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The Travel Episodes

Chapter One: Elephant

The Big Five

Johan­nes Klaus goes travel­ling in South Africa’s Garden of Eden, Kruger Natio­nal Park. But it’s no para­dise: man is a wild and deadly animal.

When I look back at my life until now – as I’m about to do – my encoun­ters with animals draw a very clear picture of my weak­nes­ses.
 

Prologue

Maybe it was predesti­ned, and there’s nothing I can do about it. I was born into a family with many talents, but a way with animals wasn’t one of them. 

It’s not that we didn’t have any pets! Even before I could walk, my older siblings’ char­ges gene­rally met with tragic ends after their brief lives. After giving them to a farmer to look after while we were away on holi­day, all that was left of my big sister’s three rabbits were the pelts, hanging from a line in his farmyard (my father argues vehe­mently to this day that he did not agree to this rather uncon­ven­tio­nal inter­pre­ta­tion of hospi­ta­lity). The fish in our new aqua­rium quickly worked out how to play very dead. 

And Hansi, my sister Steffi’s manic-depressive canary, hanged hims­elf in despair from the bars of his cage. 

I myself was despe­rate for a talking parrot who’d stand by me through thick and thin, but sadly it was not to be. Instead my parents gave me first one, then anot­her cocka­tiel. I called the first one Hugo and the second Adel­heid. Although it later turned out that Hugo was probably a girl and Adel­heid a boy, the two of them never got around to laying any eggs. Instead they enjoyed snacking on my books and shit­ting on my head. I liked them.

 
 

When I was still dreaming of a real parrot.

When I was still drea­ming of a real parrot.

Hugo on my yellow suitcase.

Hugo on my yellow suit­case.

Hugo isn't alone any more!

Hugo isn’t alone any more!

One fine summer’s day I put the cage out on the balcony rail, as I often did, so that my two feathe­red friends could get a bit of sun and fresh air. I meant well, you might say. But then, as I’m sure you’ve alre­ady gues­sed, disas­ter struck: when I came back the cage was lying on the floor, broken in two. They’d both scar­pe­red, never to be seen again. 

I could keep going, telling you stories of ailing mice, gasping guinea­pigs and other abor­tive attempts at pet ownership. Of the cree­ping sense of regret that, after my initial enthu­si­asm, grew stron­ger year on year as I stared at the animals at the zoo.

But then I’d be getting too far off topic, and somehow I’ve got to find my way back to the subject of this arti­cle: a safari.

 
 
Mit diesem süßen Baby-Elefant leiten wir elegant zum Thema des Berichtes über.
 
 
It may be that an elephant – to pluck one of the wild animals in this story out of the air at random – has little in common with an ordi­nary pet, let’s say a gold­fish, in terms of care. The same goes for a wart­hog. Or a croco­dile. They don’t want you to feed them or cuddle them. They just do their thing.

I get that.

I’m giving my rela­ti­ons­hip with animals one last chance – and not a small one! I’m talking about nothing less than big game. Giraf­fes. Zebras. Enor­mous spiders. I’m heading into the bush – in South Africa. 

My eyes are firmly fixed on my goal: a safari in the Singita area of Kruger Natio­nal Park. 

Whether it sorts out my issues with animals remains to be seen.

 

* * *

Chapter Two / Leopard

Safari

So what the hell is this ‘Big Five’?
The story of an obses­sion.

Dear reader, I know what you’ve been asking yours­elf all this time – what you always ask yours­elf whene­ver your well-travelled acquain­tance starts banging on unasked about his adven­tures in Africa, which he has somehow mana­ged to survive unsca­thed once again. That’s right: the guy who calls it a ‘game drive’ rather than a safari, who loves explai­ning the diffe­rence between a field guide and a ranger, and who’s bubbling with simple solu­ti­ons to ‘Africa’s problems’ once his tongue’s been loosened by a glass of wine. In other words: me. You’re asking:

What the hell is this ‘Big Five’?

 
Suedafrika-Roadtrip_20150415_3167
 

The Big Five: The Big Game Hunter’s Bucket List

It’s the year 1910 AD. All Africa is under Euro­pean rule… all Africa? Yep, the whole of Africa (apart from Ethio­pia). One of the colo­nial masters’ favou­rite hobbies is going hunting in the Afri­can wilder­ness with lots of porters and rifles. And ice for the G&Ts at sundown.
 
