The alarm clock went off painfully early just after 4am. If this was summer with longer daylight hours we’d been up a full hour earlier. After a few quick bites to eat we threw on a bunch of layers of clothes and headed out into the cold morning air.
We were told to be at the Crocodile Bridge park entrance by 5:15am where a ranger opened a metal gate to let us in. We parked our car and waited under the moonlight for our park ranger guides to arrive.
A green open-air truck sat under a small dim florescent light. Our guides, Irwin, Mike and Lynn walked up and introduced themselves to the seven people on this morning walk.
We loaded into the truck while the rangers prepped their rifles. Under the moonlight we started to drive down a dirt road until we came to a stop.
The dark night sky had just begun to fill with shades of pinks and oranges when we stepped off the truck. We were given a long introduction of rules. We’d be walking by foot through the brush looking for animals. It could be dangerous and we were told to keep quiet and follow their directions especially if we came upon predatory animals.
The first two armed rangers led our single file line out into the brush, guns resting on their shoulders.
The sun just started to appear from above the distant hillsides casting everything in a warm glow.
Our rangers were constantly on the lookout for animals, sometimes stopping only to listen or check the wind.
We wandered through the fields looking for animals, our first sighting was some wildebeest.
No mater how quiet or how far away we were, we were always being watched.
Irwin would stop the group and we’d gather in a small circle. With a whispered voice he’d point out the various animal calls that carried across the open field.
He’d point to the ground and show us the various fresh footprints in the soil and told us what wildlife made the tracks.
By midmorning it was time for a break. To my surprise the park tour included breakfast. The rangers pulled out juices, meats and other goodies from their backpacks.
The walk continued and we found the common impala and a few other animals along the way.
We had wrapped back towards our vehicle and our morning walk was coming to an end. Just like game drives there’s lucky days and not so lucky days. Today was more of the latter. There wasn’t much wildlife in the area we had walked but it was still well worth the early wake up.
We boarded the truck and started our drive back to the park entrance. Just a short distance from where we parked, we spotted some giraffe on the side of the road.
They were out for their morning meal.
Some hippos were swimming around in the nearby water.
Warthogs were digging around the ground looking for food.
A yellow-billed hornbill sat perched on an old tree on the lookout.
The animals seemed to be everywhere except where we had been walking.
Back at the entrance they dropped us off and pointed out the big fruit bats that nested under the wooden car port we parked under. They were giant and looked like the one that had flown into our outdoor shower the night before.
After the morning bush walk we were exhausted. We returned to our car and drove back to the lodge for a quick breakfast. Our lodge sat just on the river’s edge and offered amazing views.
We sat in the loungers overlooking the river and relaxed in the shade keeping an eye on the animals that were coming down to the river for a drink.
By late afternoon it was time for lunch before our next outing. We took advantage of the fantastic weather and enjoyed some chicken and salad from our open porch.
Shortly after 4pm it was time to return to the park for our next excursion. We’d booked a sunset drive around the park. It’s a unique experience as only drives by park rangers were permitted after sunset.
We arrived and boarded a larger open truck with a couple dozen other guests.
The sun was setting and we were again treated to spectacular views of the park during this golden hour. Within the first few minutes of the tour we had come across some rhinos.
Just a short distance down the road we’d encounter our biggest surprise, our first lion sighting.
They were lounging around on the warm road with absolutely no interest in the truckload of tourists nearby. When they grew tired of the road they wandered over to the nearby tree and climbed up for a higher vantage point.
Then things got cute, the baby cubs wandered out and wanted to follow in the older cat’s footsteps.
From the base of the tree they looked up in confusion, it was a seemingly impossible height for them but they tried. They made it just a few feet up the tree before giving up.
Another had slightly more success but was still far from the branches the older cats were resting on.
The lions weren’t going anywhere but we had to keep moving on. Sunset was over and the night sky set in. I wondered how we’d see anything with just the moonlight. Our guide turned around and pointed out the handheld spot lights under every few row’s seats.
Now we had a half dozen spot lights aimed at trees and the ground in the search for wildlife. We drove and drove and spotted nothing. Like other tours it would seem like ours had peaked early.
Then an excited yelp from the back of the truck snapped me out of my day dreaming. The truck came to a stop and rolled backwards. The handheld spotlights were searching the field and there in front of us was one of the more elusive cats in the park, a leopard.
She sat in the brush unfazed by our presence, her stare was fixated on something in the distance. It was seemingly so rare that our driver paged the other sunset tour guides who came racing over.
A night drive being illuminated with only handheld spot lights was both incredible and incredibly frustrating. Up until this point I had no idea that for some people the use of a flashlight was an overwhelmingly complex operation. I just assumed people would know to point the light towards what we’re trying to look at. While we sat there looking at this leopard it looked like a disco, lights were aimed everywhere but the cat. Someone was pointing a light at the stars, someone in the trees, others 60 feet away in the grass.
The driver pulled away from the leopard, the lights still aimed everywhere but the cat, and we continued down the road. A short while later we were upon a new group of lions who were feasting on a kill in the brush.
While some ate, others just decided to lay around on the warm road.
At this point we couldn’t have been more happy with the tour. We could have called it a night right then but there was still more to see. Our next stop was a herd of elephants eating right off the side of the road.
If the guide told me they had trained all of the animals to hang out near the road I would have believed him.
Our three hour sunset drive was coming to an end. As we cruised back to the park entry gate we spotted various other wildlife including an owl.
We returned to our car laughing and joking about the crazy spotlights and drove back to our bungalow under the bright moonlight.
After a late dinner of grilled chicken and salad it was time to turn in. It would be another early start tomorrow morning.