The 6th day of our trek on the Shongololo Express found us waking up early at 4:30am as we prepared to embark on the 2nd of our 5 game drives in Southern Africa. Today we were heading to Kapama Private Game Reserve in the north eastern part of South Africa where we would spend the morning on safari and the early afternoon exploring the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre.
After a quick continental breakfast in the dining car, we boarded the bus and took the short 20-minute drive, in pre-dawn darkness, from Hoedspruit Train Station to the entrance of Kapama. At the park we left the bus and climbed onto open Safari Land Rovers that were waiting for us. As our driver, Rowan, checked us in at the park entrance we covered ourselves with the safari blankets that were on our seats. Even though the temperature was forecast to be in the mid-20’s (Celcius), early morning weather in South Africa in September is quite cool.
The park is privately owned and covers nearly 13,000 hectares in Limpopo Province. It is named for a Swazi king who’s tribe inhabited and hunted in the area in the late 1800’s. We began our journey into the park just after 6:00am and as we headed east, we saw the sun just breaking over the horizon, creating a spectacular sunrise as if to proclaim our entrance to Kapama. Our early morning start meant that we would catch the stirrings of the various wildlife as they were beginning (or ending) their day.
About 20 minutes into the safari we had our first spotting - a lone zebra grazing by the roadside. We meandered along the dirt road for about another 30 minutes before we came across a pair of white rhinoceros. From that point on our sightings became much more frequent. First, a magnificent male giraffe towering over the brush and grasslands. Next we came across a dazzle of zebras, the adults grazing while the younger ones frolicked in amongst the group.
Our most impactful moment came when we arrived at a small, secluded watering hole near a crossing of two of the parks dirt roads. Lying blissfully beside the watering hole were a pair of young lions. Rowan maneuvered the Land Rover off the road, carefully and slowly, to a position about 10 meters from the pair of lions. After positioning the vehicle and turning off the engine, Rowan pointed to a small acacia tree a short distance from the watering hole where another pair of young lions were lazing in the shade of the tree. A few moments later he pointed to a grassy area just beyond the acacia where an adult female, the mother of the adolescents we were watching, was keeping an eye on her pride. We watched in amazed silence. The lions seemed quite oblivious to our presence and one of the two under the tree joined the pair by the watering hole and began playing, teasingly with its sibling. We continued to absorb this incredible living portrait of a family of lions in their natural habitat for another 20 minutes before reluctantly moving on.
Our lengthy stay by the watering hole had left us behind schedule and we had to hurry to meet up with the rest of our group at a base camp where coffee and light refreshments were being served. After our brief stop, we headed back towards the Kapama main gate about 45 minutes away. En route, we came across a group of female white rhinos, and a single, massive male a few meters from the roadside. We stopped to take some photos before continuing to on our way out of the reserve.
Back at the Kapama entrance we disembarked from the Land Rover at the Hoetspruit Endangered Species Centre (HESC). The Centre is self-described as a unique African wildlife facility focusing on conservation and the sustainability of rare, vulnerable and threatened species. According to its website, the centre is actively involved in research; breeding of endangered animal species; the education of learners, students and the general public in conservation and conservation-related activities; tourism; the release and establishment of captive-bred cheetahs in the wild; the treatment and rehabilitation of wild animals in need (including poached rhinos); and anti-poaching initiatives on the reserve. Cheetah Conservation is one of its core disciplines and a hallmark of the Centre.
Our tour of HESC included a brief film that talked about its origins and goals, focusing on the holistic approach to its conservation activities. Following the film, we boarded the now familiar open safari vehicles for a drive into and through the individual enclosures where we observed rhinos, lions, cheetahs, wild dogs and leopards. At both Kruger National Park and Kapama Game Reserve, we had heard countless heartbreaking stories about the devastating impact of human encroachment and poaching on the African wildlife population that are driving some species towards extinction. HESC deserves credit for its efforts in education and wildlife preservation and in continuing to follow its mission to be a unique African wildlife sanctuary which focuses on conservation and the sustainability of rare animal species.
Our early morning start coupled with brisk touring at both Kapama and HESC had left us feeling a bit tired and hungry as we drove back to the Hoedspruit Train Station to board the Shongololo Express for a late lunch. After lunch we organized our visa paperwork as we were about to leave South Africa for the last time and venture into Zimbabwe for the next leg of our journey. We settled into the observation car to watch the stunning landscape of Limpopo province fall behind us as we chugged towards Zimbabwe. The train stopped at 4:00pm to replenish our water supply. At 6:30pm it started up again as we prepared ourselves for the 7:30pm dinner call. On this particular evening we were served vegetable risotto followed by a main course of salmon with asparagus and red cabbage and finished off with apple crumble and cheese. As usual, our after dinner routine consisted of lively conversation and reminiscing with our Tasmanian companions in the observation car to the soothing clickety-clack of the steel wheels rolling along the track. The train came to a stop at 11:00pm which meant tonight would be a restful and uninterrupted sleep.
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