Jun 24

PV015: African Big 5 Safaris

by in Postcard Valet, PV-Podcast, Travel, Videos

Way back at the end of May, we embarked on a private safari of the Kruger National Park with African Big 5 Safaris.  I spent the following week working hard on editing the video and it’s since been an ordeal trying to get it online.  As you may have suspected, internet connectivity in rural Africa is slow and expensive (when it’s available at all.)  Livingstone, Zambia was the first city we came across since wrapping the edit that was big enough (and touristy enough) to have a worthwhile connection and it still took me three days to upload the 315MB video file to our website.

Yes, 315MB.  It’s a big one!

We had a fantastic time on this safari!  Really, I’m quite sure it’ll go down as one of the most memorable excursions on our year-long trip!  Because we had so many stories to tell and so much good footage to share, I couldn’t make myself trim anything else out.  The resulting video is almost 30 minutes long and, yes, I know, that’s a lot to ask from your typical internet audience.  All I can say is that Oksana and I have watched it quite a few times now and it still holds our attention.  I hope it’ll hold yours, too.

If the downloading is going slow, why don’t you let it buffer and click on over to African Big 5 Safaris’ website?  Browse around. We also have a tour review up on our Recommend Tours page. If you’re in the market for a safari in the Kruger National Park, you can’t do any better!  (And if you weren’t thinking of going on a safari before this, I trust the video will change your mind.)

Leave a comment to let us (and Marcel and Retief) know what you think!

African Big 5 Safaris
Kruger National Park
The Story of Duke
Our tour review of African Big 5 Safaris

The following is a transcript of the above video for Google’s benefit (ignore it, watch the video instead!)

Postcard Valet Travel Podcast
Episode 15 – African Big 5 Safaris

Africa!  We were so worried, coming to this continent.  Mostly due to ignorance because we just don’t know enough.

Before we came to South Africa, we knew very little about Africa in general and we were significantly concerned.

But… we really didn’t have anything to be worried about.  One of the very favorite things we’ve done here – and not just in South Africa, but in our entire trip – is go on a safari in the Kruger National Park.

(Marcel van Deventer, Owner & Guide, African Big 5 Safaris)

The Kruger National Park here in South Africa was proclaimed as a wildlife reserve by President Paul Kruger around the 1900s.  It only gained national park status at around 1929.

(Retief Barnard, Owner & Guide, African Big 5 Safaris)

The biodiversity in Kruger is just extraordinary.  If you’re looking for birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, plant life… Kruger has got it all!

Kruger is so large that, even with four days of driving around, we only got to see about 20% — actually, probably a little bit less.

We were very fortunate to find out about African Big 5 Safaris.

Hunters in the old days referred to the big five as the five most dangerous animals to hunt in Africa.

The big five are lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo.

There’s a big possibility that it’s likely to see all five on a four-day trip within in Kruger National Park, but animals don’t read books and clearly we don’t book them so whatever you see will depend a lot on luck.

We took a four-day, three-night private safari with Marcel and Retief.

You’re up at 5am and you’re out at the gate, waiting for the gate to open before 6am.

Well, a typical itinerary would be to spend as much time out in the bush as possible.

From there we do morning drives, afternoon drives, maybe full-day drives, stopping for picnics and having a lovely braai at night.

On the very first day, on our afternoon game drive, right after we left the gate, we come across these cars parked on the road.

And Marcel stopped to ask them what they were looking at and they said, “Didn’t you see it?  It was a leopard; he just crossed road and went into the trees!”

(Did you see the leopard?
Leopard?  Where is it?
It’s walking off – it’s not too far away from us…)

So we stopped and we waited and we saw nothing.

(…night, you know. It’s very nice of him telling me, but it doesn’t help me one bit, you know?  But I know I would do the same thing. I would also say, “Ah, you won’t believe it–“Some zebra there!)

Then, later on, on the same game drive on the way back, another car had stopped and said exactly the same thing, “Did you just see the leopard?”

(Oh, I cannot believe it!  Twice.  Twice!
(Did you see the leopard?
Never in my life has that happened!
We waited as long as we could with the gate closing—
Oh, no.  Sorry, guys.  If we just had some more time!)

And no, no leopard.

After that, every single game drive, we were looking for a leopard!

That became a theme for the whole four days, which is: Marcel promising us a leopard and us teasing him when we don’t get one.

We would see the most amazing sights and then we would fake disinterest and go, “Yeah, that was nice and all, but Marcel, you promised us a leopard…”

We came across an oxpecker getting up close and personal with an impala…

And two hyenas that were right out on the road.  One of them walked up the road towards us, looked at us for awhile, and then crossed the road and took off. Every time we saw something incredible, we teased him mercilessly.

