Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Intimate Encounters

Thus far our most intimate encounters with wildlife have been with ticks. The dark brown, round little bugs started attentively waiting on us while hiking in Blyde River. Groups of two or three perched on the ends of the tall grass and flung themselves onto our pants as we passed. They stayed with us when we went to the first park in Swaziland as well, apparently attracted by the glow of my now-stained khaki pants.

One would think the herds of blesbok that wandered through our campsite at Malalotja in western Swaziland would have trumped the significance of the tick, but they never got in as close. When we hiked through the grass-covered mountains that were eerily similar to the tundra-covered land around Unalaska, especially when the fog rolled in, the blesbok stayed near the entrance of the park, but the ticks came with us.

After hiking in Malaotja we hitchhiked, took a minibus, and hiked to get to Mlilwane Park. Carrying our excessively heavy bags to the hostel in the park we passed small herds of brown, deer-like inyala with thin white stripes and massive ears and placid groups of grazing zebras. We were too tired to take any photos or to notice if our constant tiny companions still accompanied us. In our tent that night we heard loud grunting, like a very angry pig, and assumed it was a dangerous hippo walking near our tent. It turns out it was just an impala. Who knew such lithe, graceful animals sounded so gruff? During our six-hour long hike the next day up Execution Mountain, we hardly saw any animals, but the ticks never failed to appear. Maybe they got a taste of the blood from the people who used to be pushed from the top of the mountain by warriors for wronging the king, but I doubt it. I think they were just opportunists looking for action.

The next day we took minibuses to Hlane National Park. After setting up camp and washing some clothes, an ostrich ambled by our tent and tried to eat our laundry soap. Personally I was glad she didn’t go for my drying underwear or the bag of plums, though, after reading all the “ostriches are dangerous” warning signs, I would have gladly sacrificed my khaki pants to her had she tried. I finally thought our intimate animal relationships were changing. While waiting for our evening game drive to begin, Jeanette decided to walk over to a small pond near the camp and quickly came to get me – three hippos and five rhinos were hanging out not far from the electric fence around the camp.  The only rhino I ever saw in Tanzania was so far away I could barely identify it. When the game drive started, the group of rhinos walked across the road. We were about 20 feet from them; close enough to see their tiny eyes and the scratches in the mud that coated their hides. That felt very up-close and personal, and we finally thought perhaps our buddy-buddy relationship with the ticks would be supplanted, until the guide stopped to teach us about local culture.

White Rhino - 50 ft

He stopped the truck and cut a small branch from the Swazi tree. He explained that during an annual ritual in December, young boys went and cut branches from these types of trees. They used the branches to dance before the king. Those whose branches were still fresh and green were said to be true virgins whereas those with wilted branches were not. Our guide said that a similar dance took place with the girls in September using reeds. No reeds grew nearby, so, to simulate, he plucked a blade of grass. Perched on the tip, waiting for us, was our good friend, the tick. It’s a shame I accidentally destroyed our bottle of bug spray.       

 We have seen other animals on this trip. Last night we saw a few elephants, but they were too obscured by trees to get any good photos. Plenty of warthogs have trotted by with their babies in tow and tails flying straight in the air. This morning we saw a few wildebeest and two giraffes, though the giraffes always seemed to be on the opposite side of the fence that divides the park into sections so we never got any good photos. Also on our list are crocodiles, a baby crocodile, waterbucks, one kudu, a bazillion impala, vultures, herons, starlings, and a mongoose. No predators yet, but soon, maybe. We’ve also met many nice people at the hostels and campsites.


Something Something Vulture

White Rhino - 25ft


  1. I enjoyed your account. How marvelous you are getting to see so much wild life. How do you get the ticks off your clothes? Are you wear long-sleeved shirts? Good luck with your next encounters.
    Love you,
    Now I'll let Dad read your report.

  2. Yay! I'm loving that I can identify with this part of your trip. Laurie and I visited the same parks in Swaziland but without the up close and personal experiences you are having. We got to see the girls' reed dance last September. If you get a chance, I recommend going back to see it!