This morning we met our tour group just before five a.m. to start our journey north towards Kruger National Park. Of the eight people in our tour group, four of us are teachers from the U.S. We are also traveling with a family from Malta and a Canadian military pilot. There seem to be a lot of teachers here traveling for the summer – so far on our trip, we have met teachers from Scotland, Spain, and Abu Dhabi.
Once we all get settled, our first destination is Blyde Canyon, the third largest canyon in the world, and the largest canyon with green growth on its wall. Blyde canyon has a river running through sheer green walls and towering pillars of rock. On one end, its layers of red rock stand in stark contrast to the green growth at its beginning.
We leave Blyde Canyon and head to the Moholoholo Rehabilitation Center, where volunteers rehabilitate and release wildlife injured by traps and other human conflict. When we arrive, a warthog greets us in the parking lot, walking around on his front knees and rolling around in the dirt. We start with a presentation by some of the volunteers on why it is necessary for a rehabilitation center like this one to exist. In Africa, there is often conflict between wildlife and farmers, and traps are set for what are seen as problem animals. Pictures of injured lions and cheetahs flash across the screen – an animal missing its front paw from a trap, a lion whose jaw has been torn open when it was hung from a tree, cheetahs locked in cages and lit on fire. The pictures are sobering, and make it clear that the people who live here may not have the same feelings about the wildlife as the tourists. There are groups trying to help minimize these human-wildlife conflicts, helping farmers build bomas to contain cattle or tracking wildlife to ensure they stay in protected areas and do not invade villages or put people in danger. The rehabilitation center does educational outreach to local villages, and they have recently trained eight young cheetah cubs to walk on a leash so they can take them to schools to teach and change the local attitude towards this animal. We get to meet one of the cheetahs they have trained, and all line up to pet this beautiful animal. It is surprisingly calm, laying on a table at its trainers command, though we are still instructed to stay away from its face!
After learning about their cheetah outreach program, we visit the various animals they have rescued over the past few months, including vultures, wild dogs, and lions that were hand-raised and can no longer be released into the wild (they fear they will be a danger if they are comfortable approaching people). The highlight is a honey badger named Stoffel, who has become something of a local celebrity. He is a well-known escape artist, using everything from a hand shovel left behind by his trainer to his roommate to crawl out of his cage. Honey badgers are fearless animals, and have been known to attack lions or buffalo despite the fact that they are the size of a housecat. They kill these ferocious predators by using their sharp claws to rip out their stomach and intestines, or in some cases, tearing off their testicles, causing the animal to bleed to death. Stoffel has been found in the lion cage twice during his various escapes – once, they only found him because they heard the lions crying in their pen. It turns out Stoffel was hanging off the male lion’s face with his sharp claws.
A giraffe walked us out to the parking lot, and we headed to our lodge at the border of Kruger National Park. On our way in, we are stopped by an anti-poaching group looking for guns or other illegal materials such as ivory. It is dark, and they check our van thoroughly with a flashlight before letting us pass. We have a very early start the next morning, so we settle in early and prepare for our first game drive.