 

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Africa was almost completely colonised: seven European states had divided the continent between them. 
The country that is now South Africa was ruled by the British.

At the begin­ning of the twen­tieth century, Africa was almost comple­tely colo­nised: seven Euro­pean states had divi­ded the conti­nent between them.
The coun­try that is now South Africa was ruled by the British.

Since 1898, hunting has been forbidden in the conservation area that today includes Kruger National Park. The park is approximately the size of Israel.

Since 1898, hunting has been forbid­den in the conser­va­tion area that today inclu­des Kruger Natio­nal Park. The park is appro­xi­mately the size of Israel.

Since the early 2000s, the park has been in the process of expansion through mergers with conservation areas in Mozambique and Zimbabwe. The Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park includes Limpopo National Park in Mozambique and Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe, as well as Kruger.

Since the early 2000s, the park has been in the process of expan­sion through mergers with conser­va­tion areas in Mozam­bi­que and Zimbabwe. The Great Limpopo Trans­fron­tier Park inclu­des Limpopo Natio­nal Park in Mozam­bi­que and Gona­rez­hou Natio­nal Park in Zimbabwe, as well as Kruger.

They called these expe­di­ti­ons safa­ris, as it’s the Swahili word for jour­ney. Great honour and renown awai­ted those who took on (and took down) the most dange­rous crea­tures in the savan­nah: the elephant, the rhino­ce­ros, the buffalo, the lion and the leopard. Size played a part in the selec­tion process, of course, but most of all was exci­te­ment.

Shoo­ting a giant hippo­po­ta­mus, for instance, as it stands in the river yawning every other minute isn’t really much of a sporting achie­ve­ment.

Why did they hit on exactly these five crea­tures, and not, say, the equally inte­res­ting cheetah? Neit­her I nor Wiki­pe­dia has any idea.

At some point in the last few deca­des killing ever­y­thing in Africa that moved fell out of fashion, and the big game hunts became largely blood­less excur­si­ons for tourists, who, despite still looking pretty frigh­ten­ing with their giant lenses, are gene­rally harm­less (to animals).

What’s remai­ned is the obses­sion with the Big Five. And the G&Ts, which are served at sundown on evening game drives. 

Of course, such big game hunts still exist: for a lot of money, small people can kill big animals. There are speci­fic areas where parti­cu­lar species are accep­ta­ble to shoot. It’s not a complete outrage, as there are sound ecolo­gi­cal argu­ments for doing so – but I still find the thought extre­mely bizarre.

Why would I want to kill this extra­or­di­na­rily elegant leopard slin­king through the grass?

 

* * *

Chapter Three / Lion

Wow. Wow. Wow.

It’s all kicking off! Big game, here I come!

When it comes to safa­ris, probably the most famous loca­tion is the enor­mous Kruger Natio­nal Park in western South Africa. There are a few areas of the park that can be leased to private lodges – for no small amount of money. These conces­si­ons are then made avail­able for the exclu­sive use of the lodges’ guests.

The Singita Game Reserve Lebombo is in the southern part of Kruger Natio­nal Park, in exactly such a conces­sion. Only five kilo­metres away, as the crow flies, is a long fence that sepa­ra­tes South Africa from Mozam­bi­que. A hand­ful of asceti­cally luxu­rious lodges sit on a hillside at a generous distance from each other. Thirty metres furt­her down, hippos splash around in the middle of a small river. Ahead of them the surface of the water is broken as a croco­dile raises its head, on the lookout for break­fast. On the other bank are a few impa­las, trying not to get eaten as they take a drink. The sun rises.

 
 

The bungalows in the Singita Lebombo Lodge blend in well with their environment.

The bunga­lows in the Singita Lebombo Lodge blend in well with their envi­ron­ment.

In the river below, crocodiles and hippos are splashing around.

In the river below, croco­di­les and hippos are spla­shing around.

Why would anybody want to move from this balcony?

Why would anybody want to move from this balcony?

Oh right, that's why: wildlife in the national park is best explored by Land Rover.

