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Cruising Kruger National Park, South Africa, Part One: Finding the Big Five on a Self Drive Safari

We are several months into our drive across southern Africa and it still feels like everyday is Christmas morning. Pure Joy! Maybe because we all trace our roots to this beautiful and magical continent.

One would think after months of travel, we would become weary. I find that is not the case. If I have a chance to wake up at sunrise and stalk lions, hyenas, and leopards I find that I am up without an alarm. I find I don’t want to miss even one beautiful sunrise or sunset. I just want to take it all in. Like so many people before me, Africa has taken hold of my soul.

After driving across South Africa, Namibia, and Botswana and visiting Zambia and Zimbabwe I am just as exited every morning to see what the day has in store for us. I am continually surprised that I am surprised! The newness just has not worn off. We really have adopted the African mantra, hakuna matata, no worries.

After spending a few days in Pretoria, we were eager for our first views of South Africa’s famed Kruger National Park. Ever since I drove through Virginia’s Safari Park outside of Charlottesville when our children were little, this was a bucket list destination for me. Not only does a visit to Kruger make a safari affordable, but we get to explore on our own!

Kruger is one of the largest game reserves in Africa. It covers an area of over 7,500 square miles. Located in northeastern South Africa, the park extends 220 miles from north to south and 40 miles from east to west. We were staying for a little over three weeks and I planned to visit every corner of the park!

Little did I know, that the next three weeks, would be one of the most memorable experiences of our lives. We made new friends, saw things we had only dreamed about and became official safari snobs. Kruger did not disappoint!

Though we weren’t visiting during the high season, Ol and I pre-booked our accommodations in Kruger before we left in February. I wanted to be sure to stay in the park. Pretoria was only a few hours drive to our first camp in Kruger. Crocodile Bridge is a small and delightful camp situated in the Southeastern corner of Kruger on the northern bank of Crocodile river.

The game viewing area is known as the ‘Southern Circle’ and is renowned for its concentration of different prides of lion with different hunting techniques and behavior. It is home to a larger percentage of the Kruger Park’s total rhino populations.

Within hours of entering Kruger’s Crocodile Bridge Gate, we were met with a mother lioness moving her cubs. After oohing and awing I wanted to get settled in our tented camp before dark, so we didn’t drive further into the park to see the cheetah with her cubs that the woman at the entrance gate was gushing about.

Generations of South Africans have spent their holidays in this magnificent National Park. Established in 1927, Kruger has more species of large mammals than any other African game reserve at 147 species.

It was hard to comprehend that for years all the camps were unfenced. The camps are now all fenced within the park, however, even with the fences some of the animals still make their homes within the camp. It was fun seeing bush babies, monkeys, antelope and some of smaller nocturnal animals around our lodging.

It was a little more unnerving seeing the hyenas walking around the perimeter of the camp fence and hearing the nighttime predators you couldn’t see. Often times it felt like we were the ones caged.

Because I wasn’t freaked out enough about walking and driving around with wild animals, I had to buy the book "101 Tales from Kruger". Once I started reading it I couldn’t put it down. In many ways it was a great tutorial on what not to do in Kruger. The stories are from actual park guests and some were wild enough to keep me up at night. I loved it! It really made me realize how special and dangerous the park is. I just didn’t want to meet a black mamba in the ladies room like one park guest.

Another essential book we bought was an illustrated "Map and Guide of Kruger". It had detailed maps, game drive suggestions and beautiful illustrations with a checklist of all the common mammals, snakes and birds.

The couple who wrote it spent over 20 years traveling the park. It took them 40 days just to travel all the roads in Kruger, a distance of more than 3,106 miles (5,000 kilometers). For me it was my bible. It made navigating the park easy and had all the GPS coordinates of pans, waterholes, hides, camps, picnic site, bush camps, and lodges. We followed all the color coded maps of the best morning, afternoon, and day game drives.

We timed our trip perfectly. School was in session, so the park was not crowded. We were visiting in the dry autumn season which has a shortage of water so game is concentrated around the waterholes. Day temperatures are comfortably warm, nights are cool and the days are shorter. For Ol this meant a softer light and more photography hours. It also meant little to no insects. However we still took our malaria tablets to be on the safe side.

We quickly fell into a daily routine. I would wake Ol up like an annoying little puppy that jumps up and down with too much energy, excited for a new day full of adventure. I think Ol would have been content to sleep in and just let the day unfold organically.

