The drive from Mpumalanga International Airport to Kruger was surprisingly drama-free given that I hadn’t driven a car in over five months and had been repeatedly warned of the dangers of South African roads (mainly due to lunatic taxi drivers!) Upon entering the Park, Claire and I naively expected to be accosted by lions, elephants, giraffes and zebras but were only treated to a lone impala on the half hour drive from Numbi gate to Pretoriuskop. Unaware that we were going to see what I can only imagine was about 600,000 impalas in the eight days we were there, I stopped the car to take a good look at it whilst all of the other drivers overtook me with a look of disdain.
Pretorisukop is the oldest camp in the Kruger Park and what it lacks in modern amenities it more than makes up for with a picturesque swimming pool and quiet atmosphere. It is situated in the south-west of the Park, an area teeming with wildlife and within reaching distance of a number of rivers and watering holes. On our first morning there we went on a morning drive (leaving at 4am!) on which we saw wild dogs, rhinoceros, hippos and hyenas amongst the usual impalas and water bucks. We then drove along an old trading route, Voortrekker Road, towards Afsaal picnic spot before heading north along the H3 and then west along the H1-1 back to the camp. The drive took about five hours in total and was definitely our most memorable drive of the trip because it included our encounter with a bull Elephant in musth (if you haven’t already, you need to see the video…)
The camp of Skukuza is not terribly far from Pretoriuskop, which is why we deliberately had left one route out to do for the day we needed to travel there. That drive, other than quite stressful for me as I was still trying to recover from our near-death experience with an elephant, was full of surprises. We drove, and stopped, by a herd of a hundred buffalo at least. Considering we had only seen two by a river 60 metres away previously, that experience was amazing. So much so, we were stopped for probably 20 minutes.
Skukuza is the most well known camp in Kruger, it is the biggest by far, and the only one to have doctors and two pools. Thankfully, we had decided to stay in a tent rather than a bungalow for this meant we weren’t as close to neighbours as we could have been. Even if the tourist environment is not quite appealing for a safari, Skukuza is a must if you want a chance to see a lot of game. It is in that area that we saw the most of the big 5, and had – in my opinion – way too many encounters with baboons. If you have not had the chance, check out our video as it shows just how close we were to a pride of lions, an experience many do not have the chance to have.
We drove onwards from Skukuza to Olifants still hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive leopard. Although a fair distance from the more popular southern camps, Claire and I were keen to spend some time in Olifants because we had read when planning the trip that you can do a guided walk along the banks of the river there. In addition, Olifants is known to be one of the most beautiful camps as it sits perched above a winding river. On our first night there we decided to go on a night drive which although disappointing in terms of sightings, afforded us the opportunity to see some nocturnal animals as well as gaze at the Milky Way uninterrupted by artificial light.
The next morning came our much-awaited river walk. We met our guides, Moya and Michelle, by reception and were given a safety briefing which, besides the fact they were both required to carry rifles, included the reassuring words, “If I tell you to climb a tree, you climb a tree.” Then, we jumped into the back of 4×4 and drove to the Letaba river where we spotted a pod of hippos and a crocodile in the water. So naturally we decided to disembark the vehicle there and walk towards the river bank. Michelle seemed the more concerned of the two about the animals whilst Moya taught us about the differences between European and African lavender. About half an hour into the walk, Michelle turned to us and asked if we could see the rain on the horizon. We nodded our heads in agreement and then she said something to the effect, “I think we should head back now because if these rifles get wet, they won’t work anymore.” At this, Claire and I both looked at each other wondering how we had gotten here from the humble beginnings of our relationship in northern France. The video doesn’t quite do the intensity of the rain justice (and trust me, as an Englishman I know about rain) but if you look closely at our faces as we jump into the 4×4, you will see just how much we enjoyed it.
The best camp we stayed at, was definitely this one. It included all the qualities of the previous camps: the quietness of Pretoriuskop, the amazing sightings of Skukuza and the stunning (though not entirely comparable) views of Olifants. The drive from Olifants to Lower Sabie is long if you want to look out for animals. By the time we arrived at the camp, I was glad to book a guided drive for the next day, and Sam was happy to watch Arsenal play at Mugg and Bean with a well deserved coffee. One of the reasons why Lower Sabie also is quite popular, though no where near as much as Skukuza as it does not have its own airport, is because of the Leopard Triangle. That includes the Skukuza-Lower Sabie road as one side of the triangle. Although we did not end up actually seeing leopards on our trip – or cheetahs – we think it is highly likely we drove past a number of them, as they are masters of concealment. We are not letting that ruin our memory of this trip, as now we have a valid excuse to come back, maybe during another season when leopards have less high grass to hide behind.
The sunset drive was also my favourite drive we did during the trip. It is quite long, which really gave us a chance to see animals in broad daylight and pitch black darkness. Overall, we probably saw 700 elephants in Kruger, with over 100 on that guided drive alone! Apparently, there were lions or cheetahs in the area, as our driver and guide taught us how to interpret some animals – mainly antelope and gnu – behaviour, and something suspicious was going on. We also had the chance to see a few hippos, out of the water, on the road, but we made sure to leave quickly as three of them could have definitely tipped the massive vehicle over (you do not want to anger a hippo).
All in all, I am still sad we are not in the Kruger anymore. I loved to imagine myself as a guide, minus having to drive the safari trucks or having to learn how to use a rifle.