The day of going into the mighty park of all parks, Kruger, arrived.... whilst I hope to not bore you with details about it here are some.. it was established in 1898 by Paul Kruger, but merged with 2 other parks in 2002 to become part of the Great Limpopo National Park. It is one of the world's greatest national parks, with the highest density of animals (we hoped to see a lot!). There are around 137 animal species and 500 varieties of bird living in the 2.2 million hectares and has many changing landscapes - and weather patterns it would seem for us! (Information from the Lonely Planet).
When you think of the Kruger (or South Africa), the sun comes to mind.. well we seemed to have arrived in the late rainy season so over our time in the park we had equal amounts of rainy days to sunny days. As you can guess the day we went into the park it was tipping it down! The tent was soaked (we put it away wet more times than dry), this, however, wasn't going to deter us.. we had a date and location with my family who had flow into Johannesburg that morning (after delays due to a faulty smoke detector in the plane.. you would think they would check these things early on..). Arriving at the gate was simple and quick, a lovely ranger arrived with an umbrella to take our details and check in for the first campsite. They have a clever system here that if you are staying multiple nights in the park the campsites check your wild cards and check you in each day.. it's like a treasure hunt, at each site you get a new receipt and check in stamp. If you want to then stay at the park longer you can without having to go to a gate! The weather had not improved however we drove up to the most Northern point, Pfundi, where we saw lots of wet and miserable looking animals - herds of buffalo, nyalas, Impala and elephant. No cats, sadly, but we saw a lot of kills/dead animals. Despite us having arrived with rain, this part of the country is undergoing a 5 year drought and the rain is sorely needed. Animals are dying at a high rate and the landscape is bare.. we chatted to our neighbours at Punda Maria who told us they thought this time 2 years ago was dry until they arrived this year! Early afternoon as we checked we were still hopeful my family would arrive, it would be close but they would make it! We spent the afternoon in the animal hide watching the herd of elephants at the watering hole.
At 5pm we got the message my parents wouldn't make it, there had been so many road closures and changes that they would miss the closing of the gates by minutes. It was disappointing but what's another night?! Luckily I had the coordinates for Copacopa where we stayed the previous few nights and called them. Cedric, the very lovely night guard with whom we had got friendly with, answered the phone and promised to let them in. It was a shame, but I can imagine a good nights sleep was what they needed! Delayed planes, and road closures are not a good mix for getting places on time! Charles and I sat down to my home made bread and sausage, listening to the elephants in the background. Hyenas patrolled the fences, their whooping loud across the night! Despite the day not panning out how we had expected it was a great first day, we went to bed hopeful the weather would improve.. even slightly..!!
Mum, Dad and Will arrived at Punda Maria around 8am and after bacon sarnies with a catch up we headed off into the park. It was really great seeing them all, especially Will who we had not seen since leaving the UK. Having other people there and someone who has never seen any of the African animals was good fun, we were stopping for every Impala, and when an elephant walked around the corner he just couldn't believe it! It's safe to say that despite out reservations as to whether it would be his cup of tea, he quickly got into the swing of things, stopping at every animal and looking through the binoculars whether they were needed or not! His best wheeze was to put the iPhone camera onto the binoculars to get a better photo - good idea actually! On our first day we covered most of the common animals, seeing loads of buffalo, however they all looked rather thin. The drought here, despite the rain, has hit them hard! After their first night in the tent at Shingwedzi, everyone was getting into the groove and were excited as the animals kept rolling in; wild dog and hyena to name but a few!
We had a rather luxurious house in the river at Mopani, a three bedroomed affair with air con and beautiful views. After sitting on the balcony in the restaurant, and having a swim, we went out on a game drive for three hours starting at 4.30 - we would get two hours of light and an hour of dark. Game drives are another 'luck of the draw' thing. It depends on how good your guide is, and again what animals are about! Our guide was ok, he gave us some good information and coupled with Charles, who is an amazing spotter, we saw elephants, tsebes which are rare in the park, roan as well as the normal animals you see all the time including some impala babies which were gorgeous! As the sun went down we were able to use the spot lights with Will spotting a civit (part of the mongoose family). Still no cats, but we had seen a lot of other animals! We arrived back to a drink on our balcony listening to the hippos!
