I chatted with a couple at Backwards Camp in the Western Ghats, India in 2005 and they told me how they had driven through The Kruger National Park, without guides or paraphenalia, staying at the camps set up within and entirely following their own route. This really appealed in a way that trundling along, with others in a Safari-style truck just didn't, it had no appeal at all. We wanted to see the big beasts even more than the birds of Africa and this, to us, was the way to do it. It turned out that John and Marion Best had done the trip too, several times, and they proved both helpful and inspirational in our planning.
We landed in Johannesburg after an overnight Virgin Atlantic flight and left straightaway in a hired SUV, through Pretoria to a town called Louis Tritchard some five hours north. We intended to carry on the next morning to The Pafuri Gate, the northen most point of the Park and then take two weeks driving south to leave the Park at Berg en Dal, the nearest point to Johannesberg. The place we stayed in Louis Tritchard was excellent and the garden full of birds like Olive Thrush, Sunbirds and Red-collared Widowbird. We were woken by thunder, which turned out to be Vervet Monkeys running over the roof. Our first mammal. The best moths of the trip were here, including an Emperor type, rather larger than ours - maybe 6 inches across.
We signed in at the Pafuri Gate the next morning, after a couple of hours drive having already seen Savannah Baboons and Tree Squirrels along the way. Slowly we made our way towards Crooks' Corner on the Limpopo River, one of the few places you can get out of the car. This site marks the north-eastern point of the park, where the borders of RSA, Zimbabwe and Mozambique meet, a regular smuggling spot in the past - hence the name Crooks' Corner. Our first real experience of African Wildlife came along the way, all those TV scenes becoming suddenly real was very strange and very exciting. The first dry riverbed we crossed had a couple of Elephants feeding and any number of Warthogs while at the same time Kudu, Buffalo and Baboons crossed the road. The first and one of the best wildlife experiences of the trip.
|Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill|
We saw some good birds at Crooks Corner including Saddle-billed Stork and African Spoonbill but our attention was grabbed by a strange story unfolding. Some cattle had wandered across the dry, sandy riverbed from Zimbabwe to the remnant of river on our side and were attempting to drink in a pool stuffed with Crocodiles, including some monsters. The cows were nervous, clearly having some awareness of the danger, but still hungry enough to wade in warily: we expected an explosion any second. At which point three youths came running over the riverbed and tried without sending the cattle into the pool to lure them upstream which they managed to do in time, to where the river was shallow and safe. Good for the cattle but there was a tiny bit of regret to miss what would have been a dramatic scene, if a bit upsetting.
|Saddle-billed Stork and African Spoonbill|
The north of the Kruger is very quiet and you can go all day without seeing another vehicle, it's also quite well wooded so the animals are amongst low, brush woodland and taller trees. It's a different experience to seeing the open plains favoured by TV programme-makers. Burchell's Zebra were common here but we only saw one Giraffe in this area, though they were common enough further south.
The Antelopes really made an impact and became much more interesting than we had ever imagined, a couple of rarer species showed well: Nyala and Sharpe's Grysbok. Impala were everywhere and you soon stopped looking at them which is a shame because they are beautiful creatures. The starlings were obvious and very striking with Violet-backed, Burchell's and Cape Glossy all common along with the first Lilac-breasted Rollers which turned out to be numerous throughout the Park.
|Cape Glossy Starling|
There are Leopards (which we missed) but the north really has no Rhinos, Cheetahs or Lions. Or so we thought!
Six O'clock in the morning, our second day and driving all alone along a dirt track we topped a rise to a water hole to be confronted by two Lions. We slowly approached and stopped and they wandered past us to stretch out a few metres away. Two young females, all power and danger, though affectionate and playful amongst themselves as we later saw. It was scary even though we knew we were safe in the car. It was more scary when we noticed a third sister watching us from a rock behind us. Then she stretched and strolled to join the others. The pictures tell the story.
