In the Jungle, the Mighty Jungle - On Safari in Kruger
Jan 27, 2009
|Kruger - Jan. 27
The drive from Nelspruit to Kruger takes about an hour and a half. Again, we were struck by how quickly the landscape changes; this time growing into a green, lush rainforest with palm trees and tropical plants. We had loaded up on groceries from the local grocery store in Nelspruit and we were hoping that we might have time for a safari this afternoon.
Along with the Serengeti in Tanzania, Kruger is one of the best places in Africa for a safari. We drove along the south boundary of Kruger National Park, finally entering the camp at the Crocodile River entrance, near the Mozambique border. The Crocodile River had flooded just a few days before and the water level was still quite high. Water spilled over the single lane concrete bridge that we crossed in order to enter the Park. Immediately on the other side of the river we saw a large herd of impalas and a number of warthog families. So many animals and we hadn’t even entered the park yet!
Deciding where to go, where to stay and which part of Kruger to tour can be an intimidating task. The Park is roughly the size of Israel and different parts offer different attractions. The very north is one of the best birding areas on the continent and offers tropical forests and a large canyon area. The middle of the park, below the Olifants River, is the spot to see elephants. The southern stretch has some open grasslands and is favoured by the antelope and, therefore, the big predators. We’ve come to see lions and were told to come up from the south.
We pulled into the parking area at the park gate and purchased two nights of camping at the Crocodile River campground. Our park entrance fee was included in the camping fee and the two nights of camping allowed us three days entrance into Kruger. We were worried that the campground would be packed full of visitors, but there were only a handful of other campers. Most of the other campers were well set up with trailers, motor homes or camper vans. We were a little less hardcore in our little tent and our VW. While others had generators, fans, lights, cooking areas and all the luxuries, we didn’t even have a table or chairs and had to ‘borrow’ some from one of the vacant holiday huts that line the back of the campground.
We set up our tent right next to the park fence. The campground is just outside of the entrance to the actual park, but is inside the outer park gates. The campground is fenced off to keep animals out, but a family of warthogs managed to infiltrate their way in while we were there. Scavengers and predators have also been known to patrol the outside fence. We were eager to stay near the park fence in the hopes of viewing wildlife from our campsite.
After setting up camp and doing some much needed laundry (we’d been recycling our underwear for an embarrassingly long time), we set out on our first self drive game drive. There was no use going out during the heat of the day, so we waited until about 3:00pm to enter the park. We took a map of the park and checked out the board where people mark down the locations of the daily animal sightings. We were trying to find where the lions have been hanging out.
We choose to take a 40 km loop along a dirt road up to the Sadie rest camp. Although there is the option of hiring a guide or going on a game driver, most of the other cars seemed to be driving around on their own, just as we were. It is common for cars to flag each other down and share information about sightings, especially when they include lions or other big cats. Just before the turn off to our loop, a van going the opposite way waved us down to tell us about a pride of lions up ahead. They told us to take the next left, look for the dip in the road and then look to the left under the trees – a pride of lions has been relaxing there all day long.
We thanked the van and drove off looking forward to the possibility of a lion sighting. We did as directed and pulled up beside a couple other parked vehicles. Once our eyes adjusted to the grasslands we were able to see a couple of grown female lions leisurely lounging in the shade of the trees, about 24 meters away. This was much better than our previous lion sighting in Namibia. For most of the time, however, the lions remained hidden as they lay in the long grasses. The best sighting was when one would get up, stretch, yawn, roll over and then lay back down. We could only make out two or three individual lions, but we were told that they were a few more hiding in the shade. We sat and watched for a little while before heading towards our loop.
The rest of the afternoon was just as good. We drove through the bushveld, spying giraffes poking up from the bushes.
We had giant bull elephants pass within feet of our car.
Warthogs, zebra and impala were everywhere such that it wasn’t even worth slowing down or taking pictures of them anymore. We stopped for the giraffes and elephants, since they always seem to make the best pictures and entertain us the most. Twice we had to quickly roll up the windows for protection a as big bull elephant on one occasion and a tall grown giraffe on another approached within a couple feet of our car.
About half way through the loop we were waved down by another car. They told us that up the road about 5 km, a female cheetah and her cubs were sleeping under a group of trees. The directions they gave where a bit funny in retrospect but they made perfect sense at the time: “Keep going along this road. You’ll pass a large bull elephant on your right, then a group of zebras on your left. A bit further on you’ll see a group of giraffes. A bit further on again, you’ll see a road going off the right. Take that road and the cheetahs will be on your left under some trees”. Well the bull elephant must have moved a ways, and we couldn’t see the herd of zebra, so we ended up taking a wrong turn. We were a little disappointed that we missed a chance to see wild cheetahs when we noticed a line of cars parked along the roadside. We stopped and, whispering from open window to open window, asked the car next to us what we were supposed to be looking at. We had found the cheetah and her cubs after all. Although at that moment all we could see was grass, after about twenty minutes of waiting we were rewarded when the large female cheetah sat up, stretched, and walked over to another shady area. Soon a smaller cheetah followed. Mom cheetah had obviously been trying to find a moment’s peace, because she then got back up and went to be original spot. We regretted not having a better lens with a stronger zoom, and the following pictures were the best we could do… Despite the poor photos, it was amazing to see these cats in the wild and it was our first cheetah sighting (we don’t count the cheetah farm in Namibia as a wild sighting).
