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Tosca’s Guide to National Park People Watching

I am going to veer a bit off topic, but I assume some people have never been to a Southern African National Park and need a crash course in people spotting.  Now by National Park, I mean a place with animals, preferably some of the Big 5.

With that in mind, there are two things that you need to know about, one, are Animals – that would be the furry and feathered types; the other, is the people coming to look for, and at the animals.  Also, the furry type.

A furry animal, one of the types of visitors to a National Park

A furry animal, one of the types of visitors to a National Park

Now the second category can also be subdivided into quite a few smaller categories, and even share some common traits with other categories.

Lets start with the most well know.  Mr Big 5,  that is the guy, usually in a Bakkie, with a much cowed wife in tow.  Also, can be recognized by the fact that he usually shows up with a caravan, and a trailer in tow.  He can mostly be spotted, zipping at top speed, between waterholes, and carries a humongous pair of binoculars (not to be confused with the Bird watcher, which we will dicuss later).

Now Mr Big 5 is not a guy that will keep quiet about his findings ( unlike the Ms/Mr Yuppie Big 5).  Any chance he has, he will stop you, and gleefully tell you all about the Lion he saw that morning.  Nearly.  Well, his paw was peeking out!  It was a magnificent paw! And it was at a waterhole so and so.  Tomorrow morning, he will be back there, looking for the Big sighting!

Now Mr Big 5 is good for some limited information on where to find some of the animals you are looking for.  When the day is done, Mr Big 5 can be found, in his chair, outside his caravan, while his wife organises supper.

Ms/Mr Yuppie Big 5, well, difference here, she/he shows up in a brand new Pajero.  With Aircon.  Also differs slightly from Mr Big 5, in that he/she stays in chalets, and uses the very expensive high tech camera in a dual function of binoculars as well.  Ms Yuppie Big 5 will Never share info with the other weary travellers, as this would most probably necessitate for them to open the Pajero window, and that in turn will get dust onto the GPS system, which in turn will delete all the info, triangulated, of the previous visits Big 5 sightings.  Ms Yuppie Big 5 will only share this vital information with the other Yuppie friends, at home.  And have a right giggle at those other fools, looking for birds!  And telling other people where to find stuff!  This all over a glass of carefully selected Sancere.

Briefly mentioned above is the Bird Watcher.  Fantastic type, who mostly accidentally see the big 5, as he is so busy scanning trees, and driving so slowly as not to disturb the lesser breasted, immature, never spotted here before bird, that he just kind of stumbles over the Big stuff.  Mr Twitcher actually does not secretly yearn to see the Big 5 ( unlike Mr Tourist), and sees animals as a bit of an inconvenience, especially if said member of Big 5 is lying close to the much sought after Lesser breasted, immature, never before spotted Tit.  Mr Twitcher is easy to identify.  He also carries a pair of binoculars, but these have distance and height and all kinds of vital statistics showing on the inside lens.  He is also the one driving really slowly.  And when parked, please watch angle of head.  If pointed upwards into a tree, chances are he is Mr Twitcher.  Mr Twitcher’s wife, Mrs Twitcher, shares his passion, but secretly yearns to see the big five, as she gets very tired of handing over one of the 12 different bird books that Mr Twitcher carries with him.  Always.  Even to the shop, as one never knows when, a lesser breasted, does not exist wading Mossie, will dart around the next isle. Mrs Twitcher, however, can’t cook to save her life, and is thus dependant on Mr Twitcher’s good will, in the evening, when they park off next to their small tent, made of recycled Gwano platform pillars.

Beautiful Swallow Tailed Bee Eater for Mr Birder

Beautiful Swallow Tailed Bee Eater for Mr Twitcher

Mr Tourist can be divided into two sub-categories.  One would be the large luxury coach type tourist, usually from some Asian country (where cameras can basically cure cancer, while operating on your pet parakeet, and cost barely absolutely nothing in their currency, and can link to your iMattress, that in turn can call up your stock broker, who can programme the iFax to bounce off iSatellite, to make sure you choose the right pair of underpants).  So, Mr Luxury Bus Tourist is pretty much like Mr Big 5, only not in a bakkie, or with a caravan, and won’t tell you where the Big 5 is, as he basically doesn’t know if he saw a cheetah or a goose.  Also, he can only say:  “Where is the bathroom?” and “my pants are on fire”, in English.  Mr Luxury Bus Tourist comes stock standard with a guide, who wears his Field Guide badge proudly, and reports anybody else, who looks like they can actually communicate with their own clients, as non registered.  Mr Luxury Bus Tourist Guide also knows to shut up, find the Big 5, or as close as possible without Mr Luxury Bus Tourist knowing it is actually a domestic cat, and not a cheetah he so kindly pointed out.

