An index to this trip appears on the first post.
March 20, 2016
I had planned to be in Karoo National Park at sunrise, but I dawdled. To arrive at six A.M. would let me photograph the desert as the sun rose, and that can be a very active time of day for animals. Instead I arrived at its reception desk around 7:15 AM. The outer gate is barely outside the city limits of West Beaufort. I was given a piece of paper marking my car as being driven by an international (we pay more) with no kids. Only a kilometer inside the park, I saw a herd of grazing animals. I kept my eye on the speed limit, but I enjoyed the shadows of “magic hour” sliding around the koppies.
The outer gate guard had mentioned a “car gate,” and I understood him better as I approached. A slide gate marked an opening in a multi-line electric fence; I felt nervous as I drove over the exposed wires. The reception area and on-site guest lodgings are inside this perimeter to protect guests from unplanned lion or rhino encounters.
I had agreed to transport some camping equipment for a colleague at work, and I contacted the senior section ranger after checking in at reception. Riaan’s week had been an interesting one. He had been leading an effort to capture some of the beasts in the park in order to prevent overgrazing. The impacts of this drought have not been felt by only humans.
After we packed the supplies into the office, Riaan showed me a bit of a surprise. A young kudu had been injured, and the rangers had nursed her back to health. “Bibi” came when Riaan called, and I got to pet her though it was clear she preferred Riaan.
I had thought the park must be filled with hiking trails, but hikes were only allowed within the electric fence. Instead, most tourists see the animals by driving their cars along long, dirt roads within the larger park. Some of the longest tracks are navigable only by 4×4. Guests cannot exit their cars except at scenic outlook points or enclosed picnic areas. I started a long, counter-clockwise loop to the west of the reception area. After climbing the Klipspring Pass, I encountered another car at the scenic outlook. We took photographs for each other.
The landscape was severe, but pretty. I gradually realized that the point of the loop was wildlife viewing, and I slowed and looked around more carefully. Through my new friends’ lenses, I was able to see two black eagles preparing for their first flight of the day (this was from the second scenic outlook, which sits at the edge of a gorge). Around the time I reached the third scenic outlook, which perches above a long valley surrounding a sloot, I had a close encounter with ostriches and got some glimpses of ruminants.
The area surrounding the Doornhoek picnic area was a gold mine of wildlife. Where the road paralleled the sloot, I saw baboons, red hartebeest, springbok, gemsbok, and any number of birds.
I had been told that the loop back to the reception center did not host many animals, but I hit the jackpot when I encountered a herd of five zebra plus some baboons. Did you know a zebra can kill a lion with a kick?
As I turned toward the reception area, I had to navigate around a large tortoise who was determinedly making his way to the same place. Driving that 50 km loop took the better part of three hours, and yet it was entirely worth it. My car, however, my disagree. The Strawberry was covered from bonnet to boot in fine dust. The gravel and dust track had kicked up quite a few pebbles that echoed as they impacted the undercarriage. My car was due for a wash! The national park restaurant was closed for Sunday lunch, so I bought a ham-and-cheese and orange juice from the the gift shop. While I was eating, word spread that lions had been spotted near Bullkral, and the male lion was trying to mate! I watched the parking lot empty in a hurry while I finished a novel I had been reading.
Around one P.M., though, I got back in the car. Sure, I’d planned to visit the eastern Lammertjies-Leegle route around sunset, but maybe I could really see a lion in the wild! I was very happy on my drive out to the loop to catch two young male antelope locking horns some distance from the road.
I tried for a while to get a good photo of a gemsbok, but he wouldn’t cooperate. Eventually I made the turn to Bullkral, but I learned at the swimming pool (why is there a swimming pool?) that I needed to return to the main loop to see the lions. It was quite obvious once I was at the loop where they were. A line of six SUVs was stationed beside the road. I searched the horizon, near and far, but I saw nothing. After twenty minutes, I decided to move my car forward to the head of the line. Still, I saw nothing. Suddenly, a tawny flash appeared, and a male and female lion walked into view. I was hauling out my camera when a guttural moan filled the air! Yes, indeed, Sylvester was feeling his oats, but the lioness was not interested. He came back to a gap in the shrub line and posed magnificently.
The other cars, having lost their view, now began pulling around my car. I think the hoofed inhabitants of the park knew to steer clear of the eastern loop. I had to drive a couple of miles before seeing more creatures.