Hanging with the animals in Kruger National Park — safari day 1
After staying the night at Pestana Lodge, just outside the Kruger, we entered the park the next morning at the Malelane Gate, across the Crocodile River. (Read Part 1 here.) Jacqui had made our overnight reservations for us because it was easier for her to communicate with the Kruger locally than it would have been for me on the other side of the world. We checked in and received our permit for our first two nights at Lower Sabie rest camp.
The Kruger is a huge park — at 7523 square miles, it’s almost as big as Massachusetts. In our five days, we’d cover little more than the southern third. And of that, only a fraction of the available roads.
A dozen rest camps are scattered throughout the park, featuring bungalows, shops, restaurants, and gas stations. Each camp is fenced to prevent animals from intruding, and you’d better be inside the gates by closing time, or you’ll be fined.
The rules are strict, for obvious reasons: The animals are real, wild, often BIG, and not necessarily fond of humans. In fact, contact with humans is forbidden. You must stay in your car, be quiet, and give the animals the right of way. In other words, don’t be stupid. The animals are said to be accustomed to cars, but not accustomed to seeing humans outside of their vehicles. Humans might piss them off.
Jacqui had sent us a Kruger Park Map, which was full of information about the animals we hoped to see. We referred to it constantly as we traveled through the park.
Okay, enough background — you want to see animals, right? So did we. It seemed we no sooner cleared the entry gate than we had to stop to allow a herd of elephants to cross the road directly in front of us!
I had to ask Eric whether we also saw giraffes and zebras (in SA, that’s ZEB-ra, not ZEE-bra) nearby, or had my brain tricked me into thinking we saw them all at once? He assured me I remembered it correctly. Need less to say, we were awed and thrilled. Little did we know that we’d see so many elephants, giraffes, and zebras that we’d quit taking photos of them after a few days.
Look a little closer and you can see the scars on this giraffe’s neck. Life in the bush is not easy. Thorn bushes are everywhere. Most of the animals we saw had scars, whether from thorns or fighting. The giraffes also had black bumps that looked like they could be ticks on their bellies and under their legs.
Giraffes are fairly social and often hang out in groups. They mate at any time of year, and the males are continually cruising for receptive females. Sometimes we saw small groups, but most often we saw pairs.
The zebras were so lovely and peaceful. This is a Burchell’s zebra, which has pale taupe shadow stripes between the black stripes on the rump.
We drove on, following Kevin and Jacqui’s car. Occasionally, an arm would stick out of their window, pointing at something for our benefit. It took Eric and me a few days to learn where to look and what to look for to spot animals. We did get better at it. When we first entered the park, everything looked to be the same shades of yellow ochre or dull green. I loved the landscape.
Take this kudu, for instance: See how his spiral horns mimic the tree branches, and how the stripes on his sides blend into the grasses? Of course, he’s easy to spot when he’s nibbling on a tree right next to the road.
The Kruger is home to several species of antelope in addition to the kudu. We saw:
Speaking of right next to the road … our eyes practically popped out of our heads when we came upon this rhino snoozing under a tree, just feet from our car! This beast was at least as big as the VW Beetle that I used to drive! Notice the horizontal scratches on his hide.
This elephant stared at us is if she were deciding whether to make a move. She didn’t seem upset, but I had the distinct feeling that we were in her space. She slowly flapped her ears in the heat … and we slowly rolled away. An unforgettable encounter.
That afternoon, with the temperature over 100° F, we came across an enormous herd of Cape buffalo cooling off in the river. I mean, there were hundreds of them.
Just past the buffalo we noticed a traffic jam of cars. What could it be? We jockeyed for position and finally saw her — a beautiful lioness lying in the shade of a red rock outcropping. Simply awesome.
And that was just day one of our self-guided safari! Incredibly, in our first day in the park, we’d bagged four of the Big 5 (elephant, buffalo, rhino, lion, and leopard). We were over the moon!
We pulled into Lower Sabie rest camp and moved into our little thatched-roof bungalow. The accommodations were basic, but we had AC, comfy beds, and indoor plumbing, so we did fine. The kitchen facilities are outside on the porch to keep food smells (and roving critters) out of the rooms.
Our bungalow was at the edge of the camp, overlooking the Sabie River. As the sun went down, I noticed a couple of elephants playing in the water …
Kevin and Jacqui had packed a car-load of food and libations for our safari trip. Kevin cooked a delicious braai supper (a braai is what we’d call a barbeque), and we fell into bed wondering what day two would bring.
NEXT: More from our safari!
Eric is writing his own reflections on our trip on his blog, PhotoGraphic Thoughts. Check it out for another perspective.