Friday, February 19, 2016

Kruger National Park, the Crown Jewel of Our Safari Adventures

So, our own adventure in Kruger on one of the days we were in Hoedspruit was undoubtedly one of the most fun and unexpected perks of our trip.

Kruger National Park, or KNP for short, is South Africa's largest game reserve, covering nearly 8,000 square miles in size and containing a multitude of landscapes and animals, including the big 5 (elephants, leopards, lions, rhinos, and buffalos).  It was founded in 1926 in an attempt to preserve some natural habitat for the animals, and prevent them from being over hunted.  It was a prescient move and I'm grateful that the reserve was created then.

What we didn't realize until we got there, is that you can freely self-drive the park with your own vehicle.  All the roads are paved or gravel, and no off-roading is allowed.  You may feel skeptical, as I did, about exactly how much you can see if you're forced to stay on the roads -- however, rest assured, you absolutely can see a ton, even on paved roads.  In fact, those seemed to be some of the best places to spot big game like buffalos and elephants when they do their crossings.

From our resort, we headed for Orpen Gate, the closest entry point, at a very early 5:45 am.   I wanted an early start because I wanted to maximize our time in the park.  Plus, animals tend to like the cooler mornings and early evenings, and I thought that if we didn't spot anything good we could just return to our resort to relax. There is a bit of strategy involved with Kruger because it takes time to register, purchase tickets, and get your bearings, there is a pretty low speed limit, the park is very expansive, and you have to be out of the park (through one of the designated gates) at 6:30 pm.  Factoring in all of those variables, plus how long you want to stop to look at animals/search for animals/wait for animal crossings, you could find yourself in a bit of a time crunch!

As soon as we entered the park we started seeing animals.
It was really fun to spot animals on our own, and we had done enough guided drives at this point that we kind of knew what to look for and where, and enough facts about the animals that it was interesting.
It was like a choose your own adventure novel - do you want to take the gravel path east toward the Mozambique border to see hippos and lions, or do you want to take the paved path south to possibly see buffalos or leopards?
Or… actually, who knows what you will see, at any moment, anywhere?!
I've never been such an "active" passenger in a car.  Seriously, we sat in the car for around 14 hours that day and I really didn't notice it.  And I hate being in cars.

The warthogs are so predictably jumpy!  They always run right away.  Gotta love that tail sticking straight up though (it's a signaling device to the other warthogs so they can stay together when they're all running away from a predator).
We had just started on the S100,  a gravel road, when we saw a bunch of cars pulled over.  Turned out, we had just stumbled upon four (count 'em, four!) male lions, snoozing under a tree.

Michael was so focused on the lions he almost didn't notice what I saw (and smelled)… which was a dead hippo by the almost dry riverbank.  These lions had just made a kill the night before.  Sitting there with the windows open, I got a nice good whiff of a large bloated decaying carcass.  It did not smell pleasant.
We saw a lot of buzzards circling around and patiently waiting across the road, spectators eagerly counting down to the moment when they could partake in the huge feast.
One of the male lions had left his three brothers to cross the riverbank, but while we were there waiting and watching, he made some moves to rejoin them.
When he did so, he walked right by their kill.  I'm telling you, these animals guard what they take down!

It was simply stunning to see four male lions together, so we were beyond thrilled that we got the chance.  Here, you can see the mane on one that is sitting up, and then three of them passed out in the shade, luxuriating in their well deserved late morning nap.
After that very exciting encounter, we continued toward the Sweti hippo hide, where our guide had informed us there would be a nice spot for catching some hippos.  I had told him I really wanted to find some hippos out of the water.  Along the way, we saw quite a few elephants and giraffes, and even witnessed a zebra crossing of sorts.

There were some babies in the group.  I love their hair.
All of Kruger was so dry, so dry!  As the day progressed and the heat increased, and we saw how desolate the landscape was, how much like combustible tinder the brush was, we couldn't help but feel great sympathy for the animals.  This current drought has severely affected the animals and their ability to get enough water.  I am normally a voracious water drinker and I'm sure it was completely psychological but being surrounded by this parched landscape only made me feel even more insatiably thirsty.

Here, a bunch of antelope searching desperately for some water in the muddy, practically dry riverbed.
During a particular desolate patch, Michael spotted this hawk picking away at his prey.
This buzzard (aren't they so ugly?) looked alert.  The desert-like region that we drove through on the dust-choked roads seemed to indicate that he wouldn't have to wait long before his next meal.
Here, a mother elephant and two little baby elephants.
We finally got to the hippo hide where all was pretty quiet, but for a ton of hippos in the water.  Count them, how many do you think are in there?

