My absolute favorite thing to do in South Africa, and Africa as a whole, would be to go on safari to see the animals. The best place to go on safari in South Africa is the Kruger National Park. Located in the North East of South Africa, the Kruger National Park is one of Africa's largest national parks, and the largest in South Africa. Home to the Big 5, the Kruger shares a border with Mozambique and Zimbabwe and covers over 7,500 square miles. The Kruger Park boasts biological diversity in terms of plant life, animal life and scenery and is truly one of the most magical places in the world.
Being a five hours drive from Johannesburg, my home town, I spent many holidays and vacations traveling to the Kruger Park and enjoying the wildlife with my family. It is still to this day my favorite place in the world. Beyond being exciting, thrilling and enjoyable, the Kruger is super healing to me. It feels like home, and there is something about being immersed in nature, away from buildings, traffic, people, and technology. After spending three years in the United States, intensely missing the experience of being home in the bush, I finally returned home to South Africa, and traveled to the Kruger National Park with Intrepid Travel. I was fortunate enough to visit a private game reserve within the Greater Kruger National Park Area, Kampana, as well as spend two days in the Kruger with a private game driver.
Disclaimer: South Africans, like myself, do not say "go on safari". I'm saying that because that's how the rest of the world generally refers to this activity. Most of us South Africans instead say "Go to the bush", "Go to the game-reserve" or "go to the park".
I got to spend two days on safari in Kruger, and the first day was incredible. This has to go down in my books as one of THE BEST DAYS EVER!!!! Certainly one of the best days I've ever had in the Kruger. This day is what dreams were made of in terms of going to the Kruger. But let's start from the beginning.
My driver and game ranger, Shoes Mathebula, picked me up early on Sunday morning from Thornhill Safari Lodge, for my full day in the Kruger. I was beyond excited. I was even more thrilled when I found out that I had the ENTIRE game truck to myself. The elderly gentlemen from NZ had joined us (I talk about him in my review of my trip with Intrepid Travels Kruger Park Experience), but he unfortunately could not climb into the truck, so he sat up front with Shoes in the cab of the truck. This meant that I literally had the entire thing to myself. I could go from side to side, spread out, lie down even, if I wanted to. I was so thrilled to be lucky enough to do this. Despite being able to sit wherever I wanted, I opted to sit in the first row so that I was close to our ranger and could yell out if there was an animal.
We sped off to Kruger, some 40 km away to Orpen Gate. Let me tell you, it's cold. It's bloody cold! You think Africa is hot and you may laugh at my picture of me bundled up in a scarf, jacket and beanie, but when you're in an open side safari truck traveling 60 mph in the middle of winter, it's cold. You definitely need to make some educated choices when deciding what to pack for a safari, and that is one of them. Anyway, Shoes pulled over and I got to watch the sunrise against the backdrop that is South Africa's greatest beauty, the Kruger.
We entered the park at around 7 am, a good thirty minutes after the park had been opened - I wasn't impressed! My family and I (barring my sister who sleeps through most of these trips), are die hard "GET TO THE GATE BEFORE ANYONE ELSE DOES" South Africans. Your chances of better viewings are multiplied if you are one of the first people out the gate, because the bigger animals are usually still close to the road, or lying in it, and you get better vantage points before the road becomes a parking lot. I had to remind myself that I no longer had any control over the day, or drive, and that I was pretending to be a normal international tourist.
Within twenty minutes of being inside my beloved Kruger, we had already seen three of the big five: elephant, rhino and buffalo. I loved being back in Kruger. Kruger is the one place in which I feel truly connected to myself and to nature. It is a place where I have many many wonderful memories with my family, and where I feel at peace. After the stressful and difficult challenges I've had in my personal life this year, I didn't realize just how much I needed this place.
