Wednesday, January 04, 2006

It was a steamy, sultry morning, too…

St. Lucia was hot and humid…30C before nine in the morning…and, ironically, you had to keep moving to keep cool. Sitting still only allowed you to stew in your own juices. We had an appointment at eight to meet a guide and a Toyota 4x4 bakkie (pickup) that had been converted into a game drive vehicle. To our great delight, nobody else in town was eager to get out of bed early on a Sunday morning, so we had the truck…and Gavin, the guide…all to ourselves. We clambered up the diamond-plate steps that had been riveted to the vehicle and took our seats under the canvas canopy, eager to be off. Even without the promise of the animals, we needed to be moving as the air was still and I could feel a sticky sheen of sweat forming all over my body.

The Wetlands park is as wild and unspoiled place as you are likely to find anywhere and the entrance gate was but two blocks from our hotel (which was located smack in the middle of St. Lucia!). Our guided game drive got off to an auspicious start...within minutes of entering the park we began seeing animals. It was birds and little red duiker...a member of the antelope species no bigger than a German first, but as we went deeper into the park, more creatures emerged.

At first it was mostly birds. We spotted a bird that looked remarkably like a small bald eagle which our guide told us was a Wahlberg's eagle and a very rare banded snake eagle sitting nonchalantly atop a telephone pole. Shy red duiker ducked into the roadside bushes and a handful of diminutive reed buck crossed the road in front of us on delicate little hooves. And then we rounded a curve and, on Hubby's side of the truck, we spotted this stunning kudu buck. He stood, frozen in his magnificence, looking straight into the camera as Hubby snapped and snapped and snapped again.

When he finally turned to leave, he did it in an unhurried, nonchalant manner, as if our presence was merely a curiosity of which he had finally gotten his fill. Gavin, our guide, had worked in one of the more remote game parks until recently and had a wealth of information about South African wildlife. Unlike America, in South Africa you can buy game meats in the supermarket and Gavin explained that herds are culled to keep their populations from growing beyond the ability of the game reserves' vegetation to support them, and when an animal such as this has reached an age that he is no longer able to live healthily, they are put down, their meat, hide and horns sold into the commercial market, and the proceeds going back to the game park to help preserve habitat. Seemed like a practical approach on the one hand, but my heart shrunk at the thought of killing such a magnificent beast for reasons beyond survival.

We took off on what Gavin called the Loop Road, a mostly dirt track through some pretty densely forested land which eventually emerged onto a broad grassy flood plain. Here we saw a herd if zebra, there we saw a reluctant rhino which, with her baby, disappeared quickly behind a hillock at the sound of our approaching vehicle. More antelope, our first warthog sighting, several troupes of baboons...which seemed to melt into the underbrush the moment a camera was pointed their way, and vervet monkeys, those cute little creatures that plague households in Durban with their unwelcome...and destructive...visits. You've never seen anything cuter than a baby vervet monkey, with it's pale wrinkly face, sparse coat and jug ears...they look almost human!

We asked Gavin about other animals in the park and he told us that elephant had been moved onto the site but suggested we might better see elephant at Hluhluwe, a game reserve about 50 km away, on the other side of the N2. He wasn't keen on viewing the St. Lucia elephants, telling us that only a month ago two park employees, a man and a woman, had been killed by the elephants while still inside their vehicle! The elephant crushed the cab of their truck, goring the woman and killing her instantly, and then it grabbed the man and flung him into the bush. He died three days later of his injuries.

Hubby asked if there had been any incidents involving boat passengers and hippos and I lamented our failure to see crocodiles on our boating expedition the day before...we saw only one croc and he was so far away he showed up in the photo as a serrated log floating a metre or two off a pod of hippo. In response, Gavin promised to take us to a prime croc-viewing site once we were back in town. I looked at Hubby with raised town? As we finished the loop and headed back to town, Gavin regaled us with tales of St. Lucia's wildlife...the leopard he saw crossing the main street of town late one night, the hippos that come out at night to feed on local gardens, and the annual killing of local residents and tourists by crocodile..."It happens every year," he told us. "There's already been one this season..."

Back on the tar road, we headed into town. St. Lucia is a small place, the main street being no more than four blocks long (but it has a Spar, a Wimpy, an Ocean Basket and three internet cafes!). At the other end of town Gavin veered left into a thickly shaded roadway, telling us the best vantage point for viewing crocodiles was down this road, at the Ski Boat Club. It took a minute to boats? As in water skiing? In crocodile-infested waters? No wonder the crocs kill people here every year! And no wonder they bask on the sandbar across from the boat launch...they must think of this place as a first rate dining spot, with the entrees serving themselves! This photo was taken from the Ski Boat Club, about 20 metres from the boat launch, so you can see just how close these things get. Would you go water skiing with this guy and a dozen of his buddies hanging out, just waiting for you to go near the water?

All joking aside, crocs taking people actually is a problem around here, and to my great surprise, it is not just stupid tourists who end up crocodile lunch. In March of 2005 a St.Lucia resident, a fisherman, was taken by a crocodile. His remains (what was recovered of him) were cremated and his ashes scattered near the spot where he was taken...which, as near as I could tell from the news reports, was near where this crocodile picture was taken. Of such a magnitude is the problem, warning signs like this one are posted at the entrances to the beaches near the Ski Boat Club. Gavin told us that crocodiles are one of only three species that view man as prey and will intentionally hunt us for food, the other two being polar bears and tigers. And people go water skiing right in front of them...

But some doors swing both ways...

Next entry...warthogs and rhinos and elephants...oh my!

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