The Journey to Kruger
When I thought of flying into Kruger, I had images of us flying over a vast savanna, seeing giraffes galloping across the orange sand – I had seen too many movies! The reality was lots of green and yellow land and not much else.
Luckily that is where the disappointment stops. From the moment we were picked up from the airport, everything was like a dream come true. We managed to take a small nap whilst making our way from Nelspruit Airport to the Malelane entrance of Kruger and within about two minutes of entering the park we were looking over a bridge at crocodiles basking in the afternoon sun!
This was going to be the Africa trip we had been dreaming about for years.
You learn quickly in Kruger that impalas are plentiful – they call them McDonald’s here. Firstly because they are easy for the lions to catch, secondly because they have an ‘M’ mark on their behinds and lastly because they are everywhere, just like McDonald’s.
However, this was our first time to Kruger so we stopped to take photos of the first group we saw. As we were all looking at the impalas, Stephen suddenly shouted, “there’s a cat!” He had been looking out the other side of the window and glimpsed a spotted object moving just alongside the road. Our driver slowly moved forward and we couldn’t believe our eyes. Right there beside us was a leopard. More graceful and majestic than you can ever imagine, it slowly continued on its way before disappearing into the grass.
I have to admit; I don’t think any of us appreciated just how lucky we were to have this encounter at the time. We met so many people over the next few days who had been on numerous safari’s and still never seen a leopard.
After the excitement of seeing these animals on our airport transfer we couldn’t wait to see what was in store for the days ahead. We arrived at our camp Berg en Dal, had time for a quick shower and then we were out for our sunset game drive.
Sunset Game Drive
This drive was with a specialised Kruger Park ranger so we were in a large safari vehicle with about 20 other people which despite how it might sound wasn’t too crowded. We saw so many animals in that first drive, elephants, rhinos, lions, numerous birds but two encounters stood out for me.
Nelly the Elephant
Darkness comes very quickly in Kruger which is funny because the sunset seems to last forever. All of a sudden, the strong torch lamps were out, trying to spot animals in the bushes. As we were looking at a pride of lions far in the distance, suddenly an elephant appeared right on the side of the road next to our vehicle. I’m pretty sure we interrupted his dinner as he suddenly stopped eating and turned around to face us. He wasn’t more than 5 metres away when he seemed to charge at us. My heart started racing as his trunk flew up but then just as suddenly he backed off. Apparently, he had decided we weren’t a threat and he just wanted to test us! He then continued with his dinner allowing us a few minutes to admire his thick, wrinkled skin and long, snaking trunk grabbing at branches and leaves before heading back into the bush. It took a while for the adrenaline rush to calm down – I had never been that close to a large animal in the wild and I immediately wanted to experience it again and again!
Linus the Lion
As we were heading back to our camp and the bugs were firing at our bright torch lamps, we unexpectedly came to halt. The driver pointed his spotlight a little ahead of us and right there in the middle of the paved road was a male lion. Just laying there, taking a rest. Everyone rushed to the left of the vehicle as we pulled up alongside him and got so excited whilst trying to keep to hushed whispers.
His bushy mane swayed in the wind as he peacefully rose from his rest and continued walking. We were lucky enough to stay with him for about 5 minutes and just watch in awe. It is amazing how lions are portrayed to be these beasts that we should be scared of yet right there in that moment, it seemed he wouldn’t hurt a fly. If anything, he appeared not to care a bit about the 20 pairs of human eyes glaring at him and was more interested in taking a nap!
After a delicious dinner back at camp we were sound asleep in bed by 9:30pm, dreaming of African sunsets.
Morning & Afternoon Game Drives
Over the next day and a half, we took two morning game drives and one afternoon game drive.
We only spotted two sets of lions whilst on our day drives. One was a pride of female lions and a couple of cubs but they were very far away in the bushes so we only glimpsed them. The second was a male and female mating pair. Our guides were aware of the mating pair as they had been spotted near our campsite over the past few days so we headed out straight to where they were last spotted. We found them fairly quickly although I’m sure they were trying to get some privacy as they were somewhat hidden behind some particularly thick bushes. Interestingly, lions mate for two weeks and will mate up to 40 times a day! They will stay with each other through the whole two weeks and then go their separate ways. The male will often look very skinny after this two week period… no surprise there – I think anyone would if they got excited that often! We think the male lion we spotted on our evening game drive was probably the same lion which would explain why he was looking pretty scrawny!
Oh my, I never expected to see so many rhinos in just two days. It was like there was a big rhino conference in the surrounding areas and they wanted to come and great all the tourists. We saw herds of them throughout the days we were out but there was one couple basking in the sun after a good mud roll that really reminded me of an old married couple. At first, they were just lying there and then one slowly got up. As the second one tried to get up, using its thick, hardened knees, the other one came up behind it and almost gave it a push up the backside to help it up! The photos don’t do the scene that unfolded before us justice but it was very entertaining to watch.
