How To Do The Kruger National Park - Well, Here's How We Do It

James Preston Reply 11:10 AM
There is no place on Earth like the Kruger National Park. No single piece of uninterrupted land is as diverse as that within the confines of the Kruger National Park. No matter who you are, no matter what you experience, you cannot deny its beauty. But only if "the bug" bites, do you get an addiction into your bloodstream that pulls you back as often as you possibly can afford. That bug bit for us on our last morning of our very first trip back in 2007. God spoke to me and led me to take Corinne to Kruger for our 1 year Wedding Anniversary. Problem is, once He had spoken, I didn't go back to Him to consult Him on "how" that trip was meant to work out. It was a bit of a disaster. But that's for another story. But by His Grace He set us up with the greatest Leopard sighting you could ever ask for on our very last morning. And with that, we were hooked ever since.

Corinne, Joel and I can't wait to visit the Kgalagadi National Park, the Serengeti, Mana Pools, the Okavango Delta, Etosha Pans, you name it. But we know, as confirmed by numerous others, there is something about Kruger that separates it from the rest. And what a privilege to have it so close to home (8hrs drive is nothing in the long run!) and to have it so affordable most (if not all) South Africans can experience it.

December 2013 was our first trip to the Kruger in Summer since December/January 2008/09. Despite what the multitudes say, the Game Viewing was surprisingly astounding. As you will see in the below photos, it was indeed "greener" than most Bush Photos, but the dense greenery didn't affect the number of times we saw God's stunning creatures. If anything, we saw more.

Now, this could be due to the fact we stayed at one camp for the first time ever since annually visiting Kruger for the first time in 2007, but we are pretty sure the Summer Season is more fruitful than people make it out to be. Don't take my word for it... Let me take you on a little journey...

We arrived at the recently (and nicely) upgraded Crocodile Bridge gate at 16h30 after leaving Durban at 05h20. Yes, over 11 hours. This included 3 coffee/petrol stops, 1 breakfast stop, 2 border stops, 1 lunch and 1 grocery shop. Yes, 1 grocery shop. (It's best to buy your meat there if you are going through the Swaziland border. Just in case Customs get funny.)

And yes, we go through Swaziland. The roads are very hairy along the N2 up past Piet Retief, and the drive is longer to get to Crocodile Bridge. We'll take our chances at the Border. Even though there are no 10km's of roadworks on the formerly-45-minute road between the final Border Post and Komatipoort. #frustrating

Anyway... where was I? Ah yes... Arrival.

We arrived at 16h30. 90 mins later we had our first Leopard...


This after last year spending probably around 42 hours looking for one the year before with Corinne's folks. And not seeing ONE! We went in Winter last year. This was Summer. 90 mins in. What!?

So we were pretty stunned and over the moon at our first Leopard sighting since 2010! (We didn't go in 2011 because Corinne was pregnant and it felt a bit too risky with Malaria and all).

We bought Joel a little toy...

And what a hit that turned out to be! He loved his little sand and water pit on the luscious green lawns of the Lower Sabie Rest Camp.

The next day started with one of the most beautiful arrays of morning Lowveld cloud formations you could ever imagine. Perfect for early morning Elephant photography...


An hour later of fairly unfruitful driving (besides the smell and sight of simply being in the bush), and we had a lovely pair of Tawny Eagles eating a Monitor breakfast...



About 30 mins later and the drive suddenly became very fruitful.

Our second big cat in under 24 hours! A beautiful pair of Cheetah sitting in a conveniently opened pan of car tracks on a "no-entry" road...


After spending a good 30 mins with these glorious cats hoping for them to get up and wander over to our cars, we decided to leave them to wallow in their majesty in search of more.

On the way, another herd of Elephant. Creating a roadblock. Fortunately we just made it through. The next photo will reveal why I say "fortunately"...


Only about 4 cars all parked very purposefully facing a clearing in the bushveld. One car pulled out and we took their spot. Right front of the tree. We suddenly got a glimpse of him. Once of the most majestic male Leopards I have ever seen.

After 15 minutes of enjoying sharing the same space with him, he decided to get up.

No.

Surely not?

Not right in front of us?

Yes.

Yes he was.

He was about to climb down the tree. Right. In. Front of me.


These shots are poor because I don't have the patience (nor money) to learn an SLR and this all happened so quickly.

Have a look at the blood still dripping from his lips after a good mouthful of Impala as he strode toward shaded cover...


