Africa · South Africa · South Africa travel · Travel

South African safari- the Kruger

I’ve really taken too long to write this and now that I’ve got a new job, it was really time to put this up. Last summer, I took a not-so-short trip to South Africa that basically ended up in a week-long jaunt on safari and northwards into Zambia. This final leg was with a small overland group to SA’s Kruger Park and Victoria Falls in Zambia (which is right below the “heart” of Africa- Democratic Republic of Congo).  Along the way, there were stops at the Blyde River Canyon (the world’s 2nd or 3rd largest canyon as partially shown in the top photo), a cheetah center, and a rhino reserve, plus a drive through and brief stop at Botswana, which is a country between SA and Zambia in case you didn’t know. There were indeed lots of wild animals seen, in parks and on the side of the highway, and lots of driving, as well as camping in freezing temperatures (Southern Africa in July).  This trip started from Johannesburg and we were off damn early at near 5 am. I almost got on the wrong group because there was a mixup, due to there being another group, from the same company that was going to the same place and with almost the same itinerary and leaving on the same day though at a different time, staying at the backpackers where we set off from.

Anyways after the early morning confusion, everything was settled in time and we drove off toward northeastern South Africa into scenic Mpumalanga province, leaving gritty, metropolitan Johannesburg behind, leaving the highveld for the lowveld, as our guide told us. As we drove further away from Jo’burg, the scenery became more pleasant and there were long stretches of fields on the sides of the highway. We drove through a series of small, rustic, picturesque towns with quaint one-storey brick houses and shops and one main road and charming Afrikaan names like Dullstroom and Ohrigstad. This was a little like rural Ontario, when you get out of Toronto and towards little towns like Lindsay that have one main street and weekly farmers markets and so on. These towns were part of the Highlands Meander, each one offering some kind of attraction like funny themed kitschy stores or outdoor activities like fishing. I really regret not taking any pictures of these places, especially given the thousands I took during the trip. Along the way, we also saw green wheat fields, a change from the vast “prairie” fields on my Drakensberg trips in the Free State. We proceeded along the Highlands Meander to the Panoramic Route.Our first main stop was the Blyde River Canyon, specifically by the Three Rondavels, three large dome-shaped rocks that indeed looked like rondavels, the dome-shaped local African huts that are seen throughout South Africa. The canyon is one of the three largest in the world, behind only the US’ Grand Canyon and Fish Canyon, in Namibia. Looking down onto the canyon and the river zigzagging through it gave me a solemn feeling, amplified by the remoteness of the place. There were few tourists around, though there were souvenir vendors lined up inside the parking lot, with tables full of colorful blankets filled with animal designs, wood carvings and dolls. These items looked nice, but they were also ubiquitous, seemingly no different from souvenirs I’d seen in Cape Town, Durban or Jo’burg, making it likely that they were mass-produced. After the canyon, it was time to move on to Hoedspruit, a town that was larger and more urban than the others we passed through earlier, for lunch. Many towns have Afrikaan names and even Polokwane, the largest city in the region and one of the World Cup host cities, used to be called Pieterville a decade ago.

After lunch, we went to the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre, or just the cheetah center. The HESC was a fenced nature preserve that had, you guessed it, cheetahs, as well as other animals like the wild dog. At the entrance, we saw some vultures circling overhead, and our guide took the opportunity to debunk the popular notion that this meant some dead animal was around as just “Hollywood.” He also joked about a vulture buffet. Our guide, TJ was a broad, strapping, and a bit rotund, Afrikaan guy with a loud booming voice for whom English was not his first language, basically your stereotypical notion of a red-blooded Afrikaner male who grew up on a farm in the Free State, the Afrikaaner heartland. Sometimes he resembled a big kid when he had his cheeky grin, especially much later on. Kicks  aside, he was a great guide and knew what he was doing. Throughout the tour, he’d be making sure everything was good for us and buying us beer for nightly talks around fires. Inside the cheetah center, which was largely empty of visitors save for an Indian family that was leaving as we were entering, there was a fine visitor’s building which had a restaurant, some cattle skins, and an AV room which was full of mounted heads and stuffed and filled dead animals. We first had to watch a DVD about the center and cheetahs, specifically the King Cheetah,  that are cheetahs born with enlarged black spots, and not a distinct breed. This abnormality doomed them in the wild because they couldn’t hide and blend in with their surroundings, so making it very difficult to hunt prey. The center houses and cares for King Cheetahs as well as others. Next up was a little open-vehicle (large jeep with an open cab seating  compartment) game drive across the grounds of the center. Passing through a metal fence which one of the center’s rangers jumped out and opened, we entered a grassy area where cheetahs ran wild. We saw them soon, basically sitting and lounging around being very cooperative for us to take pictures of them. After this, we drove into other areas, which were also fenced off, including one with wild dogs. I thought I hated these animals because they always sounded so creepy and seemed so vile and vicious (if you ever watched them on Discovery Channel documentaries chasing down and disemboweling wildebeest and antelope alive you’d know what I mean), but seeing these “dogs” running around us and playing with each other, they seemed kind of friendly. Still I wouldn’t want to get out of the car and walk with them. Needless to say, their enclosure was fenced off from the cheetah’s and the rest of the center. We saw other animals, some which were fenced into small enclosures including a balls-less male lion, made so because of bad former circus owners who thought doing this took away its aggression. We eventually came across an eerie and stink sight, that of a multitude of bleached white bones strewn across a rectangular expanse. It was an animal Field of Terror. These weren’t human bones but animal bones meant for vultures, the ones we had seen circling around outside earlier. We also saw maribou storks and these are as ugly in real as they are in photos. Near the end we came across the center’s lone zebra and then the “mother” that raised it- a sheep.

