GUEST ARTICLE: It was a beautiful June sunny afternoon when we flew into Nelspruit on a nice little twin-engine plane from Johannesburg. Our final destination was to Kruger National Park to go on a safari. We had been on one other safari in Namibia a few years back but we were really eager to see what awaited us on this one. This time around we were hoping to see all of the Big Five – the elephant, Black rhino, leopard, Cape buffalo and lion. And hopefully some other animals we hadn’t seen before like the hippo, hyena and Wild African Dog?
We’d booked our own vehicle for this trip and planned on doing our own self-drive safari. On this journey I was really happy to have my sis-in-law Jen coming with us. Once all of our bags were neatly stowed in our new SUV, us three musketeers eagerly started our 5-day African adventure but not without first getting ourselves some of the local currency (Rand, which at the time was 8 to 1AUD).
We had a car navigator but we didn’t really need it. The signage was pretty clear and the map of the area we were given was easy to follow. We headed north to our hotel – the Protea Hotel Kruger Gate.
Along the way we drove through some interesting little towns and saw locals going about their day. The countryside was really beautiful with undulating hills and lush forests blanketing the area. The drive wasn’t long and only took us 1½ hrs to get there. The other method of getting to Kruger from Johannesburg involves a long, apparently boring drive so we we happy to have flown to Nelspruit and driven from there.
There were heaps of hotels and private lodges in the area to choose from but we had heard great things about the Protea Kruger Gate. For one it’s affordable (some hotels can cost you up to US$1000/night) and it’s also in a perfect location being right near the Kruger Gate Park entrance. We were really happy with our choice the hotel was a gorgeous little place. Elegantly decorated in African décor and the rooms were nice, roomy and cosy. They also had a stunning viewing area that had lovely comfy thatch roofed seating overlooking a river and lush terrain.
Because we still had a bit of daylight on our side we quickly dropped off our bags and hopped back in the car for a quick safari before the park closed and the sun went down. Entry to the park cost us 596 Rand (for 3 people). Once inside we anxiously anticipated our first animal spotting. At first we didn’t see anything but then it was like we were bombarded with animals galore! We decided to travel down the H4-1 road and saw heaps of giraffes, impalas, elephants and our first hippo spotting. Along this road is a watering hole where hippo and croc viewing are exceptionally good.
The whole scenery was a photographers paradise! Beautiful birds of all sorts frequented the area my favorite would have to be the Lilac Breasted Roller. It’s an incredible bird adorned with the most beautiful pastel colored feathers. The landscape was a sight to behold especially when it was bathed in the warm afternoon light. The road we were on ran alongside a beautiful river dotted with huge smooth boulders and thick green foliage. At times it was hard to tell if we were looking at a boulder or a hippo.
Unfortunately the park gates closed at 5:30pm so we had to head back to our hotel or risk a fine of 3000 Rand or more. What a great first day we had! For sunset we grabbed a nice bottle of African vino and headed out to our hotel’s viewing area to watch the sun go down. The sunset was a spectacular sight illuminating the sky in a glorious scene of fiery colors. As the night drew upon us it got pretty darn chilly but that didn’t stop us from gazing out onto the river in hopes of a spotting, that night we didn’t see anything but we did hear hippos in the distance.
Dinner was held in a large outdoor area that was warmly lit with small bonfires scattered about. A massive buffet was set out with a delectable selection of local cuisine (by the way, this dinner buffet was included in the room rate!). We especially liked the Impala and Pap (a traditional polenta). The staff were all really nice and welcoming, really lovely people. That night we were in luck because we got to see their weekly Saturday night cultural show. A melodic choir dressed in native garb belted out upbeat African songs while dancers enthusiastically danced about displaying some pretty incredible moves. It was a spectacular event!
We awoke early the next morning and warmly bundled ourselves up before heading out to the viewing area in hopes of an animal sighting in front of our hotel. Unfortunately there was nothing to be seen except for a spectacular view of the sunrise – what beauty! Breakfast was excellent and so was the service by our very friendly waiter Calvin. He was always such a joy with his beaming smile and made us feel right at home.
On this day’s safari we were planning to cruise the southern area. It wasn’t too long after we entered the park that we came upon a massive male lion walking down the road holding up traffic. He was marking his territory and heading down to the river for a drink. That was such an awesome sight. They are such huge, magnificent beasts!
That morning we saw many more wonderful animals like water buffalo, zebra, wildebeest and a heap more rhinos both black and white. Every now and again we would run into a herd of gentle giraffes. Surprisingly they camouflage pretty well for being such gigantic creatures.
By lunchtime we had reached a place called Lower Sabie that had a lovely outdoor restaurant overlooking the river. In the distance we could see hippos and a few elephants quenching their thirst. We had a nice lunch of BBQ impala, chicken and beef.
For the rest of the afternoon we continued exploring more roads and stopped at some bush camps for a looksee and toilet breaks. Driving around the park is really easy and there are lots of convenient spots to take a rest or grab a bite to eat. But because there were so many roads to explore we really had to be aware of our time and distances in order for us to vacate the park on time. After another great day of self-drive safari we called it a night.
The next day we decided to explore the middle / northern park of the park. Unfortunately we didn’t see nearly as many animals as we did in the southern section. That’s probably because there was more water in the south at the time (June is dry season). We did get to see a few ostrich though and although the countryside was bone dry it was still beautiful. In any case I’m glad we made the effort.
