After settling in, it’s time for the night safari, the first of four game drives we’ll be able to take during our stay. Because of the existence of so much water in this particular part of the park, our guide Jared—a 26-year-old licensed guide wizened by years in the bush and a little over three years of experience as a guide—points out that it makes it one of the most game-rich areas of Kruger, a fact we would find out for ourselves over the next two days. Jared does the driving and a tracker sits on a small seat attached to the fender on the left side of the game vehicle. The tracker is basically the eyes and ears of the game drive, and an experienced bushman who knows where to look to seek out and find the game. Zebras are the first herd we spot, grazing lazily in the brush, but at the same time, incredibly alert and aware. Most of the animals in the reserve, Jared explains, have become used to the game vehicles, and the guides are very skillful in dealing with their varied behavior patterns to avoid conflict with them or bring them to the point where they or their herd feel threatened.
And there’s a very good reason why these guides have developed those skills. Each guide on a game vehicle is required to carry a high-powered rifle on every game drive and Jared says he does everything possible to ensure the rifle stays in its pouch. The law says that while the guides are responsible for the safety of the passengers in the vehicle, they can’t fire on a charging animal—be it a lion, elephant or whatever—until the animal is within 33 ft. of the shooter, which gives only a second or two to get off a shot that will stop the animal in its tracks. A pretty close window and a good incentive to learn the best ways to minimize the threat of that ever happening.
Before darkness sets in, we see a variety of animals—from impalas, gazelle and water bucks, to zebra, giraffe and elephants. It’s a particularly good time to be here because this is the time of year the babies arrive. There are baby elephants no more than a few weeks old toddling under their mother’s massive body as she forages for food. It’s hilarious to watch some of the older baby elephants who have just come of age go out and try their hand at foraging themselves, because they’re just learning how to manipulate their trunks—an appendage that has tens of thousands of muscles and nerve endings the elephant must learn to manipulate because it’s their primary tool. They curl and uncurl it, staring crossed-eyed at it as if it had a mind of its own. It’s like watching a 1-year-old human toddler who just learned how to stand up take its first step as it careens across the floor.
Despite the familiarity of the safari vehicles, the animals, in particular the elephants, will only take so much familiarity and they have a very intimidating way of telling you it’s time to move on. In fact, one young bull flexes his muscles and stomps towards us, flapping his ears and stomping his feet, bellowing at the top of his young lungs. It’s a little nerve wracking for the new guy, but Jared just laughs and says, “That’s just the young bull. He’s trying to intimidate us, he’s harmless.” Maybe so, but the intimidation factor works for me.
At sunset, African tradition wins out with the traditional sundowner cocktail time. Here you are in the middle of nowhere and the guide and the tracker set up a table with snacks and start serving cocktails. Within a short while, night settles in quickly, like God himself turned off the light switch. But then the stars start appearing, slowly at first, then, magically, the sky is lit up like a giant silver torch with the Milky Way spread across the sky like a giant beacon, something you’d never see in a so-called civilized setting. There is nothing like an African sky deep in the bush. It’s mesmerizing, made all the more so by the sounds of the animals in the darkness, and the scurrying and the rustling in the savannah as the nocturnal animals check in for the night shift.