I recently spent two days in Kruger Park, in South Africa.
Kruger Park is a national wildlife reserve on the eastern side of the country, and hosts such animals as lions, zebras, giraffes, elephants, hyenas, baboons – well, I’ll put it this way: this park could be the setting for a live-action version of The Lion King. It happens to be the oldest wildlife reserve in Africa, officially opened in 1926. From top to bottom the park is over 200 miles long, covering over 2 million hectares. In other words, it’s massive!
I was in South Africa on a business trip, so unfortunately I had only one night to spend in the park. Not having enough time to make detailed arrangements by myself, I made a booking with a company called Siyabona Africa, which offers every type of safari and lodging package you can think of via their expertly organized website.
On the Saturday I flew from Johannesburg to Mpumalanga Kruger airport. I was very excited to fly over South Africa and see some of the landscape from high above. Johannesburg sits up on a sort of plateau which drops down some steep cliffs halfway to the coastline and turns into a mix of open savana and rolling mountains.
I was picked up at the airport by a Siyabona staff member who drove me the rest of the way to Kruger Park. As we came close, the driver explained that the entire park is encircled by a large fence miles and miles long, to help monitor who is coming in as well as keep the animals from getting out. Of course, with such a huge space of land to cover, people do get in illegally and cause problems inside (i.e., poaching), and some animals do get out and cause problems in neighboring towns (i.e., eating people). He registered me as a visitor at Paul Kruger Gate, and we drove in.
Well, we had barely made it past the park gates when already I was seeing my first of the “Big Five”: a young bull elephant hanging out by the side of the road.
He wasn’t at all shy, and walked up close beside the minivan.
Then he came REALLY close!
I nearly wet myself.
“He is saying Welcome to South Africa,” the driver said, grinning. Ha-ha.
We decided to go on our way, and drove to one of the park accomodation camps, called Skukuza. There I was met by a friendly team of young Siyabona guides who showed me my tent (very clean) and prepared a lunch for me and some other visitors we had picked up along the way. I also got my first glimpse of the game drive vehicles. They reminded me a bit of the Boston Duck Tours.
After lunch, they took us on my first game drive. On a game drive, you ride in this big vehicle (and you don’t leave it), and then drive around the many roads running through the park. If anyone riding spots an animal, the driver stops and the guide then talks about it’s behaviors, eating habits, etc. Everyone wants to see all of the “Big Five,” which are lions, elephants, buffalo, leopards, and rhinos. You might see many animals on a game drive, or you might see none at all. The vehicles are equipped with radio systems so if one group finds a pride of lions, for example, then it can inform others where the sighting was made.
We drove around for a while after lunch and my eyes were peeled looking for anything. At first, the most we saw were some impalas (a type of deer that is found everywhere in the park) and some birds by the river. I relaxed and decided to enjoy the scenery a bit until we encountered something.
As we drove along, we turned a corner and saw that right in the middle of the road up ahead was a giraffe. The giraffe behaved as if it owned the road (well we were on his turf, after all), and just stood there, cooly chewing some leaves. We drove up closer, and we all snapped our photos as the guide explained how to determine whether a giraffe is male or female (you can tell by the horns). Finally we got too close, and the giraffe sauntered off to the side.
We went along a bit further and someone spotted a large bird in the top of a tree. The guide, who knew his stuff, identified it as a Brown Snake Eagle. Why is it called that? Yes, because it eats brown snakes. Or maybe because it’s brown and eats snakes. I can’t remember which.
We drove off a bit further, spotting a few zebras far off in the distance (too far for pictures), and then came up on a big group of monkeys. They were all hanging out by the side of the road, lazily grooming each other. There was one big male, getting special attention on his own.
Then there were several females and a whole range of young ones, including a very small baby in one of the mother’s arms.
How cute are they?! Honestly, I could have stayed all afternoon to watch the little ones playing and chasing each other.
Sadly though it was time to go back to the camp. I was told that the best chances to see any of the Big Five are on night drives. Most animals sleep or laze around during the hottest parts of day, and then become more active as night approaches. Only Kruger Park official guides are allowed to drive through the park at night, so I booked my night drive separately in Skukuza at the administration office.
