I dreamt of going on safari since I was a little girl, and with just a few weeks left in South Africa, it was time to head out to the bush. A trip to the Kruger is a pretty special experience – it lived up to every fantasy I ever had, and more. I was completely swept away, especially when my boyfriend made a most romantic (and unexpected) proposal at sunset, overlooking the river, with two black rhinos in the background! I expected lions, elephants, and other wild animals, but I didn’t expect that.
It was a truly magical day, filled with that awe-inspiring excitement that makes one feel as though they’ve been transported to another world, full of wonder and the mysteries of nature. And then, with a full moon rising as the blazing African sun dipped behind the trees, I was brought to tears by it all, the beauty and love of life, represented in entirety by my relationship with a man I could have only imagined existed. It was the most beautiful moment of my life.
Even without an engagement, the Kruger Park is incredible. Covering nearly 20,000 square kilometers of diverse bush veld in the northeast provinces of South African, Limpopo and Mpumalanga, the Kruger has been designated by UNSECO as an “international man and biosphere reserve.” Here you’ll find the Big Five – lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo, and leopard – among thousands of other incredible mammals including zebras, giraffes, wildebeests, hyenas, cheetahs, hippos, impalas, and wild dogs, just to name a few.
Sadly, South Africa’s precious white and black rhinos continue to be poached every year for their horns, which is done in a shockingly horrific manner that leaves the animals to suffer greatly. In an effort to protect the rhinos and other wildlife, the park has implemented anti-poaching operations in recent years, including 650 park rangers, two drones (donated by Denel Dynamics), and two RAF helicopters, as well as heightened surveillance along the Mozambique border. It is really something else to see a rhino appear in the bush before you: a formidable animal of immense size and strength, so powerful-looking yet with the most beautiful, gentle face.
We left early in the morning, driving up through the Free State countryside and into Mpumalanga, past orchards of apple, lemon and orange and eventually past large plantations of papaya, sugar cane, and banana. On the side of the road near Nelspruit we bought bags of gorgeous mangoes (R30) and a bag of the biggest, most delicious avocadoes I’ve ever had (R20). I would definitely recommend a stop at one of these roadside stalls.
The options for accommodation in the Kruger range from camping to five-star luxury lodges. For the first two days we stayed in a beautiful lodge just outside of the park’s Crocodile Gate and then moved into a very basic hut inside the park for the remainder of our stay, in the Lower Sabie. Both offered unique and incredible experiences, and overlooking the rivers, our accommodations allowed us to view the animals without even getting into the car.
The gates to the park open at dawn and close just before the sun sets, I assume because it’s rather dangerous to be out there with wild animals after dark. However, the fences surrounding our camps didn’t exactly make me feel safe, but I suppose that’s all part of the thrill!
You can hear the lions roaring at night, and sometimes the hyenas. The sky fills with a billion stars and then bats, and eventually the darkness is made full by a nocturnal symphony performed by insects and amphibians. It’s a pretty amazing feeling to be out there in the great expanse of the African night.
We would rise early in the morning, before the sun, and head out to the car armed with large flasks of coffee and rusks. After the first morning drive, we would head back to the camp and make a big breakfast. The rest of the day was spent relaxing (swimming, reading, napping) and then in the late afternoon, we would head out again into the bush to witness the spectacular sights of the Kruger before dark, this time usually with some snacks and beers. The evenings were spent around a big braai fire, preparing food and drinking lots of wine. After dinner we would walk along the river (the fence apparently protecting us from the animals) and listen to the sounds of the wild under a big, sparkling sky.
Some safari tips:
1. Bring binoculars. Although you will get a chance to see the animals quite close-up, some of them can only be seen from a distance. And binoculars are especially good for bird watching.
2. Use a good camera. Again, you might only get a chance to see some animals from a distance, so a good camera with a decent zoom is a must. Some people take their photography very seriously, and sport some outrageously large lenses!
3. Pack snacks and drinks in the car. You may spend a few hours at a time in the car so you’ll want something to nibble on and definitely something to drink.
4. Stay cool. It can get VERY hot in the Kruger. Air-conditioned accommodation is a necessity during the summer months.
5. It’s definitely fun to go with a few people, and also makes the trip a little more affordable. I think going with 4 or 5 people is ideal.
6. You don’t need a 4×4. Although we had one, a car will do just fine in the Kruger.
7. Don’t get out of the car or feed the animals. And show respect for the environment. I think this one is pretty obvious.
South Africans will tell you the best time to go on safari in the Kruger is in the winter months (June-September) due to the cooler weather and the vegetation is sparser making it easier to see the animals. There is also less rainfall in the winter, driving the animals to waterholes to drink. After my own experience going in March, I think late summer/autumn is also a fantastic time to go. It’s not too hot (but it is hot), and everything is green and lush, which didn’t seem to impact our ability to see animals.
Perhaps we were just lucky, but we saw all of the Big Five in the first two days, except for the leopard. After we had given up hope of ever seeing this elusive animal, a leopard miraculously appeared, sleeping up in a tree, just as we were leaving the park on the last day.
One evening, an unfathomable scene unfolded: the moon was almost full, illuminating the landscape with a pale, white light, as a male lion moaned and crossed the bridge over the Sabie River. Magic. No matter when you go, or what you see, a trip to the Kruger will leave you mystified and humbled by the astounding beauty of the African wild.