Can you believe that I’m South African, but I had never been on a safari prior to this trip? (If you have been exposed to the same media as the German girl who once asked me if lions look in my window in Cape Town, then probably not!). If you speak to a lot of South Africans from Johannesburg or overseas tourists, many of them have visited game reserves such as Kruger National Park. So I had heard many times how wonderful Kruger is, but like many other Capetonians, I had never visited it, mostly because it’s a 2 hour flight plus at least 4 hours of driving from Cape Town. I had also always imagined that all game reserves were prohibitively expensive, but since Kruger National park is a national park, it is actually much more affordable than I expected. South Africans currently pay R66 per day conservation fee to enter, and accommodation fees range depending on whether you camp or stay in basic or more equipped places. International guests pay R264 per day (about 20 euros), the idea being that South Africans already contribute to conservation costs by paying tax. During South African national parks week (near Heritage day), entry to national parks is free for South Africans.
Anyway, I was just as excited as my Czech boyfriend J about visiting Kruger National Park, an area of almost 2 million hectares where wildlife can roam free – the size of a province, really, and bigger than some small countries. The reserve was founded in 1898 when wildlife began to be severely depleted due to hunting by European colonists, and the areas which are preserved now give an idea of how all the land must have been previously, with an amazing diversity of animals, birds and vegetation. Before we went, I read that unlike in the more expensive and luxurious game reserves, where sighting of the “big five” animals (lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino and elephant) is almost guaranteed, in Kruger every day is a surprise, and you never know quite what you will see. In my opinion this just adds to the adventure. The self drives around Kruger in your own car are great, since you can stop for tea or lunches at the various rest camps and picnic sites along the way as the mood takes you. There are some important rules of course – stay in the car at all times and don’t hang out of the car windows or sun roof! It’s also a good idea to lock the doors and close the windows when there are dangerous cats like lions or leopards around, or when you come across baboons or monkeys, since the latter might jump into your car to have a picnic of their own! Also, do not drive too close to elephants and be especially careful if the elephants have calves or are males elephants in must (apparently you might be able to see this from the fact that they may have secretions running from ducts on the side of their head and permanent dripping of urine down the legs – it means their testosterone levels are high and they are unusually aggressive at this time). In general, just don’t forget that the animals are wild animals, which some people have experienced for themselves in some adventures described in a book I picked up: “101 Kruger Tales”. I am really enjoying reading about some of the out of the ordinary experiences that some guests have had, although I have to say that I am glad that they didn’t happen to us!
And now here are our own adventures:
In our rental Polo (which turned out to be an amazingly economical car in terms of fuel consumption), we drove from OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg to Kruger. The first stretch was fairly boring flat farmlands, but when we neared the park the scenery became more interesting: hilly, green and tropical. We spotted many palm trees and some stalls with people selling mangoes along the side of the road. Finally, just in the nick of time (since the gates close at 6) we arrived at the park and headed to Berg-en-dal, the camp where we would spend the first night. To our amazement, within 5 minutes of leaving the gate reception, we came across a giraffe crossing the road!
More animal sightings followed, including a huge herd of buck, right on the side of the road. When it is hot, the animals are more active during the cooler times of the day such as early morning and evening, and more game can be sighted then.
After arriving at the rest camp we plastered ourselves with mosquito repellant (in summer the risk of malaria is greater at Kruger, although at Berg-en-dal we didn’t see many mosquitoes, as opposed to at the next rest camp, Lower Sabie, which was by a river and had many mosquitoes).
Since we’d arrived after a full day of travelling, we treated ourselves to a meal at the camp restaurant – the steak was certainly worth it. Then early to bed so that we could wake up in time to take an early morning drive (the camp gates opened at 5:30am). Opening and closing times at many nature reserves in South Africa revolve roughly around sunrise and sunset, so when you stay there you definitely find yourselves falling into the rhythms of nature.