The second sub category of Mr Tourist, is actually Mr Undercover Tourist.  Now Mr Undercover Tourist has heard about the other types of tourists who visits National Parks, and would never want to be known as one of those.  So, Mr Undercover Tourist can be recognized by the rental 4×4 he is driving, and his obsessive road rule use.  Mr Undercover Tourist also invested big money on a mammal guide book, a bird book, a map of the said park, a book written by rangers about their stories in the bush, as well as a book on the Traffic Act, the full 12 editions.

Mr Undercover tourist will carefully read the park rules and instructions at reception when clocking in, and will never ever ever be late for a gate closing time.  He is unfailingly polite, and will stay on the left side of the road, even if on the right side there is a lion, chasing a hyena, using a springbok leg as a club, and every Mr Big Five in the district is blocking his view.  It says so in the 12 part Traffic Act book.  Drive on the left side of the road, and when he sees a crocodile, hanging from an elephants tail, smoking some marijuana, he will not slam on brakes and pull out cameras.  No, he will first indicate that he will pull off.  To the left.  And once the car has come to a complete halt, he will then put on the hazards.

Mr Undercover Tourist would secretly also like to see the big 5, but that brings him too close to Mr Luxury Bus Tourist.  So he keeps that to himself.  Mr Undercover Tourist also bought the full Bush Pride Safari Wear range, including the zip off pants.  He carries a regular sized camera, with interchangeable lenses, in case he has to take some shots of the chalet as well.  Now the first two days of his 7 day stay in the park, with the days carefully divided between the main camps, will be spent getting the lay of the land. So if you should stop next to him, and ask him to roll down his window so that you can have a chat about sightings, he will first be hesitant, and only roll down two centimeters (he also researched the crime stats in SA, and was told to never ever ever open your car window to strangers).  So, when you then tell him, two kilometers on, he will see two lions under a tree, he will first look shocked, and then start doing the calculations in his mind to convert miles to kilometers.  But, two days later, if you should meet up with him again, he will flash lights at you, and greet you like an old friend, and swap sighting stories with you.  He catches on fast and is a great source of info, as he is actually very diligent in checking out every bush and tree, and generally enjoys the small stuff too.  He is easily identified in the evening, as he will be spending it inside his chalet (he really wanted to camp, but he could not get the tent he used for last years everest attempt through customs, and also could not find a place on the internet who rents out tents) eating a plate of cooked food.  He does not know how to braai.  He would love to, but is scared this will give away the game, and then everybody will know he is a tourist.  Please invite him over if you should be braaing yourself!

One of my personal favorites, is Mr Wannabe Photographer.  Not professional, them you never see, they hang out on the no access roads, because they grew up in the park, and their father is the head ranger etc.  No, Mr Wannabe Photographer is the one whom you must not park close to at any sighting as when he starts to unroll the camera lens, chances are you are going to lose your car windshield.  The lenses Mr Wannabe Photographer carries are bigger in circumference than Mike Tyson’s thigh.  It is so big, that Mr Wannabe Photographer must carry it with a special pillow and pulley system, just to lower it onto the window frame.  Mr Wannabe Photographer also hogs all the space at any sighting, and stays there until whatever animal you wanted to see, has disappeared beyond the 10 km mark, which is how far his lens can see. Mr Wannabe Photographer does not have time for chats about where to find what animal as he is too busy cleaning his lens and hoisting it back into the car, which is also a Pajero.  Because if one can afford a NASA lens, as a hobby, chances are a Pajero costs nothing to him either.  Mr Wannabe Photographer is not the happiest type, as he secretly yearns to find the Big 5 and then talks incessantly about it.  But he can’t, as he is busy with his lenses.  No time.