The next few days were spent in similar fashion, again seeing the antelope animals, as well as some other smaller predators; jackels and hyenas! We stayed at some great camp sites, Lataba and Tzendzi (a 'rustic' camp, well as rustic as camping in South Africa gets.. it still had lights in the bathrooms, toilets and hot showers..!). The campsites here are nice and actually very well priced (no daylight robbery like in Namibia and Botswana!). They all, in general, have electricity, braai grids, water and good facilities.. they even have a washing up area with a boiler for instant hot water!
On Sunday we were meeting Ronel and Mandy at a guest house in Olifants, further down south. We hadn't seen any cats or larger predators so we were raring to get down to where there was supposedly a higher concentration. We drove down to meet them, arriving at our four bedroomed guesthouse again over looking the river. This was not before we saw a huge crocodile cross a bridge, slide into the water and then come back out with a turtle in its mouth.. the poor turtle didn't quite know what had happened with its legs waving about in the air.. Being with the parents we had been very lucky to stay at some rather nice places and was lovely to relax in different surroundings! Also not putting up and down the tent late on in the evenings and at the crack of dawn was also great! Mandy and Ronel had come up from the south of the park and had seen everything.. cheetah, leopard, lion, families of hyenas, you name it they saw it! They had had a great drive up which made us all very jealous but they only had three days and we had more so was great for them! As they arrived we got settled in, went for a swim and just caught up. We had a great braai in the evening, it was nice to cook and have every one there around the table outside.
The next morning wasn't particularly early as we had a morning river walk booked for 8am. All 9 of us were driven to the starting point, where there were 3 buffalo waiting for us.. they are quite aggressive animals so there were a few nervous people about but the guides were great as we shimmied past them (they did however keep an eye on us as we walked along!). It was a real experience waking through the bush with the sounds, animals and smells (good and bad) all around! We also saw giraffe, impala, and kudu as well as seeing and hearing lots of birds. The guides were telling us all the rhymes for identifying birds from their sounds... some rather amusing! It was all over a bit too soon but we all went back having had a pretty unique experience.. Poor Mandy did loose her phone out of the side of the car but the guide went back and found it.. a little battered but still useable! The rest of the morning and early afternoon was spent having lunch over looking the park and then in the pool! We had booked another sunset drive so all jumped on the full lorry to be greeted by Patrick our guide. I am convinced that all Kruger guides have the same key facts about each animal as Patrick asked the same questions each time as the first guide did, gems such as..Why are zebras always fat? (Because they have bacterial in their gut which makes them have lots of gas) and how can you tell a male and female giraffe apart? (How fluffy their horns are). He was a little put off that we all already know the answers, and even more so when our key spotters, Mandy, Charles and Ronel kept spotting things he hadn't.. he became a bit quiet after that and after him telling them they were wrong about a Martial Eagle (they were right), he got the hump and didn't do much talking! We did see lots of different animals, a genet and a hyena added to the list!
We decide to drive part of the way down with Mandy and Ronel who were leaving on the Tuesday. They had a lot of luck driving in, so we had hoped it would rub off on us! We had also decided to change our booking so we would arrive a day earlier at Satara camp where more sighting had been recorded. On the drive down we saw 2 rhino and many hyena (some with cubs). It was nice to see other things apart from the game animals and we were all in high spirits. It was great spending time with Mandy and Ronel, a change in pace and new people to talk to was good fun!
Arriving down south marked a slight increase in animal spottings, around Lower Sabie we finally saw some lions (from afar) and then some more closer up, which Charles saw with an impressive spot! Next to the road we watched a leopard, who was not fussed we were there, and on the same day eight white rhinos and countless hyena. Things were beginning to look up! On a night drive going from Satara (our guide Mimi being the best we had had.. no repeated questions and more than happy to stop for animals), we saw bush babies, African wild cats, lions, hyena and luckily a porcupine which really added to the drive! It was the best we had been on, 2 hours in the dark with spot lights looking for eye reflections.. such good fun and a real different feel to the park after dark!
Moving towards the West of the park we finally saw a cheetah, something I hadn't seen yet either! It was magnificent and hearing it chirrup to its mate was pretty impressive! One night in a tented house was a little bit of luxury, despite the ants in the bed, and we were off again driving back to Lower Sabie and its camp site to spend two nights there. We had a fantastic experience with a pack of eighteen wild dogs which made our morning. They were playing with a kill, then play fighting and afterwards found a rag which was also torn to pieces.. they also chased a hyena which strayed a little too close! This was the end of our run of good luck and the rest of that day and the next felt long due to lack of sightings.. it was hard for Charles and me who have seen all these animals but desperately wanted to come across them for the family.. we still hadn't seen a lion up close which was beginning to become a disappointment! Arriving back at camp after long days was tough, tempers would fray sometimes (mine was when for the second time that day I couldn't use the only washing machine in the camp site because the staff were washing towels in it which threw me other the edge!), but after the first beer and shower all calmed down! We had some great braais, some amazing steaks and lamb (bought by Ronel from their local butchery), pork and even kudu one night.. I was also beginning to perfect my braai bread which always went down well! Some nights we did quick dinners, mince or curry but this was rare, it was nice to have a fire and sit down with everyone reflecting on the day!
