Noi6 means "the 6 of us" in Romanian.

We are five, you are the sixth one.

We thank you for joining us in our trip around the world...

Saturday, June 23, 2012

A Different Kind of Zoo

I’ve never seen this kind of zoo. It is totally different from beginning to end. I knew zoos are expensive, but this one beats them all with a hundred dollars per day. 
When you go to the zoo, you can pick up a map and see where the animals that you want to see are. Not here, no! If you want a map, you have to buy it. On it there are two kinds of roads (sealed and dirt), gates (that close sharply at 5.30 pm), picnic areas and camps (because you can sleep if you want). But there is no sign for where to see the different animals. Here, we have to FIND them! The animals are free to move wherever they want. It’s us who are fenced in our car. In a way it’s really easy, we just have to drive and keep our eyes peeled for any kind of movement. But at 50 km/h everything moves! What was that? Stop the car! Oooooh, impala... Look at her, how cute she is with her big eyes, and see, she has dark lines on her face, and her ears... lined with black, and oh, do you see she has a coat in three colors, and look at the horns of that buck, they go with the lines on his buttocks, and they have black cuffs above their ankles, and see those two, are licking their necks, taking turns. 

We drive some more, and I see a grey, big boulder on the side of the road, and I’m thinking how out of place it is, because all the other rocks are red, and the dust is red, and just as we were passing it, we realize: BUFFALO! Reverse the car and stop at a safe distance. Details are coming one by one, as our enthusiasm recedes to amazement: how big he is, how he grazes, then the thickness of his horns, a sign of his old age, his coat caked with dry mud. On the other side of the road there is another one, keeping him company, in a better light. It’s picture time: “Can I have the camera?”, “I want to take a picture too...”

It is wintertime now in the Southern Hemisphere, so the sun is low in the sky, entering our eyes. We squint, and continue to look. And look... and look some more...

Do you see something?

some more impalas... bushes... zebras... Zebras! And again we oooh and aaah looking at their stripes, at their babies, “Did you see that baby, how small he is?” “Have you ever seen such a cute baby zebra? It’s crossing the street, following his mama.” The other zebras are moving around, two males are having a fight in the middle of a dust cloud, normal business. 

No, we’re not in some big Bush Gardens or in Disney’s Animal Kingdom. They do have fences to separate the different kinds of animals, and to see them you have to go through many gates. We’re in Kruger National Park in South Africa. The animals live here following the rules of the wild, having their place in the circle of life. We’ve seen one end, in form of a carcass, covered with vultures, young ones, with brown plumage, sign that all others had already had their share: the lions, who made the kill, the hyenas, the old vultures. 

The first giraffe took us by surprise. It seemed that he just materialized from thin air, the red and yellow colors of the dry leaves vibrating in geometrical spots. He studied us from under his long eyelashes, considered us inoffensive, and continued to eat the acacia leaves. He was old, we knew from his darker spots and from his white horns (when males fight, the velvet from their horns rubs off). The females group together, growing their young. One of them hid in the bushes, leaving just a floating head.

As we cross a very long bridge we stop the car after the yellow line. Here we can exit the car; it’s considered safe and that we have enough time to react to an incoming danger. Under us a large valley and a lazy river. And a moving hippo! His rounded form steps on dainty feet toward water. Soon enough he is immersed and we can see only his head. Later, we will see from a distance pods of 12 or 16, purple rounded boulders, laying on the sand head to tail. 

In the middle of the river on a sand bank a pod of hippos.
We head toward camp Punta Maria and on the left side is a young elephant. He looks big, compared to the Indian elephant, but his tusks are not too long. He flutters his ears and picks up grass with his trunk. We admire him from a safe distance and keep our voices low; we don’t want to excite him.

The camp, encircled by wired fence, is behind a gate with two wooden clock owls (one shows when the gate opens, and the other when it closes). There is a gas station, in one building there’s the restaurant, the shop and the reception, and several houses with thatched roofs. The rooms are simple, with heating air conditioners (during the night time is close to 5º C, and in the day time to 30º C). 

We go to bed early, seeing that in the morning we have to wake at 5 am to go to Thulamela ruins. We were fortunate enough to have as guide one of the rangers who discovered them in 1983 and worked for 18 months at their restoration. 

We climb in a tiered 15-seat bus and drive for almost an hour in the cold light of the morning, without seeing any major animals. On top of the board there is a gun. The security guy has another one, and at his belt, six more bullets.  We arrive at Thulamela and we’re briefed: we are to move as a group on the path, as we climb the hill we must keep our voices low, and if we want to stop for any reason we just have to ask. The rangers go ahead of us and look in the dust for paw prints or for any signs of big cats. They find a furry scat, almost 7 days old, so we’re good, we can go.

