Saturday, August 14, 2010

Kruger National Park

Our final destination (more or less) in Africa was Kruger National Park. Kruger is the jewel of the South Africa National Parks with all of the “Big 5” (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, buffalo) living within its borders. It is also big enough that the range of the animals doesn’t feel limited and therefore make you feel like they are trapped there for you to see, which we felt in some smaller parks.

We opted to do the self-drive safari instead of hiring a guide and riding in safari vehicles. This was partly because it was far cheaper, partly because we were fairly confident we would see most animals and partly because we are just naturally more do-it-yourself types. Though we had talked to many others that had done guided safaris and had seen animals – leopards in particular – that they say they never would have seen without the guide.

We reserved three nights in three different “rest camps” along our chosen route moving from the south of the park to the far north. The rest camp accommodations were very nice and all reasonably priced. The first night we stayed in the Pretoriouscop Camp and had the basic accommodation, which was a simple thatched roof mud hut. But it was still very comfortable.

That first day we were a little worried as we drove for some time and saw very few animals… not even many antelope. It was nice to be on some dirt roads though far from any crowds. We eventually made our way to the Lower Sabie Camp which is where a good chunk of the safaris go out of. The place was pretty crowded, but we hoped the camp’s reputation for having frequent lion sightings would hold true. As we drove just north of the camp, we saw a small traffic jam ahead with cars angled in every which way. We knew there must be lions nearby. Sure enough we were able to catch the faintest sight of a pride moving through the trees down by the river.

This is as good a place as any to discuss the strange experience of game drives. It is definitely necessary for park visitors to be confined to their vehicles for safety reasons, but it was strange for us to spend three days in such a beautiful place just driving around. Also, the phenomenon of “big 5” animals being followed as a gallery follows the leaders on Sunday of a Major is more than a little strange, though the animals seem used to it.

We ended up seeing lions three more times. The next time we saw a pride lounging under a tree taking turns feeding from a recent kill, but that too was from a pretty great distance.

The third time was the charm as we were among the first to spot a pride sleeping under a tree and grabbed a good spot to view them before most of the gallery amassed. We had some time so we just hung around for about two hours. Every now and then they would roll over or sit up for a while or get up to stretch their legs or simply move to a shadier spot. It was pretty cool and Leslie snapped about 150 pictures over the course of the two hours.

The last time we saw a lion, a solitary male crossed the road right in front of us. We were able to snap a picture of him as he moved into the tall grass and trees, but this was the closest sighting we had. We even heard him roar.

We saw many other animals as well: zebra, giraffe, kudu, antelope, buffalo, elephants, rhino, baboons, monkeys, hippos and many more.

One of the coolest sightings we had was early on day two when on a back road we spotted a cheetah relaxing in the sun on a large rock. One of the things I wanted to be when I was in kindergarten (in addition to an astronaut and Terry Bradshaw) was a cheetah. This was probably as close to that dream as I’ll ever get.

By day three we were pretty satisfied with all we had seen, but we still hadn’t completed the “big 5” tick list. While the tick list itself was of little importance to us, we were eager to see a leopard. The leopard proved to be very elusive. We took some back roads where there had been recent leopard sightings, but the leopard is nocturnal and mostly hides by day. Additionally, leopards cover great distances making recent sightings of limited use in tracking them down.

Then trouble hit. We were pretty far off the main road in our tiny Tata and we got a flat tire. For obvious reasons we couldn’t get out of the car to change it. We remembered a hide nearby where you are allowed to get out of the car so we drove on the flat the 6kms to the hide. We quickly changed the tire, keeping eye and an ear out for anything that may be lurking and headed to the nearest rest camp. Rather than drive much further, we changed our reservation to that camp and the next morning headed out of the park as planned. We were able to get a new spare through the car rental company right at the border of the park. Not a huge crisis, but interesting nonetheless.

The luck of it was that we took a different road out of the park than we would have otherwise. And on that road, we got our leopard sighting. It was moving very quickly away from us in tall grass and we weren’t quick enough to get a picture, but it was cool to see.

Kruger was great. A large camera with a massive telephoto lens seems to be the norm for most visitors and I can see why. Still we got some good pictures with our little point-and-shoot Canon and it was very cool to see all these animals in the wild! Now it is off to Johannesburg and our flight to Europe. One week left in this adventure.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. I am really glad you guys didn't get attacked by Terry Bradshaw or an astronaut while you were changing the tire!