Traveling out of the park was something I wasn't looking forward to. My experience inside was much more of an emotional trip then I had originally expected, although the place I was on route for would prove to be extremely educational and inspiring. So on the road I went, to experience the rest of South Africa.
Exiting the park I traveled south east to the Mkhuze Game Reserve where I would spend 3 nights in the open wilderness before continuing south east for St. Lucia to search for birds. Mkhuze proved to be a wonderful selection and great introduction to what it means to camp in the open African wilderness. With my experience in Kruger, I was used to sleeping in gated campsites knowing the possibility of outside animals getting in, besides the baboons, was very slim. Now waking up and having my morning coffee outside with no safety nets gave me a truer sense of respect for the powerful African environment. Throughout my stay in Mkhuze I had opportunity to speak with several rangers who were very informative on the fight against animal poaching and the measures they go to, every single day, to protect the animals inside the park limits. The large size of the park makes it impossible to stop the poaching crimes as many locals hunt on the far ends of the reserve where there are no roads inside the park to access the areas. Many snares are set up along the perimeter where people can easily climb over the property fences and access the wildlife inside the park. I was told by different rangers that they often find animals snared and left by poachers for days, but by the time they are able to get to these sites, the damage is done. Cheetahs have often been the target and would always be mentioned in the conservation conversation.
Time in Mkhuze was very informative, and many times since I've thought about the stories I heard from the folks fighting to protect Africa's wildlife welfare. Since my time in Africa the sport hunting community has attempted to own the title "conservation", but they have nothing on the hard working rangers who fight to protect animal life. The very simple fact is that humans now feel they need to control animal populations to keep the flow of diversity intact when the problem began with humans desecrating the entire animal kingdom by wiping out the food-chain from the top to the bottom. In the end it is just another example of the intense mistakes humanity has made and is now trying to fix; death with more death. This was my primary lesson learnt from Mhkuze.
I hired a local bird guide and wildlife educator named Themba for one day. After our first outing I thought it was best to keep him on for the rest of my stay. He was a wealth of information and has remained a contact of mine to this day. Themba took me through many spaces I would not have been able to find on my own and easily located many bird species. He took me through his home village 50 miles outside of St. Lucia and spent a full day walking through swamps and pristine African forests locating all forms of wildlife and shared his in-depth knowledge of the ecosystem along the way. Themba also shared his business pursuits and his desire to build a communication center focused on educating his local community on environmental conservation. After my return to Canada I would continue to work with Themba in providing a financial outlet to help build his center as well as providing photographs for his programs and seminars. You can find a link to Themba's outfit in the footer section on this website called Zulubirding and Ecotours.
Creighton and The Kingdom of Lesotho
The plan for the rest of the trip was to head west to Creighton and stay with a company called Button Birding (also found in the footer). This was a small family owned business that provided 2 guided birding tours a day and gave you access to their beautiful private property. A few days into the stay we would go to the Kingdom of Lesotho and experience the culture of a country dwelling inside a country. After the stay with Button Birding I would take a few days in Wakkerstrom, looking for more birds before heading back to Johannesburg to fly back home.
Traveling through the country, heading to Creighton, gave me opportunity to experience the rural town cultures as I would drive through many different townships and stay in local motels. Before this, my only pursuit was to find animals and photograph as many different species as possible. I took my time for the rest of the trip traveling in this way. From town to town, until I arrived at my selected locations.
Creighton was a place full of birds not yet recorded, driving from location to location with Malcolm (the owner) learning about the local wildlife and his views on his country. Malcolm would take me into the Kingdom of Lesotho for a day to photograph birds very secluded to that area.
Leaving Button Birding I would head to Wakkerstrom with high expectations. Wakkerstrom seemed to me the place to be for a wide variety of bird species. In all my research done before the trip, this was always a very highly recommended place to go. On my journey there I would once again spend my nights in local motels found along the way. At this point in my trip, I had already left a piece of myself in Africa and was mentally processing future plans to return.
Wakkerstrom was beautiful and met all the expectations. On my last day there and on a voyage looking for birds I found myself on the back roads, outside of town, in peak heat of the day. The roads were getting worse by the kilometer until I reached a point where hindsight says was impassable. By this time I felt I had reached the point of no return so I carefully planned how I could move forward. Before I knew it, my vehicle was bottomed out due to the massive ruts in the road. Exiting the vehicle I realized the foolish decision making involved but had to come up with a cure for the situation. After past hours of failed attempts the problem seemed helpless. As dinner time approached, to my amazement, a local from the nearest town was bicycling through and stopped to look at my dilemma. This man could not speak a word of English but graciously continued to struggle by my side to get the SUV back onto higher ground. An hour in, another man, originally from Swaziland, happened to pass by and join the cause. He spoke broken English and was able to communicate enough as a mediator that we were able to hoist the rig back onto the shoulder of the road. After changing tires and driving these great humans to their place of rest, I gave them each a full weeks pay and headed back to the Wakkerstrom local pub, where I would spend the duration of the evening. The next morning I would begin my trip back to Johannesburg for one more night before flying home to Canada.
