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Overnight in Kruger

When a traveling companion and myself made plans to visit southern Africa there were three things I did not want to leave without seeing; Victoria Falls, the Okavango Delta and the Big Five. The first leg of our trip took us to Kruger National Park for an overnight stay where I knew I had no chance of seeing two of the aforementioned three must sees. Still I was interested in Kruger because I had heard and read so much about it for so long. 

From the air, the mining operations surrounding Johannesburg appeared like craters on the surface of the moon. The township areas with their rundown shanties were visible through the mid day haze as well. This city of 3 million boasts the busiest airport on the continent and, though Oliver Tambo International was incredibly modern, I wasn’t fooled. I knew there was a dark underbelly to Jo’Burg. At the time of our trip it was the murder capital of the world. That was a fact I had conveniently forgotten to tell my wife before we left as she had enough reservations about my trip to begin with.

From Jo’Burg we flew to Nelspirt which is a growing city of some 2 million located about a half hour outside the gates of Kruger National Park. Flying into Nelsprit took us over the Drakensberg range. Crossing the stony dragon’s tail brought us to the edge of a vast expanse of wilderness the size of the state of New Jersey. Kruger National Park is one of the most famous destinations in the world, and we were soon to find it wears this crown with good reason.

An enterprising young South African named Mike picked us up at Kruger International Airport and drove us to the park. As we went, I found Mike’s driving a bit erratic and way to, how should I put it, fast for my taste. But as we went on, I found myself happy he was behind the wheel and not me as the roads were paved with three lanes and marked by signs in Afrikaans. Cars were busy veering all over the road using various signals that were just as foreign to me as the signs were.

We passed several mini-buses that were packed full of so many people that arms and legs were constantly flailing out their dusty windows. With so many high fatality accidents, Mike dismissed them as “Death traps” and went on to tell us how the government was instituting a new program of purchasing the buses from private people in an effort to get them off the roads.

We passed through several small towns and villages that had been carved from the rock of the mountainsides. The state of the housing was not unexpected for this region, but the ingenuity was impressive as many included gutter systems that channeled rainwater into holding tanks. Mike made it clear that all the bricks for the homes had been handmade on site.

For reasons unknown even to our driver, there was a thriving car wash business along this road. Many dilapidated buildings had been transformed into makeshift car washes and each featured several employees too many sitting on the front steps soaking up the sun. The looks on their faces made it clear they were longing for the day a convoy of dust covered BMW’s or mud caked Hummer’s happened by.

It cost 30 rand, or $4.50 (U.S.) to get into Kruger’s Numbi gate. Mike left us in the care of Mumsy at Jock’s Safari Lodge. The lodge was in a remote portion of the park and included all the modern amenities any traveler could want. There was even an open air dining area that provided an overlook of a dried up streambed. Mumsy attended to our every want and desire and made our short stay extremely pleasant.  

Our game driver was a young South African named Lazarus. I was impressed by his breadth of knowledge given he had no formal schooling. It became clear he knew more about the life cycles of the African mammals we were after than any four year biology student from the states would.

The Big Five (Lion, Leopard, Rhino, Buffalo and Elephant) had earned their name over the years by being the five most dangerous animals to hunt on the African continent. They happened to be the five animals I wished most to see during our trip as well. Of the five, finding Leopard troubled me the most. All I had read told me that sighting them is very difficult because they are usually quite reclusive and most active after dark.

When we stumbled across a family of White Rhino, Lazarus steered us close while explaining that their name is derived from Afrikaans terminology for “wide mouthed”. The young guide’s explanation was cut short as a large male squared his shoulders with our rover as if to let us know that we were plenty close.

The first group of Lion we came upon were actually walking one of the dirt roads. They seemed oddly disinterested in us as Lazarus stopped so close to a female lying in the weeds that I could have touched her with a 9 iron. Disinterested or not, I still understood this to be an experience most people will never live. With this reasoning in mind, I found their torpid midday activities a fantastic thing to watch.

It was with great alacrity that we responded to a call across the radio of a female Leopard. Five minutes later I was less than 10 feet away from her as Lazarus attempted to disguise our arrival by training a million watt spotlight on her eyes. With all I had read about the sheer power and instincts of this amazing creature, my nerves were so rocked over the prospect of being so close to one that I couldn’t bring myself to take a clear photo. 

Not seeing the Big Five was one of the worries I had carried with me on my way across the Atlantic. Of course I had no way of knowing that the game would be so plentiful in Kruger that we would be fortunate enough to see the Big Five on the first day. This impressive fact aside, the game driving and viewing was unquestionably tremendous in the park.

The only aspects I didn’t find appealing about Kruger was that many of the roads we traveled on were paved. I had come to Africa to escape paved roads and, while there were some dirt roads in the park, most of our time was spent navigating asphalt. Though Lazarus competently argued the necessity of them, I also found the artificial water holes extremely disappointing.

Don’t misunderstand me, Kruger National Park was incredible. Game was plentiful, the guides knowledgeable and the accommodations were first class. It just wasn’t the Africa I had come in search of. For that I would have to wait for Botswana. Personal agendas aside, Kruger National Park is a world class destination. For anyone considering a trip there, be sure that Lazarus, Mumsy and the Big Five are no doubt waiting to roll out the red carpet for you.

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