Charles and I had planned to leave on Sunday to track down to Cape Town, however after another long day in the Hilux (when we stayed more than one night at a site we would go in one car), we decided to stay the last night in Pretoriuskop to try and get some prime animal sighting in.. we left Lower Sabie at the crack of dawn and drove across seeing African land snails on the road (pretty cool), and then 4 more rhinos! A joke was passed around that we had seen more rhino than lion which is fairly rare! After lunch at the campsite we headed out again, seeing some very nice kudu and loads of woodland kingfishers. Finally we spotted two lions who doing what they do best.. sleeping! It was hard to see so we pulled over onto a sandy lay by (with car tracks on) to wait it out. Now, I don't normally name and shame, or publicly complain on my blog about specific people but this lady deserves a mention.. she was a game driver for a company called Nhongo safaris, who like a lot of other private companies run from Pretoriuskop carting bus loads of people around the park. She parked up, then moved, and then moved again, her guests saying they couldn't see.. instead of asking us if we could maybe move she took a photo of us and told us we were illegally parked (we were on the road and there were no double yellow lines). She was intimidating and rude and we moved on after that, seeing her reverse into the 'so called illegal' space we had vacated! It was very off putting, not at all in the spirit of the Kruger - everyone looking out for each other - and put a dampener on us seeing a lion. I can't imagine how she treats her guests! This feeling was short lived as we saw a herd of roan antelope (very rare), beautiful water buck and then a mother and baby rhino running across the road - they are surprisingly fast - which we wouldn't have seen if we had stayed watching the lion.. silver linings! A few beers, chicken curry and evening goodbyes to Will as we would be leaving earlier than them, and an early night to finish off the Kruger! What a good two weeks!
My thoughts on Kruger.. there is no doubt it is one of the most commercial parks in Southern Africa, but it is one of the best value. Our wild cards were worth it for the time we spent there (it pays for itself after 5 days), and the accommodation is fairly cheap (the cheapest we have seen) at about £8 per person per night for camping - even the small houses are good value. The campsites are quite tame compared to Botswana, they are all fenced and all (even the more basic), have hot showers, lights and running water. It takes a bit of the wildness out of it but with the amount of predators who are very opportunistic (in Satara we had a hyena who every night would sit next to the braai on the other side of the fence) perhaps it is for the best! Pretty much every camp site has a shop, restaurant, swimming pool, alongside various accommodation types for all budgets. Very few however had great views, so camping is the best option a lot of the time!
Up north there is a lot less in terms of predators, but we did see herds of herbivores; buffalo, elephant and zebra daily which we didn't see so much of down south. We also saw the rare antelopes roan and tsessebe here also. The landscape was dense Mopani, dry but very beautiful - it was amazing to watch it turn green and shorts emerge on the trees as the rain fell. Moving into the South, which despite our luck, is known for its many predators.. it was much more busy, South Africans on weekend visits and lots of older couples on holiday. The campsites were packed and not always as nice as up north... there is nothing like lying in bed hearing the neighbours around your snoring! Will got up for the toilet one night and said it was like a choir as he walked passed the tents! The landscape down south was stunning, more how I would have imagined.. green, hilly and rocky. There were thousands of Impala but not much else in the way of antelope.
Doing Kruger as a family was great, having them there to share the experience made it more interesting for us (especially when Will was seeing all the animals for the first time)! Seeing them get fed up of impala was also amusing..! Having a reason to cook in the evening and try out new foods was fun, chatting about the day around the fire helped us relive and not forget what we had seen! It also sometimes caused disappointment, especially with the lack of lion spottings but as I keep saying.. it is luck of the draw! Charles and I are now heading down to Cape Town, we have 9 days to pack in as much as we can along the East coast before meeting up with Gill and Roger who fly to Johannesburg on the second and then CT on 6th. There is so much that we won't see but I do feel with this country we can easily come back in future!