“STOP!” Luke breaks suddenly. “It’s a… a… buck!” I shriek. He looks at me, his face holding a unique combination of expressions. Relief and amusement are the most noticeable of the bunch. “I thought there was something wrong,” he laughs shaking his head. We watch the herd of impala on the side of the road for a few minutes and although they are famously common, they are quite beautiful, especially from up close. Their slender faces, doe-like eyes, large ears, and coffee-coloured coats, all make for a deer-like appearance with an African flair. After oggling at the hordes of baby impala and their mothers, as well as a nearby woodland Kingfisher, we move onward through the Kruger National Park towards our camp — Lower Sabie.
I am an avid animal lover, so a visit to the Kruger is my kind of holiday. As we pass zebras, giraffes, baboons, buck, rainbow-feathered birds, and uncountable numbers of elephants I wonder why it’s taken me so long to reach this conclusion. Our list of animals and birds seems to grow by the minute — along with my excitement. This is it — one of the top safari spots in South Africa. Heck, it’s even one of the top parks on the continent. The thought that at any moment you could stumble upon one of the Big 5, or hundreds of other species, is kind of a big deal. Especially for someone from a city Cape Town who has yet to explore much north of Joburg.
The next four days hold plenty of driving, stifling heat, two-minute noodles, burnt red sunsets, almost undrinkable instant coffee, wonderful rain, huge shongololos, turquoise-coloured starlings, tranquil river views, more than a few unforgettable animal sightings, and an understanding and deep appreciation of the surrounding bush and its wildlife. All too soon we’re packing the car and heading out of the park towards our next destination — waving goodbye to even more elephants along the way, still all roaming the south to indulge in the amarula fruits. Although we were only there for a short time, I completely fell in love with the Kruger — unsurprising to anyone who knows me. If you’re looking for some tips, dreaming about visiting, or just a little nosy, here’s what I learnt during our short southern exploration.
There’s an app!
Although this may be obvious to some, it certainly wasn’t to me. If it hadn’t been for Luke, I guess I would have spent the entire time fumbling along blindly, hoping to come across a collection of parked cars (something that usually indicates a wildlife sighting). I wouldn’t say the “Latest Sightings” app is a must, as there’s something amazing about guess-work and lucky discoveries, but it definitely is useful to track where and when the Kruger’s famous inhabitants have been spotted. This app led us to an unforgettable lion sighting and plenty of plains game as well. Be careful not to get your hopes up though — I learnt this the hard way. Just because a leopard was spotted an hour ago in a tree does not mean s/he will still be there when you arrive. To be honest, this app led us to more disappointing dead ends than happy discoveries, but it is somewhat useful — especially when you are out and about.
Go on a game drive.
Some people are adamantly against Kruger-led drives. I guess if you’re a frequent visitor they’re not as necessary but if you’re a not-so-frequent-visitor, I couldn’t recommend them more. Driving around on your own is great, but the guides are guides for a reason! They know so much about the environment and the animals, and their well-trained eyes (combined with the extra several pairs on board) mean that spottings tend to be relatively frequent.
Get the right equipment.
The reality is that, more often than not, wildlife spottings in the Kruger tend to be from a distance. If you take only one thing with you, that thing should be binocs. We would have been totally lost without them. Alongside binoculars, a camera with a telephoto lens is kind of a must. Even if you’re not “into” photography, you’ll find yourself snapping pictures of anything within a 50m radius of your car — it comes with the territory. Borrow a lens from a kind friend if you can or hire one if you can afford it. You won’t be sorry.
Head to the loo.
Game drives tend to be around three hours long and even if you head out on your own, it’s likely you’ll be gone for a similar amount of time. Bush-pees aren’t an option in Big 5 territory, so be sure to sort yourself out before you go. If you’re anything like me, snacks are also a must.
Respect the wildlife.
The thing that struck me about Kruger is that most of the animals are almost completely accustomed to cars. Elephants stroll right in front of you, giraffes bat their lashes from meters away, birds flit carelessly from branch to branch, and sleepy lions barely even notice their audiences. This is the magic of Kruger, but it is only the case when human visitors respect the environment they are encroaching on. We gave the animals around us the space they needed and we were rewarded with dozens of beautiful sightings.
I can’t recommend a trip to Kruger enough. Whether you’re a fellow South African or a visitor passing by, the Kruger National Park is anything but overrated.