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Pilanesberg Game Reserve, South Africa, December 2012

As a little pre-xmas trip, we drove to the Pilanesberg Game Reserve in South Africa. It is the closest large safari park to Pretoria / Jo'burg, about three hours away. We stayed up there for two nights, sleeping at one of the lodges inside the park. That gave us time to go on five game drives: every morning at 5 AM or 6 AM for a few hours, and then again at 4 PM. (Mid-day it gets hot and there's very little animal activity.)

This was not our first safari trip. A few weeks earlier we went to Madikwe, which is of comparable size a bit closer to the Botswana border (roughly another hour to the east). And near Pretoria, there are several parks -- smaller, but still with quite an abundance of animals.

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Here is an overview of the place. The whole park is built around an extinct volcano, which is apparently one of three alkaline volcanoes in the world (though now extinct).

Our lodge was at the bottom, and we drove through most of the park. The rip in the middle of the map is from a recent earthquake.

These are impala. There are millions of these, running all over the place (both here and the rest of Africa). They are much more common than springbok, which is the South African national creature.
Rock Hyrax! It looks like a marmot, but it's not. Its closest living relative is actually the elephant (for real) -- and next after that is the manatee. I don't know how Heidi saw this one. There were a few, and they were very hidden. The rock hyrax is related to the tree hyrax, which is one of only a few hoofed animals that climbs trees.
There are a lot of non-native poky trees and bushes here, a byproduct of the history. The deal is that Pilanesberg used to be tribal land (sort of like native reservations in the US). Then in 1979, the various tribes decided to basically cash out: they sold off their lands (which were mostly being used as cattle farms, where the unchecked shrubs weren't a problem) to the South African government to make a game reserve. At Pilanesberg, they also built a massive casino / hotel complex called Sun City, with the help of someone who went on to develop Indian casinos in the U.S. Pilanesberg is close to 600 square km -- one of the biggest reserves in South Africa.

Then they trucked in game! Something like 6,000 large animals were brought in and released -- this was called Operation Genesis and is apparently the largest artifiicial game migration ever in the world. There were some growing pains: soon after the start, close to 30 rhinos were killed by one angry male elephant who didn't know how to make friends very well.

In spite of the fact that the animals were trucked in, this is basically their native habitat. At Kruger National Park, which is far larger and more well known, the animals are essentially native and have been there forever -- but in South Africa, that's a rarity, and nearly all the game reserves are stocked.

Heidi is looking at some kudu here!
Finn is not looking at kudu!
Baby warthog. Very cute.
Baby Astro is also cute.
Baby wildebeest.

Below is a direct transcription of the sounds of nature that I heard while watching the amazing and graceful animals of Africa.

Finn: Ow! I just got wet.

Heidi: Do you need some help from me?

Finn: No, I just got wet!

Piper: Can I have some?

Astrid: Gaaaaah!

Heidi: I'm going to put the top back on and then I'll toss it to you. Oh look -- a wildebeest is in front of our car again!

Piper: Windebeest...

Astrid: Scream!

Heidi: That's still its umbilical cord hanging there, isn't it H?

Henry: I do see something there.

Heidi: It's so wobbly legged.

Piper: I see something hanging out of it!

Piper: I think it's its... biblical... bibli, bibli, bibli, bibli... is that its biblca, ca, bibli? Is that how you say it mom?

Heidi: No, Piper, it's not! Ha ha.

Piper: That might be its bibli, um, um, its biblical cord.

Finn: Mommy, I going to watch my movie!

Piper: Um, bibli, bibli, how do you say it? Libical?

Astrid: Scream!

Finn: Hey mom, I going to watch my movie now!

Astrid: Scream!

Pilanesberg is a self-drive kind of reserve. Kruger is that way too, but some other (like Madikwe, which we went to a few weeks earlier), you're only allowed to go out with a guide, in a Land Cruiser-type thing.
Gemsbok. Or an Impala? Gosh -- not quite sure -- need to research it. Actually, I need to ask Piper. She would know.

Piper: "Don't you know that, H? That's a springbok!"