Oh right, that’s why: wild­life in the natio­nal park is best explo­red by Land Rover.

I could sit here fore­ver, soaking up this perfor­mance and the magni­ficent sound­track of the bush. I’m sitting on my large balcony, a coffee in one hand and my camera in the other. This where I want to stay.

But I’m not stay­ing – the game drive’s star­ting at half five! Although, to be honest, I’m not sure anything could top this morning.

Ok guys. I’m impres­sed. Spell­bound. Love-struck. I had no idea it would be like this: the epic land­s­cape, the power­ful animals, their heart-warming young. I’m scar­cely two metres from a pride of lions, gazing in asto­nish­ment at baby elephants gambol­ling around, and breath­lessly follo­wing a leopard on the prowl.

From time to time I feel as if I’ve been thrust into the prime­val, dinosaur-filled world of Juras­sic Park (at the begin­ning of the film, when everything’s still peace­ful and the resur­rec­ted dino­saurs are cosily grazing and hunting among them­sel­ves).

In the film, it doesn’t take long before ever­y­thing goes to hell in a hand­bas­ket. And here in Kruger Natio­nal Park, disas­ter is also loom­ing.

Man is a wild and deadly animal.

* * *

Chapter Four / Buffalo

More precious than gold

Our tracker Charles leaps from his seat at the front of our Land Rover. He ties a white cloth around his right upper arm and reaches for his gun. Then he disap­pears into the bush.

‘Last year one of our guides was nearly shot dead by the mili­tary. They thought he was a poacher,’ explains our field guide Enos. ‘That’s why we star­ted wearing a white ribbon around our arms when we’re on foot, to show we’re allo­wed to be here.’

‘What if the poachers do that too?’ I ask.

‘Then we’ll change the colour.’

 

Erectile Dysfunction

In the Far East there are people who must be in the depths of despair. They can’t get it up, and have hit on a solu­tion in the form of some­thing with excep­tio­nal staying-power: the mighty, upright horn of the rhino­ce­ros. It would be funny if it didn’t have such terri­ble conse­quen­ces.

They also believe that the powde­red horn cures fever and cancer, and they’re willing to pay a king’s ransom to obtain it, paying up to 80,000 US dollars per kilo­gram – it’s more expen­sive than gold.

A poacher will get 3,000 euros for a whole horn of 1 to 10 kilos in weight, an unima­gin­able sum for many people. In Kruger Natio­nal Park, rhinos are threa­tened mainly by poachers from Mozam­bi­que. More than half the popu­la­tion of Mozam­bi­que lives in complete poverty – and a single horn can change a poacher’s life. In 2013, more than 1,000 rhinos were killed in South Africa alone, in 2014 over 1,200. The mili­tary helps the rangers crack down on poaching, but Kruger is almost the size of New Jersey, and the fence between Mozam­bi­que and South Africa is more deco­ra­tion than deter­rent.

 
 
Suedafrika-Roadtrip_20150416_3473
 
 
Even within the Singita conces­sion, rhinos have become scarce.

‘A few years ago, you’d defi­ni­tely have seen rhinos here,’ Enos tells us. ‘Now it’s very hit and miss – and if we do glim­pse one, they run away the moment they catch wind of us. The rhinos know why. Sadly, their fear is justi­fied.’

He and Charles are doing their best to educate people, going into schools in South Africa and showing child­ren what rhinos mean for all of them. ‘Tourists come here to see the rhino­ce­ro­ses, and tourism is extre­mely important to the local area in all sorts of ways – obviously for guides and staff at the lodges, but also for many others who profit indi­rectly.’

We pass a herd of buffalo. The mighty crea­tures don’t look like they’d suffer fools gladly. Number four of the Big Five! We’re grip­ped with the desire to complete the set.

In this video you can see why you shouldn’t mess with buff­aloes (see minute 1:40 onwards): 


 

But one animal remains elusive: the rhino­ce­ros.

* * *

Chapter Five / Rhinoceros

The Last Unicorn

All of a sudden, Charles darts back out of the bush. He’s found a trail. We need to get out of the Land Rover.