This was the most inspiring trip that I have made to date. Africa is a place of pure beauty and power and will always have a place in the deepest part of me. Now with a wife, daughter and another on the way, Africa is most definitely in the family plans for the future. I can`t say that I would have done a single thing differently on my journey from east to west and would recommend these locations to anyone planning a trip to the country. South Africa has a wealth of any wildlife you are in search for and a population full of wonderful people. I hope you all enjoyed reading the recollection of my trip as much as I did recalling the journey.
All the best, Robbie
The end of my adventures in the park were spent heavily in photography. At this point I was settling into a pretty comfortable approach from the beginning of the day to the end. As I seen a large variety of animal species by this time I was better able to take advantage of encounters in a photographic mindset. The big 5 had been knocked off my list and I could now enjoy freely, the last of my travel time as I neared the end of Kruger.
On the evening of the second last day I found myself traveling back to my campsite nearing the 6:30pm curfew time when all public vehicles are to be off of the roads due to the massive risks and dangers lurking in the Africa's nighttime hours. This day I traveled far into the bush and seen next to no other tourists throughout the better part of the day. As I reached my vehicle and began moving back to camp I seen my first Black Rhino. She was close to 500 meters away and together with her was a very young calf. I immediately stopped the jeep and reached for the camera in the back seat. As pulled it onto my lap I realized my wide-angle lens for landscapes was still attached and had to be replaced with a telephoto. I began rushing to change the lenses as I noticed the two Rhinos begin running straight for my vehicle. I didn't realize how quickly these massive animals were able to move and while I was attempting to set up my shot from outside of the vehicle, before I knew it, they were legitimately right on top of me. At no less the 25 meters away I was forced to abandon my photographic pursuit and escape to the false safety of my vehicle. I quickly closed the door and floored the gas pedal only to harshly stall the jeep. With this enormous mother Rhino honestly charging to 15 feet away the hard sound of the vehicles acceleration to the clucking of the stalling engine was enough to deter the pair from continuing the charge. They abruptly ended their pursuit as a storm of dust weathered over my vehicle and they quickly turned and ran back to their starting point.
This experience was a major lesson I've learned many times in many different areas of the world. As a wildlife photographer I honestly do my very best to respect the well-being of all animals I encounter. It is extremely easy to get caught up in the feeling of necessity to create images, especially when you know you have a chance of a lifetime presented to you. As I pulled away that evening I spent the ride back to camp in awe of how foolish and selfish I could still be in my photographic journey. As photographers it is so important to understand our role in a wild habitat. It is so important to understand the risked that are involved by not understanding your subjects. Always take time to study the animals you plan to photograph so you have an idea of their behaviors. This was my first up-close encounter with a mother Black Rhino who was in complete determination to protect her calf. She was an amazing creature who taught me many serious lessons. I know it's very easy to negatively criticize people with stories like this but I'm sharing it here in hopes that it can be a lesson to others. Animals are killed every year in Africa because tourists get far too close to them and end up driving the wildlife into aggressive states.
The year prior to my arrival in Africa there had been 2 elephants shot dead because they attacked vehicles carrying tourists who got far too close. Literally not moving out of the path of these massive beasts until they were right on top of them with tusks driving through the sides of both vehicles. Although if the story ended differently for me it would have possibly been days before anyone ventured into the area I was located and the rhino likely being miles away by that time. Regardless, wherever it is on the planet that you decide to go and photograph animals, the most important thing you can do for your safety, and the safety of your subjects, is to do your research before arrival.
However, issues with unsafe animal encounters go far beyond tourists. While in Kruger I was a witness to a guide coxing an elephant towards his safari jeep which was loaded with paying tourists. The guide who looked to be a well off white man, continued to rev his engine, screaming obscenities at the creature as the elephant approached the vehicle. At the time I was forced to stop my vehicle behind 4-5 others because this pompous fool was in full ego-mode and had to put on a show for everyone. The elephant came to the side of his vehicle as the man continue to aggravate the poor creature. The elephant then went to the front of the jeep and locked tusks with the front grill. The moment this occurred the tour guide released the brake and went to battle with the elephant as it forcefully pushed forward. The vehicles tires created a cloud of smoke black enough to see for miles as he filled his ego with an act he's obviously been doing for years. This incident was reported along with video evidence of the whole scene, and I can only hope that something was actually done in the way of justice. The moral of this story is that, the next vehicle this elephant approaches may just be a few senior tourist enjoying a wholesome drive through the park to stop and view the beauty of Africa's wildlife, and before they know it, the trained and annoyed elephant drives it's tusks through the side of their vehicle and is later, inevitably, shot dead.