After two hours, we stopped at Satara rest camp, a camp located in an area well known for good game viewing. It was about to live up to its reputation for me. After biting down into one of the little sandwiches (South African bread is the best bread btw) Thornhill Safari Lodge had included in my breakfast, myself and Shoes paused to listen to a conversation outside the camp. We saw two vehicles flag each other down, and talk about a particular sighting, the details of which we couldn't hear. Shoes, being the fantastic game ranger and driver he was, ran over to the parking lot, to find out what was going on. By the time I had finished eating and used the bathroom, he had packed up our breakfast and was waiting for me, telling me it was Cheetahs, and to get in the truck. A South African Kruger boy after my own heart! I could barely contain my excitement and needed to limit my expectations. I knew that in the bush a sighting didn't necessarily mean the best viewing, nor that the animal will still be there by the time you get there.
After 6km, we found the cheetahs, four of them, lying in the bush, barely visible. In fact, I had to use the zoom lens on my camera in order to make them out properly. I saw many poor tourists drive on, unable to see them, but we waited. The advantage of going with a guide (or a local) is the insider knowledge of animal behavior. These four creatures were sitting in the sun. Sun that was about to become too hot for them. So we waited, knowing that at least one of them would at some point get up and move themselves under the bush and into the shade. So we waited. Boy, did it pay off! Not only did one cheetah get up and stand around, all four of them got up, and began walking.
You have to understand what a big deal this moment was for me. I have been going to the Kruger since I was a little girl, sometimes three of four times a year with my family. This place and it's wildlife and experiences are special to me. The last time I saw Cheetah in the wild was when I was 12 years old. That is quite a couple of years ago, and I had never seen cheetah since. So to have been away from my home for nearly four years, never going to the Kruger, a place so important to me, to come home and then see Cheetah like this! It was incredible. I was completely overwhelmed by this moment, and it felt like after my hectic, intense year, that the universe was going, its ok, just enjoy today, everything else will be ok. Even Shoes asked me later "Were you crying in the back there?". These cheetahs were magnificent and we followed them all the way up to another larger tree, where they sat down. Then Shoes said to me "Can we go? My friends messaged and said there's leopard and lion on the S-100".
The S-100 is probably one of the most famous roads in all of Kruger - mainly because it is renowned for such good sightings. It follows along a river bed and is located in arguably one of the best areas in the park for the Big 5. Whenever you say you're staying at Satara, everyone knows you're gong to be traversing up and down the S-100 for a good couple hours looking for animals. The road again did not disappoint. Within 15 minutes of seeing Cheetah, we saw more elephant, and a pride of lions. We came in the knick of time to watch a lioness get up and settle down in some shade. I knew the lions would be there all day, so we moved on to find the leopard.
Within five minutes, we definitely found the spot but could not locate the leopard. At this point, I was trying to be humble. There is NO WAY the Kruger Gods are going to send me four cheetahs, a pride of lions, AND a leopard in five hours. No ways. After a good five minutes of searching the area, we were at a loss. It must have moved on. Then, the car next to us wound down his windows and pointed to the river bed. We had been searching the trees and the banks, but had very little view of the river bed. Shoes backed up the truck and into sight came the very large, very full, adult male leopard, panting in the river bed.
THANK YOU, KRUGER!
We watched this big pretty boy poop, walk across the river bed, and climb up into the biggest tree he could find. He couldn't seem to figure out whether he wanted to stay in the fork of the tree or move further up. After a couple of minutes, he walked across the branches and settled down in the tops of the trees, pretty much out of sight. If you were driving past there would be no ways that you could see him. Only the warthog caracas in one of the other branches would have alerted you to the presence of a leopard.
I couldn't believe my luck. In five hours I had seen the Big 5, and cheetah, and had the game truck to myself. I don't even know if the guy from NZ truly understood what an incredible day this was in the bush. Shoes was even giving me high fives and fist pumps through the cab window and freaking out, saying he couldn't believe it. This guy grew up in the Kruger, he went to school at Skukuza. He has eat, slept, breathed Kruger every single day of his life basically, and even he was like, what!?
The rest of the day I spent perfectly at peace in the truck, enjoying the wind on my face and the sights and smells of my beautiful South Africa. We didn't see any more cats that day, or the next, but I enjoyed more elephants, giraffes, zebras, impalas and even some crocodiles and hippos.
What a truly memorable day.
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Other posts on from my trip back home to South Africa