Arriving to a blood red African sunrise in South Africa, created for more excitement than one could have even been imagined. Once through customs, we collected our hired car and set out for a long drive north to our tented camp in a private reserve close to the world famous Kruger National Park. The drive from Johannesburg was a fairly long one, the roads were long and mostly flat, there was a fair bit of road works going on the way, mine fields, coal I think, in the distance and patches of townships along the way which must be the homes of some of the workers. The terrain was very similar to parts of Australia, similar to the Darling Downs in drought. It felt like a dry and harsh land, however it was the dry season. Then we hit the beautiful mountain range called Blyde River Canyon, a truly magnificent sight, it was huge, there was a waterfall from one of the gulley that crafted its way down from one of the peaks, I spotted a lone baboon sitting on the mountains edge, starring into the distance.
On arrival to the gate of the private reserve and tented camp, we met our guide Bet and tracker Ronaldo for our first game drive. The four-wheel-drives were amazing, with the seat on the bull bar where the tracker sits, the other seats were quite high up and it felt like a moving tower, very safe. That day we saw giraffes, hippos, crocodiles, elephants, eagles.
We were staying in such a beautiful camp, our tent was large with screen canvas windows that you could fasten up or down, the bed was large with a mosquito net around it. Our balcony looked out to a dry riverbed, which was home to impala and monkeys. I learnt to not leave anything outside as the monkeys are crafty thieves and ones stole my cigarettes which I was lucky to get back – thanks to Jess chasing them and making him drop the packet.
Early Morning Game Drive
The next game drive was at 6am the following morning, which happened to be my birthday. Jess was up with the animals early, probably around 4:30am or 5am, very excited and trying to wake me up and listen to all the animals and saying how she couldn’t wait to see everything, I was super excited as well, very blown away with awe, as I had come to a country I had grown up reading about, a country that felt so wild and dangerous, though beautiful. I was listening to the lions roar all night and the sounds of many others I couldn’t identify. So after a quick cup of coffee in the main breakfast area we were off on the game vehicles and on our way. We spotted the beautiful and elegant giraffe straight up and very close to the vehicle it stood in the predawn light chewing on the high up foliage of a thorn tree, a magnificent animal.
Then we were off again, the sun rose – once again a brilliant dark red, the sun I began to identify as the African sun. The hunt this morning was for the lions, but before we got there we saw the kudu and impala, distant rhinos and elephants, then we got the call of lions ahead and Bet our guide and driver sped up through the red dirt roads that were our tracks. Then we saw them, the pride of females and their cubs, the cubs were playing together as they followed their cautious elders into the deeper bush, it was an awesome site, the females were large and strong and you could feel their presence as dangerous hunters – it was amazing and moving to see.
We stopped at a dam that our tracker Ronaldo called Crocodile Dam, and for good reason, there were two rather large crocs laying out in the sun who were very camouflaged amongst the mud. It was like “Where’s Wally” trying to pick them from their surroundings and I’m sure people could stray too close if not warned. It was great to get out the game vehicle, coffee in the one hand and taking in the breathtaking scenery and fresh air, and of course watching the crocodiles in their natural habitat.
Once back at camp we were very satisfied as we had already seen three of the big five – lions, rhinos and elephants, amongst other fascinating animals.
Our next game viewing was at 3:30pm, so we spent the few hours relaxing, looking at impala or monkeys from our balcony and watching the funny warthogs munching of the grass in the camp.
That afternoon we saw rhinos from a distance, buffalos and zebras up very close, wildebeests in the bushes, elephants up fairly close and the ever present kudus and impala. The buffalos looked really big and dangerous, Bet, our guide explained that they are very fast and strong and not to be taken lightly as they do kill or injure many people. The elephants were drooping through a dry riverbed and were amazing majestic animals, such a powerful presence and a beauty to see, they truly are giants and they leave a trail of broken trees and branches in their path.
That night we had a lovely buffet dinner; we were drinking cold savannahs (a South African Cider) and a few jagermeisters shots in-between. Then the whole kitchen and wait staff formed a line from the kitchen behind the chef carrying a birthday cake and singing happy birthday, at first I thought it was not for me, but Jess had organised a surprise – a birthday cake for me. What a great way to end the day.
Again we were up before dawn and ready for our last game viewing in the four-wheel drive, this time we had learnt from the previous day to rug up and put on a few more layers of clothing. Today we were on the hunt for the cheetah according to Bet our guide, and dismissed my viewings of squirrels in the trees as we flew past them with a wave of his hand, he was on a mission. Then we came across a large herd of elephants, we were in the middle of the group, they were massive and you could hear them rustling in the bushes, the splintering of tree trunks and branches and their heavy footsteps. One with huge tusks staunched up to us with his ears flared out – it was at this point that Bet decided we need to move out of his way. Bet’s decision to take a short cut down towards a possible cheetah sighting lead to two white rhinos. We waited with the engine turned off as they passed directly in front of us. Two beautiful creatures, a pity their horns had been removed to prevent poachers from hunting them, very sad, and I found it hard to comprehend how someone could hunt and kill these magnificent creatures.
So far this morning had been action packed but Bet was still determined to find the cheetah. We went flying passed buffalos, giraffes and hippos with Bet saying we see them often, lets get the cheetah without stopping. Then the flat out pace stopped when we spotted another vehicle pull up. Our tracker conversed with the other tracker as they went walking to find the tracks of the cheetah – which were spotted – so Bet ordered us out of the game vehicle to go on foot to find the cheetah. Looking back at this now, it probably wasn’t the best idea to go walking through the African bush in pursuit of a dangerous wild animal that was currently attempting to hunt. We unfortunately did not find the cheetah during our walk, however I loved Bet’s enthusiasm, and I’m sure he knew what he was doing.
