Finding wild things in Kruger Park

[From “Chasing the Big Five” in the Toronto Star, January 8, 2011.]

SABI SANDS RESERVE, GREATER KRUGER PARK, SOUTH AFRICA — Brett DuBois jerks the Land Rover into park, turns to me and says, “It’s going to happen.”

“It” is a kill in the jungle, a primal act the anticipation of which fires adrenaline through the veins of DuBois and the six of us in his vehicle.

What’s convinced DuBois of the seemingly inevitable is the sight of a leopard crouched beneath tall grass while an antelope less than 20 metres away chews on a switch, its back turned, eyes blind to the predator.

“It’s always exciting to see a kill,” the safari ranger says later, after this drive through the largest game reserve on the continent is finished. “Every single one is different. It unfolds differently, you learn new things about it and that’s everyone’s dream. People come here for that moment.”

A few hours earlier, our morning safari began at 5 o’clock on a dry May day in Greater Kruger Park, South Africa’s wonder with expansive horizons and sunsets so beautiful they seem from a cinema. Winter on this day is near, and vegetation is no longer thick, so animals like the stalking leopard are less camouflaged than they would be in the country’s lush, wet spring. Chances of seeing animals — there are more than 140 species of mammals in Kruger, greater than any other reserve in Africa — in this area of the park, called Sabi Sands, is exceptionally high at any time of year.

The reserve is on the confluence of the Sabi and Sands rivers, creating fertile ground that attracts an array of animals, including the sought-after Big Five: lion, leopard, cape buffalo, rhinoceros and elephant. These were once the most hunted animals in Africa and although they are now legally protected, poachers and bounty hunters continue to target them, aiming to deliver their stuffed bodies to collectors and their valuable body parts to the black market.

Along with the Big Five, though, there are more than 500 kinds of birds, as well as reptiles and tiny creatures that will also mesmerize. You can add DuBois to the list of fascinating animals you can see.

He is torn from “Out of Africa” — Robert Redford looks and all. At dinner each evening he sits with the guests he drove around all morning and night and regales them with tales of his adventures, including a hazing ritual that makes any military rite of passage seem no more challenging than a lesson in ballroom dance.

What gruelling ordeal does a would-be safari guide have to go through? It’s too long and explicit to get into. You’ll have to come here for yourself to find out — and you should come. Not to be witness to violence, not even to satiate any desire for adventure, but for the knowledge you will gain about the animals and how they coexist with us and each other.

DuBois has a degree in conservancy management and worked as a ranger for more than seven years, a long time in a profession that 14-hour days, uncommon guts and extended periods away from family. While he can captivate you with stories about the most revered animals in Greater Kruger Park — “I once saw a leopard pull a giraffe up a tree with its teeth,” he says —, he can also tell you that the dwarf mongoose has sex more than 2,000 times a day.

“How do you know that?” I ask.

Read the rest of the article, and see more photos and a video in the Toronto Star.
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