At last, after a long drive up the Great North Road towards Zimbabwe, via Polokwane, the mountainous area of the Magoebaskloof tea estates,
and the picturesque villages of Heinitzburg and Tzaneen, we arrive at the Phalaborwa Gate. This is one of ten principle gates into the Kruger National Park, and is situated roughly midway along this strip of untamed bushveld that lies along South Africa’s north-eastern border with Mozambique.
Kruger is one of my favourite places on earth. I have been coming here for decades, first with my parents, and then with my own family. I welcome the familiar smells that conjure blissful childhood memories: the rich fragrance of the potato trees at sundown, the acrid scent of burning bushveld wood, and the delicious aromas of evening barbecues. The atmosphere is soft and mellow, if crackle-dry and dusty, but I savour the warm wind after the bitterly cold Johannesburg winter mornings. We shed our winter clothes like a skin of responsibilities and slip into shorts and T-shirts, and feel instantly liberated!
Kruger wasn’t always the successful commercial and game-preservation organisation that it is today. In 1898 the Sabie Game Reserve was established, primarily through the efforts of Paul Kruger, then President of the Transvaal Republic. He was gravely concerned about the rapid dwindling of the wildlife, as a consequence of poaching, the increasing trade in skins and ivory, and excessive hunting. In 1902 Scottish-born James Stevenson-Hamilton was appointed South Africa’s first official game warden. He was nicknamed Skukuza – “he who sweeps clean” – because of his success in eliminating poaching. It was he who advocated the change in legal status of Kruger from game reserve to national park. In May 1926 Parliament passed the National Parks Act: the Sabie and Shingwedzi Game Reserves were merged into one, and the area named the Kruger National Park in honour of its founding father. The following year, in 1927, the Park opened to the public.
There are a wide variety of accommodation options in the Park, mostly in the securely-fenced main camps which offer camp sites for one’s own caravan and/or tent,
permanent tents, bungalows of varying standards, and fully-equipped cottages.
There is plenty of space to relax
and walk around, and see some of the tamer camp inhabitants.
Children can play, and game and birds can be viewed, sometimes down into a riverbed, with or without binoculars.
These camps also provide fuel, a restaurant, and a shop supplying African crafts, books, general supplies and groceries,
I was surprised to see that five of the main camps now have restaurants taken over by the Mug & Bean franchise. While fast food in the bush may not appeal to many, in terms of an authentic African bush experience, I was quite happy with my excellent coffee, piping hot date-and-nut muffin fresh from the oven, and the much-improved, friendly and efficient service.
Most of the larger camps now have a swimming pool.
For those who truly wish to get away from it all, there are the bush camps such as Bateleur, Biyamiti, Talamati and Shimuwini, with fully-equipped cottages, but no restaurants or shops. These camps are closed to all visitors except those with reservations.
There are also bird hides, tented camps, and picnic sites where visitors may leave their cars and stretch their legs. Some, such as Tshokwani and Nkuhlu have a small shop offering snacks and refreshments.
All things bright
There is a fascinating variety of bird life in the Kruger Park – over 507 species. The birds are mostly different from those in our city gardens, with different calls and behaviours.
Lilac breasted rollers are typical of the Lowveld area in South Africa, and in the southern part of the Park. These magnificently-coloured little birds have lilac breasts and turquoise wings. Their colours become even more remarkable when they take flight, when their wings display a rainbow of colours.
Then there are the hornbills, bold and predatory, and always eyeing the tourists’ lunch with a beady eye. They and the glossy starlings frequent picnic sites and camp restaurants, squawking noisily and competing for titbits. The hornbills are distinguishable by their long curved bills, balanced by their long tails, with which they forage for insects, seeds and fruit.
Because they are protected, the Park birds are less afraid of humans, which allows for excellent photographic moments.
One day, driving south from Letaba via Satara to Skukuza camp, we come upon a large assembly of cars, all jockeying for position to see what was clearly an exciting sighting. We quickly established that it was a leopard. Eventually, with binoculars, we managed to find the magnificent creature, reclining lazily in the branches of a tree, his two back legs and tail hanging down. Even from a distance we could see that he was well-fed and sleek, and blissfully unaware of the sensation he is causing. Leopard sightings are quite rare – there are about 1,000 in the park, and we hadn’t seen one for some years. They are known to be illusive, and extremely well camouflaged. This one didn’t change his position for the length of time we sat there, cramped and squinting into the binoculars by turns.
