I watched the migration of thousands of common cranes in Hungary and was transfixed by the red-backed shrikes, hoopoes and nightingales of central France. I travelled, too, to India, Australia and most of the great landscapes of the United States. But in over half a century I had never been to the place I had been absorbed with all my life, Africa.
We wanted our son to see Africa and so when he was nine, we joined an Explore family tour to the Kruger National Park in South Africa. In my business, Kruger is one of the most famous national parks in the World and one of the oldest, founded as the Sabi Game Reserve in 1896 and attaining full national park status in 1926. Reputed, as most large places are, to be the size of Wales, it is a large game reserve with a reputation to match.
Our guide, Graeme, took delight in helping the whole of the group learn about all of the wildlife over our three-day exploration of Kruger. For the birders in the party, he sought out and confirmed the identification of the various rollers, kingfishers and birds of prey we ticked off in our ‘Roberts Bird Guide’.
We had a magical and unplanned early morning visit to Lake Panic, a wetland that was home to a myriad of water birds such as the egrets, painted storks and Goliath herons. We watched the jacanas skitter on the lily pads and in the first light of dawn, plumes of steam rose from the slumbering hippos stirring from their night submerged in the lake. Silhouetted against the rising sun, an African darter sat on a dead tree, wings outstretched to dry its feathers. ‘It’s batman’ cried a voice from one of the younger boys in our group.
Graeme’s infectious enthusiasm was matched with his strong opinions on the way the land was managed in Kruger and the protection given to the most poached animals like the Rhinos. Even in this fortified and heavily wardened reserve, one of the premier game reserves of Africa,gangs of heavily armed poachers flew in by helicopter, identified their target and shot the animals, hacking off the horns for sale in the Far East for a reputed $100 000 each.
When Graeme’s fervour got overheated, the more experienced Grant would steer him to a more measured path. Grant had been a stockbroker in the Johannesburg Stock Exchange for 20 years, but he wore his worldly experience lightly, offering only advice to Graeme when invited and dealing patiently with all of our questions on life in South Africa.
Graeme’s training meant that he was authoritative in spotting and explaining the lives of everything we saw, including all the animals of the African bush. For me, the animal I most wanted to see was the giraffe I had been entranced by in the nature programs as a child.
Giraffe’s have similarities to other African cloven hoof animals, but they are patently different as every child knows placing pairs of toy animals on the ramp on their wooden ark. Pablo Picasso said ‘God is really only another artist. He invented the giraffe, the elephant and the cat. He has no real style, He just goes on trying other things. They are both improbably constructed but also the most elegant of all animals fantastically adapted to their home environment. We watched them feeding at the tops of trees and loved seeing the ox-peckers searching in their coats. We thought they looked as though they were made of carpets, complete with tasseled edge.
A great hit with a car-load of teenagers was an encounter with two young giraffes getting increasingly angry with each other and whacking each other with their necks. The great heads swung round tyrannosaur-like with a great ‘thwack’ as one neck landed a blow on the other. This went on for some time until a third female giraffe appeared. Graeme explained she was the cause of the fighting and then the giraffes disappeared into the giraffe-high scrub. It is quite amazing how large animals nearly 20ft high and weighing three tons can ‘disappear’ in such a short distance of African scrub.
Our encounters with the wildlife and people of South Africa did not disappoint at all. It left me with a love of the place and a desire to return. Central to the success of our family visit was the Explore package which went much more than a seamless set of travel arrangements. Our guides, Graeme and Grant were expert and fantastic at enthusing children with everything about the country. Their knowledge and passion for the life of this fast-changing but ancient country left us all enthused by the place.
Jim has worked in conservation and countryside management all of his working life and has had a love of nature for as long as he can remember. He has travelled extensively across all of Europe, much of the US and Asia and to New Zealand and Australia. He is a regular blogger and has contributed scholarly and more popular articles in many professional publications. More recently he has started writing for a wider audience with regular columns in countryside magazines where he explores the relationship of people and the landscape. He is willing to take on written commissions. http://www.jdpeakscapes.co.uk