Giraffe! They often stay in groups and walk together, but they'll spread out over a km or so as they do so. I guess they're happy enough to not need constant companionship.
Giraffe neck! They are awesome.
Giraffes' bodies are a lot bumpier than I gave them credit for.
Red-billed ox-pecker! I know, it's not picking an ox. Sometimes on rhinos, sometimes on giraffes, sometimes on zebras...
This is a Giant Kingfisher. In reality, it was pretty normal sized, but I won't argue with eBirds.
White-throated Swallow.
Whoa! Holy moly -- this was cool. This is my second-favorite (*) bird at the National Zoo in DC. It's a Kori Bustard, which can weigh up to ~25 lbs. They're very large -- i think they are the heaviest flying birds in the world, although they only fly if they have to.

(*)After the double-wattled cassowary.

Marabou Storks (the big ones) and Sacred Ibis (the black and white small ones in trees). The storks are quite large and ugly, getting up to almost 20 pounds. The ibises aren't that small themselves either -- a good-sized eating bird. Our lodges are behind this. You can see the lightning rods used to protect each individual thatched roof there.
Lunch break! Finn shows me the proper way to play chess.
Heidi drinks a strawberry daquari and takes photos.
Elephant!! There were a healthy number of them. This one was by itself, with a baby.
A lot of rhinos. See the rhino bird too. Rhinos are the coolest animals in the world, I think.
Pilanesberg has a lot of rhinos.
Rhino tail!
Baby rhino, eating flowers with its mom.
One of Heidi's favorite things is staring at rhino butts! Here are two that you can stare at too.
Electric rhino. This is right on the edge of the park. You can see houses in the background.

Field trip and lunch break. We've left Pilanesberg and this Sun City. It is formerly a pro-apartheid stronghold... in the mid-80's, someone from Bruce Springsteen's band organized an album in the same sense as 'We Are The World.' They and much of the rest of the world boycotted Sun City. Interestingly, now it is quite multicultural: lots of people from India, Arab countries, etc. -- far more than in the rest of South Africa.

Check it out! Hidden in the middle of the jungle is... a water park!
Among the coolest things were the hippos. I've only seen one non-zoo hippo before. We probably saw 30 at Pilanesberg. They mostly hang out in the water, submerged -- apparently because their delicate skin is too easily burned and dried if they venture out during the day. However, at night time, they tromp around, often walking 10 miles or more.
Sometimes they open their mouths!
These hippos were arguing with each other. The open-mouth thing is apparently a for dominance. I guess just like people talking loudly.
There are so many hippos here! I mean, it's crazy. We're seeing like the top 1% of their bodies here -- much like whale watching. How can you really pack in that many hippos into such a tiny area? Is there really room for seven full-size hippos hiding under the water here?
OK, this hippo was amazing. Heidi watched it for a long time and really went crazy. Apparently this poop-slinging behavior is another way to dominate. I've never really seen people do this, but maybe it happens.
Three hippos! One of my favorite pics.
The lodge security guards do their amazing dance -- check it out! .
Astrid is really loving the safari time! (That's a fancy beanbag for my camera sticking out the window.)
This girl is obviously really loving it too. Here, we are stuck in a traffic jam. I think there was a zebra on the right that people were looking at. (Zebras are cool for sure, although stopping for a zebra in Africa is like stopping for a squirrel in Yosemite.)
That being said, I apparently was excited to find some myself too. Zebra!
Baby zebra!
The same baby zebra, now with a parent taking care of it.

Whenever I see a zebra, it's hard not to think of the "Guns, Germs, Steel" book where he goes through all the pros and cons of horses vs. zebras, and concludes (perhaps correctly, I'm not really sure) that the reason why Africa is so behind Europe these days is because 1000+ years ago, Europe got horses and cows, and Africa was stuck with zebras, and they make terrible work animals, because they can't be trained, and they bite. And apparently this is true: no one I have talked to here knows of anyone who has successfully domesticated a zebra, though many have tried.

It's a three-hour drive back to Pretoria. About 20 minutes into it, Astrid woke up and started crying, but stopping on the side of the busy African road at night is more dangerous than keeping driving (which was already challenging enough, given the ad hoc lanes and the random slow-moving / unlit / wide-load vehicles sharing them).

In an attempt to pacify her, Piper wrote up this beautiful song, dedicated to Astro, about why she should go to sleep.

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Henry Throop

Last modified Sat Jan 19 14:52:10 2013