He sat down in the shade only 15 metres away from us, with just enough sunlight to allow my brother in law's awesome SX50 to focus on his stately grin...


Corinne, my father and I just waited.

And waited.

And waited.

When you are this close to a Leopard with that kind of view you don't move for at least an hour. You may not see another one for 3 years. You soak up that moment as much as you can.

And your waiting might just pay off.

In our case it did.

Many other cars didn't have the same kind of patience (granted they didn't have the same view as us) and so when there were only about 3 cars around he, for whatever reason, decided to hop on up and saunter across the road in between our cars to find new shelter further down the hill.


We moved behind a thick bushel and it seemed like that was him for his late morning, post-breakfast nap. But we wouldn't give in that easily.

After only a further 15 minutes, and all the other cars' patience later, he was disturbed by a troop of Vervet Monkeys.

He jumped up and gave my greatest ever Leopard pose. Possibly my greatest Big Cat pose. Ever. (To date, of course.)


His piercing yellow crystal-like eyes scathed through the bush locking onto the annoying monkeys, who still didn't know he was there. He wasn't letting them out of his sight. His meal cupboard was full. And he wasn't letting anyone get near it. So he watched...


...closely...


...they were getting too close....


From this position above he launched a blistering dart back across the road straight toward the monkeys. Which I magically caught on video. (Will have to upload that later - it's only 8 seconds and will probably disappoint you).

By the time he got there the Vervets had scattered into the highest branches they could find. Our Magic Male plonked himself down to keep a playful eye on each one of them. With more remarkable camera poses...


This all happened within a total of approximately 2 and a half hours with my father, Corinne and myself in the car. My amazing mother had decided not to come and offered to stay with Joel instead. We weren't arguing! He wouldn't have handled 2 hours in that heat watching a non-televised Leopard.

But it was something else. Surreal. So much action. So many photo opportunities. So few cars and traffic. All in the Southern Kruger in the school holidays. Boy did we have a show that morning!

You can see his little Impala carcass safely nestled in the fork of his favoured tree, while he quietly meandered off to find another shady spot. Pretty far away this time.


We decided to leave it at that. We had seen enough. It really couldn't get much better. And from the feedback we heard later, it didn't. So we were really just in the right place at the right time. Any one with any kind of experience in Game Viewing will tell you: "It's the luck of the draw."

We were so satisfied with that sighting that we decided not go on an afternoon drive and instead take it easy around the restcamp. We sat on the restaurant deck of Lower Sabie, and boy did that pay off! Just in front of our bungalow (about 200m away from where we no were at the restaurant) a Black Rhino appeared from out of the bushes for a drink! We were breathtaken! When he appeared I knew immediately he was a Black Rhino by the way he held his head. One glance through the Binoculars and sure enough: Our first Black Rhino sighting ever! From the restaurant deck of Lower Sabie! Man that restaurant has produced some crackers. I also heard my first ever Leopard roar from that deck. (But how about these people? They saw three Leopard from the deck!)

I stupidly didn't take my camera with to the restaurant, so we could only but enjoy it in the moment, instead of capturing the moment. The way they did it in the old days.

The next day Corinne, Joel and I decided to leave my folks on their own and go for a Wimpy breakfast 2 hours out the park in the town Komatipoort. We took the magical S28 drive back, a dirt road between Crocodile Bridge and Lower Sabie and same road we saw those 2 Cheetah the day before.

Joel thoroughly enjoyed the freedom of the car...


And the sightings were good, too! We came across this ripped Buffalo leg in the middle of the road. I am assuming it's buffalo...



100m's up the road, this Tawny Eagle was looking particularly interested in something...



Aaah... that's what it was! Below him were a few Vultures and a Black-Backed Jackal...


And on the other side of the road, those 2 Cheetah from yesterday were on the move!



Of course, that Buffalo leg would not have been from a Cheetah kill (Buffalo are far too big for Cheetah to take down), so it's amazing to think that in the area there were other predators too. We couldn't find them though.

Meanwhile Joel was happy to keep the car clean while we enjoyed the sighting...


After that great drive, we had a lovely afternoon at camp, and in the evening my Dad and I decided to go on a drive alone. Only to spot our third Leopard of the week! My Dad's fifth!! They saw another Leopard that morning while we were in Komatipoort.

It was really late, so the light was terrible, and he didn't move much at all. We had to be back at Camp by 6:30pm so we couldn't hang around, and this was the best shot we could get...


