hours), and then dinner at 8:00. Eat, sleep, drive – that was about all we did. On day 2 however, we’re searching for lions so were up at 5 and off by 5:30. Fabulous!