Our five night stay in Kruger, which was only a few weeks ago but seems much longer, has whetted our appetite for a rather more extended visit and we have planned a twenty night trip to take us from the southern section of the park right up to the far northern tip and the border with Mozambique at Pafuri. We’re not usually big on detailed planning and pre-booking our campsites but it is a very popular national park, particularly in the southern parts, and even though we booked in advance we were still unable to get into a couple of the rest camps that we first picked. We’ll be staying at nine different camps for two or three nights in each and minimising our travel distances between them but even so there will be a few big (for us) drives, especially with a speed limit of 40km/hr on dirt and 50km/hr on the tar roads. Of course time must also be allowed for stops to look at any wildlife we come across. Most of the camping will be in rest camps which have a variety of accommodation types, shops, service stations, restaurants and even swimming pools. A couple of the places are smaller satellite or bush camps which are more basic but still above the level of services we are used to in Australian National Parks. All camp sites have well maintained toilets and showers, basic camp kitchens and plenty of good drinking water. In the restcamps the sites even have power on each site and instant boiling water in the camp kitchens. All the large rest camps have swimming pools which will be very welcome in the hotter weather we expect to experience, especially as we travel northwards. We know that the park is in the depths of a fierce drought, the worst for over 100 years, and the last decent rains were over two years ago.
Our first rest camp is Pretoriuskop, the oldest one in the the park, which is situated 10 km from Numbi Gate in the southern section of the park. We arrive by lunchtime which allows us our pick of the camp sites and we set up right by the boundary fence. When we aren’t out driving and looking for game we can keep an eye out right at our camp site. Several type of antelope, including impala and bush buck, wander by grazing on the few remaining bits of grass and one evening an elephant family noisily munch on their meal a few metres from us as we munch on our own dinner.
We quickly settle into the rhythm we will follow for our time in the park. On days we are moving between camps we aim to arrive by or soon after lunch so we have more choice of camp sites. After we set up we rest for a while then take a late afternoon drive, making sure we get back to camp before the gates are locked at 6.00 pm. Mornings are either a very early drive to catch the morning light and look for the animals before the heat of the day then return for breakfast, or a later start and a longer time out before returning. We are only allowed out of the car at a handful of specified spots and so we have the esky in the back seat with plenty of cold water and a thermos and coffee makings fits into a box on the floor behind the passenger seat. Cameras (one for me and two for Paul including one with the big 400mm lens) are on the back seat and easy to reach and our binoculars are also ready for quick use. Here and there are picnic spots where we can leave the car for our coffee or picnic lunch and these often overlook water courses and have good shade. Some time in the afternoon we take a second drive, often timing it for as late as possible hoping for better light for photography around water holes as evening approaches.
We’re very happy with the variety of game we see while at Pretoriuskop, virtually as soon as we come through the gate we started spotting wildlife. While we are in this area we see two immature male lions, plenty of elephants, buffalo and giraffe, various antelope including impala, springbok, duikers, waterbuck, kudu, wildebeest, bushbuck and klipspringer, as well as zebras, hippopotamus, crocodiles, tortoises, rhinos, dwarf mongoose, ground squirrels, warthogs, vervet monkeys, baboons, and lots of birds. All of the park is dry but some areas in particular have been devastated by the drought; broken trees and shrubs sit in bare earth and some of the buck, impala in particular, show their ribs. Only the areas along the watercourses are green and naturally the greatest concentration of animals are in these areas although we also see some in the driest, most inhospitable looking terrain.
From Pretoriuskop we drive to our next camp at Berg-en-Dal which is close to the southern border of the park. It is set amongst a marvellous jumble of rugged rocky hills and the scenery is reminiscent of much we saw and loved in the Pilbara and western Northern Territory. Just before we reach the rest camp we take a scenic drive along a slightly rougher dusty track which winds its way between the hills in a big loop around to the far side of the camp.
It’s a lot more crowded here so we don’t get a boundary site but we have plenty of shade and some lovely neighbours, Colin and Jeannie, and we enjoy chatting with them and joining them for drinks one evening. We see a few elephants near the camp but the rocky hills don’t provide much grazing so we need to venture back to the main road to see more. A large dam at the edge of the camp is completely dry, normally we would be able to watch game there with the bonus of being able to see them before the gate opens at 5.30 am and after it closes at 6.00 pm.
