South Africa was honestly not on my radar of places to see, until The Boy and I were invited to a wedding in Cape Town. A destination wedding is no fun unless you spend some time exploring the destination, so we flew over to Johannesburg two weeks early and went straight over to Kruger Park for one of my favourite parts of the trip – safari!
It was about 6am when we arrived in Jo’burg (apparently South Africans love their abbreviations as much as Aussies do) after flying all nigh, and we had somehow missed the fact that it was a four hour drive to Kruger – which actually turned into almost six hours after waiting to pick people up at various hotels and airports. So when we arrived at the camp I was feeling run down and more interested in napping than the organised sunset drive.
It was a good thing I didn’t miss it though, because it pretty much hit every mark straight away. I wanted to keep my expectations in check because you can’t just predict the behaviour of wild animals, and being a national park the drivers aren’t permitted to drive off the road. So this first safari drive blew those expectations out of the water. Impala are absolutely everywhere, and other antelope (kudu, waterbuck, bushbuck) as well as wildebeest were spotted as well. Giraffes? Hanging out by the road munching on trees. Elephants? One walked so close everyone got nervous and we had to drive off. Rhinos? Stare-off on the road before posing for a photo by the setting sun. Lions lazing on their backs. Buffalo wandering past. Giant insects literally hitting us in the face (okay, that part wasn’t so cool). We were drowning in wildlife, finding four of the ‘big five’. It was amazing, and a dangerously high standard to set right on the first night.
We stayed in a little round hut (rondavel) in Skukuza, the main camp in Kruger Park, and as part of our tour ventured out on a morning and an afternoon three hour drive each day, with not a lot to do but eat, drink and relax in between. Lacking wifi, I ended up spending happy hours sketching the various animals we’d seen that day during our breaks. The meals provided by our tour company were served in a big communal tent, with occasional visits from the local scavenging monkeys and warthog family. I chatted to people from all over the world, swapping photos and tales of the day’s sightings.
One thing I wasn’t expecting was how green the park was – apparently during the summer that area of South Africa gets a lot of rain, resulting in beautiful but camouflaging foliage. The next few days were alternately cloudy and stormy, and I gratefully accepted a hilariously gigantic thermal rain poncho for protection and warmth in the open vehicles we rode in as the rain bucketed down.
The drives after the first one weren’t quite as jam packed, but having already seen so much it all just felt like bonus anyway. We drove to the river – overflowing due to the rain – to see hippos from a safe distance. We spent ages watching two lionesses strolling in the drizzle. Even on the days when we didn’t see much big game, there were monkeys, birds, tortoises and even a dung beetle rolling his ball (and wife) across the road. Our drivers were knowledgable about the local plants and wildlife, told stories about their experiences in safaris, and were excellent at spotting animals then rolling quietly up to them for a good view.
I have to admit I was a little devastated when another group had a leopard (the last of the big 5 to see!) walk alongside their car in the morning drive, then spotted it again in the evening. And I was maybe a little jealous of those who had thought to bring a telephoto lens (I used my 24-70mm) to take wonderful closeups. But there isn’t any point in dwelling on could-have-beens – especially when it was already so much more amazing than I had expected.
I think that a safari is a must-see in Africa, unless you really really aren’t impressed at all with huge, unique, amazing animals. It might sound touristy and be more expensive than self-driving through the park, but packaged tours give you the benefit of a knowledgable driver and a relative amount of certainty that you won’t be trampled in a wildebeest stampede like Mufasa. The tall, open vehicles give the best view but can get surprisingly chilly when it rains, so bring something warm and something to pull your hair back. A telephoto lens is great to have, but I was lucky enough to have a lot of animals wander close enough to get decent shots anyway. There’s a lot of luck involved in general, so having a decent amount of time (we had 3 nights, 4 days) gives a better chance of seeing more animals.
Go in with realistic expectations, but cross your fingers for some amazing sights!