The Sunday morning was the most perfect start to the day. The sun rose quickly and dispersed the wisps of dew. We drove out of the camp and headed down one of the lesser known tracks, Tilodi, keeping away from the jams on the main tar road. We saw plenty of giraffe and antelope. A line of wildebeest trudged along a hillside to the north of us. As the sun rose there appeared to be less chance of seeing game, then a pair of golden jackal trotted out of the bush on to the track in front of us. They appeared not to notice the Bucky on the road and we followed at a crawl until they wandered as nonchalantly off into the bush on the other side of the road.
Further on a family of warthog were rootling around in a well-grazed area of grassland. A few bushes broke up the scenery, but three or four of them busied themselves by rubbing their snouts in the mud, occasionally digging for roots but often just scratching themselves against the ground, perhaps to relieve themselves of annoying tics, or just to ease an annoying itch.
We saw a group of vehicles stopped up ahead, regrettably the surest sign of activity. Crunching through the bush was a troop of elephants, at least ten, strung out and moving quickly. Kirsty told me that there was a reputation for this kind of activity amongst many elephants. They could cover large tracks of land, pushing purposefully forward, and woe betide anyone who got in their way.
The sun was now high in the sky and we decided to pause at the Fish Eagle picnic spot and cook breakfast. I rustled up some scrambled eggs while Kirsty prepared the rest, the steaming kettle the only noise in a perfect calm. The heat was beginning to kick in now but the fresh crisp dry air was wonderful. The picnic spot was high above the central valley of the volcano, not far from the main lake. The parched savannah stretched in either direction. There was not much game to see, a few giraffe nibbling the high acacia tips, a few antelope finishing their early morning feeds. A number of vervet monkeys chattered away in the trees above us. Some hyrax played around above us in a series of rocky outcrops.
Eating those eggs up on the viewpoint was one of the highlights of the holiday for me, the openness and the freedom made me intake huge lungfuls of fresh air. The slight numbing in my neck reminded me of all the badness back their in Gauteng that we had temporarily left behind, but the throat was now relaxing and I began to enjoy myself again.
We continued to travel round most of the day, knowing that there would be little to see. We watched a few hippos in the central lake, we saw more elephant and a brown hyena, which trotted from the grass in front of us.
At one point, approaching the main Mankwe Dam, we noticed fresh elephant dung on the ground and signs of wholesale ripping of tree branches along the road side. Sure enough, we saw the culprit along the road, a large cow elephant in the act of ripping another large branch off a tree. She munched the smaller twigs, dropped the remaining shreds on the floor and methodically ripped another branch off. We stopped at a safe distance and proceeded to watch. With the engine turned off, we could hear the breaking branches and the ripping, rasping noise as she crunched them in her huge jaws. Then we heard some more tramping to our right, and a second female came along to join her. Kirsty was a little alarmed that this one had emerged from the bush so close beside, but she ignored us completely. Kirsty was about to start the engine again, feeling that we were now just a little bit too close for comfort, when a third elephant emerged, right behind us. Again she took no notice of us but proceeded to shred a tree about thirty yards from the vehicle. This was not safe, but we were trapped, and had to sit quietly, partly in awe of these magnificent creatures, partly terrified by the prospect of being crushed if they decided to test themselves out on us.
When they drifted back into the bush, we progressed on to a hill brow overlooking a long sweep of tall grass. A few trees marked the course of a stream in a valley bottom and another large field of grass rose on the other side. Here about six rhino grazed. Through Kirsty’s binoculars they were properly identifiable, but were just grey blobs with the naked eye.
Soon afterwards we started to head southwards out of the park. The Pilansberg is really just a playground for rich South Africans; a sham in amongst the mountains. All the animals are imported, all the roads carefully maintained, all the facilities well laid out. I was to discover this was true in several other parks in the country, but it never felt quite so artificial as this. To cap it all, at the southern entrance of the park, there was the massive Bakubung game lodge on the mountainside, a series of luxury rondavels overlooking the valley marked clearly by huge lightning conductors that pierced the blue sky.
We stopped briefly at the Lengua Dam near this lodge and watched two elephants playing in the water. The two of them would take it in turns to mount each other and roll one another over into the water, making a huge splash. You would hear gurgling trumpet calls come up the hillside, almost laughter but definitely pure enjoyment. They would toss and turn, and wrestle, they would pull back and launch themselves together again. They would spray water over each other, then mount once more. The sight was one of pure pleasure. As we watched on our side of the lake, we noticed a whole queue of vehicles had stopped on the main road opposite, but still the elephants played. There was so much ear flapping and trunk curling, head tossing and body shaking, it was like a ritual being played out. We were not close enough to determine the sex, but they were clearly adolescents, either play fighting or play mating in the water, much to their own and everyone else’s delight.