Thursday, September 22, 2011

Aliens vs. Lions

The buffalo is dead, but not by us


Can I have some afterski, please? We clearly needed some relaxation. The cold mountains, difficult off-piste runs, dangerous roads, and  assault rifles had their toll. Maybe a safari? We could be normal tourists for a moment, it would be warm, nice, and relaxing. So here we are, on a safari.

Except that I'm starting to feel this was not quite as relaxing as expected. We are on the hills of the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi national park in South Africa, close to the border of Swaziland. There are just the three of us, me, Tero, and Samora, our guide. Unlike other tourists we are not in a jeep on a road. We are on foot,  on a hiking trip through the savannah.

A lion


We have just run into two lions. Right in front of us. On a fresh buffalo kill. We stare at each other while thinking about what to do. This might end in tragedy as the lions are still hungry, interrupted just before their first bite. And we are on their territory. This not a zoo, it is unusual for anyone to walk in this 960 km2 park or the lions to see humans. You can feel the tension. But as quickly as the tension appeared, it goes away. We decide not to eat the lions, having already had breakfast. You can hear the lions make a sigh of relief as they retreat into safety. They were spared in this encounter. And we walk to the buffalo to inspect our catch.

The safer safari option

Seriously though, this was a dangerous moment and the lions might have attacked us. Our guide had a rifle, but had the lions attacked, I'm not sure he would have had time to shoot both. We were lucky that the lions wanted to retreat. Such an encounter was also unusual for our experienced guide, Samora had only seen lions this close here two or three times. And seeing a fresh kill by the lions was also unusual. So unusual, in fact, that he wanted his picture taken next to the buffalo. So we stayed around the buffalo for a few minutes, wondering if the lions are anxious about getting back to their meal.

Our guide


On the safari


Reporting the lion sighting back to base


It was also interesting that we did not see the buffalo immediately. Samora felt the smell of fresh intestines and followed it to the carcass. I smelled nothing. This is a different world, different people...

One of the buffalos staring at us


On the Move

The lions worried us even after leaving the buffalo, as we were staying the same area. But we soon got other things to think about, as a herd of buffalos was staring at us 50 meters away, trying to decide whether they should run in our direction or not. We stayed quiet and we were upwind from them, and eventually they walk away.

Rhinos

A few moments later we stare at a rhino behind some trees. He does not see us, but his ears move when we make the smallest sound. We move quietly forward and avoid yet another attack.

Rhino shit in the making


Am I seeing everything in double?



Details

Seepra


Our hut. Note the mosquito net.


Hluhluwe-Umfolozi is the oldest game park in Africa. It is located in KwaZulu-Natal area, 250 kilometers from Durban. It is the only park in KwaZulu-Natal with a possibility of seeing the "Big Five" (rhinos, elephants, lions, buffalos, and leopards). It is also the park with the largest number of white rhinos in Africa. And many black rhinos, as well. By the way, I'm proud to have learned to recognize black rhino dung from white rhino dung. The former has think, diagonally cut vegetation.

Our accommodation in rondavels

The recommended place to stay in the park is at the Hilltop camp, a set of luxury apartments and small cottages (we stayed in the latter). The camp center has a small shop and an excellent restaurant. The restaurant serves dinner in buffet style every evening. Reservations are required, which is somewhat funny because there is nowhere else to eat and even driving on the roads is prohibited except during the day. The waitresses in the restaurant put on a music show in the middle of the dinner time. Recommended!

Safari avec skis


It is possible to walk around the small camp area on your own, though there are signs that warn the fence around the camp is not lion proof. And the camp is full of apes that undoubtedly will steal everything left lying around. 

Monkeys next to our hut


The park itself can be toured by your own car, but it is mandatory to stay inside your vehicle. A couple of picnic spots in the park allow you to eat lunch and use the restrooms. Guided safari tours are organized in the evenings and mornings on jeeps, and on special request, on foot. Our on foot tour was clearly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. (And would have been even more so, had the lions eaten us.) Our evening car tour was cold and wet, with no sighting of any animals in three hours. Our morning car tour was wonderful, we saw many animals up close. 

Early morning departure for the hiking trip

Our accommodation


Gas station a la Africa

The Most Dangerous Beast ...

We also see a lot of elephant dung during our hike. In fact I still have some of it on the bottom of my hiking shoes. We would like to see an elephant, but despite two days in the park, we see none. Maybe this is for the good, as the elephants are the most dangerous animals in the park. Samora tells us that they can be very aggressive.

The devil


Relaxing moment



... Not Counting the Aliens

Did I mention that our hike was within the premises of the "Invasive Alien Species Programme Office"? Pretty clever to hide these super secret agencies here in the middle of the wilderness, much better privacy than at Roswell or Area 51...

Aliens


We did not run into any aliens, however. That we know of, at least. But now I must finish this blog, I'm not feeling well. There is this weird feeling in my stomach.

A bird. Or a disguised alien? You tell me.

An eagle



A meeting



Move away!



Our well used car after the trip. Exhaust pipe is broken.


Photo credits (c) 2011 by Jari Arkko and Tero Kivinen








































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