Up at the crack of dawn, which wasn’t a problem because we were excited to see some animals. We drove slowly along some dirt road paths, The first sighting of warthogs was special as I had never seen one in the wild before. We also saw more buck: reed buck and impalas as far as I remember, and some zebras. J was itching to see some lions, but we would not be lucky so soon. Although we didn’t see many large animals on the morning drive, we enjoyed watching the other animals in their natural environment.
After the morning drive we returned to camp to pack up and check out. When we parked the car by the reception we found a tree there completely covered with vervet monkeys climbing in the branches and swinging around! Apparently both monkeys and baboons are pests in the camp as they steal food, but since we didn’t have any food on us it was great to watch them playing around. (Note – apparently in baboon hierarchy, the dominant baboons eat first, so if you feed one of them they think you are showing your weakness and are likely to bite you). I was filming the monkey antics and thinking how funny it was that they had a similar meow to a cat, when suddenly it occurred to me that there may actually be a cat there. On closer inspection of the tree I realized that there was, in fact, a kitten in the tree, and that this was the object of the monkeys interest. The kitten had climbed up the tree and didn’t seem to know how to get down. The monkeys were watching this with interest, springing up and down the tree as if to say “this is how you do it!” Eventually the kitten figured out how to climb down. I still wonder if it was a wild cat kitten or a domestic cat kitten.
After J managed to drag me away from the monkeys and the kitten, we started driving our way in the direction of Lower Sabie, with some exploratory side routes. We got a much closer look at the zebras, finding some right at the side of the road, as well as many more buck, and even spotted an elephant from afar. Although we did not have much luck sighting animals on some of the dirt road tracks we took, possibly because the animals were hiding in shady places during the heat of the day, the tar road running next to the Sabie river had a lot of animals, including a huge troop of baboons. The antics of the baboons are always great to watch.
Just before entering the Lower Sabie rest camp we stopped at Sunset dam, where we saw hippos enjoying the water and even some crocodiles lying around. On driving into the rest camp we found that it was also next to a part of the river and was full of hippos. In the cool of the early evening, at moonrise, we watched as some elephants moving slowly but oddly gracefully down to the water to drink, and then across the river to graze on the opposite side.
At Lower Sabie rest camp we stayed in a safari tent, a permanent canvas tent on stilts in the lush green surroundings. At night, with the chirping of insects and the sounds of birds and animals everywhere, it was simply amazing. There was also an army of mosquitoes, so we made sure to cover ourselves with Tabard, Peaceful Sleep and citronella spray. J made his first fire from wood at the braaiplace outside our tent and we enjoyed some braaied meat, Savannas and Amarula before heading to bed.
J got out of bed before me and went to make breakfast in our outdoor kitchen. Soon he hurried back inside the tent with all the breakfast things and closed the door. Apparently a very large male baboon had been walking around near our tent and when he had jumped onto our roof it was a bit too close for comfort! Sure enough we watched through the window as the big baboon made himself at home in our kitchen, looking for snacks. He didn’t find anything, so soon left, although not without sticking his hand into our packet of tea and pulling out some teabags, which he evidently decided he didn’t like as he threw them onto the ground. We saw him wandering around for a bit before heading back to find his fellow-thieves to chat about what they’d found – the troop seemed to have sent their biggest men in to do the job of stealing! They didn’t bother us again as we had breakfast, although we spotted one running from another tent with some packet he’d grabbed. They are very funny to watch but shouldn’t be messed with – apparently a few big males together can kill a leopard if it decides to attack one of the members of the baboon tribe.
After breakfast we set off for a drive. We spotted two kinds of blue birds abundant in the area which we identified using a very useful park map as blue waxbills and Burchell’s starlings (the latter I renamed Blue Scavengers after they surrounded me at a picnic site and managed to chase me from my bench by shitting on me from the tree above, after which they promptly flew down and started eating my crumbs). Fairly early in the day we also saw our first lion, lying in the grass under a tree near the road, barely visible. He didn’t like the attention of the cars and slid further into the grass until he was completely invisible.