Learning about the Thulamela ruins.

Ioan wanted to climb in a baobab tree, the ranger had second thoughts about leopard babies hidden in the holes in the tree. 
On top of the hill, not very well visible, there is a dry stone wall (built without mortar) encircling the king’s and queen’s living areas. Outside of it is the remains of the living ground for 500 people who would cultivate millet, sorghum, peanuts, watermelons and pumpkins, now strewn with brush and huge baobabs. If they had a problem they would go and see the brother of the king, who lived in circular hut. 

The king's brother's hut.


If he couldn’t solve it, they would go to the king. They couldn’t see him directly, but there was an audience in a hut parted by a wall: on one side the subject would state his problem, on the other side the king would listen, confer with his wife, who was his advisor, and she would communicate the decision. This king position was a lonely and isolated one.The title for the king was Crocodile, because in his stomach he had a stone taken from a crocodile (they swallow them so they could sink, while the future king would do it so the crocodile’s courage and power would be bestowed on him). At the end of his life he had to vomit it, so his successor could swallow it in his turn. The king inspired such a respect that they didn’t even say his name, but Khotsi (Fangs) or, if he died, “The pools are dry.”

The monoliths in the middle and on the wall.
As we entered the enclosure we could see the round “birthing” area, where monoliths were built into the structure, as they had the power to repel the evil forces. Here houses are built on a round stone foundation with mud, straw and dung (it makes them waterproof) and thatched with straw. In the queen’s hut, buried under the hearth, they found a woman skeleton. She was a queen (she had golden beads), tall (1.73 cm or 5’6”) and died of natural causes around 45 or 60 years old. She was buried there so her honor and respect would be transferred to the next queen.

Mortar and pestle.
Now, this hill was at the confluence of two people Vhavenda and Mashangaan, and both claimed this Zimbabwe structure. Guess who won? They told the archeologists where to dig and find the tomb of a king according to their customs, so the ruin went to the Vhavenda. This king was killed (he had a hole in his spinal cord) and buried somewhere else, and following tradition, was reburied here with 900 beads of gold and an iron double gong (brought from Ghana, they used to ring it before him when he was walking, so people could hide and not see his face).

The Khosi's tomb.
It is an important site, not just because it was discovered and excavated under archeological control, or because of the clues about people who lived in this area around 1400 AD (they purified alluvial gold, they exchanged ivory for porcelain with the Chinese), but for the historical confirmation of the Vhavenda people and for the big puzzle that is human knowledge.

Bead out of ostrich egg shell.
While driving back the guides pointed toward different species of animals like nyallas or rock dassie.


Rock dassie
We spend another night in Letaba camp, where we watch a movie about termites and visit the Elephant museum, a large hall full of bones and facts about elephants, how they where used (in 1991 they carried the ballot boxes in remote areas for the election in India) or that they are lefties of righties (they use one of their tusks preferentially).

 We see a picture of a car after a mother elephant stepped on it because she was defending her calf (the tourist got out of the car to take a better picture). 

As we leave the park we’re intent on seeing a lion or something similar. We don’t stop anymore for impalas, zebras, giraffes. We just drive and survey.

So, did you see something?

This is what it looks like: we believe it was a dik-dik, a one foot tall antelope.


Ostrich female

Southern yellow-billed  hornbill eating termites

 But we stop on the long bridge and get out to take pictures of the elephant herd with its little ones. They make their way over the sand toward the water. The matriarch trumpets, flutters her ears, stomps her feet, and eventually changes route. It was too far away to see even through the camera’s lens, but later we discovered on the computer’s screen there was a huge crocodile that stood its ground.

The crocodile is on the left lower corner
Hoping we would find one of the big cats we take a dirt road and bumpity-bumped over it. Nothing. Our eyes hurt and I feel nauseous because of the repeated movement of fixing a target, following it and then move again. Just as we turn a bend in the road, there it was, on the side of the road a spotted genet sniffing its food, watching us to see if we were a danger, then it crossed the road and disappeared into the thicket. We were so happy, so lucky, so... so... we didn’t have words. Maria put it best: “I’m happy we saw a civet (that’s what we thought it was in the beginning) because they have tours to see lions, but not for lesser animals!”

So we’re taking our good byes from the park, just for a while because we’re determined to return. The exit gate is in 2 km... and in front of our car, calmly crossing the street is a blue-eyed leopard. He looks Mihai in the eye and passing through the tall glass, disappears down hill. 

This is the way to celebrate the winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere!

One baobab tree.


  1. Thank you for the tour!


  2. La Multi Ani, Ileana!
    Cristina, Gabriela Emanuela, Nicoleta Anastasia, Andreea Simona si Dan Nicolae


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