When we knew we were going to go to Africa, we looked at a range of options. The great migration plains of Tanzania and Kenya, the delta in Botswana, Namibia with its dunes, or South Africa. In the end, South Africa won, through a combination of convenience (only two flights needed to get there) and cost (Tanzania was quoting everything in US dollars). So I, rather shamefully, commented a number of times, that we were “only” going to South Africa. In New Zealand we feel a degree of familiarity with South Africa. Perhaps it is because for half the year we end up watching South African and New Zealand rugby teams play each other. Perhaps it is the old Commonwealth linkage. Perhaps it is due to the large number of South African immigrants now living here. And so Kruger National Park never seemed very exotic to me. It always seemed, in my mind, to have the feeling of a zoo, perhaps because I usually saw references to it in association with visions of the ghastly Sun City casino complex.
I did my research though, albeit reluctantly at the outset, and gradually learned that Kruger National Park is the size of Israel or Wales, extends to Mozambique, and animals range freely across the borders. There are many private game reserves around Kruger, most with open borders with the park, and again animals roam freely between the National Park and the reserves. We chose to stay at two different reserves; Ngala was the first private game reserve in Kruger National Park and has a long border with the park , and Ulusaba, in Sabi Sands, with open borders to the east towards Kruger, but farmland on the west.
Flying out to Kruger from Johannesburg is an experience. Johannesburg is at altitude, and the moment you cross the edge of the escarpment into the lowveld is not one for someone squeamish about heights. The lowveld, where Kruger National Park sits, is warmer and less cultivated. Farmland disappeared, and the African bush spread out in front of us, impossibly large. We flew into the Ngala airstrip, already spotting elephants shading from the sun, and an impala on the very side of the airstrip (we later had to chase it away to allow the plane to take off).
In our first 24 hours at Ngala, we drove many miles, realising that this was no park or zoo. It was a large, wilderness area on the border of a many times larger wilderness area. Standing in the middle of the bush at sundown, watching the sky turn orange and hearing the hippos roar, and knowing that there are no other humans for miles, was a wonderful and slightly surreal experience. We saw lion on our first drive, and saw the Big Five (so named because they were the five most dangerous animals to hunt, and therefore the five most sort after – these days the hunting is done only by camera) – elephant, rhino, buffalo, leopard and lion. There were wide open spaces and we never quite knew what we might see next. Over the course of our four days there, we saw giraffe, and zebra (even though we had been warned that they had usually moved out of the reserve by this time of the year), warthogs, hyena, wildebeest (pronounced “vil – dih – bay-est” by the South Africans), jackals, hippos (sometimes with terrapins riding them), Greater Kudu, baboons, and in the darkness, a wildcat, a chameleon and a bushbaby, a millipede and a dung beetle. Our last morning, we almost missed our flight because we had driven to the edge of the reserve to see a mother and son cheetah. Later in Ulusaba, we added the hard-to-find wild dogs to the list, many more lions (including fighting lions at a kill, and a cute lion cub), leopards and rhinos. The leopard cub that had been seen for the first time the week before proved to be elusive. I think our ranger was more upset about that than we were.
(Click on the thumbnails to feel as if you’re there).
Kruger National Park is no zoo. The animals here wander freely, across boundaries of game reserves and national parks. They live and die as they always have. And even though the animals become accustomed to the vehicles full of tourists with their clicking cameras, they go on with their lives regardless of our presence. Lions and leopards mate within metres of the vehicles, leopards slink under the vehicle when it is in the direct line of whatever it is stalking. These are wild animals though, make no mistake. In Ngala the trackers sit in the vehicle (not on the front) when we are tracking predators. In Ulusaba, we were frequently told “make no sudden moves” when lions brush past the vehicle, and we were reminded, when a reckless young lion cub trotted up to the grumpy male lion (they are notorious for disliking cubs and frequently killing them), that “whatever happens, we can’t do anything to save him.”
Kruger National Park is easily accessible from Johannesburg. Within hours of landing in South Africa, you can be in the middle of the African bush, miles from “civilisation”, communing with warthogs and elephants, zebras and giraffes, lions and leopards, vultures and marula trees. And feeling as if you’re in another world.