Driving through Kruger is wonderful. Apart from the animals, even the scenery is worth the drive as you pass through many different ecozones such as open savanna, riverine vegetation, and bush and tree savanna. When you drive slowly on the dirt roads with the windows open, it’s almost as good as being outside. One dirt road led to a huge baobab tree, well worth making the detour for. Waterholes were also good places to stop and watch for animals to appear. We saw huge herds of buffalo and zebra, and more beautiful, gentle giraffes. One scene was just like the garden of Eden, where zebras, giraffes and various buck all grazed together.
It’s funny though, sometimes you drive for quite a long stretch without seeing any animals, and then suddenly they start appearing again. That day was very hot and we drove quite a long stretch before coming across this scene with all the animals together. Soon afterwards we came across an elephant, quite near the side of the road. After reading stories about cars being chased by elephants I was a bit nervous, but he seemed content eating shrubs on his side of the road.
Hot, thirsty and hungry, we stopped at Skukuza rest camp for lunch. It was our day for elephants, as while we were there an elephant came over to graze right near the fence. On the way out of Skukuza, the same elephant we’d passed earlier was blocking the road and we had to wait for him to move away before passing.
In general the animals seem to enjoy using the smooth tar roads as much as humans. On our drive back to Lower Sabie we finally spotted a male kudu. If the lion is the king of the jungle, then the kudu certainly seems to me to be the king of the buck – they are incredibly beautiful, graceful animals, even the females with their large ears and beautiful eyes.
We were hoping to come across lions again, and sure enough, on the way back to Lower Sabie we suddenly found three lions walking in the road, two females and a male. They didn’t mind the cars at all and lay around for a while, then lumbered off happily down the road. They look deceptively tame, but would probably happily eat you if they had the chance.
However when you are in the car, they don’t seem to recognize you as prey. Heading back to camp at the end of the day we again encountered many animals, such as monkeys, baboons and buffaloes. Although we’d seen leopards indicated on the sighting board during our stay (where people can put a mark where they have seen a particular animal), we hadn’t seen any and figured we were out of luck in that department.
We felt sad to leave this wonderful place, but what an amazing experience it was. It’s a long drive from Lower Sabie to Johannesburg, so we choose a driving route headed towards one of the park gates, with a couple of detours as time allowed. We felt very lucky to have seen all of the big animals except leopards and cheetahs, and every time we saw one of the animals it was incredible to watch them. But the park would have one big surprise left for us. Not long into our drive between Lower Sabie and Pretoriuskop, we found a leopard sitting right on the side of the road. We had given up on the idea of seeing one and after staring into every tree and rocky crevice during our whole stay without seeing one, it seemed incredible that there was one lying just in front of us. We approached very slowly as it was in the direction we were headed. When we got to a certain point it got up and walked off, but didn’t seem fazed by the car and walked slowly right past us, behind the car, and into the bushes on the side of the road. It was really a magnificent animal, and the perfect sighting for the last day!
After that we entered some very beautiful tree savanna, before exiting the park returning back to Joburg.
It’s amazing to think that the whole of Africa was once like this, with such an incredible variety of birds, animals and insects living together in one area. Human expansion around the globe has certainly changed the face of the earth and made it less diverse. I’m really glad that some people had the foresight to preserve areas like this, as losing them would be tragic. Kruger and other reserves in Africa have trouble with poaching of many animals, particularly rhino. Therefore, it’s better to avoid telling people when you have sighted a rhino, as you never know who might be involved in poaching. Investigations showed that owning powdered rhino horn is seen as a symbol of status and power in Vietnam, where many of the poached horns end up. I can’t imagine how anyone could want to have the horn of a beautiful animal, once roaming free in a virtual paradise, then killed in a brutal way (most rhinos are sedated, their horns cut off, and then awake to suffer and bleed to death or die of pain, often while their heartbroken babies watch on). How much more these people would gain if they would rather use their money to come and watch these animals in their natural environment. They would leave with an experience worth more than smoking rhino horn, I’m sure.