Driving through the Animal Kingdom known as Kruger National Park, South Africa

The sun creates a soft glow over the misty savannah. The early morning mystique feels otherworldly and increases our feverish excitement. As we are entering a kingdom in which men do not make the rules, we feel small and ready for adventure. Driving slowly on the sand road, we peer out of the windows for a glimpse of activity. We’ve been told this is the best hour to spot wildlife, but so far there’s no movement to be seen or noise to be heard – except that of our own car.

But then, suddenly, a small herd appears in front of our car. We’re right awake and need a few seconds to figure out who is accompanying us. Hyena’s? No, wild dogs. Wild dogs! There are eight of them, with their big long ears and light brown and black mottled fur. They’re running alongside the car and in front of us. With their tongues out of their mouths they’re running in some sort of formation, zigzagging the road from left to right and back again. I feel like as if we stumbled on a private party, but they do not seem to be bothered by our presence at all. We’re curious to see what they’re running for – are they hunting? But as the minutes pass by it starts to look more like a morning run, the dogs occasionally making a short stop, one of them sitting down on the road in front of us to take a poo. But then all of a sudden they speed up and we veer up from our chairs in excitement. Are we about to see an actual hunt, as seen on National Geographic? Am I about to witness a very interesting act of nature, and then be faced with the death of some cute impala?

The answer is no. After some more minutes of sprinting they venture off into the bush – out of our reach. But what an amazing way to start the day.

It’s the third day in South Africa’s National Kruger Park together with my amazing travel companions. With me on this trip are my sister, my partner and my most adventurous friend. Four pairs of eyes focused on spotting the Big Five. Four pairs of eyes focused on spotting any animal in fact. Taking the entrance of Komatipoort into the Kruger Park we drive our car over a river full of crocodiles and immediately spot a few of them dozing on a rock. Entering the park itself we find ourselves looking at a huge herd of impalas only minutes after driving into the park. We’re so fascinated by this sight that we completely overlook the tall giraffes standing in the midst of this crowd. How is it even possible to overlook a giraffe? Especially for me, since it has been my favourite animal since I was just a couple of years old. The answer is simple: it’s our very first safari trip and the scene is unlike anything we’d ever seen before. There’s so much to see that in fact we’re partly blinded by excitement.

It feels incredibly strange to venture through a nature reserve the size of almost 19,000 square kilometres on your own. You can just drive though the park without a guide, even without a four-wheel drive. A simple rental car will do here since you have to stay on the roads anyway, but don’t be fooled by the parks’ accessibility. It’s named a park indeed, but there’s nothing artificial about it except for the roads and some camping spots. Here, you find yourself in the middle of nature, where you need your eyes and ears to see magnificent creatures, and to avoid getting too close to them.

I myself have to fight the urge to pet the giraffe walking alongside our car, literally just 40 centimetres away from me. His fur looks so soft, and the pattern is amazing. Dark brown cells separated by an off white net across his entire body, starting just centimetres from his knees (which is where we would expect to find ankles) all the way up to his head high up in the air. A gracious walk, his back providing a seat for small birds picking his fur for small insects. Surely, he wouldn’t mind me patting him?

Thankfully I have the common sense to realise giraffes in fact can kill even a lion by hitting them with their neck or kicking with their tall legs. So I don’t. I just try to take pictures out of my window, but he’s too close to fit in. Zebra’s are less harmful I know, but I still decide not to touch these beauties when it’s their turn to gaze at our car without any interest as we pull off next to them. I had seen zebras in the zoo before, but these fairytale creatures have a mesmerizing pattern that make me want to watch them for hours.

My friend turns out to be an amazing animal spotter. Even while she’s driving she points out more impalas, giraffes and zebras as well as buffalos and wildebeest. My sister and partner hang out of opposite sites of the car with their cameras, respectively with a wide-angle lens and zoom lens, to make the amazing experience last forever. I myself try to spot some wildlife as well but am the worst of the four of us, binoculars would’ve definitely helped me. I think.

