Kruger National Park: A Wildlife Adventurer's Dream

6:42 AM Jessica Montgomery 0 Comments


  'In short, all good things are wild and free.'
-Henry David Thoreau, Walking




     With a surface area stretching approximately 7,580 square miles (roughly the size of Israel), Kruger National Park is as vast as the imagination itself.  I think it's safe to say that any adventure-traveler has an African "safari" fantasy cooking up in their brain.  And it's easy to see why. The animals of Africa are powerful, beautiful, diverse, awe-inspiring, and becoming increasingly rare. 
     It was an incredible privilege to have this opportunity to see and walk among these creatures on their home-turf. I was able to, through more than rose-tinted glasses, check off an insurmountable number of Bucket List-musts my few days at Kruger. And for an experience like this to be at the doorstep of South Africans and Mozambicans alike, it's even a greater joy to see that an area like this is being preserved and protected.

     Kruger National Park is a short, straight, 4 hour drive, East of the capital city of Pretoria. Continue on the N4 highway and you'll eventually reach Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. So yes, it's far outside any sort of metropolis and is supposedly the closest you can get to seeing "Old Africa".  It’s incredible how far “away” four hours can really take you.

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     We stayed just outside of Kruger Park at Kruger Inn Backpackers in the adjacent Marloth Park. This park was also open to the creatures inhabiting the area. On our drive in, in the pitch black of the bush, we drove past a baby giraffe, a group of zebra, and a few warthogs. On our drive in! Turned out that these first few close encounters would set the tone for how truly incredible the next few days were going to be for us.

     Our accommodation at Kruger Inn Backpackers was cute and homey. The owners and operators live at the backpackers (essentially a big treehouse) and made you feel more like a guest in their bed and breakfast (sans breakfast) rather than a customer. We had a private mini-chalet, with bare bones bathroom and essential mosquito net. Not many mosquitos actually... but, when this guy crawls out from behind your head...

photo: krugerpark.com

A little extra shielding is much appreciated.

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      For my first time in the park, Chris was my tour guide. He's been going to the park almost every year since he was a child and knew some of the best routes to see some of the best stuff. (Protip: Travel with a local. You’ll get to see the “best stuff”!) 
     We woke up casually early in no rush to get to the park at opening time since our accommodation host warned us that this weekend was to be the peak of peak time in Kruger.  We got in the car around 6:30 and drove to the Crocodile Bridge gate. Driving up to the ticketing gate we were greeted by a few more free-roaming warthogs. They crouched down onto their knees and dug their way through the dirt with their snouts in search of grub. Literally.  They seemed pretty relaxed but when they wanted to get a move on their tails shot up in the air and off they ran; looking as if they were remote controlled and their tails were the antenna!

     I couldn't help think when driving up to the gates that we were entering a non-fiction realm of Jurassic Park.  What roamed behind those gates and through the bush could kill you in a number of different ways. And the fact that I’ve never seen any of these animals in their wild, natural, habitat… my childlike sense of excitement was reeling.  It wasn't long after we entered passed the gates that the theme song *dun dun duhn duhn dah dah daah dundun dun duhn~!*  played like a nostalgic 90's record in my head.  I half expected a goat leg to be flung onto the windshield of our car…


     The first few animals we saw were herds and herds of impala; the most common thing you’re likely to see in the park. But I was hooked.  Hooked from the very moment our car passed through the last bit of human control and into the wild.  It was us, and it was them. The only thing keeping up separate was a thin sheet of metal and glass. It was exhilarating. The buck were beautiful and I stared into their globe, doll like, eyes.  Their hair was a deep rust color that gave way to slender details of black and white. This motif of rich color gave way to charcoal black, spiral horns that cascaded upwards in a beautifully effortless silhouette.  Chris claimed that these guys get boring after a while, but I had a hard time accepting this fact.

     We drove a bit further and took an offshoot from the main road towards the ‘Hippo Pools’. Once you reach the pools, this is an area that you can get out of your car and go on a short walk with a ranger that is posted near the Crocodile River. We met the ranger, who was seated on a large boulder next to his bicycle and rifle reading a book, and followed him up to a small rocky overpass that housed the few remaining Bushmen cave paintings in the area. The color, style, and proportions of the painting would have you guessing that these were modern day illustrations; when in all actuality they were hundreds of years old. Incredible.


      Leaving the Hippo Pools, we continued on towards Lower Sabi; a “camp” further inside the park. Our way there was nothing short of fulfilling. Every road brought something new. 
     It wasn’t long when we came across a group of cars piled up on the side of the road. They were looking at something. The tour guide in Chris, not wanting me to miss anything, kicked in and he cut down a smaller dirt road in hopes of cutting off whatever it was that the other cars were looking at. Sure enough, through the golden bush, was a massive male lion and on the opposite side of the road was his lioness.
     We assumed the path of the lioness as others were busy watching the male take off into the centre of the park. She was stunning.  We lost her for a moment only for her to reappear directly in front of our car. We were alone, on a small dirt road, with a lioness. Her head was seeping down into her shoulders as she peered across the road, paying no attention to us, at what she was stalking. She was pure muscle. Strutting across the road you could see how taught her skin was pulled across with each sulking movement; pausing in front of us as if to pose. She reared back, pushing her shoulders high and back into her neck. She pounced into the bush but was unsuccessful and quickly gave up whatever it was she was stalking and slowly sauntered off into the golden reeds. Experiences like that  just don’t happen everyday...