My last few nights in Kruger where spent on night game drives with a park ranger. These trips revealed much of what happens in Africa after dark. Eagle Owls were common and the predator animals seemed to own the grounds. I had opportunity to sit with a group of 5 male lions just after they fed themselves on a recent kill that I did not see. Hyena and leopard where animals you can count on seeing on these night cruises as the guides know exactly where to go.
As I drove through the heat of the night in Africa, I couldn't imagine another place I'd rather be. The interactions I had at Kruger National Park are going to be cherished, deep inside my soul, for my lifetime. The only plans I have made since I left this heavenly place, is to someday in the not so-far-future, take my wife and daughter back to experience this place called Africa.
The most memorable trip for me would have to be a 4 week journey through the country of South Africa. This was something I had dreamed of doing since I was a child, and in 2014 I had the opportunity to go. This was a time in my life where a lot of personal things were in change, and looking back on this trip, it was all in perfect timing. I can remember the trance of unbelief I sat in on the plane for a solid 20 hours, and the inner rush that poured through me as I walked out of the airport onto the African soil for the first time. At this point I really had no idea what I was in for and my only ambition was to document this voyage to the very best of my abilities.
My plan for the 4 weeks was to rent a vehicle and obviously head straight to Kruger National Park. I would begin at the northern point of the park and travel south for a week and a half documenting as much wildlife encounters as possible. Once I made it to the southern tip I would head south east, tucking around Swaziland's border to arrive in St. Lucia. Here I would spend as much time as needed before traveling west to Creighton, stopping as desired along the way, and then finishing my travel in The Kingdom of Lesotho before making the voyage back to Johannesburg to end the adventure. This was my target plan and basically exactly what I did.
Arriving in Kruger
I spent the first 4-5 days documenting as many bird species as possible and taking ID images of just as many. This really took me back to my basic roots in photography where I photographed things only to identify and record them later. The first part of this trip reminded me a lot of my previous trip to Australia where the landscapes were large, open and vast making it hard to create good images of birds, along with the fact that you are not to exit your vehicle at any point or for any reason while traveling alone in KNP. So creating a decent ID image is what I focused on for the first week or so until I reached different environments. My eyes were always open for the big cats but at this moment in time a lion, leopard or cheetah were still very fairy-tale-like creatures to be able to see in a wild place; and it was a solid week before I was able to view and photograph my first big cat.
First Lion Sighting
With no other vehicles in site on the long stretch of road I was traveling I truly took this moment in and will always remember these two incredible felines. I had different lion encounters along my way but this one has stood out to me in the years since my return. This was the road and place where I left my heart in Africa. As they departed from the scene they sunk slowly into the grasses until they disappeared into a camouflaged unity with their natural surroundings.
Animal tracking on Africa's earth
Africa has so many animals that are readily seen that it truly has a different haven then any other place on earth I've been. While other places like the Amazon jungle have a massive variety of wildlife, Africa's medium to large animals make themselves very well known. The further I traveled the more I seen and the deeper I went the more abundant life was. I found myself alone, with entire areas to myself and wildlife to explore, learn and take Africa deeply in. There are very strict guidelines throughout the park to stay in vehicles but the more secluded I became, the more I ventured outside of my closed quarters. I have tracked animals on foot for years throughout North, Central and South America, so when being told to stay inside a vehicle when I see tracks in abundance on every river bed I drive across and I'm in a place called Africa; every piece of me wanted to stay outside of my jeep.
Leopard tracks seemed to be very common along river sides as well as Nile Crocodile and crossing ungulates. To have the opportunity to examine the many different tracks Africa's earth has to offer was very educational and mind-numbing experience. Caution for safety was on my mind more then ever before and an extremely humble respect for all that is superior to man-kind was at the top of my head. The strange thing is, I have traveled many miles on foot through dense american jungles not knowing what lies 10 feet ahead. I have spent countless hours in the Australian forest searching for animals I know to have deadly bites. Walking through a piece of African open savanna or along a river bank where I can see for miles inflicted a completely new sense of the sort of respect you gain when you know, without a doubt, that you are right around the bottom of the food chain. All in all, this was a much needed change of experience that I was in need of at this point in my life.
Stay tuned for part 2 of my voyage through South Africa as I continue my travels through Kruger National Park and southward to ST. Lucia!!
My last trip to Newfoundland was a remarkable time. Rain, fog and more rain, this trip couldn't have been better! Something about this island leaves me with many stark impressions; how can a maritime province make you feel like your in the Monteverde cloud forest in Costa Rica, and at the same time, in the deep rich forest of Maine, US. Many Canadian's say Canada has no culture......Those people need to explore the country much more!!!
Robbie P. Gallant
As a naturalist, I spend a great amount of time in personal study. Discussion and research is key to exploring new and intelligent ideas and furthering our understanding of our natural surroundings.