As our rental car becomes increasingly noisy we decide it’s time for one of us to get out of the car to take off the protective plastic cap of our hubcap that’s rattling like crazy as its only connection to the tyres is now only one tie rap. We’ve seen the warnings not to get out of the car, but we’re here to see animals up close and we’re scaring them off like this. All three of us ladies are too nervous to get out, so my partner gets out while we are on the lookout for lions from inside the car. I’m not sure how we would’ve handled a lion that would see my partner as a prey, but luckily didn’t have to find out and could just peacefully, and quietly, continue our way.

At least our response was quick enough when we found our car taken over by a couple of blue-balled vervet monkeys. All of our windows open to take better pictures, we were just in time closing our windows to prevent any of them accompanying us in the car. We’d read about cheeky monkeys taking off with food and even cameras so were closely watching their efforts to open our car doors – now it was them ‘watching monkeys’ in a car cage.

Once the monkeys had lost interest, we continued our way to suddenly find the most imposing animals we’d ever seen just alongside the road. Three rarely seen black rhinos. We pass them very slowly as they give us an intense stare. It’s jaw dropping to see them cross the road just behind us. We stop the car and all four of us turn around to watch through the rear window to see them pass. This is a sight I’m certain none of us will ever forget.

Just minutes later we find a an elephant calf near the road making a small, high-pitched blow as he’s scared off by the tourists in a car ahead of us driving past at quite some speed. “Idiots!” We all say annoyed and then turn our heads to look at the calf, incredibly cute with his wrinkled grey skin and still short trunk. His mouth hangs open in what looks like a friendly smile. We look around for his mum but she’s nowhere near. Always good to check we thought, since we’d seen some videos where an antagonized full-grown elephant rocked a car and even pierced a ladies’ thigh.

We did come close up to an angry fella on our guided night trip later that day when we were sitting high up on an open jeep. Our armed guide asked two people from our tour group to steer the spotlights so we would be able to find nocturnal wildlife. This task comes with a responsibility: to steer away the lights once you’ve spotted an animal, as to not blind them nor antagonise them. Of course, our bright minded jeep companions decided to act otherwise at the sight of a huge male elephant standing only metres away from us. Pointing the bright lights on its imposing posture for several minutes, despite repeated pleads of our guide not to do so, the poor elephant indeed felt threatened and started to groan. Stamping his big foot on the ground, flapping his huge ears forward and backwards along the sides of his face, it was clear you would never want to mess with this giant. It was time for us to leave his territory.

A shared territory that is. One afternoon we had the privilege to witness a true safari scene. Elephants, giraffes, buffalos, impalas and zebras gathering all together near a drinking spot. Simultaneously we started singing: “A-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh.. In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight.”

How spot on. Although wandering lions are an often viewed sight in the Kruger Park, they’re nowhere to be seen in the days we drive around. As far as spotting the Big Five (elephant, buffalo, rhino, leopard and lion), we didn’t quite succeed. As far as anything else on this safari trip goes: impossible to surpass.

While the sky colours red and a huge low sun features as the beautiful backdrop against the silhouette of a predatory bird on the branches of a leafless tree, we leave the animal kingdom. They’ve shown us their beauty and we know we have no other right than just being a visitor in their empire.

Create your own adventure!

Renting a car in South Africa is fairly easy if you have an international driving license and credit card. I’d definitely recommend to hire a car yourself as driving through the park at your own pace offers you the opportunity to savour any animal viewing for as long as you want (and the animal allows you to).

If you wish to stay at one of the campsites inside the Kruger National Park itself, be sure to book well ahead. The park is a popular school holiday destination – high season runs from December to January and July to August. Check out the official website for information on the camp sites. If you prefer accommodation outside the park, I can personally recommend you to stay in Komatipoort, a small town just 8 km from the Crocodile Bridge Gate into Kruger.

The best wildlife viewing in Kruger in the dry season. During these the winter months (May to September) the animals gather around waterholes and the bush thins out.

 

 

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