An interesting note about rhinos in Kruger, we only saw white rhinos on our drives, which isn’t surprising as black rhinos are very few in Kruger, historically due to poaching but also in recent years both white and black rhino populations have declined due to severe drought conditions. There are roughly around 7,000 white rhino and about 400 black rhino in Kruger.
Another interesting fact about rhinos is how they poop. They will often make a wide, medium shallow hole or patch to poop in which they use to mark their territory. After pooping, they will push the dung around to make sure their scent is fully scattered around the patch. Females will come along and poop nearby the patch and other males competing males will poop in the same patch if they want to compete for that area. If this occurs, next time the two males meet, they will fight it out for that territory.
We were also unbelievably lucky to see many elephants whilst on our drives. We had a few “close encounters” where the bull elephant might perform a fake charge or a mother protecting her baby may do the same. But they knew we were not a threat and after sniffing us out carried on with their business. I really wanted to reach out and shake hands with their trunks but I’m pretty sure that would have ended badly! We saw two baby elephants who seemed to be practicing synchro trunk patterns – they were adorable! We also saw a herd bathing in a mud bath throwing water all over themselves – unfortunately it was behind some bushes so we only got a partial view but it was so fun to see them throwing water over their backs… in the wild, not in a zoo!
It wasn’t until our third drive that we were lucky enough to see giraffes up close with an unhindered view. They are as graceful yet lanky as I imagined. I could even see her long eyelashes flickering away as she grazed on some tree top leaves.
Zebras are common in Kruger but nothing beats the photo we captured below:
A real life zebra crossing!
I don’t care how cheesy it is, it was a moment that I will never forget and was just brilliant. As we watched them grazing on the grass next to the side of the road, we were about to drive off before we started to see them make their way across the road – the opportunity was too good to miss!
Buffalo are considered one of the “Big 5” but for me they are not as exciting as the other animals. We saw a few close by the road side and they seemed very docile despite their renowned tempers. What was interesting to see was how their horns are fused at the base creating a bone shield called a boss.
As expected, we saw many impalas and varieties of bucks – I never knew there were so many. At one point we were passing three impalas and as we halted, we heard them snorting and huffing. Apparently, this is their way of signalling to each other that danger is close by. We patiently waited to see if we could spot a predator or big animal coming near but after a while, the impala seemed to calm down so the danger must have past. We learnt that a lot of game watching is based around waiting and being patient – sometimes to no avail.
One of the more interesting bucks is the waterbuck. They have a ring around their rump that looks like they have just sat on a wet, newly painted white toilet bowl!
We also saw one buck crossing the road and as it got startled, it jumped across to the other side – Stephen managed to capture a great triptych showing the three different stages of his jump.
The primates of Kruger didn’t seem to want to greet us very often but we did see a troop of vervet monkeys on the side of the road, jumping between low lying trees and bushes. One even had a tiny baby clinging to its underside. Cue the “awww’s” from everyone in the car… it was very cute!
Warthogs are one of the humorous animals we came across. We would often find them by a small watering hold and suddenly once they saw us, up went their thin tail and they would run off leaving you watching their rump bob along into the bushes. Apparently they hold their tail up as a “follow me” signal to any others in the group in a sign of danger.
We saw so many birds I don’t actually remember them all and they were quite hard to capture on the camera however the three that stood out were the blue helmeted guinea fowl, the lilac breasted roller and the cape glossy starling.
The guinea fowl were funny looking birds, almost like a turkey and we often found them pecking away at rhino dung looking for seeds and insects. Not the most delightful of lives but they appeared very happy!
The cape starling and the lilac breasted roller were two of the most beautiful birds we saw. The cape starling is a beautiful dark blue and green small bird whose feathers really look glossy – I almost wanted to stroke them. We only saw a few lilac breasted rollers but it is claimed they are the world’s most photographed bird – and for a good reason. These brightly coloured birds often perch on treetops or poles looking for insects but the best time to see them is as they take flight. As they stretch out their wings, their beautiful colours are on display with their bright blue wings and lilac breast stealing the show.
Oh and we spotted Zazu from the Lion King – him and his family are everywhere around Kruger!
Heading Off To Our Next Adventure
As we waited to board our flight to Cape Town we couldn’t stop talking about our first safari experience in Kruger. Both Stephen and I agree that our favourite drive by far was the first sunset drive. Perhaps because it was our first ever time doing a safari but I believe it had more to do with the feeling we got driving through the red dust, bumping along the sandy roads, with the warm breeze blowing through our hair as we felt the orange sun envelope us as it disappeared behind the tree lined ridge. It felt comforting, relaxing and grounding.
There are only a few places in the world where we have both felt unequivocally happy, content and at home. Kruger is one of them and I hope at some point in our future we return here for longer than just a few days!
We used Outlook Safaris for our Kruger Park experience and they were fantastic. The accommodation was basic with out being rudimentary, the staff and guides were information and professional, the food was delicious and we squeezed four game drives into our limited time in the park.