‘Stay behind me,’ says Enos, explai­ning the rules. ‘Always stay in a line, and be very quiet. We have to make a wide detour, because rhinos have an excel­lent sense of smell – we’ve got to approach it from upwind. Their sight, on the other hand, is remar­kably bad.’

Man, this is so exci­ting! When you’re travel­ling through the park in a car you’re quite safe, even though you’re inches away from lions, elephants and other wild animals. They just see a big car-monster, and pay it little heed.

On foot, howe­ver, it’s a diffe­rent story!

Enos loads his gun with a few of the giant rounds hanging on his belt (‘better safe than sorry,’ he murmurs), and then we’re off. In single file we walk into the grassy savan­nah, follo­wing tracks I can’t see. Again and again we’re brought to a halt by a hand signal, as our tracker Charles checks the direc­tion of the wind and adjusts our direc­tion. A small herd of zebras is stan­ding to our left, making the process that much more diffi­cult, since the animals warn each other of impen­ding danger with cries of alarm. Slowly, we walk through the waist-high grass.

Thorny acacia trees and scrubby bushes block our view, but we’re told to kneel down. And then I spot them! Two rhino­ce­ro­ses grazing calmly about fifty metres away.

They look so peace­ful, so good-natured and a little dopey – if it wasn’t for the enor­mous horn, deco­ra­ted with a smal­ler one imme­dia­tely above it. They haven’t seen us yet. In fact, they’re actually coming closer!

And then! The wind chan­ges a frac­tion and one of them raises its head, snuffling, then free­zes for a moment before taking to its heels. The other one takes off too (do we really smell that bad?) and soon they’re hidden behind a group of acacias, the zebras sprin­ting hyste­ri­cally behind them.

Inspi­red, we start heading back. We did it: we got the full set.

But it’s disap­poin­ting to see how frigh­te­ned the rhinos are – and they’re comple­tely justi­fied! Every year, thousands of them are slaugh­te­red in the name of Big Busi­ness. If it conti­nues, it won’t be long before we’re seeking them in vain: The Last Unicorn.
 

Epilogue

Me and animals. Yeah, I like them. They may not be all that fond of me, but I like them. Most of all when they’re free, and left to merrily do their thing.

So long as they don’t eat me, it’s all good.

I’ll simply leave them where they belong, and keep visi­ting them. Good­bye, rhino­ce­ros, and see you soon!
 
 
And by the way: later we found a lot of happy rhinos in a small, fenced-in natio­nal park in Swazi­land. You should come and check it out!

 

* * *

Recommendation & Info

Accom­mo­da­tion

Singita opera­tes 12 lodges and camps, each an abso­lutely stun­ning expe­ri­ence, in five regi­ons across three coun­tries in Africa. If you have the money: It’s worth it!

SANParks mana­ges the natio­nal parks of South-Africa. It offers many accom­mo­da­tion possi­bi­li­ties in Kruger NP, from simple camp-sites to luxury bunga­lows.

Read more

100 miles on the tracks of the Calusa

The Great Calusa Blueway, Fort Myers, Florida

100 miles on the tracks of the Calusa

The Great Calusa Blue­way is an almost 200-mile-long paddling trail off the Gulf coast near Fort Myers. Here Dirk Rohr­bach follows the tracks of the Calusa Indi­ans who were once sett­ling in this region in Florida’s Southwest. 

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Ultimate Freedom

Parental Leave in Norway

Ultimate Freedom

Artis and Renate spend their paren­tal leave with their son in Norway. In their Volks­wa­gen T4, also called Fatty, they set out to find the ulti­mate free­dom.

Start Episode

An Episode by

The Travel Episodes

Johannes Klaus

Blog­ger, Graphic Desi­gner, Trave­ler. In 2011, his blog Reise­de­pe­sche won the Grimme Online Award. Since 2013, Johan­nes Klaus has been the editor of Reise­de­pe­schen, a leading portal for travel stories. The Travel Episo­des is his new baby. He likes German Apple Sprit­zer (apple juice with spar­k­ling water) in 0.5 l bott­les and lives in Berlin.

