If you love David Attenborough documentaries you need to make a date with Kruger National Park. This South African game reserve first stole my heart in 2011. Four trips later you could say I’m slightly obsessed with this particular safari experience.
Yes, the journey from the UK is a long one – an 11.5-hour flight to Johannesburg followed by a five-hour road trip to the park – but you’ll be grandly rewarded for your effort.
My jaw dropped to the floor on my most recent adventure when a procession of 30 lionesses and their cubs marched in single file to the Sabie River to drink one morning. Just ten minutes earlier we’d passed a pride of eight magnificent males sitting under a tree.
And I had to pinch myself when we stumbled across two giraffes locking necks in a bid to assert their dominance. I’d learned about this from a nature programme, yet here we were in the wild watching them just a few metres away.
Incredibly, their neck-battering shenanigans – they were going at it hell for leather – were interrupted by a loud impala warning snort. Film-worthy is the only way to describe the scene that unfolded. Buffalo shot past. Skittish antelope scattered. Giraffe stood stock-still. And soon it became clear why. Out of the shadows emerged two lionesses intent on quenching their afternoon thirst at the Welverdiend Waterhole.
I felt humbled, privileged and blessed to experience such a sighting. There is something infinitely thrilling about the unexpected and to observe first-hand how the animals communicate and signal alarm calls to one another is truly fascinating. This is why I love Kruger…no day is ever the same.
Every sense is awakened, too. From the sounds of early morning birdsong to the late-night calls of the African bushbaby. From the stench of a rotting carcass (I know, but this is the circle of life), to the smoky scent of a braai (open fire), you’ll experience it all. Did I mention the beauty of the diverse African landscapes? Spectacular sunrises and sunsets? The list goes on and on.
Regular readers know that I find it difficult to stop and relax but a trip to this wondrous place solves that and helps me live entirely in the moment. I switch off my phone for four days and soak up every blissful minute distraction free. It’s mindfulness at its best.
If a safari is on your bucket list, I’d highly recommend Kruger National Park. Below I’ve rounded up some useful tips to help you make the most out of your stay. (FYI – to keep costs down we arranged our own flights and also elected for basic lodgings).
HAVE A SENSE OF HUMOUR
Everyone, let me repeat, everyone will at some stage convince themselves and others that they have spotted a leopard in the distance, a snake in the grass or bats hanging upside down in the hollow of a tree. I lost count of the times someone in our party excitedly whispered “Over there, over there. There’s a rhino poking his head out.” We’d raise our binoculars in anticipation only to discover the splendid animal was actually a rotten tree stump.
REQUEST AN OPEN SIDED VEHICLE
I know. I know. This sounds scary but it is, in fact, an exhilarating experience. For a start, you have a higher vantage point – great if there’s a kill sighting which inevitably attracts a few vehicles – and also brilliant for photo opportunities. You get to experience the changing temperatures hour by hour. Be sure to wear layers for the chilly 4.30am game drives, which you can peel off as the temperature climbs. Ideally, you’ll want to blend in with the vehicle so opt for greens, browns and beige garments. Just remember to keep your arms inside the truck at all times, do not stand or make any loud noises or sudden movements.
DON’T HAVE A WISH LIST
It’s not all about the Big Five – lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo. Yes, of course, it would be wonderful to see the entire collection but there are so many spectacular things to see. Some of our sighting highlights included gigantic crocs, jaws agape, basking in the sunshine, a tiny suckling baby baboon, and my all-time favourite – WARTHOGS. In fact, this African wild pig, which has warty lumps on his face and curved tusks, made the trip for my mum. One afternoon we were watching animals that had gathered around a waterhole. “A hyaena was after an impala,” mum recalls “and out of nowhere an individual warthog came running out from under a bush and chased it off. We were delighted.”
*Worryingly we saw far fewer rhino on this trip compared to previous holidays and on leaving the park we discovered local press reports revealing that a further three had been killed by poachers during our stay. We were devastated.