While we were there we had lunch at a little place called Satara. As we were walking into the place Rob noticed a little sign by a tree saying “World’s most photographed Scops owl.” I didn’t actually think there would be an owl ‘right there’ but upon closer inspection nestled comfortably on a tiny little branch was the most adorable little owl I had ever seen! It was a Scops Owl and it was about the size of my hand. While we were all fussing over it and taking pictures it was completely oblivious to us and just calmly sat there snoozing.
Inside Satara was a nice little park where brilliant blue birds got up close and personal and we also got a good look at some hornbills. After lunch we stopped at a must-see tourist sight where we saw a giant Baobab tree – what a sight!! It was massive in girth and had a series of intertwining roots all around the tree. We each got out for a really quick (and I mean quick) pic with the giant.
The ride back to Kruger Gate Hotel was full of more wonderful sightings and this time we saw a massive pack of elephants cross the road right in front of us. We made sure to give them space (I’d seen enough pictures of beat up cars when tourists got too close for their comfort). We also passed some cute baby Chacma Baboons frolicking on the road while mom and pop sat on the sidelines watching their every move. I sure wouldn’t want to mess with the adult baboons – some of those guys are huge!
We didn’t venture out too long that day because we had booked ourselves on a night safari and had to leave by 4pm. It cost us 720 Rand each. We, along with one other guest from our hotel got into an open-air safari vehicle and were driven not too far away to a private reserve called Sabi Sands. We had read reviews about the Sabi Sand Game Reserve and how pricey it is to stay in one of their lodges so we had high expectations on this safari!
Once there we met another night safari group and ended up joining them and a couple of bush-ready South African girls as our guides. Their open-air vehicle was great and had strategic high seating to give us an excellent view of our surroundings. We were especially grateful that it had some good shocks and ran quietly. The afternoon sun was lovely and it was such a wonderful feeling cruising around the African bush with the wind in our faces. It really felt like we were up close and personal with our surroundings.
Just before sunset we stopped in a big open field and had some ‘sundowners’ (meaning afternoon drinks). While we were standing there with beers in hand a large hyena just happen to cruise by. We were all speechless as we stood there watching him with his spotted coat and distinct hunched gait. He was only about 50 yards away and merely gave us a small glance before proceeding on his own merry way. It was such an exhilarating sight. I never knew how big they actually were.
By that time the sun had almost set so we loaded ourselves back into the vehicle and each bundled up in thick woolen blankets provided. Once the sun goes down the temperature drastically drops and when you’re in an open-air vehicle it can get pretty damn cold. Our tracker out the front had her spotlight out and thus began our night safari.
In the dark of night if felt like we could’ve heard a pin drop. We didn’t see anything for quite some time but then off in the distance we saw what looked like a small lights of a village off in the distance. As we neared we were surprised to find out those lights were actually the eyes of a massive herd of Cape Water Buffalo who were just settling down for the night. We parked ourselves right next to them, like I mean right next to them with a mere distance of maybe 15ft. The smell was pretty ripe being that close, it felt like we could have literally reached out and touched them. My heart was pounding as we sat there in complete darkness next to one of the world’s most dangerous animals.
We stayed there for quite some time and just observed their actions. We even got to see some cute little newborns. But when a few of the buffalo started rough housing with one another it got our hearts pumping and the three of us grabbed onto each other for dear life – that was so freaky!!
A full moon lit up the sky and the stars looked crisp and numerous amongst the inky black sky. As we continued on our journey through the bush we came upon some elephants feeding. That was also a heart pounding experience and I felt like the size of an ant when we neared them. Thankfully they didn’t mind us and were too busy bulldozing the bush and feeding off the land.
By the time our journey was over we had literally frozen our asses off, it was so cold!! Our original hotel transfer vehicle (yes the open air one) was waiting for us at the Sabi Sands gate and just when we thought we couldn’t get any colder….HOLY FRIGGO!!! The ride home down the highway was absolutely brutal!! My hands were like frozen claws by the time we got back and my face…what face?!!.
When we arrived back at the hotel we had visions of the previous night’s open fires to melt ourselves with but unfortunately because the hotel’s occupancy was low they had decided to have dinner inside. So boo hoo no open fire for us but at least it was nice and warm inside and the hot food and delicious wine also helped thaw us out.
On our last day we decided to stick to the southern section of the park and hovered around the Lower Sabie area where we had seen the majority of our animal sightings so far. So far we had seen 4 of the Big 5 and we were all pretty content with that. But the gods were with us that day and as we rounded a bend Jen saw something lying on the road up ahead. It was the last of the big 5 – a beautiful leopard!! It was just laying there in the shade seeking refuge from the hot afternoon sun. We kept our distance and got to spend a few minutes just admiring it and then all of a sudden it just upped itself and lazily wandered back into the bush. That was awesome!!
We were so happy to have seen every animal – mission accomplished! We all had the most magnificent visit to Kruger. It was a fantastic idea to do our own safari. Not only did we have our own freedom but I think it gave us a much better chance to see more animals and observe at our own pace. We also really liked our choice in accommodation. It was convenient and affordable. To be honest we saw heaps more animals in Kruger than we did at the private Sabi Sand Game Reserve. But regardless of where you stay one thing for sure is this place is magical and if you’ve ever thought of doing a safari in Africa then Kruger National Park is great place to start.
This travel diary has been written by Machalle Gower, a friend who enjoys taking roads less traveled!