Another sighting a few days later was more rewarding. Again drawn by a large cluster of vehicles, and after manipulating ours into a strategic position, we spotted a lithe female leopard resting in the curve of a tree root. After a while she rose, perhaps disturbed by the revving engines, and moved to another spot, still within reasonably clear view. Patience, when game-viewing, is usually rewarded!
Further along the road, a giraffe slowly made its way down to the river. These tall, elegant creatures appear so calm and serene as they browse among the treetops, their blue tongues curled around the thorny clusters.
This graceful creature paused nearby to browse, barely glancing in our direction. His large soft eyes were fringed with long protective lashes, and he whisked his tail and whirred his ears to deflect airborne irritations.
We were close enough to see the remarkable jig-saw patterns of his hide. There are different strains of giraffe, with different designs and shades of brown and brown-black. This golden brown and cream-coloured animal had numerous plump ticks on his soft white underbelly, but a diligent ox-pecker was working its way methodically down his spine, ensuring that these pesky parasites would not last for long.
More beautiful creatures browse in the shadows:
Zebra and wildebeest group together in herds:
All creatures great
August is pre-spring in Southern Africa – a time to see many new-born animals, especially elephant calves.
Hippo jostle for space in their much-reduced pools. There was a terrible drought throughout the country the previous summer, and we sadly saw four dead hippo in different locations. Curiously, the hippo leave their pools at noon. I watched this mad group trudge, single-file, to a sandy bank to doze in the midday sun.
Buffalo are magnificent beasts, solid (up to 800 kg), powerful, and extremely dangerous when threatened.
They are sociable and congregate in large herds – safety in numbers. It is only the calves that are vulnerable to predators, or lone individuals that unwisely stray from the herd.
Like the elephants, a mud bath is a good way to rid themselves of unwanted parasites.
Ubiquitous in most natural areas in this country are the nimble, mischievous vervet monkeys. With beady eyes set in little black faces, they are always alert to unguarded food; their long tails serve as an extra dexterous limb. They can scale any heights, enter any abode, and are a general nuisance to locals and tourists alike. They are opportunistic thieves, and can be dangerously aggressive to those who attempt to dispel them. But their antics are amusing to foreign visitors. Signs everywhere warn that the animals must not be fed.
At Tshokwane picnic site in the southern Park, the monkeys are bold and resolute, and we watched in disbelief as one saucy little creature deftly snatched a sugar sachet from a surprised visitor’s coffee tray, scampered up a tree, and gorged on the contents.
This resourceful little thief found the neighbouring bungalows unrewarding, with their frig doors firmly wedged with a chair. This didn’t stop him from casing our joint.
Ground squirrels can be seen scampering around the camp grounds and picnic sites. They must also not be fed, however appealing they may seem.
Guinea fowl and francolin potter around the camps, their hopeful air suggesting that they had been fed before. They are so tame that they hop onto the low wall of the bungalow veranda, and cock their heads expectantly.
Baboons are always amusing to watch; their social interaction and antics are often startlingly reminiscent of people we know – or even of ourselves. The troops are blasé, ignoring the pausing visitors with their indulgent smiles, as they go about their busy baboon business.
In August there are plenty of little ones, scampering about, pulling tails, climbing onto each other and annoying the adults like any other juveniles. They seem blissfully unaware of the constant threat of predators. The bush is their everlasting playground.
A mother pads by on all fours, her bat-eared baby clinging to her undercarriage. She is surprisingly nimble in spite of her tiny burden, climbing trees and foraging for food.
During an early morning drive we encountered this troop sunning themselves and dozing in the first welcome rays of the sun.
Baboons groom one another constantly, searching for parasites, nurturing and bonding, while the recipients relax with beatific expressions, eyes closed with pleasure. It is an age-old ritual, driven not by vanity, but by necessity. An unspoken language exists between these simple creatures. This is the good life – in the bright light of day at any rate.
An evening drive north on the Mopani road along the Letaba River is always worthwhile. There are waterbuck in the river valley, baboons cavorting, crocodiles and hippos in the pools, and the usual impala grazing alongside the road.
I heard a fish eagle call, and watched it settle high atop a dead tree.
Marabou storks strut officiously around their patch of the river bed, shaking their grizzled wattles and consulting one another knowingly like judges at a trial. There are buffalo in the distance, and one or two elephants grazing peacefully among the reeds. These creatures are inured to our presence, and their powers of concentration upon the task of feeding are impressive.