Just on a side note, if you should ever run into Mr Professional Photographer:  He drives a beat up old 1980 Uno, as he spends all his money on cameras and Park Fees.  He is also dating the current Miss Slovakia, who he straps onto the roof rack of his Uno (or Landrover), as his custom built camera box, that is also bullet proof, water proof, sand proof and has in fact survived Sarajevo, takes prime seat in the front.  In the back of the car he keeps his emergency supplies, in case he has to sit next to a sand dune for 10 days, where 9 days ago somebody saw a Lion.  Miss Slovakia he keeps on hand for, well, things that only Miss Slovakia can do.  Also because it looks cool!

Another of my favourites, just because of sheer dogged determination, is Family Joe Soap.  Now Family Joe Soap can easily be confused with Mr Big 5, as they also pull in with a caravan.  But that is about where it stops.  They have 3 kids, of which one is a baby.  The reason why they show up in a National Park is to instill the love of nature that their parents taught them at that age, and their parents before them etc.  So, very optimistic bunch this, as they rock up at the camp site, where Mom runs off with baby to find some space somewhere to change diapers, and Dad starts leveling the Caravan.  Boet and Sus will go suss out the shop, and the swimming pool.  On gate opening time, the whole family will sit ready at the gate, with baby on mom’s lap, and Boet and Sus with their noses smashed up against the back windows, ready for action.  And all goes well for at least 30 minutes.  But after 3 hours in a non airconditioned sedan, Boet then has his finger up Sus’ nose, baby is screaming, and Sus is trying to hide under the driver’s seat from the spider she saw three hours ago at the gate.  Dad actually really wishes with all his heart for the big 5, preferably within 30 minutes of leaving camp, so that he can then turn around, go start the fire for his afternoon braai, while the kids play in the swimming pool for the rest of the day.  Mom wishes for the same, but instead of the braai part, she wishes fervently for somebody else to be changing diapers, while doing said task on the dashboard on a side dusty road.  After about 3 days if this, both Mom and Dad promise each other to rather go to Bela Bela next year. But, next year they will be back, as this is what their parents did, and their parents, and they can only remember how much fun it was to sit in the back with their noses pressed to the windows, waiting for the first sight of lion.  Bless their hearts, at least they are trying to get their children into nature!  As much hell as it seems.  And please don’t disturb them with questions about sightings?  They most probably only saw dirty diapers, and Boets bleeding foot which he stuck out the window and which then got torn open by a branch, and really can’t tell you anything, as much as they want to.

And so the list goes on.  The Amateur Field Guide, who will tell you where he saw animals, but who would also want to share his limited knowledge of wildife, gleamed from a National Geographic channel in the process, to be avoided unless you have no other choice.

The Forever Couple who have been coming to the same park for the last 20 years, every year, and keeps to themselves, unless you ask them where to find what.  Fantastic source of info, as they won’t talk your ear off, but will be very precise in the info (third bush to the left, tree that looks like a dog upside down, 1 metre behind, is a Cape Fox.  In the tree above him, is also a Rock Kestrel, in case you like birds).

So, the bottom line of all of this, you will meet some strange and wonderful people in National Parks, and lets face it, everybody really wants to tell somebody of the luck they had today when they saw blah blah.  So go make friends, start a chat in the bathroom, speak to the gate guard, roll down the window, flash the lights if you saw something, as when you leave the park you will not know anybody’s name, but you still would have made a friend for life!

As I near the end of my visit to the Kgalagadi National Park, I look back and realize I saw, interacted with and met most of the above, and a little of each of the above is in me too!

To the Indian gentleman from Botswana, who described a waterhole scene in one sentence (hyenas with pups played and splashed and caused big drama and all);  To the Dutch couple, with wife in the back seat, and husband in the front, and the most exited smiles ever;  To the North West farmer who missed the lion by 2 hours;  To the quantum full of Spanish folk who really tried to look for any predators, as I asked them to, while I was busy running a couple of metres into the bush to pick up a glass bottle there;  And even to the two drunk Frenchmen, who made my life hell at a lion sighting with their “You want drinky?”.  Here’s to seeing you all, in some form or other, at the next park!

Farewell long dusty roads of the Kgalagadi National Park!

Farewell long dusty roads of the Kgalagadi National Park!

When you're the Operations Manager of a Tour Company, anything is possible... thanks to network Nomad, the plate is back!

When you're the Operations Manager of a Tour Company, anything is possible... thanks to network Nomad, the plate is back!

Keen to find out what adventure awaits Tosca next?  Here’s a clue… she will be playing on the longest one in South Africa!

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