Also here was our first Hammerkop and Blacksmith's Plovers which, again, were everywhere seen on our trip. The same can be said for Wood Sandpiper which was present at most bits of water, sometimes accompanied by other familiar waders and Marsh Sandpipers and the local Three-banded Plover.
|Dwarf Mongoose family|
We stayed at Punda Maria Camp, which was small and basic but we really liked it, there were Bushbuck in the camp itself and Dwarf Mongoose just outside. The first Spotted Hyaenas were seen, early morning, nearby. Then it was time to move on, two nights at Punda Maria and then it was time to head to Shingwedze, a slightly bigger camp on the banks of a big but currently dry river. The only Small Spotted Genet was seen here as we ate a meal on a terrace above the River and Greater Galago (Thick-tailed Bush-baby). Black-backed Jackals were new in this area and around the Camp, the Woodland Kingfishers were really noisy, though they were noisy everywhere as we discovered. Beautiful birds though and we also saw, European, Giant, Pigmy, grey-headed, Brown-hooded and Pied Kingfishers on the trip. Crocodiles and Hippos were very common here, wherever there was enough water.
We had a number of interractions with animals, including a few close encounters, notably with a couple of aggressive bull Elephants and once with a White Rhino. Reverse gear was never engaged so quickly. This family of young Spotted Hyaenas were just very curious.
One of the highlights of the trip was staying at Satara, one of the bigger camps. This area in the central region is busier but it's arguably the best area for big cats and we saw our first White Rhinos here too, though they are much commoner further south. The landscape here is more open but still with lots of scrub and scattered trees, the driest, most parched, area we explored. Sometimes a chance word or tip meant an opportunity for a good sighting. This happened here with Cheetah. Cheetahs are pretty rare in the Kruger, about a hundred only (1,000 Leopards, 1,700 Lions) so when we were told that there was a female with five cubs on a fresh kill near a track, we went looking. And there was one of the best sightings of the trip.
|Cheetah on kill|
|White or Square-lipped Rhino|
|Verraux's Eagle Owl|
Some of the grassland birds were good here, in this region.
One little gem of a place we discovered was Nshawu Marsh, it was full of Elephants, Zebra, Buffalos etc. Tsessebe were present in numbers here, though we found them only in this region, and we saw Common Reedbuck which we picked up in the marsh grasses as they displayed using their largely white tails. This was where we saw our first Ostriches, they had young, as had many animals we saw. This was also the only place we saw the very rare Roan Antelope, just four of them but a great find.
On our way south to Skukuza, the biggest camp, we bumped into a Leopard lying in the shade under a big tree on a riverbank, we'd worked really hard for Leopard and failed till now and we were made up. Though better was to come regarding this species.
One of the big moments of the whole trip was coming across a Black Rhino one early morning. Now incredibly rare due to poaching, they are also more prone to inhabiting thicker cover and are consequently much harder to see than White Rhino.
|Black or Hooked-lip Rhino|
|Southern Masked Weaver|
Huge numbers of birds of prey included five species of Vulture and smaller species such as Black-shouldered Kite, Lanner Falcon and Eurasian Hobby. The eagles were most impressive and we had amazing views of Wahlberg's, Tawny, Steppe, African Fish, Brown Snake, Marshal, African Hawk and Bataleur Eagles.
|Brown Snake Eagle|
From the north all the way to the south Kudu were present and pretty grand and a couple of the commoner dwarf antelopes were the elegant little Steenbok and the Grey Duiker with the tuft on its head. Blue Wildebeest were ever present and pretty impressive.
At Berg en Dal, Lions were recorded just around the Camp itself while we were there and we saw a Leopard just along the approach road, there were Vervet Monkeys, Baboons various Mongoose species and Bushbuck inside the Camps and (to paraphrase Dickens) it would not be wonderful to meet a Leopard strolling across the grass at night. It happens and you can see how with trees overhanging the electric fence, still it all added to the adventure.
This Baboon had, opportunistically, caught a very young Impala.
This Baboon had, opportunistically, caught a very young Impala.
We started out at Pafuri in this park the size of Wales and ended up in Berg en Dal before heading back to monochrome farmland and the city for our flight home. The south had been considerably busier but very rich in wildlife. We had to work harder in the north but it was our favourite region and maybe that says more about us than the Park itself. Looking back, it's hard to stop reliving the experience, a trip of a lifetime, not because we can't (and probably will) do it again but because it's impossible to see all those things for the first time again.