Our Honda Time Traveller got us safely to Sudwala’s lush tropical mountain environment in what felt like less than four hours. But it wasn’t. We were now waiting, brimming with excitement, for the gates of the Sudwala Dinosaur Park to open, approximately 70-million years prior to the present.
We were the first visitors in the queue and, formalities completed at the little reception office and armed with our free leaflet to identify all the prehistoric monsters we encounter, we set off.
Almost within sight of the entrance gate we had our first sighting, and wow was it an exciting start to the day! A female Pariasaurus protecting her newly hatched brood from a scavenging Pristerognatus, the latter soon realising that there must be easier food about and scurrying away into the thicket.
Not long after we encountered a female Dimetrodon lying next to a small pond, no doubt waiting in ambush of some unsuspecting herbivore. Just as we were pulling away a lone Titanogomphodon, probably on it’s way to drink at the pond, appeared next to the road but must have been frightened by our presence as it turned back into the forest. Dimetrodon will have to wait a bit longer for her meal.
Continuing our drive through swarms of huge insects – sorry, not stopping to take pictures of giant dragonflies and cockroaches – the shrill piercing sound of gigantic cicadas was abruptly disrupted by the roaring of two giants in battle! A Gryponyx has cornered a Massospondylus in a clearing right next to the road and was ferociously attacking it. While we were curious to see how the fight turned out, we decided to rather leave the scene as the poor herbivore kept trying to use our vehicle as cover from the attacking predator, and we didn’t want to risk damage to our car 70 million years away from the nearest mechanic!
On a hill slope we had a fleeting sighting of a skittish Camptosaurus in thick vegetation.
Rounding a bend we had our first sighting of one of the superstars of the dinosaur world – a Stegosaurus! The massive animal was quite relaxed in our presence and allowed us a couple of photographs before ambling across the road and eventually disappearing from view.
Our next sighting was another thrilling experience: An Allosaurus had wrestled an immature Apatosaurus to the ground and was now dealing it the killer blow. There was no sign of the rest of the Apatosaurus‘ family group in the vicinity so we assumed it may have been a young male recently evicted from the herd. News of the sighting soon spread and quickly the area was packed with other visitors who had rushed to the scene. We couldn’t believe our luck with all the predator sightings we’ve already had, and it wasn’t even lunchtime yet!
Speaking of lunch; we found a nice picnic spot at a forest-fringed lake where we could get out of the vehicle and enjoy a pre-packed meal in relative safety. We had just settled in when a gigantic Diplodocus-bull appeared out of the forest and promptly waded into the water. What a special thrill to have this gentle giant browse only meters away from us!
The day was getting very hot now and, as we were driving away from the lake, we encountered numerous reptilians making their way to the water, most notably two Struthiomimus‘ rushing across the road in a mad dash, and then a single Parasaurolophus male with a most impressive crest.
And then we happened upon the dinosaur that every visitor dreams of seeing: Tyranosaurus! In our excitement we had parked our vehicle right in the place where it’s path crosses the road, and it quickly showed it’s irritation by mock-charging in our direction. This sighting literally took our breaths away – with the enormous monster so close to us there was no denying the foul smell of rotten meat hanging in the air. Suppose with arms that short it can’t really be expected to have good oral hygiene.
Nearby we found the skull of a Triceratops, and wondered whether it might have fallen prey to that same Tyranosaurus we’ve just seen?
It was time to head back to the gate now, as dusk was slowly setting in and we had no intention of spending the night among these dangerous creatures. On the way we had a close encounter with a cantankerous old Styracosaurus that just wouldn’t get off the road so that we could pass. Our final sighting on this extraordinary day was of an Iguanodon placidly browsing close to the gate.
Unfortunately travelling back to our own time aged our films a bit and thus the photographs aren’t of the best quality, but the memories of our prehistoric safari will remain with us for at least 70-million years.
The Sudwala Dinosaur Park is located about 40 kilometres from the city of Nelspruit, in Mpumalanga Province, and adjacent to the much better known Sudwala Caves. With Joubert going through a “dinosaur-phase” – he must be one of the world’s biggest Jurassic Park fans – we decided on stopping over there on the way to the Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve as a special treat for the little man. Set in beautifully lush gardens and indigenous vegetation, with neat pathways leading fom one life-size dinosaur replica to the next, it’s an enjoyable place to spend an hour or two at and perhaps even enjoy a couple of the delicious pancakes (“flapjacks”) on offer at the small restaurant. When Joubert is a little bigger we’ll definitely visit again to join one of the guided tours through the caves.