All things wise
There are between 1,620 and 1,750 lion in Kruger, according to a 2016 publication. Further research is taking place to confirm their number. Like leopard, these majestic cats cause frustrating traffic jams in the Park when there is a sighting. Unfortunately this usually reveals the visitors’ poor behaviour, from the selfish monopoly of a “good spot” to disturbing the animals with revving engines and a lack of observance for appropriate vehicle-animal spacing. Our recent sighting was not as exciting as those reported in camp, where tales of “twenty lion walking in the road” reached our ears.
These powerful carnivores can carry twice their own weight in their jaws, can eat up to a quarter of their body mass in one sitting, and then go without eating for several days.
Southern ground hornbills are the kings of the lower echelons of bush society – or so they seem to suggest, strutting around importantly like magistrates and regarding us with a malevolent eye.
One morning I was up early, eager to see what populated the Letaba River bed spread out before me.
I perched with a mug of tea on a gnarled root at the rim of the “promenade” – and waited. The area is a dry expanse of pale sand interspersed with low scrub, and bisected by two narrow, green-fringed river courses. In the distance lies the edge of the bush forest.
Soon I became aware of two tall saddle-billed storks fishing in a pool far ahead of me. They stirred up the shallow water with their long slender legs, and dabbled with their bills, their activities evidently rewarding. With binoculars I spied a pied kingfisher joining in the aquatic feast, diving into the water stirred up by the storks like a tiny black and white dart. The storks continued to perform their water ballet, elegantly following an ancient choreography of dipping and scooping, their long necks a-sway above the water. Their curious long red-and-black “saddle” bills from whence they derive their name occasionally surfaced with a tiny fish, and undignified strings of weed.
Later, a large herd of impala became just visible in the distance, delicately picking their way from the depths of the bush through the shimmering heat haze towards the pools. They took most of the morning to slowly progress across the plain, nibbling at scrub and vegetation along the way, constantly sniffing the air for any signs of danger. They remained close together, communicating with a complex body language which only they can interpret.
After a long, nervous drink – there are crocodiles in these pools – the impala began to retreat, melting back into the forest from whence they had emerged. The heat of the day settled on the landscape in a shimmering haze, and the bush became very still as the sun reached its zenith, casting all life into a heat-induced torpor. All that could be heard was the sounds of the wind in the grasses and the calls of the birds.
There are 336 tree species in the Park, the “Big Five” being the marula, mopane, baobab, knobthorn and fever trees. This magnificent old fever tree – thus named for their proximity to water, and thus an association with malaria – is an iconic feature of Satara camp.
Even in mid-winter, the evenings in Kruger can be mildly warm, and I am always astonished by the millions of stars, not visible in the city, glittering in the night sky.
Aromatic wood fires form a companionable circle, and soon the delicious aroma of barbecued meat fills the air. We make salads and sous – a cooked tomato-and-onion sauce to dollop into the baked potatoes.
It is a relaxing time of day, and I am aware of simply being, enjoying the tranquility and peace of the present moment. Time always seems to stand still in the bush.
Night sounds reach us from beyond the camp fence: the call of a jackal and the whoop of hyenas.
One of the more disturbing night sounds are the cries of the bush babies that nest in the camp trees. They seem only to come awake at night, calling to one another with their distressing cries. With a large torch we find a pair cuddled together high in the boughs of an old fig tree, their long bushy tails hanging down. Disturbed by the beam, they crept deeper into the foliage and were soon hidden from view.
Later, we hear the lions roar, followed by their characteristic staccato coughs. Such sounds must be terrifying to the smaller creatures in the bush. But we are safely tucked up in bed, the camp gates firmly closed.
The Lord God made them all!
- August is the best month to visit the Park – the end of the dry winter season – when the grass is low and the animals more visible. And the malaria less prevalent. (It is still essential to cover up at dawn and dusk, however, to apply insect repellent, and to burn coils in your bungalow.)
- Try not to enter the Park through the Orpen, Paul Kruger and Numbi gates, to avoid traffic congestion in the settlements bordering the Park, and the goats, cattle, dogs and children that drift onto the roads.
- Don’t be impatient when game-viewing. It is more profitable waiting patiently by a river or waterhole for a longer period of time, than driving just on (or above) the limit trying to scan for game – some of which may just be behind a thicket near the road!
- Check the sightings boards at the camps to establish the whereabouts of the Big Five before setting out on a game drive. But due to major issues with poaching, rhino locations are no longer displayed on these boards.
- However cute and pleading their demeanour, please do not feed the smaller animals! They are not tame pets, but wild animals, and by feeding them you are arranging their execution.
- Drive slowly so as not to scare or aggravate the animals, and keep your engine running until they have settled. Then watch QUIETLY. This is their territory; we are just visitors… passing through….