We got so close to some of the elephants. Sometimes they were right outside of our car door.

(What’s she doing there?
That’s what we call, sometimes we call it, well… that could be just getting some dust off the branches, off the grass.  But often what they’ll do is they’ll mock feed.  See like there?   Now she’s just getting dust off the roots and now she’ll be eating it.  But often you’ll see them putting grass in their mouths and they’ll just let the grass fall out.  They’ll chew, but nothing’s going in, because it’s deciding whether you’re a threat or not, so it just wants to pretend as if it’s eating. But you see it so clearly that food doesn’t go in, but by that shaking, she’s just getting the dust and mud off it…)

We were watching a fish eagle…

(Just up on the branch there, we’ve got a bateleur eagle.  Now it’s an adult, and… which is what’s quite interesting is–
What was that?
That is a very very angry elephant!)

And Arlo’s like, “Let’s go look!” and Marcel’s like, “Oh, no, no…”

(And that, that means we need to be very careful because, as you can hear, that elephant is quite enraged.  But uh, I’ll keep an eye on that.)

(Big elephant, be careful!
Big elephant!
Oh, thanks.  Why are they so angry?
Well, no dents in their car…
Maybe they tried to force their way past the herd?
There’s one right there.
Yeah, but you see now…
There’s another one
Yeah, more on this side.
Oh, look, a little young one.
The problem with this is we’re getting inside of the herd now, so if they enclose us…)
So that’s probably what happened, that car…
Yes.  They cut off a youngster.
So, the females?  Do they ever charge?
Oh, yes.  They actually are actually the ones more likely to charge.  But you can quickly tell the mood of an elephant, like you can see she’s feeding, she’s showing you, “you know, I’m relaxed. I’m eating. I’m okay with you guys.” As soon as she shows me, you knows, she’s at all uncomfortable with our presence, I’ll give her her distance and respect her wishes.  Like if it looks like she wants to come over, I’ll get out of her way, because in the end, this is obviously her domain.
And what are the ear things?  Is that just…
The ears have got a lot of a lot of arteries in them or a capillary network, as we say.
Oh, so it’s a heat sink.
So, yes.  It distributes a lot of blood to there and by flapping, it cools the blood.  When they fan them out, spraying them out, it just makes them to look big and they’re warning you, you know… Um, not exactly like that, that’s still fanning.  And the other warning sign is, if you see behind their eye, it looks almost as if her temples are leaking.  And there’s a temporal gland.  Now if there’s fluid streaming out of there, that means that she’s irritated or frustrated or something has happened.  Maybe came across lions and she’s a bit angry—I’m just going to give her a bit more space, yeah?
I’m going to take a couple pictures with the light.  I’ve got the wrong lens on because she’s so close, but…
Do you want my camera?
Actually, no, could you pull forward maybe just five meters?
Yeah. I’m just going to do a turn, like this, so you can get back into the same position.
That’s good.
How’s that?
I would guess, I would guess: Thirties.  The best way to age and elephant is actually, if you could feel the teeth…)

If it was just Arlo and I driving around the park, we would have never realized what we saw, but luckily we had Marcel and Retief right there with us.

(Oh, this is excellent.  I’m so glad we got these eles!
Yeah, this is very rare to get big tuskers.
These are like walking legends.  The stories they can tell you about Kruger.
You can Google “Duke” and you’ll read the legend of this guy.
If it is Duke, but I think – I don’t know any other big tuskers with two broken tusks. But that other guy, as well.  I recon that’s a 40, up to a 40-year-old bull.
He’s also one of the tuskers, definitely.  I wonder who it is?  It all started with seven: The Magnificent Seven.  And then they started the program—I think there are around, if, a maximum of 20 maybe.
It’s almost like you want to, see these elephants, you’d like to say, “Hello, sir,” or “Hello, uncle,” because they’re ancient.
We have so much respect for these guys.
Gentle giants.
Retief, [In Africaans, asking Retief to make the judgment call on moving the car]
Yeah, no.  He’s cool.
He’s okay.  He’s just starring at us.
No.  Yeah!
We’re in his path.  Guess he really didn’t budge.  I thought he was going to go around the bush.  Nice thing about the old bulls, you know?  He saw we were here first on the road, we had right of way, he just asked us, “Well, will you move, please?” A younger bull would have been cheeky.
Did your hearts pound a bit with that guy walking up to you?
It was cool. No, I guess I trust you guys too much to put us into danger, so I’m not worried about that.)

What also stood out was Oksana’s excitement to every single giraffe that we come across.

Personally, for me?  The whole “Africa” was about seeing a giraffe.  From being a little kid, that’s what I always thought as an African animal.

When we finally saw one, he was hiding behind a tree and we waited for over 20 minutes for him to just come out in the sunlight, but he just sat there staring at us!

