Kruger National Park
Kruger National Park:
Setting impossibly high expectations for all future game drives
The safari began in Johannesburg. We got into the J'burg airport just after sunset and drove straight to meet our group at a campsite just outside the city. Our first impression was that it was much, much colder than we expected and we wondered if our thin jackets and sleeping bags would be enough to keep us warm during the nights ahead. We met the fellow travelers on the first part of our tour, 11 people plus a tour guide, cook, and driver heading up to Victoria Falls.
The next day after the first of what would come to be many early wake-up calls, we packed our bags into the storage compartment of our massive overland truck and took off east towards our first stop, Kruger Park. The truck has several compartments at eye-level where we store the cooking supplies, tents, and bags and once you climb up the ladder into the vehicle, the cabin seats about 30 people including six seats around a table where we mostly played cards.
We arrived at the campsite in the afternoon and set up our tents before the sunset game drive. The bathrooms and showers at the site were totally open on one side looking out into the park so you had the opportunity to spot animals at all times- I never saw anything here besides some antelope. For the game drives, we didn't use the big overland bus because it's too big for a lot of the dirt roads you use to see most of the park, and it's too big to turn around if you spot an animal as you drive by. The safari cars are what you'd expect: Land Rovers or Jeeps with long, tiered rows and no windows or doors so you can see as far as possible.
The sunset drives took us just into the edge of the park so I wasn't convinced we'd see much, but in just the first few minutes we drove right up to a giraffe eating leaves in the pink glow of late afternoon. It was the group's first time seeing animals in the wild and someone on our tour started crying out of happiness.
We drove for a bit longer to an open grassy plain dotted with large boulders to enjoy a cocktail hour while watching the sunset. Upon exiting the vehicle and walking out into the park, we looked to our left and noticed two male buffalo on the boulder about 50 meters away from us. The guide told us he sees these males in the area often and that we should be alright, but cautioned us to keep an eye on them just in case. Buffalo are part of the Big Five, a collection of elite game animals that are the most dangerous to hunt. The Big Five are the buffalo, lions, rhino, leopards, and elephant. Buffalo may look like docile cows but are irrational and quick to anger, known to lash out and attack people when the mood strikes them. They're herbivores but won't stop an attack until the victim is thoroughly pulverized, often checking back on the corpse for six hours or more to make sure they're truly dead. They didn't pay us any mind and we were able to watch a wonderful sunset while drinking Amararullo, a kind of Bailey's liquor with flavor from an indigenous orange tree that elephants love to eat.
The rest of the drive was fairly uneventful- it's pretty uncommon to spot animals at night unless you're in an open space and have infrared goggles. The next day, however, we went for our first real game drive from 6:00am- 4:00pm and had an entirely different experience.
We got insanely lucky. It seemed like we couldn't go five minutes without seeing an animal up-close. It started off with several giraffe, Kudu and other antelope, families of elephants and zebra, and even saw two white rhinos in the distance. Seeing rhinos are so rare because of the terrible poaching problem plaguing nearly every country in sub-Saharan Africa. Kruger alone loses around 4 rhinoceroses a day. The park is too big to police every area all the time, so poachers can come in by road or even by helicopter and essentially take what they want. Kruger is home to only 100 or so black rhinos so seeing them is nearly impossible, but there are chances to see white rhinos.
A little while later, the truck turned a corner and I gasped when I saw the road in front of us. At first, I thought I saw some kind of cat next to us but it was actually a female spotted hyena, running awkwardly because hyena hips sit much lower than their shoulders. Just a bit up the road, the driver suddenly roared "quiet!" and we all silently looked ahead to see a gorgeous adolescent male leopard walking right on the road just feet from the car! I could not believe our good luck- seeing a leopard at all, much less seeing one so close to us. The leopard slipped into the tall grass but kept walking alongside the road so we were able to watch him for a few minutes. He eventually climbed up onto a large rock and perched looking out over the savanna. I was over the moon.
After an unsuccessful attempt to spot a lioness lying in the tall grasses, we drove for a bit until we hit an open clearing. We had been fairly excited to see two white rhino at a distance earlier and never expected to see a long white rhino grazing in the clearing about twenty meters away from us. We turned off the truck and sat in silence for around twenty minutes just watching this massive yet gentle-looking creature eat peacefully nearby.
The rhino allowed us to watch him for a while before disappearing over a hill, and we decided to drive back to where we'd been. By the time we got back to where we were trying to see the lioness, a male lion was beating the heat lying under a tree next to a small watering hole. He had the appearance of a sleepy sunbather waiting for his iced tea on a rooftop pool.
By this point, I should tell you we were having the best time on the game drive... with the exception of our driver, Arthur. Not only was he aggressive and spouting some controversial beliefs about conversation, he thoroughly despised us for our enthusiasm over our good fortune that day. After we saw the lion, he sneered at our exuberance and predicted we'd be punished by an uneventful rest of the day. To prove him wrong, we ended up seeing tons of animals, including two cheetahs resting in the shade. There are fewer than 130 cheetah in the entire park and they are rarely seen, making these cats just another animal I was so excited to see.
And just like that, in just a few short hours in one park, we'd seen the Big Five. I don't think I can stress how uncommonly lucky we were- and the day wasn't even over! By the end of the day, we'd seen impala, Kudu (large antelope), hippo, hyena, lion, leopard, cheetah, Vervet monkeys, elephant, giraffe, and zebra. To make matters worse, some people from our trip had elected to ride in the overland bus instead of the safari truck and had only seen giraffe, antelope, and one elephant. Their experience only solidified just how lucky we were that day, and set impossible standards for the rest of the drives to live up to!