I wanted to be at the gate to our camp when it opened at 6:00 a.m. so I could catch all of the night time predators coming in from the night and heading to the waterhole before they went to bed. I felt like the antelope, thankful that I survived the night for another beautiful day.

We were out and about around 6:00 a.m. with the other camp enthusiasts. Since we were staying in the park, we also beat the day visitors who often had a lengthy drive in to the park. We would take a morning drive, stopping and watching every kind of animal possible. Often large herds would cross in front of the car or the lone predator would be finishing off a bone alongside the road. All of the animals were active in the morning and particularly fun to watch.

We would then make it back to camp around 10 or 11 a.m. and head to the restaurant for brunch. Depending on what camp we were at we would then go back to our lodging and take a rest. We would then head back out for an afternoon game drive around 2:00 p.m. until the gates closed at 6:00 p.m. We would finish the night over a nice dinner looking at our photos. Every day was magical.

Afternoons were by far my favorite. We weren’t the only ones on a daily routine. Around 4 p.m. the lazy lions would just be getting up and around. Leopards would be coming down from their trees. As the temperature cooled off things in the park just started to get hot and interesting and for us it was time to make our way back to camp.

This made the end of the day a bit stressful. Calculating the time needed to get back to camp before the gates closed was always a bit tricky. We couldn’t exceed the speed limit, and often we would be watching something so amazing we didn’t want to leave. Were the zebra going to keep walking into the cheetahs lying in wait? Were the lions going to get the buffalo they were tracking?

If we weren’t already watching something, we often came across something while we were driving back. A rhino with her baby. Hippos just getting out of the river. It was always tough to not stop for just one more photo. To make it back in time we not only had to leave whatever riveting show nature was putting on, but more importantly we needed to calculate correctly how far we were from camp. If we were late there are large fines or worse we could have been asked to leave the park.

Ol and I also booked, several game drives in the different camps where we were staying. At each camp we picked a different activity. We did several game walks, morning, sunset, and night drives. With the exception of the game walks, we always felt like we saw more game on our own. However, we always learned something about the habitat and the animals from the professional guides. It was always fun.

For me our most memorable activity was our second game walk in Africa from Crocodile Bridge. Our first was in Botswana with an unarmed guide. For our morning game walk we met our guides and the other members of our group at the camp’s office. We got started early, around 5:30 a.m. There were seven of us and we got a mini night drive out into the park from where we would start our walk. Immediately we saw several hyenas. The morning was a bit foggy and for our safety we had to drive around a bit until we could find a place by the river that was out of the mist.

Just as we parked we could hear two lions calling to each other. Our guides were excited. As they unpacked and loaded their rifles, they said let's go see some lions. My heart was pounding. Maybe I shouldn’t have read about the game walk that went bad in my 101 Kruger Tales the night before. I had to keep telling myself game walks are surprisingly safe. Most animals hear us clunking through the bush and leave before we even have a chance to see them.

As our guides, continually looked for tracks and checked for wind direction, we followed in a single file line. The next time we heard the lion he was much farther away, but the other lion that answered was much closer so we switched targets.

It was exhilarating. I don’t know why hunters aren’t as happy just shooting photos. This has to be just as thrilling. After getting close, it appeared we were tracking a female and her cubs. Our guides decided it wasn’t safe and so we moved on and headed up to a nice clearing for a mid morning snack.

We all learned so much on this hike. We could identify different droppings, tracks, etc. It really was exhilarating and I enjoyed it so much more than my bush walk in Botswana, because I wasn’t thinking about having to stare down a lion in the sun with my beady sensitive eyes.

We also did a sunset drive in Crocodile Bridge. We didn’t see as many predators as we did in Namibia, but it was still wonderful. What was even better, when we got home, our next door mates, Karina and Linda, two beautiful ladies from Johannesburg, invited us to a traditional South Africa braii (barbecue).

South Africans may be the only people more serious about their barbecue than Mississippians. It was really one of the best meals of our trip. The food was amazing, the company even better and after several bottles of wine and laughing until the early hours of the morning, lets just say this little puppy finally slept in. We looked forward to returning the hospitality when we visit Johannesburg at the end of our Kruger stay.

So after three days, it was finally time for us to change camps. Everyday we had seen four of the big five. Only the leopard had alluded us. This was frustrating as every game sighting board around camp had lots of leopard sightings and our new friends had seen several leopards, including a leopard up in a tree with its kill.

Hakuna matata! We still had over three weeks, I was confident that we would see one of Kruger’s 1,000 elusive leopards.

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