Cat House

Nancy Vandermey, Author
South Africa Trip Sept/Oct 00

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In late September of 2000 I went on a safari tour of South Africa organized by Wild About Cats. Going through Frankfurt from Los Angeles, I had two 10 hour non-stop flights to get to Joburg. I'll never fly Lufthansa long-haul again, they have horrible leg & hip room. Although I had also gone on WAC's tour last year, I was going again for several reasons - the itinerary was different, including 2 nights in Kruger Park, and I wanted to go to DeWildt again. Similar to last year, our group arrived from all over on a Saturday, finally all meeting up at dinner at the Carnivore Restaurant. This year's game meat included giraffe, zebra, crocodile, and ostrich. The giraffe and zebra were a bit tough, but interesting. Bob and Gaye at the Somerset Guest House were our hosts once more.

On Sunday we went to the De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Centre. Alan Strachan, the manager, introduced us to 6 young cheetah cubs. Two of them were born at DeWildt, and 4 were wild-born - their mother had been shot by a farmer. Notice the difference between the two litters - mother-raised cubs have darker fur below and a long whitish-gray ruff of fur down their backs. The DeWildt cubs look like miniature adults. They were handraised from birth because the mother rejected them. It's surmised that lack of the mother's saliva prevents the ruff from growing. We had a lot of fun playing with the cubs.

Alan then took us to meet Gillian, mother of WAC's two cheetahs. She was very patient posing for pictures with me and the group. We also saw honey badgers, meerkats, tortoises, several vulture species, and various other animals DeWildt is home to. We went on a driving tour of the large compound, seeing brown hyenas and several breeding packs of wild dogs. We also drove through a cheetah compound, and later visited their small cats - African wild cats and a serval.

DeWildt is particularly known for breeding king cheetahs, a color variation caused by a recessive gene. They have about 40. The same group of 3 kings and a regular cheetah were there that we played with last year, now 2 years old. The one handraised king in the group was as sweet as last year, immediately chewing on my camera bag - maybe he remembered it? One of the other kings jumped up in a tree, as if to get away from us. DeWildt is currently remodelling an old farmhouse that is handbuilt out of stone into a guest house, so they can offer lodging to visitors in the future.

We spent the night at a nearby country club, and early the next morning were picked up by Jeremy and Keith of Far & Wild Safaris, tour guides extrordinaire! The long drive to Kruger was made through a scenic mountainous region. We entered Kruger through Phalaborwa Gate on our way to our first nights' stay at Olifants Camp. Immediately upon entering the park, the game viewing started - with, of course, impala being the first sighting. We also saw buffalo, ostrich, zebra, several elephants, guinea fowl, giraffe, vultures, female kudu, a tawny eagle, and a hippo. The rondovels at Kruger camps are comfortable 2-bed round thatch-roofed huts with a toilet, shower, and refrigerator. Camp gates closed at 6 pm - we had 20 minutes and 20 kilometers to go, with a speed limit of 50 km/h and game sightings around every corner! They locked the gate right behind our bumper.

We were waiting for the gates to open at 6 am to start our morning game drive. Most animals are active near dawn and dusk, settling down in the heat of the day. The hippo above we saw in the Olifants River. On our way to breakfast at Satara we also saw two spotted hyenas and a male and female lion, and a saddlebilled stork (and, of course, lots of the usual - zebra, impala, wildebeest, etc). We saw several of my favorite bird, the lilac breasted roller.

After breakfast were sightings of wildebeest, yellowbilled hornbills at Orpen Dam, eagle owls, waterbuck - females and males, starlings, and a ground hornbill.

We arrived at Skukuza, Kruger's main camp, in time for lunch and to check in to our rooms. Colorful blue agama lizards were on every tree. Then, off for an evening game drive before the gates closed - we spent time watching a herd of 10-15 elephants with young, saw white rhino, and some vervet monkeys. The next morning it was time to leave Kruger. On our way to the southern gate, we saw another hyena next to the road - they use culverts as dens. There were cubs in the den! Also, beautiful male kudu antelope nearby. And two large male elephants, right next to the road. Other visitors alerted us to a lion kill near the gate - a buffalo. We first saw two big-bellied lions sleeping, then came upon the main traffic jam at the kill, and we watched a mother with 3 cubs pull the kill into a gulley out of sight. What a way to leave Kruger!

Next stop was Umfolozi/Hluhluwe Game Reserve. While driving through Hluhluwe we saw giraffe, and watched 3 lionesses attempt to stalk some impala. We saw many white rhino, as this park is famous for them, and nearly single-handedly saved them from extinction. We stayed at Hlatikhulu Bush Lodge in Umfolozi, very comfortable 2 bed thatched cottages with a central dining/kitchen area, and a deck overlooking the Black Umfolozi River. Our game drives in the park were great, seeing many animals every time. Some pictures from there include baboon adults and young babies, a warthog, and a cute impala - we were told the black "M" means they're the McDonald's of the bush. A highlight at this park is going for walks in the bush with an armed ranger - this year, we kept getting upwind of the rhinos, who were very curious about us, especially this long-horned one. I found some cat tracks that the ranger said were from a young leopard. We also saw bushpigs while walking.

