Charms and challenges of “rainbow nation” – I

Spread over an area of 19,485 square kilometres, the park extends 360 km from north to south and 65 km from east to west, being 90 km wide at its widest point. Which makes this sanctuary for wild animals larger than some countries.

 (Daily Times, 22 May 2013)

I spent my first night in South Africa at the huge Johannesburg Airport, waiting to catch an early morning flight to Nelspruit.  I had arrived in Johannesburg on a late night flight from Dares Salam in Tanzania (via Nairobi).  The airport was all but closed, with only two coffee shops in the food court open.  There was not a soul around, except for a few attendants of the two coffee shops. Grabbing a chair and resting my head on a table, anxious to keep myself safe and my belongings secure, I barely caught an hour’s intermittent sleep, if that. 

As the airport began to fill up before first light, I heaved a sigh of relief, for my “long” night was over.  Given Johannesburg’s record murder and crime rate, the first night alone in a public space here can be scary.

On landing at Nelspruit, which is the closest airport to Kruger National Park, I picked up my rental car and drove straight through Paul Kruger Gate to the Skukuza camp, the largest of a dozen camps. All I wanted now was a room with a hot shower and a quick nap. The receptionist told me that if I did not have a booking, there was nothing available. My repeated entreaties to find something, anything, led to many searches on the computer, but all in vain.

After I left in despair, the female manager had one of the receptionists track me down in the car park and call me back.  Having noticed my plight and taking pity on me, she had found me a room but only for one night!

South Africa’s Kruger National Park is perhaps the most famous game reserve in the whole world.  And for good reason: all the Big Five of the wild, namely, lion, elephant, rhino, leopard and buffalo, are found here, besides giraffe, cheetah, leopard, hippopotamus, impala, hyena, wild dog, wildebeest, etc. Kruger Park has more species of large mammals than any other game reserve anywhere, 147 species in all. 

Spread over an area of 19,485 square kilometres, the park extends 360 km from north to south and 65 km from east to west, being 90 km wide at its widest point. Which makes this sanctuary for wild animals larger than some countries, among them Swaziland, Kuwait and Fiji, about the same size as Israel, nearly twice the size of Lebanon, and more than three times as large as Brunei. Kruger Park has nine main gates that allow entrance to the different camps from the west and south.  On the east, it borders on Mozambique, while its northern extremity touches Zimbabwe.

In about 5-6 hours of driving in one section of Kruger Park, I saw every wild animal I ever wanted to: a lioness catching a nap on the roadside and lions stalking a prey at some distance; lone elephants and large elephant herds; a solitary buffalo and buffalo herds; hyenas; lone rhino and rhino with calf; giraffes; zebras; impalas, hippos and wildebeest. 

I was lucky to see a cerval, too.  It sat on the road, head raised, transfixed on some prey, totally oblivious to my presence.  This nocturnal animal is described as “an elegant, slender, tawny, yellow-spotted cat with long legs, small head and large ears”.  And all this from the comfort and safety of my vehicle. Relative safety, I should say, for an angry elephant or a rampaging buffalo could crush my little car with its human content like a can of tuna!

In Kruger Park, I saw nothing of the lawlessness and insensitivity described by BBC’s Charles Haviland from Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park (“Speeding and danger in Sri Lanka’s Safari Parks, April 26, 2012).  Haviland writes of “jeep drivers going up to 100 kph (the nominal limit is 40 kph), bottles and dung being thrown into bushes to entice the animals out, and widespread littering.”

The rules at Kruger Park are simple and are enforced.  One must drive within the prescribed speed limit of 50 km/hour on bitumen roads and 40 km/hour on gravel roads, stay on the road and not get out of the vehicle.  Or one can go on safari tours with rangers, who are armed and able to take groups out for walks in the bush.

The habitat of lion, cheetah, leopard, elephant, buffalo, wildebeest, rhinoceros and giraffe are flat grasslands with the occasional shrubbery and tree, not dense forests we often conjured in our minds before the age of television documentaries.  Most animals feed on the grass, some feed on those who feed on the grass.

Another perception that television documentaries have disabused us of is the belief that the lion, “king of the jungle”, lords it over all, always successful in its hunt, never failing, never retreating and always dining on a fresh kill.  Thanks to the work of researchers and cameramen who spend their lifetimes on their subjects, we have seen lions being chased away by crocodiles, kicked about by buffalos and retreat before a pack of hyenas. 

The renowned evolutionary biologist Charles Dawkins writes: “Terrible but true, the suffering among wild animals is so appalling that sensitive souls would best not contemplate it. During the minute it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are being slowly devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst and disease.”

Also sad but true, that precisely the most harmless animals, those animals which cause no grief to any other animal, such as buffalo, wildebeest, impala, deer and zebra become meal for others, such as lions, leopards and hyenas. It is a daily, hourly, constant and lifelong struggle for survival in the animal kingdom. The law of the jungle we call it.  But law of nature is a more appropriate name for it.  Life in the Garden of Eden is “nasty, brutish and short”, to borrow the famous words of Thomas Hobbes.

(To be concluded)

By Razi Azmi

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3 Responses to Charms and challenges of “rainbow nation” – I

  1. Carlo says:

    That first night in the airport sounds a bit more daunting than the famous “nature red in tooth and claw” described later in your piece. Lest we forget that we – our species – are part of nature too, and not just spectators.

  2. Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur says:

    Respected Razi Azmi Sahib,
    Thank you taking us on a trip through South Africa. The other pieces are eagerly awaited.

  3. Javed Agha says:

    It reminds me of my Safaris in Kenya. I know it is a wonderful experience driving in the jungle seeing the wild game. Mother nature at its best. Complete this article ASAP as I look forward to reading the rest.

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