(I have never seen a giraffe stand still for this long.)

It wasn’t doing very much, but I was so excited! I saw my first giraffe out in the wild! I was happy, I thought, “Okay, I saw a giraffe.  That is awesome!  I will probably not see another one.”

(But it’s just to start working out dominance hierarchies between the males.  But these are two youngsters and it’s not a serious fight.  I’ve seen where one has hit the other one at the base of the skull and hits him out clean.
Yeah, like a complete knockout.)

By the end of four days, we probably saw fifty different giraffes in the park.

I saw more giraffes that I ever imagined possible.  It was like being a little kid again and getting an ice cream cone!

(Because there are so many people who say, “Oh, we saw so many springbok, but these are, in fact impalas.  Easily identifiable by that black “M” that you see there on the bum.”)

I was absolutely blown away when on the second day, on the evening drive, right before sunset, Arlo spotted a cheetah!

I remember exactly what I did.  I went, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, stop the car, stop the car!”  Marcel stops and starts backing up and I’m like, “Is it..? Is that a..? Is that a..?  It’s a cheetah! And he’s like, “No!”)

He’s watching the impala.
Oh, that’s awesome!  This is rarest cat in the park you are viewing right now.)

A few minutes later it laid down, completely disappeared.  If we had passed by just a minute sooner or later, we never would have seen it!

(Oh, there’s another one!  There’s another one!  This, most likely, if it’s two males, it would be a “coalition,” which is quite rare to see.)

So Marcel is probably more excited than us, because he knows how rare an event this is; we don’t.

(Oh my God. Oh my God!
He’s going over to the other one.
Yeah. I’m having a small heart attack here. Oh. My. Gosh!)

I was speechless.

They actually started to cross the road.  They stopped right in the middle of the road and they looked back at us.

Right at that moment, my memory card fills up.  And I perform the world’s fastest memory card swap!  After that, they slowly walked off into the sunset.  With one look back to us, they went down into a gully and we never saw them again.

Cheetah.  Really?


Can you imagine?  A guide that does this for his job and is out there all the time in the park… is so excited to see a cheetah?

(Yes!  That was amazing!  My heart is racing faster than a cheetah can run!  Which is 120 kilometers per hour, by the way. WOW!)

Retief wasn’t with us for that game drive, so when we got back to camp that night, Marcel was like, “Let’s tease him a little bit!” So, I went back and he’s, like, “So, how was the drive?”  And I said, “Oh, it was pretty good, you know.  We saw another rhino and there was an elephant up close to us eating by the car.  That was neat and… Oh, and I got a good picture.  Here, let me show you…” And I swung the camera around and showed him the best picture we had of the cheetah and he just kind of went, “Are you kidding me?  No, seriously:  Are you kidding me?  I’ll bet you no one else saw a cheetah today!”

Fortunately, until this far, they didn’t see a leopard, but I can guarantee we’ll get one!  At least it’s tail.  Hmmm…

I don’t personally like camping all that much, but let me tell you, spending a night inside the Kruger National Park, at the campsite, is something else!)

(Look what we get for tonight.)

We had cots with pads, nice warm blankets.  On a cold night, it was very warm. It was everything we could want and more.

(This is going to be nice.)

So, every night, when we came back to camp, Retief had the most delicious dinner cooking on the braai for us.

The food: We’d like to call it traditionally South African, but we try to incorporate everything we do with a braai, so it will be lots of meat, a lot of vegetables, throw in a couple bottles of wine, whatever you like to drink, and we’ll make one big feast out of it.

My favorite were the boro…bada-boer, the boerowares? Bor… boerwoers..?  The farmer’s sausages!

Typically, your meals would all be what a normal South African would have when he comes out to Kruger.

Night in camp was one of my favorite times.

The camp settles down, everything starts to get quiet.  You might have the opportunity to spot a few animals close to the camp fence.

We had a hyena pass within two meters of us, looking at us right on the opposite side of a chain link fence.  One of my favorite moments was shining a light out there and seeing two tiny green eyes looking back at me.  Retief identified it as a genet, a small cat-like creature, and he said they can easily get into the camp if they want.

Sometimes you hear things that you cannot possibly identify.

One of the benefits of having a guide there with you while you’re in the camp is that they can identify the sounds outside the camp at night.

Retief has an incredible talent of not only being able to identify every sound he hears in the Kruger National Park, but he can also imitate them.

You hear these noises, these sounds, that are so different from anything you hear in the city.  You hear a lion roar…

(Lion audio)

You hear a leopard take an impala.

I also hear a bush baby for the first time and I can’t describe how creepy they sound!

Literally sounds like a baby crying!

(Bush baby audio)

And right after that, we hear lions roar!  And your mind goes crazy…!

