Monday, February 20, 2012

Checking In and Setting Out

Continued from here.

With visions of Johannesburg squarely in our rear-view we started making our way out of Gauteng province and through Mpumalanga, towards Kruger National Park. As multi-hour car trips go, this one has to rank among the most underwhelming in my life. The landscape was flat, vast and unchanging. The only notable breaks in the monotony were nuclear power plants at regular intervals and a packed, very Westernized shopping mall in perplexing proximity to absolutely nowhere.

We had booked a guided sunset drive at Kruger to start at 5:30, and as the afternoon stretched out and the drive took longer than we had anticipated, we started watching the clock a little more closely. We pulled into the parking lot at Kruger's Crocodile Bridge entry gate at around 4:00, and with only one other family in the office getting their permits and paying their entry fees, we thought we had plenty of time. We were wrong.

The long rectangular office was sparse and silent, with three largely uninspired South Africa National Parks employees sitting behind the counter. Dated posters hung on the walls, while brochure racks sat empty and ceiling fans waged a futile war against the stifling afternoon heat. The simple act of paying our entry fee for the week and confirming our in-park accommodation and pre-booked game drives turned into an hour-long ordeal thanks to the woman who was “helping” us, whose attitude could generously be described as disinterested.

As we were getting sorted out, a mini bus crammed with fifteen or so native South Africans pulled up, its passengers excitedly spilling out while a few spokespeople came into the office.

“We have come to see the animals!” one of the group excitedly declared, while others stood next to the vehicle and sipped liberally from bottles pulled out of the cooler they had with them. More than one of them were unsteady on their feet, and the park's employees didn’t seem too keen on letting them in to the park.

“You don’t have enough time to come in on a day pass,” the most senior among them explained. “The gates close in ninety minutes, you can’t get across the park in that time. And besides, you have been drinking.”

“But we paid a lot of money and came a long way. We just got lost.”

“You should have looked at a map.”

Some of the passengers were clearly drunk and not bothered, while others were disappointed that their adventure to Kruger seemed to be ending at the entry gate, especially after they had shelled out for the mini bus ride and come some distance. South Africa is full of born and bred locals who have never seen its most iconic sights. It is rare for someone selling animal sculptures in one of the country’s towns to have seen the flesh-and-bone versions of the cheap, mass-produced likenesses they are hawking. I thought it a shame to see this group of residents get turned away.

“OK, we will come back tomorrow,” said one especially deflated young man. That prospect seemed dim.

By the time we finally had our accommodation and permits sorted out and drove to the dusty and seemingly post-apocalyptic free-for-all camping area, we had less than ten minutes until our guided game drive was set to start. I threw the tent up in record, frantic time (with no assigned campsites, we needed to assert our space) and we each took a quick bath in bug dope after donning our long sleeves - malaria being a bitch best avoided.

We sprinted the hundred meters from the campsite to the meeting point for the game drive, on the wide swath of road in between Crocodile Bridge rest camp's modest gift shop/restaurant and even more modest two-pump gas station. We arrived frazzled and sweaty. "Slow down, you're in Africa," a fellow guest told us. "You're throwing off the balance." Realizing that we were in no danger of missing the boat, so to speak, we both took a few sheepish and calming deep breaths as we climbed into the back of the game vehicle: an oversized, deep-green pickup with a canopy over several rows of benches in the bed, an aisle running down the middle, and no glass behind the cab. We plunked ourselves down on the right hand side, halfway back.

While they are an added expense, guided drives are a near-necessity in Kruger. Park roads are closed to private vehicles before sunup and after sundown (at nighttime, overnight guests are confined to Kruger's rest camps, which are the only parts of the park that are fenced in), so the guided drives are the only way to get around the park at those times when the animals are most active.

Our fellow passengers consisted of three small groups of people. One was led by a wordy forty-something mother who would wear two different hats over the course of the drive, each of which perfectly matched her club-ready teal tank top - a garment which left little doubt as to the volume of her two most prized assets. She was adamant that she ride in the cab of the truck next to our driver and guide (whom she insisted move his rifle so that she could sit down), rather than in the back with the sinners and gluttons. She made it known almost immediately that she had become bored with the large number of lions she was seeing in the park, and she came equipped with a novel and iPod, I suppose in case we suddenly changed course and decided to take a family road trip to Des Moines rather than spend the evening wildlife watching in Kruger.

The driver and guide she cozied up next to was named City (yes, City): a tall, young, black man, whose crisply pressed, short-sleeved khaki uniform billowed off of his slight frame. City was soft spoken and to the point, but it was clear to see that he loved his job, and he would prove to be as passionate about the park's animals as anyone we would meet over the coming days.

On the first row of benches in the truck's bed sat the busty mother's similarly-endowed daughter, and the daughter's camera happy boyfriend. A few rows behind them were Sarah and I, while a couple similar in age to us was immediately across the aisle on the left. In the back was a family of five. Near as we could tell, we were the only foreigners on the drive.

City rose in the cab and turned to address the passengers, giving the stock "hands and feet inside, no littering" speech that is common to roller coasters, school buses and, evidently, sunset safaris. The excitement welled in Sarah's eyes and rolled slowly down her cheeks as City listed the animals we could expect to see, speaking matter-of-factly and without a pandering enthusiasm. He then fired up the engine and took us slowly through Crocodile Bridge's towering gate and out onto the silent roads of the park, while the fading sun feebly breathed the day's last warmth onto the stunted landscape.