We were lucky and, while sitting there in the cool shade of the hide, were awarded with the appearance of a large male elephant.  Here you can see him lumbering toward the water, with the hippos owning the part of the water closer to us.
This big guy clearly wanted water.  This was the largest body of water we had seen since entering the park.
He kept inching toward the water's edge, and then pulling back.  What was he so worried about, you wonder?
Crocodiles!  Can you see the little bumps that have risen out of the water at the water's edge?  Those are all eyes of crocodiles that came up to the surface once they realized the elephant's approach.  In the end, the elephant lumbered away - thirsty as hell but unwilling to risk his precious trunk!

And then, just as we were getting very tired and I was really starting to wonder when we would hit our next rest stop, and just as Michael was starting to seriously question the sanity of driving on these intense gravel roads (remember, we were still very scarred from our flat tire incident and it was still fresh in our memory), we had an unbelievable moment.  Michael had just decided to pull over/slow down because he was clearly worried our tires weren't going to hold up, and I had just started thinking that we were going to be in big trouble if our car couldn't sustain us because we had just driven for nearly an hour without seeing another car…when I said, "Michael, you need to back up" in a voice that was high pitched, strained, and likely very, very excited.

For we had just driven by a pride of five female lions, sitting under a tree, about three feet from the edge of the road.
Now THIS is the Kruger experience!
I don't mind sharing the experience with fellow tourists, but I have to admit part of what made this moment SO magical, was how we came upon this pride by ourselves, and completely unexpectedly.
Thrilled, excited, and yes, a little bit terrified?
It was like our own beautiful, thrilling secret, and if we hadn't passed by at that moment, if we hadn't chosen the supremely sketchy gravel road to head south, we would never have seen these beautiful big cats!  Another car did eventually come down the path, and they would definitely have continued driving if they hadn't seen us stopped and intently staring.  So I'm glad someone else got to enjoy it too!
These animals had also recently killed something - but we couldn't figure out what it was.

Treasuring that moment, we continued on our way.  Now we really wanted to see leopards!

This is the second body of water that we saw - pathetic huh?

We hoped we would see more animals at this watering hole, but we only saw one stork.  No leopards, alas.

Tree full of vultures… how's that for a creepy visual?
More elephants!
We did a detour hoping to see leopards… we only saw monkeys.  I find baboons very scary, so we stayed in our air conditioned car with the windows up.
Another depressing river bed that should be swollen with water during the wet season… but isn't.
We finally took a break at this point to sit at the water and have some food at the Skukuza Baron, around 3:30 pm.  It had been a long slog, considering our day had started at 5:45 am when we left our resort.  I don't have any pictures of this beautiful, idyllic restaurant on the water banks, unfortunately, but it was so relaxing.  Caffeinated and with sunblock re-applied, we hit the road for the final portion of our day in Kruger, ever conscious of the gates closing at 6:30 pm.

Sadly, folks, we never did see a leopard, but while we were looking for crocodiles along the Sabie River (the only full body of water we saw all day), Michael suddenly said, "There is a hippo in my rearview mirror!"  and I screamed.  (I screamed with delight though, not fear, which is a bit of a faux pas on a safari but I was so excited I couldn't help myself.)  And there he was!
A hippo, out of the water!  They are huge aren't they?  They kind of remind me of a pig, actually - maybe because of their short stout legs?  And also they are a lot more pink (when they are dry) than I expected.  They always look dark brown or gray when they're in the water.
Right next to where he was eating, we saw this.  I think it has to be a hippo skull right?  Look at the snout.
We kept looking in trees for leopards, but reluctantly finished our safari and called it, making our way toward the exit gate at 5:45 pm.  We exited out of Paul Kruger gate at 6:10 pm, and from there had to drive all the way back north, to get back to our resort.  We essentially entered in the north and exited in the south to maximize our time in the park.
The drive home was a bit stressful because it got dark fast and people walked on the sides of the roads all the time.  It was puzzling why people stood on the side of the road, or walked and crossed the streets in the dark, such that you wouldn't see the person in the road until your lights flashed on him or her.  With the curving roads and the low light, it was not ideal.

By the time we got back to our resort, it was almost 8 pm and we had a brief bit of time to shower and freshen up before dinner.  We were pretty tired, Michael especially as he had been driving a stick shift car (on the left!) for the entire day, but we were also pretty punchy and full of adrenaline from our long day spotting amazing animals.

Kruger, you were definitely a highlight of our safari!

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