(NOTE: this is not one of our own tours: I’m exploring Kruger NP before attending two conferences in South Africa)
Animals at picnic areas are a problem, not just for the humans, but for the animals themselves. If they get too demanding, as they can do after learning how profitable picnics can be, the rangers may have to remove them, even putting them down if they are dangerous (as large baboons certainly can be, and hyenas even more so: the strength of their jaws is second only to crocodiles).
I hadn’t been in Kruger more than a minute before I saw my first impala. Not really surprising: they are by far the most common hoofed animal in the park, but still quite delightful.
I was soon also seeing buffalo, kudu and a lovely lilac-breasted roller.
More wildlife awaited me in the Rest Camp, Skukuza. Wart-hogs casually wander past the cabins, grazing on the lawns.
My petrol gauge stil registered almost full, so I thought it was malfunctioning, but when I asked for the tank to be filled it only took five dollars. I was quite impressed with the efficiency of this little Chevrolet.
A final drive revealed no large animals, but I did see and hear the ‘Go-away’ bird (the grey lowry), hornbills and starlings.
The ant hills between my hut and the river are rather large: I haven’t seen the ants yet.
The moonlight was bright during the nights, so I went out twice to look across the river. I saw one lone heron feeding and heard a few other birds and frogs.
I have heard many calls for all elephant riding to be banned, everywhere, on grounds of cruelty. One of the first things explained to us at Elephant Whispers was the cruel way many elephants are trained in Asia and I agree those methods are brutal and I would not want to condone it by riding them.
The elephants here at Elephant Whispers are instead trained gently, patiently, winning their trust and rewarding them with tasty and healthy food treats. They were not torn from their mothers for the purpose of training but instead rescued from areas where they would otherwise have been culled. When not doing the public events (2 or at most 3 times a day, and not happening every day) they have thousands of acres of woodland through which to roam freely, but come back to cosy stables to sleep at night.
There is much cruelty in the world, many people doing horrible things to many animals, even back home in Australia (live-baiting of greyhounds, pigs spending their whole lives in tiny pens…) and much that should be banned. This place is not one of them.
The younger elephants had been previously rescued from culling and were being kept on cattle farms and enjoyed following the horses while cows were being rounded up. Some of the young men working there found they could hop onto these youngsters while doing this, and that they were very quick to learn voice commands. As the elephants grew they started getting into a bit of mischief, and had enormous appetites, and the people who now run Elephant Whispers took them in and continued training them (and also employed one of the young men who had started interacting with them) – a vastly different story to what happens regularly with the brutal training of young Asian elephants.
The biggest and oldest elephant, Tembo, had been kept in free-range captivity for many years with a female, until some wild elephants broke in and challenged his right to the relationship. Tembo got a bit upset, started unroofing houses, attacking other animals and doing other things his human neighbours understandably didn’t like, and he was soon to be shot, but the Elephant Whispers folk heard about this, brought him in, and with gentleness and patience won his trust and he became the truly Gentle Giant he is known as today.
Amazingly, one of the elephants, showing great trust in everyone, lay down and immediately put his trunk out for his food rewards, and allowed us to stroke and examine his trunk, tusks, ear, tail and feet.
The rides last only 15 minutes, and only happen two or three times a day, and not every day for every elephant, and then they are turned loose to wonder thousands of acres of woodland before coming into the stable at night.
Shangana Culture Village
This is a true Africa Village, and the chief you get to meet really is the chief of this village and of many other Shangana people in the region. This is the kind of African experience I missed experiencing on my previous two visits to South Africa and was very glad I decided to spend a couple of nights in Hazyview so I could visit both Shangana and Elephant Whispers.
Wooden carvings in the market are all made by local people, so by buying here you are contributing to the local economy, not some big international chain. I bought a lovely wooden kudu and a warthog.
Although I was the only guest for the day, my guide, Edward, took me through the entire tour. He showed me the wild chestnut which is ground for flavouring of spinach and other dishes, and talked of the other foods and medicines grown there. They are independent of the money economy for their basic needs. He also explained much about marriage and other aspects of the Shagana culture.
We walked to the village, where Edward called for the chief and asked his permission for us to enter, and for me to take photos. He explained which hut was the chief’s, which for each of his wives, which for the girls, the boys etc.
The traditional doctor showed me her various medicines and the collection of bones used somehwat as tarot cards, translated by Edward.
Finally the feast, starting with an appetiser of mopani worms, a caterpillar that feeds on the mopani tree. On my first visit to South Africa I had asked whether it was possible to try traditional African foods, and someone said contemptuously ‘you could eat insects like the natives!” This annoyed me in two ways: it was obviously racist, and eating insects really isn;t much different from eating crustaceans they would probably consider a delicacy. I have eaten two kinds of caterpillar previously, witcheti grubs in Australia, and caterpillars from the bamboo in China, so was very happy to try the mopani worms. They were salty and chewy.
This place deserves to be much better known. It is too easy to pass through South Africa without much introduction to traditional culture.
Not to be missed if you’re coming through Hazyview!
