Kruger National Park 9/15

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Absolutely full of life with a remarkable eco-balance...

Zebra crossing - Kruger style

And now for something completely different... Despite not being a nature nut, the appeal of Kruger for my decade birthday spot is its uniqueness. It took a mountain of planning and a bit of luck to put it all together well. The US dollar is very strong against the South African Rand, making most everything cheap in Kruger and in Cape Town, often crazy cheap. The weather is mild in September with highs around 80°F and lows around 60°F. I had some trepidation before the trip about self-driving, all of which was unfounded – it’s easy and the animals are everywhere!

Sunday, September 20th:  Skukuza self-drive south

 

We arrived at Skukuza’s micro-airport on an Airlink RJ-135 around 2pm after our quick 45 minute flight from Johannesburg. We were very tired, having grabbed optimistically 4 hours sleep enroute from Dubai overnight, yet determined to not waste our first day. I had mapped out a southern loop to Stevenson Memorial and a couple of water holes from a good reference, Globetrotter’s Kruger National Park and preloaded them into the GPS. With Ben keeping me honest while driving on the left side of the road and Craig as our prime animal spotter, we headed south from the airport in our rented Jeep Grand Cherokee.

The mighty photo hunters heading out

 

Day 1: Warthog herd - Such a handsome group

Day 1: Horny black rhino

Day 1: Cape buffalo herd breaking up traffic

 

Although there are road signs at every intersection in Kruger, in my opinion a GPS map of the area is required for peace of mind. I used and recommend Tracks for Africa maps for Garmin. At first we were very excited to see impala herds and other common creatures, but we soon got jaded/spoiled and looked for big game. It didn’t take long. Road crossings started happening and animals like warthogs (first picture above) and rhinos (second picture above) appeared along the side of the road. All traffic stopped for the herd of dozens of Cape buffalo (third picture above). Elephants were everywhere (first picture below) and we were very lucky to see a leopard close-up just two hours into the park (second, third and fourth pictures below). There were a couple of lions in the distance near the Stevenson Memorial. All in all, we accomplished a lot in our first hours in the park. We stopped at the Skukuza store on our way out for snacks and wine and barely made the 6pm Kruger gate closing at 6pm. We checked in at the Protea Kruger Gate and settled into our chalet before driving to the hotel's restaurant for a bad dinner buffet with a convention-like crowd. We were all desperate for sleep, so I set no alarm and we got up Monday in time for lunch.

 

Day 1: Baby elephants walk

Day 1: Leopard saunters across road

Day 1: Leopard stance

Day 1: Stuff happens

 

Monday, September 21st: Self-drive northeast to Tshokwane rest camp

 

We slept well for the first time on the trip in the chalet (first picture below). Lunch at the hotel was excellent, unlike our dinner the night before. We headed into the park just after noon for our northeast drive to Tshokwane. At the entrance gate we bought the official guide book for about $3US, which helped us identify the animals and birds. Driving in Kruger (second picture below) is surreal to some degree. We were in our car cage while the animals - exotic animals - roamed free in a fascinating natural balance. They accepted us as long as we stayed in our cage. Impalas were everywhere in this area (third and fourth pictures below).

 

Protea Kruger Gate Chalet #1

Day 2: Drivin with the big boys

Day 2: No Chevys here - Impala herd

Day 2: Impala close-up

 

Not 15 minutes into the drive, we pulled up next to a giraffe having his relaxed lunch (first and second pictures below) at the side of the road. Soon we spotted another giraffe doing her elaborate stooping dance to drink water at a stream (third picture below). Crossing a one lane bridge, we spotted our first crocodile (fourth picture below).

 

Day 2: What's up?

Day 2: Sticking his neck out

Day 2: Sip a long way down

Day 2: Crocodile watch

 

Cape buffalos have a reputation for a foul temper, so I kept my distance in the Jeep, but they were plentiful and didn’t seem to acknowledge us at all (first and second pictures below). Wandering alongside the road we saw a lot of baboons, some more interesting than others (third and fourth pictures below).