After spending some time watching the cheetahs lounge, we continued on the loop towards the Sabie Rest Camp, seeing more elephants, giraffes and even some hippos in the river near the Rest Camp.
We pulled into the rest camp for a break. It was scorching hot since our little car isn’t equipped with A/C. The temperature was around 40 degrees. We were also covered in dust and dirt from driving the back roads with the windows down and we needed a drink. The Sabie Camp is a bit more upscale than the Crocodile Rest Camp. There is a nice restaurant, a nice souvenir store, internet and safari jeeps that regularly take people in and out on safaris. It seems like more of a resort or safari lodge than our little Crocodile Rover campground.
We still haven’t seen rhinos or leopards, although we are not banking on a leopard sighting. But we will be disappointed if we don’t see rhinos. I haven’t seen a hyena yet either, although we’ve heard them and had them walk through our campground at different times throughout this Southern Africa trip. We checked the Sabie sighting board but it didn’t give us any help, only showing us that we missed seeing a pack of wild dogs somewhere along our 40km loop.
By this time it was after 4:00pm, and the park gates close at 6:00pm. Visitors cannot stay in the park afterhours unless they are on a night drive and risk fines if caught. Checking our map, we decided to take a different way back. It was a rugged dirt road and looked like a road less traveled, and we thought it might be worth checking out.
It seemed like we had made the wrong decision since we didn’t see a thing for the first 20 minutes. We turned a corner and suddenly, in the middle of the road about 20 feet ahead of us, were 4 white rhinos, including a baby. We stopped the car, both speechless and pointing ahead, as the rhinos eyed us suspiciously and thundered off into the bush. For being such large, thick and lumbering creatures, they can sure move when they want to. We seemed to have picked the Rhino Road because we saw small groups of rhinos over the next hour. We saw a lot of babies and the mothers seemed very protective of their young. Their massive, muscular bulk and long sharp horn are effective deterrents. We were in a rush to get back to the gates, but this seemed to be the best viewing time. Elephants, giraffes, rhinos, and even monkeys seemed to be congregating near the road we chose.
During that last hour and a half drive, we saw 12 rhinos, including three young. Over the course of one afternoon, we saw almost 20 elephants, 3 lions, 2 cheetahs, and countless giraffe, impala, zebra, warthogs, wildebeest, and others. Speeding through the last stretch of road, we managed to exit the park gate at exactly 6 pm, thereby avoiding a significant fine for a late exit.
The sun sets quickly and before we knew it night was upon us. There was no moon and it was very dark. We cooked dinner over charcoals and the coals seemed to take forever to light. We didn’t have any lights to help us cook except for a small lantern, some candles and a couple of flashlights. We thought about using our headlights, but they attracted too many bugs. Already the bugs were swarming around our little lights.
Our tent and bbq area was less than 6 feet from the fence. I heard a snap of a twig and instinctively shone that flashlight over. There was a massive hyena patrolling the fence. I was able to just catch him with the light and saw the snarl on his face and the strip and spots on his fur. He could hear him breathing. He was bigger and whiter than I thought hyenas would be. He was walking along a well-worn path and he seemed neither scared nor concerned about our presence. He didn’t slink away into the shadows when caught in the light, he simply continued his silent and rapid patrol of the fence, attracted by the smell hoping to get some table scraps. The fence is high, barbed and electric, but we were still worried that he would find a way in. Later, while I went to the bathroom, the hyena came back and, facing Rebecca, stared her down for what to her seemed like an eternity.
We went to bed exhausted from lack of sleep the night before and the excitement of the day, but the heat and thought of hungry hyenas less than 6 feet away kept us from a deep, refreshing sleep.
We were up at 5:00am the next morning and through the gates just after the 5:30am opening time. Dawn is apparently one of the best times to see wildlife, but we didn’t see anything that we hadn’t seen cruising around at a more reasonable hour the day before. Still no leopard. We drove the same loop to Sabie’s Rest Camp and enjoyed seeing everything for a second time. We even saw the same group of cheetahs in a new location. We stopped at Sadie’s Rest Camp for a lunch and to get out of the oppressive heat. We were worried that the bottles of champagne in our truck were going to explode. Blocks of ice wouldn’t last an hour in our cooler.
We checked the sightings board, but there was nothing new. It seems that even the night safaris haven’t been able to find a leopard. We drove back to the Crocodile Camp along the main road, and were lucky enough to see a lioness walking through an open field. This was our first full view of a lion in motion. It was a beautiful sight and it was even more special because we had spotted it ourselves and there was nobody else around. The lioness was so smooth and graceful as she moved, yet the muscle and power were evident. This wasn’t just a yawning head poking out of the tall grass; to see the lion moving was something special. We returned to the camp and decided to book a night drive with a park ranger for that evening. This would be our best chance of seeing more lions and hopefully a leopard. For the rest of the afternoon we rested, relaxed and tried to sleep in our oven of a tent. A family of warthogs somehow breached the camps gates and gained access to the campground before being chased out by some rangers. This made us wonder about the fences – surely if warthogs can get in, the hyenas will find a way as well??