Our guide for the night drive was cheerful, friendly and very knowledgeable. He made sure everyone was comfortable on board. “Which of the Big Five are we going to see?” people asked. “Wellll,” he said with a cheeky smile, “I GUARANTEE you will see some impalas!”
As we drove along, he took time to point out some special plants. He had a good sense of humor.
“This plant has berries that are edible… many animals eat this. The only problem is that it turns your teeth blue. Luckily, you can strip down a branch and use it as a toothbrush afterwards.”
He cut off a small branch and demonstrated. Then he showed us another plant.
“This plant has very soft leaves, and is your best friend in the bush. Can anyone guess why? Yes, because there is no toilet paper out here.”
(He didn’t demonstrate that one.)
When we came across a big pile of dried elephant dung in the road he stopped the vehicle and got out to pick it up. He explained to us how to distinguish elephant dung from rhino dung (rhinos only eat grass, so it turns black when it dries). Then he explained some traditional uses.
“If you need to start a fire, dried elephant dung is very good to start it because it is full of grass, branches, and leaves. As it burns it will also fend off mosquitos. Inhaling the smoke from this will also help to clear your headaches.”
He told us about how when he was a kid he used to have stomach pains, and his grandmother taught him to cure it for good by drinking a mixture of water and rhino dung. At this point no one could tell if he was being serious or not, but I made a mental note never to get a stomach ache if I found myself lost in the bush someday.
We drove along some more and came across a group of impala deer.
“I call this group of impala ‘the Losers.’ Can anyone guess why? Well this group is all male – they are all bachelors. This means that they have all fought and lost to another impala somewhere, who I call ‘the Winner.’ He is the one that gets all the female deer.”
A little later on we found the Winner. You can see him in the corner.
As the sun started setting we turned a corner and came across a tiny baby elephant in the middle of the road. A large female elephant came out of the bush seconds later to meet it, followed by a big bull elephant, and they swiftly moved off the other side of the road. It all happened so fast that I only captured this very blurry photo. These were followed by several more elephants.
By this time the sun was just going down over the horizon, and as it got darker the air cooled considerable. I’m glad I dressed warm! We continued driving around and as it got darker the guide turned on several spotlights on the side of the vehicle, and produced several handheld spotlights as well for some people to use. These were shone into the bushes as we drove along.
In this way we found several hyenas, which are nocturnal scavengers, and even discovered some white rhinos a bit far off the road (sorry, no pictures – it was pitch black out). The highlight of the night however was coming across a pride of lions, hanging out by the side of the road. We stayed for a considerable amount of time and I got several good pics.
Satisfied, we headed back to camp as it was getting quite late.
On our way back we encountered another elephant in the middle of the road, blocking the path. It was very big. Our driver stopped abruptly and suddenly in a very serious tone the guide told everyone to be quiet. As our spotlights bounced off his side (“Never shine in an elephant’s eyes,” the guide had warned), the guide explained in a low voice that this particular bull elephant was “in must” (or “musth”) – basically, in season and ready to mate. He pointed out tell-tale signs of dark liquid running down the elephant’s back legs and also from a point behind its ears. He said that elephants in this state have raging hormones and can be very aggressive.
The elephant noticed our vehicle, turned toward us a bit and seemed unsure what to do. To everyone’s surprise, the driver revved up the engine loudly and moved the big vehicle toward the elephant as if in challenge. The elephant didn’t like that at all, and his ears flared up and he moved in to challenge back. The driver kept on revving the engine and pushing closer in bold starts, and the elephant hesitated. The vehicle was bigger than it was (but not by much). The elephant attempted to challenge once more, then the driver revved again and moved closer, and the elephant turned and ran down the road, with our vehicle chasing behind it. Everyone held their breath, waiting for the elephant to leave the road and head into the bush. But instead it suddenly turned around into the headlights, VERY angry! As the driver hit the brakes hard, and many of us were jolted off our seats. The driver pushed again loudly, and finally the elephant gave up and turned off the road, heading into the bushes while we sped away.