Rhinos are typically found in the southern section of the park and, while we saw a couple while we were in the Pretoriuskop area, we see quite a few more around Berg-en-Dal. On our drive between camps we take a short detour to a water pan in the hope of seeing some wildlife there. The pan is dry and there is no activity nearby but returning to the main road we approach a mother and baby rhino grazing on the edge of the road. We sit for ages with our very ‘up close’ view. Another car heading in the opposite direction also stops but the young rhino evidently decides that they have stopped where he wants to graze so he gently head butts their car and they take the hint and move out of his way. Poaching of Rhinos is a problem everywhere, particularly near borders, but there are big efforts to control it in the park and they seem to be working as populations around here seem quite healthy. (Later in our trip we hear that two rhino were killed by poachers near Orpen Gate while we are in the park.)
The ‘Big 5’ in the game world are the lion, elephant, cape buffalo, rhinoceros and leopard. We’ve seen four out of five in the park, it is just the leopard which has eluded us thus far. On one of our drives we see a string of cars a short distance off the main road so we turn down to see if we can spot what has everybody’s attention. After scanning the area with our binoculars we finally see it, a leopard resting in a fork of a large shady tree on the edge of the creek bed about 100 metres from the road. Along with everyone else we shuffle our vehicle around in an effort to get a less obstructed view and hope that the leopard stirs so we can get a good look at it. Often they will hunt at night then find a shady spot to rest for the day. After a relatively short time we are treated to a brief period when the leopard stands and stretches then, apparently tired of all the attention from the gaggle of sightseers, it slinks down the tree and disappears into the bush by the creek. Very satisfied with the start to our drive, and with a big smile on our faces we continue our drive and manage to spot the other members of the ‘Big 5’ in the same 5 hour drive … plus lots of other game. It becomes clear to us that there is more food for the animals around Berg-en-Dal and this undoubtably has caused the wildlife to concentrate in the area.
We’ve had a little rain over night, very welcome but hardly enough to wet the dust, and there is a light misting rain as we are having our breakfast before packing to leave for our next camp. We had taken the awning down while we were at Graskop as we didn’t think we’d need it so we are eating breakfast in the trailer tent and Paul notices several wheel nuts and studs missing on the right wheel of the trailer. Only two remain! We’d probably (hopefully) have noticed their absence before we set out but we definitely want them fixed before we set off. We have a go at jacking up the trailer but with only the high-lift jack and the trailer sitting on a slope we get worried about the trailer moving down the slope and coming off the jack. The camp maintenance crew come in response to our request for help but they can’t assist us and suggest we drive the few kilometres to the mechanic in the nearby town of Malelane. We decide to give it a go and finish our pack-up, hitch the trailer to the car and very slowly start to drive out of the camp … then the wheel literally falls off.
Luckily we hear the two remaining studs snap and stop in time to prevent the trailer falling all the way to the ground. We walk to reception and they help us phone the mechanic in Malelane who arrives just before midday. He and his apprentice expertly jack the trailer up and replace all six wheel studs and nuts in just over an hour, very good work. We had all the spares required or it would have been a much longer job which would have included waiting a day for studs, wheel nuts and axle caps to be sent from Nelspruit.
The drive to our next camp, Skukuza, is uneventful mechanically, thank goodness, but our late start means we’re late arriving at what is the busiest and biggest camp in the park and it’s Saturday afternoon as well. There is no chance of a boundary edge site or any shade but we get a good sized spot and are soon set up. Its hot already and even hotter weather is predicted so we put the awning up, it’s not as difficult as we thought so we will feel more comfortable putting it up or taking it down in the future. Our time at Skakuza follows the same pattern, morning and afternoon drives with a rest between but we add in swimming as well. Luckily the pool is close by as the camp is almost the size of a small town. Another addition is late afternoon drinks and light snacks on the expansive wooden deck at the restaurant overlooking a long stretch of the Sabie River. As the sun sets and then the moon rises over the old railway bridge we watch the colours in the sky change and the game drinking at the river below. As the shadows deepen, and we can no longer see the river below us, we are left in an island of light with the sounds of the hippos grunting and blowing in the deeper pools floating up to us. It is a magical scene and an enchanting evening.
When we leave Skakuza we are heading north into the central section of the park. Our next stop will be Satara and our story continues in the next blog post.
You can see more of our South Africa photos in the Photo Gallery South Africa