So saying goodbye to Bet and Renaldo we got on the road again and waving goodbye to the friendly warthogs as we passed out the gates. We headed out towards Kruger National Park as we were going to do a day of self-drive game viewing on our way back to Johannesburg. To break up the trip we stayed at a guest house for two nights, and explored the outskirts of the Kruger Park. The place we stayed at was typical Afrikaans establishment, with a very nice young couple there that was full of information on the area and where we should go to explore. We were the only ones there, as it was not typical tourist season, and it was nice to have the beautiful homely place to ourselves, a lovely chalet that overlooked a pond and a nice garden. That afternoon after settling into our new place we headed back into town to buy some ingredients, Jess had decided that it was time I learnt how to Braai, which apparently is very different to a BBQ. There was a Braai station outside our little house so we sat around drinking my new favourite South African cider ‘Savannah’ and it was my job to spice and cook the meat while Jess made the salad. It was nice, the place was completely quiet and peaceful, all that could be heard was the sizzle of the meat cooking, I reflected on what a great trip it had already been and it was only the third day.
Exploring the Surrounds – God’s Window and more…
The next day we drove to see some awesome waterfalls and checked out a site called Gods Window, which overlooks all the lands towards Mozambique – a lovely spot, the aloe plants and the forestry area around this lookout was amazing. When we came to the waterfalls, they seemed to trickle from nowhere then pour down into a ravine, you wouldn’t know it was there as there were no signs, you would drive right past it.
After another day of discovering and taking in the local beauty we headed back to our friendly guest house, we had made a friend of the local jack Russell there called Evil, he was very friendly and was fond of eating leaves. A quiet night playing cards that night as we had a fairly big drive to Kruger National Park the nest day.
Self-drive in Kruger National Park
We drove to Kruger Park the next morning, getting in was a fairly lengthy process, there was no line or organisation in the office but eventually we bought our tickets, and headed in. Within a minute we lucked out and spotted hyena on the side of the road, it looked to be a large male, a female and her cub. They are quite large animals and I can see why they can be very dangerous – they didn’t seemed to fussed with having us around, and it was very lucky to see the little cub, from the safety of the car they looked peaceful.
There was a light drizzle as we drove, the African bush surrounded us, the African boxthorn with its shard thorns that the locals use for toothpicks, and they really do work well as toothpicks.
As the misty rained cleared tortoises started emerging onto the road so that they could drink the precious water. We had to be careful not to hit them when we drove. From out of a thicket I saw a grey shape of an elephant appear, it was throwing the red African dirt up over itself with its trunk, its massive ears were flapping back and forward. It was now covered and red. As we watched its calf came out of the bush and mimicked its mother, throwing dirt on itself. The little one seemed to be having really good time and started rolling around on the ground, then decided to have a sleep, only moving on when its mother started to head into the thicker scrub. Again we were so lucky to see a mother and its calf, we couldn’t wipe the smiles of our faces as we drove ahead, excited for what else we were going to see.
The self-drive is a fun experience, you see other cars pulled up on the road and you know that they have found something, you also talk to the other drivers about what they have seen and you pick up where a certain animal is hiding close to the road. A very different experience to that of having a knowledgeable guide and tracker.
We came upon a group of cars that had piled up on the road. We pulled up alongside and asked a driver what everyone was looking at. Apparently there was a leopard relaxing in the new sunshine as the rain cleared. After looking for about ten minutes and negotiating around the other vehicles we spotted it. It was so well camouflaged it was very hard to see, and I could imagine why they can sneak upon their prey. After a while we decided to move on and give other people the chance to see the leopard up close. Before we left we spoke to a nearby driver who was a guide in a safari vehicle, he said to drive 5.7 km down the dirt road we had just passed and we would see male lions lounging in the sun after they had just killed, so we excitedly moved on in the hope that they were still there.
On our way to the lions we came across a herd of elephants, they are so massive to see in their natural environment, majestic animals that seem to old the history of Africa in their presence. The elephants have a huge frame, tough looking grey-black hide, and the threatening, yet graceful tusks of the full-grown bulls, so humbling to behold. An old bull passed just in front of car, barely regarding us in its steady determined gait, it was amazing. We were so distracted we almost forgot about the lions to come but before we drove on we had to let a small troop of mischievous monkeys pass too, carrying their young on their backs, or letting them march in their stead.
We went past the 5.7km mark with no luck in seeing the lion. We drove another 2km then thinking we may have missed them, so we turned back. One big lion came into vision; it was great spotting, the large male blended in with the surrounding grass. He was lying on its back sleeping in the sun, looking peaceful, sleeping off its latest hunt. Even from a distance he looked big, the mane was beautiful, his eyes were shut, his paws were in the air. It was awesome to see and again we were very lucky, and very happy as we thought we might have missed it.
The day had already been such a good day and adventure, we were happy with what we had seen and considered ourselves lucky. To top it off on the journey out of the park we came across a rhino pair and their calf, they were about twenty metres off the road in a dry creek bed, hanging out peacefully.
I could not have had a better game viewing experience and would most certainly go on another safari, so many more animals to see in their natural environment. This certainly was a trip which would remain in my memory for a lifetime.