The stars of the cheetah center, left, lazing around, and the wild dogs, who were so playful and even amiable.

After we left the cheetah center, we went to our accomodation for the next 3 nights, a cabin that was in a game lodge. Driving into the place, we saw a giraffe by the side of the road. Then, right outside our cabin was an alligator enclosure with 4 of them inside (2 adult, 2 small). Anyways this just fuelled my anticipation of the next day- the real safari where we’d be going into Kruger Park. We had dinner at the restaurant, which was in another site 5 minutes from our cabins that required a walk across lightly forested area. It probably doesn’t sound bad, but walking back along the same route in pitch blackness (no lights) save for TJ’s torch whilst wild animals roamed around in the surrounding bush was slightly worrying. The lodge’s cook was a nice guy who TJ knew from before, and before every dinner, he would come up to our table and describe what we were having, including the appetizer, the main course and desert. Every night we had different food and it was good. We would have impala stew on the third night, the first wild meat I’d eat in Africa (farmed ostriches and billtong don’t count). Every night, barring the third, dinner was followed by beer around the outdoor fire, which made for interesting conversation and good laughs, especially with TJ and his tour guide experience.

The lovely sunrise sky, left. A giant herd of elephants cross the road to a waterhole, right.

I woke up at 4.15 the next morning, in what would be the drill for the next 2 days, in order to be ready to leave at 5.30. TJ met us outside our cabin, led us to the restaurant and gave us our packed breakfast (juice, fruit, sandwiches) in Ziplock bags. Then he waited with us for Andrew, a private Kruger guide, to come pick us up and take us on the half-hour drive to Kruger. The park opens it gates at 6, and we’d be right on time. Again, what seemed like something routine was  a bit more harrowing than you’d expect. When you’re sitting in the open-air back compartment of a pick-up truck speeding along the highway in the dark early morning freezing due to the bitter cold, it’s nice and tortuous. When we finally reached Kruger Park, a national wildlife park that covers over 20,000 square kilometers, making it larger than some countries like Trinidad, and which crosses over into neighboring Mozambique where it joins up with a national park on that side, we were a bit early and had to wait a few minutes along with a few other vehicles. Finally, the Orpen Gate opened and we drove in. As Andrew pulled into a gas station inside, he alerted us to some animals lurking in the bushes on the other side of the road. Hyenas they were and we could barely see their dark outlines in those bushes before skulking off. Our next sighting was the most surprising and disappointing. Driving along the road, we saw several cars ahead on the road stopped. There’s a lion, Andrew told us and we stuck our heads out and frantically tried to take out our cameras. Indeed there was one, right by the side of the road, a young male, it seemed. Within a moment, he got up and disappeared into the tall grass. So yes, it was cool to see a lion almost right as soon as you get into the park, but disappointing it didn’t stick around long enough for a picture. The sky was beautiful, draped in shades of red and orange whilst mostly blanketed in dark purple and gray, as the sun came up. Andrew then drove us all around, and soon we saw giraffes, antelopes and zebras. Because he wanted us to get the Big 5 first, we zoomed by those animals, which was ok because they were numerous and more easily spotted. By late morning, we got our first Big 5 animal- elephant. Then as the day progressed, we spotted rhino, buffalo,  and leopard. We got the Big 5 checked off but we still wanted a proper lion sighting. The Big 5 refer to the lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and rhinoceros, and it doesn’t refer to their size (otherwise the hippo would have been in there for sure) but to how hard they were to hunt and kill. Nowadays, many people still want to catch them, but only with cameras.I know I probably sound like a really nerdy animal lover, but spotting and checking off animals (literally for some people like my groupmates who bought Kruger books with animal and bird lists) was what most visitors to the park did. We’d meet other tourists and exchange stories of what we’d seen, almost as a sort of bragging rights. It was like, hey we saw lions today. Yeah, we saw leopard 3 times. And so on, but it was all in good fun.  