     We drove a bit further towards Lower Sabi in silence; taking in the beauty of the park. We hadn’t seen an animal for quite some time. I was scanning the tree line purely for aesthetics; if we saw something we saw something, if not I was fine with that as well. I kept my expectations low and just enjoyed the ride full of “what ifs”.
     It wasn’t long before we saw a pair of White Rhino munching on grasses. Seeing these creatures in their natural habitat was fulfilling on multiple levels. South Africa is facing a poaching epidemic. Numerous efforts are being put forth into protecting these creatures but the struggle is still very much alive and have been met with an equally tenacious poaching effort. There are very few of these incredible animals left, so seeing one in person was both a beautiful and somber event. 


     Rhinos and elephants are apart of what’s called The Big 5 here in South Africa. The Big 5 includes: elephants, lion, leopards, and buffalo. We had the privilege of coming across all five; four out of the five on multiple occasions. The Big 5 are incredible sights, and no doubt draw the most attention, but we also enjoyed some of the little sights to be found in Kruger...


Commotion Chameleon

     Chris spotted this guy crossing the road (I have no idea how!) and we stopped to observe and grab a photo. And, apparently piss some people off in the process. Our car was stopped, so as it was with the lions, people assumed we were stopped to watch something large in the bush. People threw their hands up in the air and sped off once they realized we were looking at this little guy! haha

     Lions, elephants, and chameleons OH MY! Our first day at Kruger culminated with our car being surrounded by a herd of baboons. They slowly walked out of the brush, one by one, in a more remote and isolated area of the park. We were the only ones on the road for minutes in each direction. It was quiet and still and I couldn't help but feeling like I was witnessing the takeover of the planet, Planet of the Apes style, the way they endlessly kept coming out of the trees. It doesn't take much for you to feel vulnerable and small in a place like this.

All this happened on our first day.  Spoiled.
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     The day after we decided to take a break from driving and use our legs to explore the surrounding area. Our host gave us a map and told us about a walking trail that led out to a lookout point over Kruger. The walking trail was dry and arid and there wasn't much to see in terms of wildlife at first, but it was interesting to see all of the different vacation/getaway homes scattered along the way. Some areas were home to nestled, little cottages while others were simply a piece of land, set aside much like a camp ground, with a small painted sign to show ownership. 

     On our way back from the lookout we came across a small herd of zebra, munching away at some hay that a plot owner had left out for them. They were fairly friendly and let us get close for a photo-op. Up-close, they seemed to look and act like donkeys ready for a night on the town.


Zebra time, zebra time~!


     The wildebeest we encountered on the other hand...wasn't too amused by our presence.  Without more than a glance in his direction it snorted and trotted forward at us. Chris and I froze on the road and began to back away into a plot clearing. This apparently wasn't enough for the big guy and he snorted again and huffed forward. This made us turn and run. I'm not sure what you're supposed to do if you're being chased by a wildebeest...? What do you do? No time to think, we turned sideways and ran down someone's driving and hid behind a fence. 
     The wildebeest, not being the smartest creature on the plant, lost us behind the fence and seemed to trot off forgetting what it was he was chasing in the first place. Lucky us.

Not the one that chased us away, but you can see why we were scared!

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     The morning of our last day at Kruger we decided to sign up for a sunrise drive. This drive turned out to be the highlight of the trip. So much so that I can't tell the story to any native South African without them telling me how lucky I am to have seen what I've seen.  Not only was this drive lucky... it was coincidental, fateful..whatever you want to call it! Why? There were three components to this drive that made it all seem "meant to be":
          1) We drove past the park the day before and it was at capacity. They weren't letting anyone else in for the day and all the tours were booked. Therefore we had to book the sunrise drive as it was our only option left.
          2) The morning of the drive our alarm clock died. But! We both so happened to wake up at 3:45AM and were able to make the meeting time!
          3) Though we were at the meeting spot on time, we were the last ones to arrive and had to sit smack-dab in the middle of the safari truck in the very back. This proved to be a lucky spot.

     Those three things all seem like bad luck, but they all added up to an once in a lifetime experience. 
     
     The moment those formidable Jurassic Park-looking gates opened, a fellow rider shown a spotlight to our right and boom! there was an elephant, staring back at us through the dark. Further up the road, not far into the park, we stopped once more. A small pride of juvenile lions were blocking the road. They were curious about us and walked around our truck before plopping down onto the wet pavement below. Three of the lions walked towards the back, right where we were sitting, laid down and watched us. I think we looked delicious.  Then! after the cubs wandered away, we saw and followed a juvenile leopard. Then a hyena. Then a rhino. Then a group of cheetahs.
     There were three cheetahs. One was the mother and the other two were juveniles. At first, they were too far and camouflaged in bush for us to see anything way in the back. But the two juveniles, as if to fulfill the stereotype photos taken of the predecessors, climbed up onto a dead tree to stretch and survey the area. They then jumped down and walked through the bush to the road. And, instead of walking alongside our truck or to the front, they chose to walk behind and pause right next to our seat. We were so incredibly lucky that I fear I will never be able to top this wildlife experience. 
     




     This area is truly wild. Perhaps the “wildest” destination I’ve ever had the pleasure of stepping foot. It was truly a dream come true and I highly recommend you check this off of your bucket list. It is an exceptionally attainable “dream destination”. There is no reason why you can’t do this yourself!
      I believe this so much that I’m putting together a ‘Budget Safari’ article; detailing how I afforded this adventure and how you can too. It’s far more attainable than you think. (Check back next week!)




'Life consists with wildness. The most alive is the wildest. 
Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him'
-Henry David Thoreau, Walking



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