I wasn’t expecting to have an trouble with my passport going through customs, but it seems it got a bit moisture-damaged on my last travels, when I was constantly wearing it in a money belt under my clothes, and I’m told I should replace it because the photo is discoloured on one side (although no details are lost and despite it being a terrible photo you can still identify me from it).
I’m starting to believe I’m in Africa. Getting on the plane in Brisbane, then on another in Perth didn’t really do it. Even arriving in Johannesburg: just a big, bustling airport. I did manage to hire a router from Vodacom to connect with Internet throughout my travels here, and my iPhone finally started working when my husband Denis called Telstra from Australia and asked them to change one of their settings for roaming.
Flying over the Drakenburgs as we approached Neilspruit: now, I suddenly thought hey, yes, this is Africa. The bush veldt vegetation as we came down for a landing, and the very African-style airport all looked great. And although it seems a bit silly, somehow seeing my name on the boarding pass just before boarding the plane had suddenly excited me: yes, that’s me, the same as the little girl who dreamed constantly about exploring Africa more than half a century ago. That’s me, and I’m in Africa.
I was a bit nervous about picking up my little Chevron hire car, after all I’d heard about dangers of women driving alone in Africa, but soon started enjoying the drive to Hazyview, through what could at times have been the Adelaide Hills with its pine plantations, eucalypt plantations, orchards and hilliness, but then there’d be some dramatically different plants or an African market and yes, I’m really in Africa. I found myself going the wrong way on a street in White River, but met nothing but friendliness when I asked for directions and got on the right track back towards Hazyview.
I’m staying at Gecko Lodge, a cosy, attractive place that has guest rooms, backpacker accommodation and camping surrounded by bush and very comfortable.
Tomorrow, off to see for myself one of the elephant sanctuaries. There has been a lot of talk about all elephant riding being cruel, but I suspect some establishments are much better than others, and Elephant Whispers sounds very good. They seem to do a lot of educating about elephants, and activities other than rides, and their elephants were not deliberately forced away from their mothers in the wild, but from what I understand were brought in due to injuries or taken from other situations such as circuses. Anyway, I’ll see it tomorrow.
Update on Wildlife Tourism Conference September 2015
A couple of weeks ago I spent a very encouraging few days in Melbourne and Geelong with Roger Smith and Caz Bartholomew of Echidna Walkabout (I’m chair of Wildlife Tourism Australia, and Roger is vice chair), helping to prepare for Australia’s third wildlife tourism conference at the end of September this year.
Exploring the venues
First we explored the possibilities we had narrowed down to for.
All were lovely venues, but our final decision had to be made on the numbers they were able to accommodate at the conference. We’re hoping for at least 200, so had to abandon ideas of holding it at the Conference Centre in the Botanic Gardens or the Vines Road Community Centre.
The Botanic Gardens, with its sweeping parklands, birdlife, fruitbat colony and views of the sea, is within easy walking distance of the venue we finally chose, so we may still have a social function there, and it is also one of our recommended accommodation choices for those who prefer to be surrounded by trees instead of city streets at night.
Vines Road Community Centre was our original choice, but once again it won’t take the numbers we’re now predicting.
The Mercure Hotel in Geelong can take the numbers,and will be having a major facelift soon, to be finished before the conference, and the staff are happy to provide all our needs . It’s just a few minutes walk from the gardens or the beach. They’ve offered us a generous discount on their rooms, many of which can take three adults in separate beds (thus making the rooms affordable for students) but are also totally okay about some delegates choosing to stay elsewhere.
The really exciting part though is the quality of speakers we already know about (and we should soon be hearing from plenty more), spread across several continents and presenting a range of useful topics relating to how wildlife tourism can contribute to biodiversity conservation and local communities.
In the afternoons we’ll do as we have so successfully done in the WTA workshops over the last few years: divided into small groups for interactive roundtable discussions, joining up again in plenary discussions afterwards, and ultimately collating and uploading the notes from these to the WTA website as well as taking action (new policy guidelines on the website, letters to politicians etc.)
Just one more day at home. Tomorrow I head to Brisbane, and Tuesday will be on my way to South Africa!
The trip was originally to present some research findings on the germination and survival of native fig seeds spread by local birds to the International Frugivory Symposium in the Drakenburgs late next month. Now I’ll also be presenting a paper on wildlife tourism and biodiversity conservation to the Best EN Think Tank conference at the edge of Kruger National Park.
Of course I can’t get that close to Kruger without spending some time there, so will be traveling with the NP for almost 2 weeks before the first conference.
I’m also visiting an elephant sanctuary, one that apparently uses elephants rescued from potential unhappy lives, not calves taking for the purposes from their mothers. I’ve heard many calls for all places offering elephant rides to be closed down throughout the world because they are all cruel. I suspect not all are based on cruelty, and the place I’m visiting in Hazyview seems committed to animal welfare and conservation, so I want to see it for myself. I know firsthand that there are cruel methods and gentle methods of training horse, dogs and other animals, so suspect it is the same with elephant training.
The events of next week don’t seem quite real yet, and maybe won;t until I’m actually in Africa. Internet access will be limited, but I’ll try to record some of what happens along the way!