(insert "life is a journey" cliché here)
Late 2014, I went to Kruger National Park. For those who don’t know its whereabouts, Kruger National Park is in South Africa, thought the northern part of it pokes into Mozambique.
For the past day or two, we’d been skirting around its edges, staying at safari lodges on game reserves that bordered Kruger (read my Trip Advisor reviews of Tremisana Game Lodge and Marc’s Treehouse Lodge) and taking early morning wildlife walks and twilight safaris.
Our first evening at Tremisana Lodge was the most astonishing. After a sunset giraffe that netted the above photo, and our evening dinner at a ‘boma’ (picnic area in the bush) speckled by a random passing shower, we drove slowly back – this time on the road rather than bouncing wildly over hill and gully, 4wd-overland style. Our guide Alistair had one hand on the wheel, the other swinging a large torch from side to side.
Ahead of us, a movement caused a call to ‘hush’, and we watched in quiet awe as two lionesses padded in single file across the road, accompanied by approximately ten cubs. Alistair urged the vehicle very slowly forward, and pulled it up to turn the headlights on them. The lion family now congregated in a group, the adults lying down while the cubs gambolled and squirmed around them, the size of half-grown Labradors. They were clearly not frightened by the headlights; in this sanctuary, the viewing vehicles are noisy beasts who like to approach but pose no further danger. After about three minutes though, they arose and slipped off into the dark, allowing us to vent our quiet cries of admiration. The experience was not quite over though, as three white rhinos suddenly lumbered up behind the truck and across the road. We’d see many rhinos in days to come, but this night time first meeting was memorable in its unexpectedness and proximity.
As per our standard routine in Africa, we rose next morning at sparrow fart (or perhaps weaver bird fart), were breakfasted and packed into a large overlander vehicle by 7am, then trundling off to Kruger Park’s official visitor entrance.
At first we witnessed a mere sprinkling of the above characters, plus warthogs, impala and other antelopes, a couple of shy giraffes, and a small herd of wildebeest – otherwise known as the ‘gnu’, which is the name I learnt in childhood (possibly thanks to Dr Suess). Unlike our recent twilight safari – which had frequently jolted us from our seats – this vehicle was not allowed to leave the road. And there were multitudes of vehicles on the road, all cruising frantically looking for the Big Five: lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, buffalo. Our group swelled with pride – we had already ticked off all of these on our smaller game drives: lion and rhino that first night, buffalo and the elusive leopard on our previous day visit to Tschukudu Reserve, and a bull elephant that had entered the car park at Tremisana Lodge on our first morning there.
Our Viva Safaris driver Vanessa often pulled over to ask other drivers where the best sightings were. All over that part of the park, such information was being exchanged, and vehicles raced – within speed limits – to the hot spots. It was odd, and I was thinking I preferred the wild, overland, single vehicle safaris of our past two days – when we came across a sight that we were certainly lucky to see.
As mentioned, the leopard is highly elusive. People have worked in the park for years and never seen one. At Tschukudu, our guide’s sharp eyes had spotted (pun intended) a leopard slipping quietly through the scrub, and we all saw it for maybe five seconds before its natural camouflage came to its advantage. Not so this fellow below. With a belly full of the impala s/he had dragged up the tree (you can see its skull nearby), s/he was unable to move. The tree was about maybe about 20 metres from the road. Five to six vehicles parked nose towards the tree, full of occupants who gazed at this magnificent creature with quiet awe. For a long time, all that could be heard was the clicking of cameras and the adjusting of larger lenses, eventually dying to quietness. Then the leopard would turn its head or flick a paw, and all the clicking would begin again. It was like a fashion shoot.
Later in the day, we saw another flash of leopard in a stand-off with a hyena. Three leopards in 48 hours! We were so very lucky.
Our sightings included a large watering hole attended by sleeping hippos and playful younger elephants rolling in the sand; a family of ostriches with many small brown chicks; a young male lion lying in the shade, keeping a nonchalant eye on the group of wildebeest some distance away; numerous baboons, and a tortoise precariously crossing the road.
My imagination was also captured by the lush rivery eco-system that meandered across the sparser landscape. It was wonderful to catch a glimpse of an elephant, giraffe or rhino amongst the tree cover. A landscape in which, almost anywhere else, to see a large animal should be so natural but has become unthinkable. It’s a sad state of affairs that seeing these animals in their habitat feels almost like a fantasy – the realm of children’s stories, and in the future may only exist in stories, history, legend.
Kruger National Park covers approximately a million acres. We only saw a miniscule portion of it.
As a result of visiting Kruger, I can never again go to an ordinary bog-standard wildlife park, unless to humour someone.