Just so you have an idea, here’s a pic someone else took of an angry elephant. You can see the ears flared open to make itself look bigger.
Now, imagine driving at night and suddenly coming across this animal, 3 yards away from your vehicle, with your headlights bouncing off it’s knees. It was beyond spooky and more than a bit terrifying. I was glad to be in such a big vehicle and not in a small van like I had been earlier that day. As we drove back, the guide explained why the driver challenged the elephant, rather than wait for it to try and assert itself. Having it off the road would be safer for the other drivers out as well. With a big vehicle like ours, it works. “But,” he said, “don’t try this at home, kids.” I hope that elephant forgets about it.
Back at camp I told everyone the story over dinner and then went straight to bed. We had a morning drive the next day, which meant getting up at 5am. I slept pretty soundly and then the next morning we were up and back on the road before dawn. As the sun rose, I snapped a picture of the sunrise and some of the beautiful landscape around us. Then we looked for animals…
…and finally someone spotted another giraffe, off in the distance, hiding behind a tree. Can you spot him? Not easy, is it?
Soon after we left the giraffe, we found ourselves face to face with a hyena by the side of the road. All the hyenas I saw on this trip were terribly shy, and when discovered they seemed to be at a loss for what to do. This one glanced up awkwardly at us for a few minutes, then looked away as if we weren’t really there, and then it decided to disappear into the ground, where apparently it had a den.
We decided to call it quits at this point and turn back. The giraffe we’d seen earlier had come out of hiding and posed for a wonderful shot for me.
On our way back, we turned a corner and found a row of cars and vans stopped on the left side of the road. Apparently a few of them had spotted a lioness off in the bushes hunting. The rest of the pride was much farther back, off the road. We waited and drove along, and finally caught a glimpse of her, weaving her way through the bush off in the distance. Again, too far off for a good picture, but amazing to see nonetheless.
When we got back to camp we had a great brunch and while the others went off for another drive I sadly had to pack up my things and prepare for the ride back to the airport. It was only a one-night trip, and I was having so much fun I wanted to stay for weeks. As I waited to be picked up, I walked around Skukuza and took some photos. The camp is spotless and very beautiful, practically like a resort.
I swore to myself that I would come back for much longer next time and make it a proper vacation. Accomodations here range from camping in tents, to staying in bungalows, to getting the five-star treatment at area hotels. Activities go far beyond just driving around and playing “Where’s Waldo?” with leopards; you can actually go out in the bush on foot with two guides and potentially see rhinos while hiding behind a tree, hoping they don’t smell you… that sort of thing.
Although it was far too short, the trip was exhilirating. Finding myself out under the big African sky, looking at elephants, lions and giraffes in their natural environment (and not behind a fence at the zoo) – it all made me feel very lucky and very glad to be alive. It’s a miracle to me that these animals are there to see at all, considering all the media about endangered species and illegal poaching. To many South Africans I met, seeing a lion or an elephant is no big deal, practically equivalent to a New Yorker seeing a squirrel in Central Park. But the country certainly takes pride in their wildlife and recognizes this heritage; these parks are kept meticulously organized (as far as I could tell), and even the South African rand currency notes are graced with the Big Five.
I was only in Kruger Park for one night, and all together it wasn’t a cheap trip (mostly due to the flight expense from Johannesburg). But I’ll be back as soon as possible, and for much longer next time. In my mind, just about any expense would be worth it, because really this sort of thing is the chance of a lifetime, and an experience I will never forget as long as I live.
If you enjoyed this article and these pictures, check out some of my video footage from this trip: Kruger Park Video (Warning: This is a totally amateur montage shot by my digital camera and spliced together using iMovie.)
(But it’s short and cute, and I promise you’ll like it.)
You can also visit my blog at www.ragasha.com.
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Oh, and P.S. If you liked reading about Africa, definitely check out this excellent Gather article by Peter Frickel: Footsteps across Africa