We're absolutely delighted to introduce a wonderful guest post by Jeanette Wells this week that will take you back to Kruger National Park as it was in the 1950s.
Jeanette was born in Benoni, South Africa in 1947 and found wonder in the magic of nature from a very early age, before moving to the US in 1980. Despite the distance, Jeanette has always kept the bush and her memories of Kruger close to her heart through her work in South Carolina. A massive thank you to Jeanette for sharing these magical memories and images with us!
BETWEEN TWO RIVERS
By Jeanette Wells
In a far, far away place at the very northern edge of Kruger National Park lies the Pafuri Gate. Just the very name evokes a sense of excitement. The date was July 1957. We were explorers!
Uncle Howard, my dad’s brother; our driver and chaperone, his adopted daughter Christine and myself. We were adventurers, ready and equipped with our Brownie box cameras, flashlights and Uncle Howard’s compass.
Our early arrival in the park took us through the Pafuri portal. We were instantly transported into a domain that gently sheathed us in its tawny winter attire, with khaki greens and tall grasses the colour of spun gold against a piercing blue sky. The contrasting natural hues of the sandstones were in perfect harmony.
We headed south to the Punda Maria rest camp, passing tall pitted termite mounds along the sandy roads, that in places were just a single track. We were on safari and this was the Bushveld!
Our excitement was palpable driving to Punda Maria. Traveling through four different ecozones, we noticed a change of landscape from a sandy environment merging into a savanna grassland that gave way to a wooded grassland and gradually became a dense mopane woodland dotted with umbrella thorn acacias, all bordered by the Luvuvhu and Limpopo rivers.
We were eager to experience our first large animal sighting, each of us guessing what animal it would be. We enjoyed seeing a myriad of birds including a couple of stately yellow-billed storks in a very messily constructed nest.
Playful vervet monkeys scampered in the lush woods. A huge baobab tree that loomed ahead caught our attention. The tree was embraced by a strangler fig; both struggling for dominance.
Uncle Howard had a lot to say about these 'cream-of-tartar' trees and that strangler figs are keystone plants. Mid-sentence he fell silent and pointed in the direction of the seemingly impenetrable bush. On that dusty road just ahead, we experienced our first “Big Five" animal encounter.
Nothing could have prepared us for seeing a huge male elephant appearing through a thicket of ubiquitous mopane trees. We were in awe at his size and how quietly he moved. Then as unobtrusively as he arrived…and with only a few steps, he disappeared into the dense bush.
We just sat in the car in astonishment and talked about what we had just seen…a storm of questions coursing our thoughts.
By late afternoon we arrived at Punda Maria camp. We were profusely welcomed and received our assigned tent. A real tent! All set up for us, with beds and all the necessary linens and towels here in the bush. A wash hand basin and water jug complimented the other accoutrements. A table right outside the tent served as our safari planning centre.
With overwhelming excitement, we walked around the camp, discovering where our meals would be cooked by our camp’s delightful staff. We marvelled at the all-purpose ablution block. We knew that our friends back home would never believe us when we told them that we showered under a canopy of stars!
Sitting outside our tent, the light faded into the velvet night. Illuminated by our Milky Way galaxy’s billions of stars, we pondered our place on earth, and felt like we were the only humans on the planet.
We listened to the busy sounds of nocturnal visitors. Numerous moth species were attracted to our lighted lamp. Fruit bats silently invaded the darkness in search of pollen and flowers to eat, encouraging our lively discussions and opinions about these flying mammals.
Nearby in the bush beyond the camp’s perimeter, scops owls hooted conversations to one another, while we poured over the park map, planning our next day’s drive. Our adventures had only just begun!
At sunrise the camp gates opened. With map and compass in hand, we ventured out to a suggested active waterhole. The sight that greeted us was exquisitely sentient. Warm condensing air rose in ethereal wisps above the water encompassing a small group of skittish impala and eland, their well-placed sentries ever watchful for impending danger.