On the third day, I found myself scanning every tree that went by, looking for a leopard.  Hoping against hope that we would mark our fifth of the big five animals.  It got to the point – almost – where I wasn’t enjoying the things we did see, just because it wasn’t a leopard.  So I had to force myself to give up, basically, and just take the day as it came and enjoy whatever animals we saw.

(The one of the left, yeah…)

(Rhino chewing, snorting)

On our full day, game viewing…

We were driving probably 40 kilometers an hour over a dirt road…

We were going pretty fast because we were searching for that leopard.  It was the last animal on the big five list.  So all of the sudden, I thought that I saw… cat ears!

Ad we back up and it’s a cheetah.  In the shade, on a hill, under a tree, almost lost in the background. We have no idea how she saw it!

(That is really good.
Aw, look at him roll over. Oh, looks the other way!
Oh, such a beautiful animal.
Hear that? Hear that?
What was it?
You might…it might do it again.  Look, look, look!
It made a… it makes a birdlike sound.  It doesn’t roar or anything.
Oh, oh let’s see what he’s doing.
Is he a male?
He’s marking.
Oh, fantastic!  Oh, yes, he’s coming into the sun!
He made a [bird sound]
That’s where we put the cat box.
I’m going to roll backwards, very slowly…
I’ll try to get in front of him.)

We thought he was going to leave, but he starts marking his territory and he goes around to all the big trees in the area.

(Guys, we need to go back.  Time is going to catch us!
Arlo, unfortunately, you’re going to hate me, but…
Time to go?
Thank you.  Good bye.)

Since we spent a little too much time watching that second cheetah, we were a little late getting back to the gate.  We had a long drive ahead of us and it was getting dark and Marcel and Retief were a little worried we weren’t going to make it on time.

Wouldn’t you know it? That’s when we saw our leopard!

And all of the sudden, Marcel goes, “Aaaand, there’s your leopard!”  At first we didn’t believe him.  We were, like, “What?”

And we’re scrambling to get our cameras out, because we’d put them away, because it was pretty dark!  And there, on the side of the road, was a leopard!

(How pretty is that?

He crossed right in front of us in our headlights, moved off into the grass, and left.  We waited around to see if he’d come back, but of course he didn’t.  And Marcel explained later that most of your interactions are just that.  You see them and they’re gone.

But seeing that leopard, on that day, meant that we had seen all five of our African big five animals.

In one day!  How cool is that?

So, on the last day, I was really hoping we would see lions, but I didn’t expect it.  We had been in the park for four days and we hadn’t seen any, except from a far distance. But we had been hearing them all night and we knew they were close to the camp!  Marcel led us out, we were the third car out of the gate, and so fortunately for us, the lions were literally right there!

(Oh, wow!
Missed it!

A big male gets up and walks right up to the cars — within ten meters — and plops himself down… and starts roaring!

(Lion roaring)

We were prepared to spend our whole last morning watching just them.  Until some idiot ruined it for all of us!

(Oh, don’t move! Aw, see… somebody’s– who’s being…?  Aw, he’s getting out of his stupid car!)

This guy, who had a better view than us, decides he wants to get out of his car and sit on his window frame.  As soon as the lion saw it, it got up and ran away. Fifteen cars parked, trying to get a shot of a lion, and this guy scares him off!

What happened?
He just plopped down…
…right next to the other one.)

The guide is the one who either makes it the most fabulous and fantastic thing you’ve ever done in your whole life or it could be the person who ruins the whole experience.

When we started this safari, we had no idea what to expect, but we ended it with two new friends in Marcel and Retief.  I can’t recommend a safari with them enough.

Once you have a passion, like I do, you know, about nature and everything that is in it, it almost feels unnatural to just keep it to yourself.  You know, you just want to share it with somebody.  I’ve found, in my experience, that when I share something, it’s even more beautiful, or more fun, or more adventurous when there’s someone just standing there right next to you.

Well, it’s a really fulfilling job.  It offers you a lot of adventure.  You have the opportunity to stay in really wild wilderness areas, and being able to teach people new stuff, interesting stuff that they like.  That’s really a fulfilling thing.

African Big 5 Safaris
Postcard Valet: Episode 15

Postcard Valet is a travel podcast by Arlo & Oksana Midgett.

May 29 – June 01, 2011

Special Thanks to Marcel & Retief
African Big 5 Safaris

All footage
© 2011 Arlo Midgett

If you enjoyed watching this, the best thanks you can give us is to show it to someone else!


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Full disclosure: African Big 5 Safaris offered us an all-expense paid, 4-day/3-night, private safari in the Kruger National Park.
(minus 1/2 of the fuel bill, or 2100 Rand, which we paid for ourselves.)

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