A journey through Kruger National Park
Kruger national park still has a lot to offer which is what makes people to keep coming back for more relaxing time at the park.
Picture: Brendan Seery
If you look at some of the pictures of leopards I have taken over the years – one of them close enough so you can see blood on its front teeth at an impala kill – you probably wouldn’t argue with me if I called myself the “cat whisperer”.
The reality is that those photos came on visits to private lodges adjacent to Kruger National Park – and where the cats have become so habituated to game drive vehicles, they’re almost tame. It’s a little different when you’re doing self-drives in the public section of the park… and you’re confined to dirt roads only.
That was our fate on a recent trip to Kruger: Because of the immense damage caused by floods in February and despite energetic efforts to repair the roads, park authorities ordered that all gravel roads be closed.
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Drive to Kruger national park
Given that we would be confined to an effective 60km to 70km on the tar between Berg-en-Dal camp in the south and park headquarters at Skukuza, I had to deploy my knowledge of leopard behaviour to all in the car.
Despite the rolling eyes, I told them I would be looking at certain types of trees – ones with no low branches (so other predators couldn’t jump up and deprive a leopard of its prey, which is generally carried into a tree for safety) and spreading boughs which are almost parallel to the ground to allow the animal place to stretch out and nap.
I had seen some of this behaviour with my own eyes and plenty of photographs of leopards dangling legs and tails over branches, high enough away from any possible harassment. So those trees were exactly what I looked for on our last full day in the park.
After a while, my eyes went cross-eyed… from the peering and probably from the tension of knowing we only needed a leopard sighting to conclude our “Big Five” hand.
Arrival at Kruger
On arrival in the park, we had seen an elephant; early the following day we saw a lion – my brother-in-law quipped that he had “seen nine lions before breakfast” – and then a massive herd of buffalo (brother-in-law: “and 500 buffalo after breakfast!”).
Later that day we had a fleeting glimpse of a white rhino – which, frankly, saddened and angered me at the same time, given the reports about rampant corruption and poaching in the southern parts of Kruger.
So, it was just the leopard we needed. And, we had all but given up hope on our last day, as we drove out towards the Malelane Gate. About 2km from the gate, we saw a car stop, which was quickly joined by another – and then by the ubiquitous game drive vehicle. Clearly something interesting.
It was then we thankfully remembered Rule Number One of Kruger: Take binoculars. With a pair each in the car (a Ford Everest, which already had the benefit of large windows and raised height) we saw, clearly, a spotted form dangling its legs and tail over a tree branch.
Big five on the spot
The evidence of the leopard in photographic form is nothing like my up close and personal shots in places like Mala Mala, but using the binos to take in the cat was also satisfying.
In the end, then, we managed what is every visitor’s hope: Getting the Big Five “in the bag”. That, to my surprise, was a lot more satisfying than I thought, especially given that the sighting of the leopard wasn’t dramatic.
Heading to Kruger at a time when visitors were limited to tar roads only was not my idea of fun…in the beginning. As I expected, the heavier traffic on the tar meant the usual “spot the lion by watching for brake lights” way of game driving in the park.
Because this visit was out of school holidays (the first we have done since my wife stopped working as a teacher), the number of cars was not annoyingly large, as it had been on previous visits we did to Kruger. And, again surprisingly, given the rude nature of many South Africans, people at sightings were generally courteous, not blocking the views of others and not overstaying at a spot.
There’s more to birds than we think
Ironically, given the fact that going out with bird fans is sometimes tiring, I found that absorbing the feathered life could also be exciting, especially with my 10 times magnification binoculars and our trusty bird book. Not that we needed the latter because the experts knew instantly the difference between the lilac-breasted and European rollers we saw.
Raptors, of course, were not as easy to identify, because they seem to position themselves always with the sun behind them so distinguishing markings are in shadow…
Paying attention to birds, I’ll admit, did cause people behind us to get slightly miffed when they waited to see the amazing kill we were focusing on, only to see it was just birds at the bridge over the Mlambane River, where we spent a good 20 minutes watching two saddle-billed storks heading downstream – one per bank – picking up the odd frog. In the 31°C heat, it was also relaxing to watch a pair of buffalo letting the river wash over them as they bathed.
They hadn’t moved in the two hours since we first saw them… now that is living.
Our stay at Berg-en-Dal
We stayed in two bungalows at Berg-en-Dal, a camp which dates back to 1984. You can still feel the ghost of Boers past in the face of brick buildings and sprawling but carefully laid out, camp. We were last there as campers in the mid-’90s and the differences are noticeable.
The large expanses of lawn have regressed to dirt in the campsite and bungalow area. A guided trail accommodating blind people (with information boards in braille) would be a distinct hazard these days because maintenance has not been done.
And this lack of grass cutting or removal of obstacles like branches was evident far above the flood’s high water mark, so the weather can’t be blamed there.
The bungalows were in decent condition, although the aircon (which Noah must have used on the Ark) made a racket. Yet, it did work and electricity was in constant supply, which is better than Johannesburg, where we returned home to 42 hours without power.
At Berg-en-Dal there is a generator which takes about two minutes to kick in during load shedding.
More to come back for at Kruger national park
As far as other facilities in the park were concerned, we had no complaints. We stopped twice at the Afsaal picnic site, cooking up breakfast the first morning on a gas skottel supplied by staff. The place was busy at around 9 in the morning, as all the game drive vehicles would use it as their breakfast pitstop. No complaints, I suppose, because many of their guests were foreigners, which is good news.
I have not been a big fan of Kruger in the past – maybe because I have been spoiled by private lodge experiences which I could only enjoy as a journalist. But this trip shows there is still plenty of life left in our crown jewel national park… and I understand why so many people return and why they are so loyal.
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