The remainder of the trip strangely started producing less Big Game. But we still appreciate the small stuff, like the Icon Bird of the Kruger National Park, the Lilac Breasted Roller...




This was the place we found out Nelson Mandela had died. My Dad had cellphone signal and received a message from my brother back home who had received the news. No more significant a place to be than the Kruger National Park to receive news like that. We were having breakfast at one of the Picnic Spots at the time...



On our drive back from breakfast we found this little herd of Waterbuck...



And a little while later we came across this Bustard. I don't know it's exact name, but he makes a remarkable sound....



This is him in action, shooting his throat back and making the sound of a water drop in a bucket. Amazing sight and sound...



No Game Park experience is complete without a Giraffe crossing the road like this...



That afternoon we came across a pride of Lions. Our first Lions all week! Do you see them?



They were there. Trust me...



The next day was another family trip up to City Skukuza (it's like a city there). We stopped for breakfast at another Picnic Sight on the H4-2, the primary road for seeing Leopard in South Africa.



Joel loved his time at Skukuza...



Like he was waiting for the bus...



Breakfast on the Skukuza Restaurant Deck...


Joel and my Dad enjoying the Steam Train that used to run through the Kruger Park way back in the early 1900's, this one was the last train through which was stopped and made a restaurant out of at Skukuza Rest Camp...



On the way back, we got a nice sighting of Wild Dog! Only our second ever sighting of Wild Dog! It wasn't great as they were very placid, but still a great sighting.


Along the way came across this fantastic Southern Ground Hornbill picking scorpions off the floor. I couldn't believe how many Scorpions there were!



And just before we got back to camp, we had one of my favourite sightings of the trip, this little Pearl-Spotted Owlet. We stopped on a bridge having a look at same Buck, and I saw some swallows acting strange, and sure enough almost right in front of me was this little guy...



t day was a fun morning spent around camp, especially considering we spent so much time at Skukuza the day before. From our lawn this majestic Martial Eagle was flying overhead...


Joel was having a blast with his mamma...


And in that Lowveld heat, he couldn't survive without ice cream...



Oh how he loved that ice cream...



Then walk that ice cream off...


Joel directing traffic at the Lower Sabie Restaurant Deck. even the Game Rangers...



That night, being our last night in the Kruger for probably another year, we decided to go on a Night Drive. Our first paid-for Game Drive since 2007, and oh my golly! We had this simply remarkable experience with a Bull Elephant. He came right up to us, where we could hear his breathing. So close, the Ranger had to turn the car and lights off, and ask everyone to not move or make a sound. It was something else.


After seeing a Large-Spotted Genet, experiencing a Lion Roar next to the van, another Male Lion, an African Wild Cat and a Porcupine, we came across this Pride of Lion just sitting in the road...



Amazingly the same Pride of Lion we saw a few days before. You can tell by the Female's collar on the left there...


Despite the lights, they weren't too phased by our presence...



Clearly soaking up the warmth from the day's sunshine soaked up on the road.



And that was it! What a way to end another amazing Kruger trip! That Game Drive was so stunning we've decided to make it a tradition that on every last night of our stay in the Kruger, we are going to go on a Night Drive. I can't wait to see what the next Night Drives produce in years to come.

The next day it was home time, and the daunting, long trek back home with a 20 month old baby.

The flags were flying at Half Mast in honour of the great Nelson Mandela...


The great thing about the Kruger is that if you are staying in the Park, you're guaranteed a few more sightings on the first stage of your drive home. Like this close encounter with an Elephant...


I put this shot in here to show you one of the many things I love about Kruger. For as far as the eye can see, no matter how high up you go (mountains, viewpoints etc.) the view is just expanse of Bush. I often think of Durban, and imagine what it used to look like before man came along. The lush, green bush of a sub-tropical climate...


And that was that! An hour later we were out the Park, and more lifelong, priceless memories were imprinted in our minds, ready to be told to whoever gives us an ear to listen.

10 hours (and 30 mins of baby screaming) later we were at the Wimpy Richards Bay Engen One Stop at 7pm. Despite many stops along the way, Joel couldn't handle it much longer, so we decided to give him dinner and wipe him down with baby wipes and get him ready for sleep. He had one last play in the Play Place and ate dinner like a champ. He then fell asleep and was an angel for the remaining 90 minute drive home.

Next time, we might just have to make a one-night stopover. Doing the Kruger with kids is another story. But it's so worth it.

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