From there, we went to a cruise on the St Lucia Estuary. We saw lots of hippos close-up! Also many great birds, including yellow-billed stork, fish eagles, and goliath herons. We spent that night at Cape Vidal, in log cabins on the Indian Ocean coastal sand forest. We swam in the ocean, saw a great sunrise, and I went for a long nature walk, seeing many red duiker, bushbuck, and a kudu.

Then, on to our last stop - the luxurious Phinda private game reserve. This place is pricey, but worth it! They have 4 different lodges spread through the 35000 acre park. We stayed the first night at Vlei Lodge, located on the egde of a marshy grass clearing, and the second night at Rock Lodge, built into a hillside facing Leopard Rock. Both nights were great! Both lodges feature private rooms with individual plunge pools, perfect for skinny dipping. Rock also has outdoor showers! I definitely want to go back to Rock Lodge. At Phinda they feed you 7 times a day, and you get long game drives in an open-air Range Rover morning and night. The ranger/guides are superbly trained in all aspects of the natural history of the surrounding area, including medicinal uses of all the plants and trees. On our first night drive we did find a leopard, but he was walking in a thick bushy area and didn't come out in the open. Our tracker Prince found more leopard tracks, and then said that a lioness with 3 cubs was in one area and would be coming to a certain waterhole at dusk. So, we stopped for our cocktails & snacks at sunset at that waterhole - and sure enough, the lioness & cubs came out of the woods towards us! The cubs even started running towards us, perhaps because we were still on the ground drinking! We quickly got in the vehicle, and watched the lions for a while. The next morning we found that lioness' companion, a pregnant lioness, looking uncomfortably large. We also saw an adorable zebra foal, a malachite kingfisher. We also went bushwhacking on a seldom-used trail after the breeding herd of elephants - we found them in thick brush, glimpsing 10 or so of the 70 elephants through the trees.

Then it was time to transfer between the lodges. Only 3 of us were in one vehicle with Seth the ranger. We told him to find us a giraffe. Coming around a corner - there one was! We saw 4 closeup in all. This was an incredible game drive, especially considering it was noon. We saw rhino, zebra, warthogs, and a male elephant, all up close and active. Since our request for giraffes worked we asked him to find us some cats. "What's in it for me?", he asked. We (well, two of us) said we'd take our shirts off if he found a cat. I suspect he knew what was around the corner - right next to the road, a magnificent male lion was laying!

I took my Tshirt off for the lion. My compatriot, I'll be kind and use her Zulu name "Golizon", suddenly had cold feet and had to be shamed into upholding her end of the deal. I believe the next installment of "strip safari" called for our bras to come off for a cheetah, his pants to come off for a leopard- but I think Seth had it backwards. A short ways down the road, laying in the grass, were...two cheetahs! But Seth tried to claim they were leopards?!? Anyways, we were too busy watching the gorgeous animals and photographing them to continue the game - at that time, at least. We continued to Rock Lodge, and told the others who weren't with us about our great game drive. We also told our regular ranger, Ross. Not to be outdone, when we went out for the evening game drive, he drove straight to the male lion - who hadn't moved from the side of the road! Our tracker Prince then spotted the cheetahs. They were only a short distance away, and were starting to scan the horizon for possible dinner.

These were two males, brothers. They were a coalition - male cheetahs hold territory, while females are more nomadic. Coalitions of cheetahs can hold larger territories for longer, enabling better breeding opportunities. The boys started walking, and then marked their territory. As they continued down the road, we followed. They were heading straight for the lion! Another vehicle was sitting by the still-sleeping lion, as we approached following the cheetahs. I got two photos of the encounter - as the cheetahs approached realizing something was there (there was a cross wind), and after the lion woke up and roared! The cheetahs took off in the opposite direction. Finally the lion was awake, and he went off to hunt as well.

We then saw about 9 rhinos, the male elephant again, a large-spotted genet, and side-striped jackals. To top it off, Rock Lodge had prepared a "bush dinner" - tables, fires, candlelight and all, out in the bush! The warthog meat was incredible. It was our last night in Africa, and we didn't want it to end. Neither did the rangers! I guess they don't get that many young guests, especially groups of women! On the way back to the lodge Seth let me ride in the tracker seat and use the spotlight, and I found a civet. Several of us stayed up most of the night, drinking and talking. But, we were all up for our final game drive in the morning. It was hard to leave.