We did not have long to wait for the new arrivals. We first glimpsed their stately heads above the tree tops, then, with a slow elegant gait, a group of giraffe emerged. Pausing for a cautious moment, they gracefully walked to the water’s edge. Then, extending both front limbs out sideways they lowered their heads to drink what seemed to be gallons of water. We wondered how the water could travel up their long throats. We decided that once we returned to camp, we would try standing on our heads and attempt drinking upwards!
Unperturbed at the other side of the waterhole and according to our pictorial map, we thought that Speke’s hinge-backed tortoises were basking. A flotilla of knob-billed ducks went about their dabbling business.
Returning to camp on a circuitous route we stopped to more closely observe a grouping of bones arranged on a cement platform. It was easy to guess that the bones belonged to an elephant and a hippopotamus. We wondered why the bones were there. Could the elephant bones represent a marker of where an elephant had died, but why were the hippopotamus’s bones also there?
The question that most piqued our interest was; did elephants mourn those in their herd who had died? Our answers came from our camp’s resident story teller, Jonas. He said that elephants did indeed mourn their dead and confirmed that the herd may stay with their deceased herd member for a number of days, until the herd’s matriarch knew that every herd member had “said” their final goodbyes. Only then, would the group move on. Jonas added, that a herd on their migratory routes, returned to the very place that a herd member had died, to pay homage! He reminded us that elephants have excellent memories. They remember the exact locations of their favourite rubbing trees, food sources and the best waterholes, because elephants, “carry habitat maps in their heads”.
Each evening visitors were invited to gather around the cooking fires that had diminished to glowing red and orange embers. Our story teller extraordinaire, Jonas, would intrigue us with animal stories. His melodiously baritone voice and his animated art form of staging the story was masterful.
Jonas instantly drew us into his account of “How the Elephant got its Trunk”. He insisted that the elephants in the story gathered right where we were sitting to begin their day’s journey to reach the Great Grey Greasy Limpopo River that “flowed just beyond the hills”. Rudyard Kipling would have appreciated Jonas’ very African rendition of bringing a favourite story to life!
On our last night in Punda Maria, we reminisced about the animals we had encountered. Of course, Uncle Howard did not miss this opportunity to quiz our new knowledge. A whole new day arrived before we knew it. We said our sad but fond farewells with many hugs to our gracious camp staff who had taken such good care of us and seen to every comfort.
We checked the compass; we were on our way south… to Shingwedzi!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jeanette Wells was born in South Africa in 1947 and lived in Benoni near Johannesburg from 1949. From an early age, the outdoors and nature captured Jeanette's imagination and the highlights of these formative years were frequent visits to Kruger National Park.
The intricacies and wonder of nature had a significant influence on Jeanette's education and career. She attended the University of the Witwatersrand before receiving a Masters degree from the University of Pretoria and teaching Botany, Zoology and Geophysics at Benoni High School.
In 1980, Jeanette immigrated to the US, where she taught environmental science at Riverbank Zoo & Botanical Garden. She was subsequently invited to develop and direct a new park - Saluda Shoals - in her home town of Irmo, South Carolina. The park provides indoor and outdoor environmental science and outdoor recreational programmes that serve schools, the community and visitors from South Carolina and the surround states.
The KrugerExplorer App is a wildlife, maps and routes field guide to the incredible Kruger National Park. It contains over 300 detailed animal profiles, outstanding photography to identify the wildlife, 70 of our most successful self-drive routes in the park and the most up-to-date and accurate maps of Kruger available today.
We launched the KrugerExplorer App about 15-weeks ago and have been overwhelmed by the reception. The feedback we have had has been wonderful and we’re incredibly grateful for the multitude of kind comments and messages from people who have downloaded it. The App has become the No.1 downloaded travel app in South Africa and we even had our 100th 5-star review across the App Store and Google Play globally recently, which is just amazing!
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Many thanks for reading and supporting our project!
Danny & Charlotte