I mean, the main point of going on a safari inside a wildlife park is to ….. see wildlife. Another thing is that seeing wildlife isn’t exactly automatic; this ain’t a zoo where animals are confined in cages or enclosures. Not that you won’t see any animals in Kruger but sometimes you can’t expect to see a lot. Given Kruger’s immense size, visitors need to spend a lot of time, as well as have good guides like we did, if they want to have some goof spotting. This is actually a complaint some people have towards Kruger, that you can go there and end up seeing little, as Ciza, 2Bhappy’s driver did when she drove there with a friend. Drive around we did, from 6 in the morning till 4ish in the afternoon. I’m not exagerrating when I say I felt dead tired around 11am and was half-awake at times (I woke up at 4am!). We stopped for lunch at 12 at one of the restaurant/rest stations for an hour. This was a fenced area with a restaurant, a take-away food place and a large outdoor seating area where you could look out onto the adjacent field and see wildebeest and zebra grazing. Wildlife was also abundant inside this area, as we saw a little owl resting on a tree branch in the parking lot, then a bushbaby on a wooden beam on the ceiling inside the rest station and dozens of dark blue, beautiful small birds. They were quite obnoxious, flying and skipping around for food scraps around restaurant guests, acting no different from pesky seagulls or crows yet much more attractive. After lunch, at around 2 pm, Andrew drove us near a watering hole which was basically a small lake or a large pond. Within minutes, elephants started crossing the road ahead of us towards the watering hole. We saw a few, then several more, adults, young and babies, and they just kept coming as if it was a parade until we had seen over 60. That’s not an exagerration. Over sixty elephants really did cross our path. The herd kept going until they reached the far end of the watering hole and started drinking, with a few younger ones playing around just like how children would be. Meanwhile in contrast, several hippos were on the other side of the watering hole, half submerged but visible, just lying in the water and not doing anything. There were even some buffalo who were in the middle of the watering hole on the far side.I have to explain that Kruger is not the Serengeti. In contrast to the wide, sweeping plains of that famous East African wildlife park where animal herds of thousands can be seen, the Kruger consists of wide, sweeping, lightly forested, bushy terrain which explains why animals can sometimes be hard to see. The park is crisscrossed by roads which people like us drive on, though the hardy or wealthy can camp at designated fenced sites inside the park or go on walking safaris with gun-wielding rangers. You can see animals such as impala, zebra and buffalo roaming in herds, but at most of several dozen as opposed to hundreds or thousands. That said, wildebeest were particularly hard to see on the first day though in animal shows, you always see them in massive herds. And it was ironic that despite how pathetic they seem on tv, always running from and being eaten by lions, hyenas and leopards, I really wanted to see them in real and felt so glad when I finally did.When particularly magnificent animals like say, leopards or lions, are spotted, traffic jams can occur as cars cluster around a spot on the road while occupants crane their necks or break out their binoculars. We were fortunate to have no less than 4 leopard sightings and on this first day we had a good one with a leopard resting up on a tree in the mid-afternoon. It was near enough for me to see it clearly but far enough for my camera to only be able to take hazy photos. By the time we got back to our lodge at 5, our wildlife sighting good fortune continued as we saw a giraffe near one of the cabins and then a small family of warthogs on the path back to our cabins. In the night, it was a bit spooky to hear hyenas howling outside whose tracks we’d see in the morning. TJ also mentioned that leopard also came into the grounds from time to time, which I don’t doubt.

The cheetah center’s vulture restaurant, left, and one of the center’s King Cheetahs, right, whose abnormally black spots make it unable to survive in the wild.

Never knew hyenas could look even remotely decent until I saw these, left. This was often the scene on our drives – random magnificent creatures wandering around in twos or threes or a handful.

Even the pesky birds are beautiful. The blue birds were very plentiful in the restaurant while the little horn bill is common around the Kruger.

This is at full zoom.


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