Africa, the word alone conjures up images of wild and wondrous things; jungles, wide open plains, exotic animals, vast areas of wilderness, incredible sunrises and sunsets, and of course, ‘The Big Five’: Buffalo, Elephants, Lions, Rhinos,and Leopards. I had the privilege of seeing all of this first hand, as part of a month-long trip to South Africa.
The most rewarding part of the trip was my stay at Kruger National Park. It was one of those trips that had a profound effect on both me and my family. Incredible sights were witnessed, and extraordinary memories made. Of all the places I have visited, Kruger is certainly on my re-visit list for a future date.
Kruger National Park was established in 1898 and is one of the oldest and largest game parks in the world. The park measures 350km from north to south, and 60km at its widest point. It covers a total area of 1,948,528 hectares. There is an extraordinary variety of wildlife in the park, made possible by the huge range of habitats, and the ecosystem is constantly maintained in its natural state, so there is no feeling of being in a managed park.
My visit took place in August, which is a good time to visit Kruger as the grasslands are dry and short, and the trees bare, thus allowing much better visibility of the animals. The surface water is restricted to rivers and artificial watering holes where the animals congregate. A long drive from Johannesburg to the Phalaborwa Gate of Kruger was filled with excitement and anticipation, but nothing really prepares you for what awaits.
The journey to Kruger took us to places of exceptional beauty on one hand, and appalling poverty and deprivation on the other. We saw ‘shanty towns’ that literally went on for miles and miles, and luxurious houses, secure behind electric gates and fences. An uneasy feeling stays with you as you witness these things, but it’s something you have to get used to if you visit Africa.
The Mopani Camp was our base for the duration of our stay in Kruger. Mopani was so named because of the abundance of Mopani trees in the area. The camp is one of many inside the park and is surrounded by the Pioneer Dam, which makes for great viewing from the open air restaurant inside the camp.
Our accommodation in the park was a lovely guest cottage, with all the modern conveniences needed for easy living. The camp has a large store, a swimming pool, restaurants, and many other facilities you might need during your stay.
There is a lovely peaceful feeling about being in a place like Kruger. From the moment you enter the park, you are transfixed. Long drives, some lasting all day are a joy, even for young children, because frankly when you are looking out the window hoping to come across a lion, elephant or zebra, time passes in a flash, and you are consumed by your surroundings. Having the park Animal Identification Book, a map, a helpful guide and a good pair of binoculars makes the process easier and more enjoyable.
There is also a feeling of slight uneasiness as you journey through the bush. On one hand, you are totally relaxed in this magnificent environment, feeling at one with nature, and on the other hand, you are constantly aware that this can potentially be a very dangerous place, if you fail to behave sensibly.
On one occasion, a male elephant, in protective mode of his babies and their mother, decided to charge our car, as a warning to move on and leave them in peace. For a few moments, that was really terrifying! Another scary moment was getting out of the truck and almost stepping on a snake, but all in all, if common-sense prevails, the experience is magnificent.
An early morning guided safari is a must. Heading off at 4am, still dark, and watching Africa and all its wonders come to life is an extraordinary and unforgettable experience.
Kruger is part of the “Mpumalanga” region – Land of the Rising Sun, and no place could have a more fitting name. Time spent in this vast wilderness, listening intently for the sounds of the animals, looking out for dung markings to see which ones may be around, watching the animals coming to life as the sunrises, witnessing amazing sunsets, and having the advantage of the wisdom and knowledge of a professional guide makes a trip to Kruger a trip of a lifetime.
Stopping in the middle of the bush to have a picnic is a surreal experience. The very prospect of doing this terrified me, until I realized it was a designated spot to picnic, with an armed guard sitting there in the middle of nowhere with rifle in hand, just in case! Luckily, the only animals that came our way were the bushbuck, and we shared our picnic with them.
Catching the last rays of the setting sun while barbecuing outside our cottage in the evenings, or eating dinner on the terrace of the Mopani Camp restaurant and hearing the distant screeches of hyena and other animals, or, later gazing at the African sky littered with stars, were awe-inspiring experiences.
Africa is without doubt a magical place. It penetrates your very soul, inspires you and mesmerizes you. It sends you home a different person, with a profound appreciation for life, for all humanity, and for the natural world. It leaves you with a deep feeling of gratitude for having been able to experience it.