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  • Ulla on 26. Juli 2015

    Bin abso­lut faszi­niert…!! Da ist ein echter Künst­ler am Werk: super leben­dig und humor­voll geschrie­ben, herr­li­che Fotos und ein schier atem­be­rau­bend span­nen­der Film.…!!!
    Ja, Johan­nes, du magst Tiere, und ich glaube, sie mögen dich…aber bitte nicht zum fres­sen gern.… Puh, mir ist rich­tig heiss gewor­den…!!!!

    Reply
  • HJK on 26. Juli 2015

    Ich bin total über­wäl­tigt von dem Erle­ben der big five. Wunder­bar und fein­füh­lig gestal­tet — großen Respekt — ich träume heute Nacht von Deinen Fähr­ten und würde gerne mal Dein Koffer­trä­ger — oder ein Ruck­sack macht´s auch — sein. Herz­lich weiter so eindrucks­volle Aben­teuer und danke, dass wir daran so teil­neh­men dürfen. HJK.

    Reply
  • AK on 29. Juli 2015

    Wollte gerade ‚The Big Five‘ lesen. Die ersten Zeilen des News­let­ters hatten mein Inter­esse geweckt. Wenig Text, große Bilder und Co. haben mich jedoch so abge­schreckt, dass ich darauf verzich­tet habe weiter­zu­le­sen. Warum nur zählen Bilder mehr als Inhalte? Außer­dem nervt die akus­ti­sche Beschal­lung und das Hand­ling der Website für den User. Schade, denn der Autor hat eindeu­tig Talent.

    Reply
    • Johannes Klaus on 29. Juli 2015

      Oh wie schade! Aber Danke für das Lob.

  • Norah on 29. Juli 2015

    Sei froh, hast du damals keinen Papa­gei gekriegt, die können älter werden als Menschen.… Der würde dir also heute & die nächs­ten Jahr­zehnte immer noch nach­plap­pern, falls er dir nicht auch wegge­flo­gen wäre… ;)

    Gross­ar­tige Episode! Du hast es geschafft mein Fern­weh zu wecken und dass ich trotz Angst vor gros­sen Tieren nach Südafrika will. Jetzt. Sofort. Ich bin dann mal weg.…

    Reply
    • Johannes Klaus on 29. Juli 2015

      Vielen Dank! Auf nach Südafrika! ;)

  • Lene on 30. Juli 2015

    @AK: Warum hier Bilder mehr zählen als Inhalte? Das stimmt doch so über­haupt nicht. Beides ist wich­tig, deshalb ja auch MULTI­me­dial.
    @Johannes: Ich finde die Episode super und will auch auf Safa­riiiiii!!! (Übri­gens habe ich bei deiner Erzäh­lung der unglück­li­chen Klein­tiere schal­lend gelacht! Danke!) :-)

    Reply
  • Axel on 30. Juli 2015

    seee­e­ehr cool gemacht, Johan­nes!! lG

    Reply
  • Kirsten on 23. August 2015

    Groß­ar­tige Episode mit umwer­fen­den Bildern und Filmen und witzig-informativen Texten! WEITERMACHEN!!

    Reply
  • Nina on 27. September 2015

    Meine neue Lieb­lings­epi­sode <3

    Ganz toll!

    Reply
  • Julia on 20. September 2016

    Toller Arti­kel! Da ich gerade selbst in Nami­bia unter­wegs war kenn ich die Angst der Tiere nur zu gut. Hatte aber das Glück, auf einer Lodge zu über­nach­ten, in welcher der Besit­zer ein derar­ti­ges Verhält­nis zu den Tieren hat, das ich dem Nashorn hinterm Ohr krau­len konnte und dieses das auch noch mehr als genoss :-D
    Lodges vom Projekt #save­the­che­etah sind auch noch zu empfeh­len — Katzen­ku­scheln mit diesen Riesen­kat­zen kann auch was!

    .. viel Spaß auf den hoffent­lich weite­ren Reisen.

    Julia

    Reply
    • Johannes Klaus on 21. September 2016

      Danke, Julia, für die Tipps! Dir auch weiter­hin tolle Reisen!

  • Michaela on 22. April 2017

    Ein toll illus­trier­ter Arti­kel, der einfach Lust macht auf Safari! Kompli­ment!

    Reply
  • Elke on 15. Juli 2019

    Danke :)

    Reply

Overview

Antarctica