 

Day 2: Cape buffalo herd moving

Day 2: Cape buffalos too close

Day 2: Baboon baby ride

Day 2: Baboons close-up

 

As mentioned before, elephants were everywhere along this drive (first and second pictures below). When we reached the Tshokwane rest camp, which for some reason allows everyone to walk around outside of their cars, there was still plenty of wildlife around (third picture below with an elephant just behind Ben and Craig) including elephants and baboons. Although it was before 4pm – closing time for the store there, we had to negotiate a couple of soft drinks as they tried to close up. Although I had mapped out a farther loop route to Lower Sabie camp, it was clear that we had to head back to the hotel if we had any chance of beating the gate closing at 6pm. On our way out we caught the sunset with the Kruger statue in the foreground (fourth picture below). Another successful park day. Not wanting to reprise the bad buffet dinner the night before, we decided to drive 40 minutes to Hazyview to buy supplies at a grocery store for our next couple of days. The night drive felt scarier than we liked, so we settled on a KFC and grocery store 10 miles closer. It was a bit unnerving to be the only white folks in either place, but that’s probably just our American biases. We had our fast-food dinner, backed up our pictures and videos and retired for the night.

 

Day 2: Elephant convention

Day 2: The elephant in the road

Day 2: Tshokwane camp

Day 2: Sunset over Kruger Gate

 

Tuesday, September 22nd: Professional open Jeep drive

 

In planning the trip, I was concerned that self-driving might leave us without good sightings, so I booked a private drive with a professional for our last full day. The negative was that the pro wanted to head out at 6am – yuk. Good troopers that we were, we were up and ready for the early morning adventure armed with terrible box lunches from the hotel and some serious camera equipment (large picture top of page right – check out my new 150-600mm lens). It was the first time we were cold the entire trip. Our pro driver was a great spotter, so we saw a lot. The elephant in the first picture below came right up to the road. There were other sightings along the way (second and third pictures below) before we came on our first really good lion encounter of the trip (fourth picture below).

 

Day 3: Elephant close-up

Day 3: Zebras wandering the plains

Day 3: Reedbucks discussion

Day 3: Young male lions

 

 It turned out to be four young male lions (first picture below). They were more than happy to lay and saunter around and generally ignore us. Moving on, we spotted hippos (second and third pictures below) and monkeys (fourth picture below).

 

Day 3: Four lions at stream

Day 3: Hippos in the stream

Day 3: Baby hippos grazing

Day 3: Vervet monkeys meeting

 

We filled in a lot of blanks from our wildlife experience in the remainder of the drive (first and second pictures below). We stopped and got out to stretch our legs at an overlook in the late morning (third picture below). Around noon the carnivore animals seemed to disappear because of the heat and that brought out the prey animals for their lunch (fourth picture below). Returning to our hotel around 1pm, we dumped our cameras in the chalet and then enjoyed a long lunch at the hotel restaurant. Ben and Craig watched 2009's "Invictus", which is about South Africa's post-apartheid 1995 Rugby team in their run up to the world cup championship. Ben was interested in watching this year's Rugby playoffs throughout the rest of the trip. I cooked our dinner in the chalet that night using the supplies we had bought the night before at the grocery store on the way to Hazyview.

 

Day 3: Vultures perched

Day 3: Stork taking off

Day 3: Park overlook

Day 3: Waterbucks watch

 

Wednesday, September 23rd: Skukuza area self-drive & flight to Cape Town

 

You’ve got to love bachelor leftovers, which we did for breakfast on our last day in Kruger (first picture below – check out the food mixture). Entering the park enroute to the airport, there was a brand new form that day and a lower fee for cars going directly to the airport. $17 versus the normal $68 for all three of us! We were thrilled to pilot the new system for them. Along our short drive from the gate to the airport, we spotted a baby Nyala (second picture below) and (we think) some very rare and endangered white rhinos (third picture below). Our flight to our next stop in Cape Town was delayed an hour, so we parked in the waiting area of the micro-airport (fourth picture below). Adventure two of three - well done.

 

Day 4: Breakfast of champions

Day 4: Baby Nyala

Day 4: Rare white rhinos

Skukuza's micro-airport

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