Before we went to Berg en Dal last week, our oldest Alex had to have his tonsils removed. The poor guy has been suffering from tonsillitis so often, so our GP suggested they better come out. Now if we had lived in Pretoria or Joburg this would have been a ‘quickly drive to the hospital and be back home in a few hours’ sort of thing, but if you live as remote as we do, it sort of becomes a whole military operation. Don’t mind the pun.
They told us to check in at the hospital in Tzaneen at 6 in the morning. Tzaneen is about a two and a half hour drive from Letaba. Normally we have to adhere to the gate opening and closing times, just like everybody else. Luckily in cases like this, our friendly section ranger at Phalaborwa gate does not mind making an exception and she wrote a permit for us to be able to leave at 3:30 to be at the hospital at 6. The day before the op, I made sure all our bags were packed; the car was filled up because the filling station is not open until 6 am, and dinner was already cooked for the next day. We were sure to come back late. I also left clothes out so we could just wake up, get dressed and go. Preparations: check!!
I was sort of looking forward to an early drive through the park. Whenever we get to drive through the park after hours, and that doesn’t happen often, it is such a nice feeling to have to whole park to ourselves. I joked to Steven the other day, it is like all the animals know what time the gates close and think: Yay, all those strange looking animals in their colourful metal cages are back in their zoos! The roads belong to us again! Let’s have a jol!!
Alex was still very sleepy and a bit grumpy when I bundled him up in the car at 3:30. I kind of expected him to go straight back to sleep, but he slowly woke up and got his personality back when we started to see some of the nocturnal animals.
There was no moon visible and it was pitch back out there. My headlights were just illuminating the first rows of vegetation next to the road and I could see maybe 150 metres ahead. It felt like we were driving through a dark, leafy tunnel! It was so strange not to be able to see any of the usual landmarks that I am used to seeing during the day. Even though I have driven that road hundreds of times, I completely lost my bearings in the dark and had no idea where I was ninety percent of the time!
I had to drive very slowly and carefully. The headlights blind nocturnal animals very easily. Scrub hares for example get so confused by their own shadow that they tend to bob and weave ahead of you, staying on the road not sure what to do. Only when you dim your brights or switch off your lights altogether will they find their way off the road. There were a lot of scrub hares on this particular stretch just after we turned left towards Phalaborwa. Alex loved it. Lights on: “Kijk mama! Konijn! Look mommy, a bunny!” Lights off. He was fully awake now. Even when there was not a hare in sight he would tell me he saw one just so I would toggle the light again. Alex loved seeing the Giant Eagle Owl that sat in the middle of the road and oehoe oehoe’d as the stunning bird took off. A special treat for me was seeing a couple of springhare. I haven’t seen those in ages! Probably because I haven’t been on a night drive in forever. I guess that is one of those things you stop doing after you move here. Or maybe after you have kids. Or a combination of the two.
We also saw quite a number of thick-knee birds on the road and took care to avoid them. Then the only other animals we saw were the backside of a hippo close to Nhlanganini dam, a glimpse of a jackal and a hyena in the distance that quickly disappeared into the darkness beyond the reach of my headlights.
The gate guard that had to open the after hours gate for us looked very sleepy and confused as she opened the gate to the right of the main gate. I strapped Alex in his booster seat and set of towards Tzaneen. I am not generally a nervous driver, but the hour and a half it took me to get to Tzaneen in complete darkness on this two lane road, really had me clench my steering wheel at times. Vehicles that would not turn off their brights and leave me temporarily blinded, cars overtaking on blind turns and rises, cars with only one headlight that made them look like motorcycles, I saw it all. I am really not surprised the death toll on South African roads is so high.
The wait in the hospital for them to come fetch him for surgery was long for poor Alex who was starting to get very hungry and thirsty. When they finally came for him at around 11, I could fortunately stay with him in theatre until he was well and truly under, my mother heart very sore as I left him in the care of the surgeon and anaesthesiologist.
My poor little one literally woke up kicking and screaming. And it took him a good few hours of sleep before I could load him back in the car and make the journey home. Alex slept most of the way. Shame he still looked very zoned out.
We left Tzaneen around 4 that afternoon. This time of the year, the gates close at 17:30 and there obviously was no way I was going to make that so Steven gave the section ranger at the gate a heads up. She said to give her a call when I got there. So after an early permit in the morning, we now got a late permit to drive home after hours. We got though the gate as the sun was setting behind us. We passed a few cars that were making it to the gate with just minutes to spare and then we had the whole of Kruger all to ourselves again!
The sky behind me was turning beautiful shades of orange and pink as I was driving towards the west and the approaching darkness. This time of year it gets cooler quickly after the sun sets. Which is a great time for lions to come to the road and warm themselves on the tar, still warm from the day’s sun. We had no such luck unfortunately. The Phalaborwa – Letaba road is a finicky one. One day you have great sightings all round (I have seen the big 5 on that road a few years ago all on my way to the shops) and the next day you drive, it is dead quiet. Well this was one of those very quiet drives. The only animal we saw was a hyena that showed up in my headlights, as I was about to turn into our driveway! Steven had opened the gate for us and this cheeky one was about to check out our dustbins when I got home. Sorry buddy! Better luck next time!!