Our night drive left at 5:30 and would take about three hours. We were surprised to find that we were the only two guests to have signed up. We climbed into the back of an open safari jeep. The guide jumped in the driver’s seat and his massive rifle took up the passenger’s seat. He warned us that he was the “Boss” on this drive and that if he told us to do something we were to do it without questions.
He took us down a road we hadn’t yet been down. We kept a lookout out the sides while the guide looked around and sometimes stopped to check the tracks on the side of the road. We told him that we really wanted to see the cats – either lions or leopards. Unfortunately, for a long time we didn’t see much of anything. We saw a giraffe, and some impala of course. The guide swore that some dark shape in the bush was a buffalo but it wasn’t apparent to us. It was a little disappointing. In fact, we were starting to question our guide’s expertise and qualifications when he pulled over and pointed to the side of the road to a massive lion paw print in the soft sand. A little while later he showed us huge areas of broken grass by the ride of the road where the lions had recently been laying down.
We saw a bull elephant near the side of the road and he caught my attention as we went around a corner. Then a heard a gasp and the truck came to a stop. In the middle of the road, not even 30 feet in front of us, was a pride of lions. They were laying, stretched out on the dirt road, 3 females and three big males with black tinged manes. The best part, however, were the three cubs, with the smallest being only two months old according to the guide’s estimates.
They lions didn’t really pay too much attention to us. The cubs scampered over to their mothers, while the big male closest to us wearily raised his massive head and gave us a casual look over. Otherwise they just lounge there in the middle of the road while we watched. After about ten minutes one of the females got up, stretched and walked off into the bush. A cub soon followed, then the other female, and one by one each of the lions got up, stretched and followed the preceding one into the bush. The only one left was the little cub, who looked around, suddenly realized he had been abandoned and took off after the others. Through the bush we could see them walking away, with the lead female coming back for the smallest cub and to playful nuzzle the biggest male. We couldn’t believe how big they are. The males are simply massive. They looked so calm and casual with a royal air about them, as if they are fully and completely aware that there are the top of the food chain, the king of the jungle, and that they have nothing to fear. All the shared feline qualities that make regular house cats appear aloof and conceited make lions seem regal and distinguished. Those 15 minutes alone were worth the trip to Kruger National Park.
By this time our night safari was half over and we had to turn back for the Crocodile camp. We drove back to the river, thinking that maybe the lions were headed that way. Our guide stopped the truck in the middle of the bridge and we got out to stretch our legs and watch the far banks for signs of the lions. Our guide had the big gun in his hands. The sun had gone down and it was getting dark in a hurry. We could barely make out the lions as they arrived at the river to drink. We got back into the truck and continued on our way back to the camp. The driver handed us two big spotlights that we were to shine in the bush. The purpose here is to catch the animals’ eyes in the lights. But you can’t shine it for too long – I got in trouble for temporarily blinding an impala (sorry, little buddy). Green eyes generally mean herbivore i.e. impala or zebra or something. Red or orange eyes, however, generally come from the carnivores. The guide warned us that once you catch a predator’s eyes with the light it is important not to lose it afterwards. It’s not good to loss track of dangerous animals in the dark.
Unfortunately, we only saw green eyes during the trip back. We saw a lot of scrub hares, some owls and vultures and a whole lot of herbivores, but no leopards and no more lions. Not seeing a leopard was a little disappointing, but we were thrilled to have had such an amazing lion sighting. We cooked dinner upon returning to camp (no hyena visitors this time) and turned in for an early night.
On our third and last day in Kruger we started our game drive around 10 am. We knew that this wasn’t the ideal time for sighting animals because they tend to seek shade and remain immobile during the heat of the day. Nonetheless we set of, hoping to get lucky. We drove our favourite route up towards the Lower Sabie Rest Camp and saw zebras, giraffes, impalas and elephants along the way. We also saw huge herds of buffalo. Before this we had only seen individual buffalo, but this was a sight to behold. They seemed to be coming from everywhere, taking over everything in their path. There must have been hundreds of them – maybe even a thousand. They all appeared to be coming from different directions and heading towards the same spot. We joked that it must be the Annual Buffalo Conference dealing with topics such as ‘The State of the Buffalo Union”, “Where is the Best Grass?” and “How to Avoid Being Eaten.”
After stopping for a quick lunch at Sadie’s again, we headed towards a western exit point. Instead of going back down through the Crocodile Bridge entrance and then driving west, we though two could drive west through the park, take a different exit and maybe see a thing or two along the way. Great plan, poor execution. We didn’t see anything on the way out. Maybe an impala or two, but we don’t count those anymore. We were left with the impression that we had been truly lucky to see the large number and great variety of animals during our short visit to Kruger. The Crocodile River area seems to be an excellent place to see animals.
We drove back towards Nelspruit, where we will spend a night or two before continuing on towards Pretoria.