SIT IN ONE PLACE AND (HOPEFULLY) WATCH A STORY UNFOLD
There’s nothing quite like pulling up to a stretch of water and witnessing a scene spontaneously unravel in all its glory. On our last morning, we were headed for Phabeni Gate and pulled over to a spot known as Nyamundwa. A lone elephant broke through the trees. Another emerged five minutes later. Then another. Then another. There were calves too. In total there were about 60, yes 60, elephants in the breeding herd. The playful babies rolled around in the mud and squirted each other with water while the adults shuffled them around with their trunks and drank from the lake. Some of our best sightings have been at waterholes. The previous day we’d watched hundreds of buffalo wallowing in a muddy lake at a different spot. “They were having a great old time splashing around in the water until something eventually spooked them and they ran off into the distance leaving a trail of dust,” my sister explains. “It was incredible to see.”
BEST TIME TO BOOK A TRIP
I’ve only visited Kruger in the months of October, November and December. While our most recent trip at the start of this month was fantastic and heralded the springing of new life (we saw so many baby warthogs, impala, baboons, giraffe, elephants), we found the temperature unbearably hot at times. Fortunately, we didn’t have any bad weather during our stay but it had apparently poured down the week before – the rainy season runs from November to February. Although we were still very lucky with our sightings, it was a little harder spotting the animals through the abundant foliage so we’ll probably revert back to October/early November when booking our next trip.
GO WITH A GUIDE YOU TRUST
If you’re flying from the UK I’d highly recommend breaking up the journey, especially as the flight from London Heathrow to Johannesburg is 11.5 hours. We always reserve a room for one night at the Protea Hotel Marriott, either side of our Kruger stay. It’s a stone’s throw away and makes the five-hour drive to the park much more bearable. We booked our Kruger experience through South African tour operator 12Go Tours. Sam Wingate, who runs the company, has been a guide for 17 years and we simply adore him. He’s calm, organised and extremely knowledgeable and patient with my sister and I, even when we turn into quivering wrecks if a lion unexpectedly pads past our vehicle or an elephant crashes through a bush. Research your operators thoroughly, read reviews or go by word of mouth recommendation.
BOOK A NIGHT DRIVE
Night drives are a must, purely because they’re such a surreal experience. Heading into a blanket of darkness knowing that there are lions and leopards roaming around is eerie, to say the least. Only KNP guides can host evening tours so we booked one at the Satara Camp. It was fantastic. Vehicle headlamps and two spotlights provided the only form of illumination. Our guide weaved his way through uneven terrain, switching his engine off when an elephant sidled up next to us. We then heard jackals and hyaena calling out to one another; on the drive back we spotted a number of hyaena ripping through the skin of a deceased baboon. On other night drives, we’ve seen snakes – the spitting cobra was rather memorable – slithering onto the road! Every experience is different!
TRY A GUIDED BUSHWALK
…at least once. You can book these through your camp’s reception desk. Essentially you go out on foot with two gun-carrying guides. We decided against it this time around as there were seven of us in total and we had an action-packed itinerary. On a previous trip, we encountered three rhino, from a safe distance. These walks also give you a chance to stumble across smaller African wildlife you might otherwise never see. One time, my sister noticed a hole in the grass with a web inside. Sitting adjacent to it was a tarantula-esque baboon spider.
It goes without saying but walk with spare batteries, adaptors, and memory cards. And if you’re borrowing a camera or video equipment be sure to know how to operate it. My sister’s boyfriend had a worrying moment when the camera he’d been lent wouldn’t let him take any pictures. The memory card was full but he did not have permission to delete the snaps and the shops we tried at various camps had sold out of picture cards. Fortunately, he was able to contact a family member who gave him permission to delete the existing images. Phew!
HAVE A GLASS OF AMARULA
I used to LOVE Amarula, similar to Baileys Irish Cream, but ever since my health unexpectedly deteriorated in 2015 I cannot tolerate anything fermented –including alcohol – which sets off my tongue swelling reactions. Made from the fruit of the Marula tree, it’s delicious. I’m not sure how true this is but it’s said that elephants can become drunk from consuming the rotten fruit that falls to the ground. Is this fact or fiction? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!
Likewise, if you’re a fan of safaris or Kruger I’d love to hear your thoughts too. Why do you like heading there, what’s your favourite part and can you recall your all-time favourite sightings?
If you’re an animal lover and enjoyed reading this or know of someone who’s thinking about booking a safari please do share the post and spread the word about this wonderful place! Our social media links can be found here: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram links.
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