Lions, and elephants, and rhinos – OH MY! We finally got ourselves out on a safari just a few days before we left South Africa. The Kruger National Park, yes they call it, The Kruger, is one of the largest nature reserves in South Africa. We flew into Johannesburg, on the East side of the country, rented a car, and drove the 4 1/2 hours to this stunning national park. We had been trying to scheme a way to get to Kruger the entire year we were living in Cape Town, but with our being on tourist visas and having to leave the country (to a non-bordering country) every 90 days, our funds for local and inner-country travel throughout the year were pretty limited. When we made the decision to move back to the states, we were not about to leave the country without finding a way to get out on a safari – and you can bet your bottom dollar we made it happen… even if we did have to eat homemade bread and popcorn for weeks to save up enough funds to do it! Small sacrifices to make our big dreams a reality.
Our compact rental was perfect for us adventure seekers. The 4 1/2 hour drive from Joburg to Kruger seemed like nothing. We were both so thrilled to begin our trip into the unknown, parts of South Africa that we were dying to explore! We arrived at the park late afternoon. We had made all of our reservations for park tickets and accommodations a few weeks prior to our arrival. Rob went into the ranger station to pick up our tickets and get a park map, expecting some extensive instruction, as this was our first self-drive safari. He came back to the car with a park map, our three day park pass, a photo guide to spotting the wildlife, and some warnings about the mush bull (male elephant who protects the herd), but not much else. We were on our own as we drove into the wild – quite literally! Exhilarating and terrifying!
Day 1: December 7
We were both stoked and a little nervous I think. Our late arrival only gave us about 1 1/2 hours of light before we needed to be in our camp. It was raining pretty good and the sky was filled with dark gray clouds. On top of the gloomy weather, we were surprised by the lush nature of the park. Other than the sky and paved roads, it was green everywhere we looked, with grass, trees, and bushes in every direction. The rain and the greenery made visibility for spotting wildlife pretty difficult at first. We drove around for the first half hour not spotting any animals, but when we spotted our first impala, we were jazzed! They are quick and nimble, strong, sleek, and graceful animals. They leap through the air like ballerinas, long and lean.
We continued to drive, really hoping to see some larger animals. Rob was really looking forward to seeing giraffes and elephants. I was really hoping to see them too! You would think an extremely tall, gangly, and spotted animal such as a giraffe, would be incredibly easy to see, standing above the trees, but surprisingly, its tall and spotted nature created the perfect camouflage amongst the green surroundings. That is why, as we were driving along the road that first afternoon, we were shocked when we saw one spotted head pop up in the trees, and then two, and then three, and then four, and even a fifth giraffe lining the road! We were blown away! We couldn’t believe how well they blended in with the surroundings. We stopped and watched them as they went about eating, not caring one bit about our being there. Sitting there in a tiny little vehicle, watching them in their natural habitat was incredible. They were so at peace, content to go about their business, as we curiously observed them with wonder and awe. They are just as cute, if not cuter than all of the children’s book illustrations you saw of them as a kid. Adorable.
It began to get darker, so we decided to head back to our rest camp for the night, but driving slowly, so that we didn’t miss anything on the way. Rob kept saying he really wanted to see an elephant, and then, about 100 feet from us, I saw a large, dark body in the trees. I had to do a double take, because it wasn’t easy to clearly see through the rain, but yes, it truly was an elephant I was seeing! I yelled “elephant!” Rob said, “what!? Really?!” And I said again, “Yes, elephant! Right there through the trees!” We both gazed in disbelief as we looked on at this adorable elephant enjoying a light leafy snack by itself not far from the road. We had turned the car off to watch this incredible creature in the peacefulness of the lightly falling rain, and we got so focused on this elephant, as it slowly got closer to the road, we didn’t notice the second elephant that had crept up along the other side of the road, just a few feet from the car. As soon as we noticed him, I could see the panic in Rob’s face, as the elephant was literally within arm’s length from his window on the driver side. We were both excited, but also slightly fearful, because although this beautiful animal was calm and seemed quite gentle, it was ENORMOUS, and ever so close to us! We calmed down as he went about his business and continued on down the road. We looked at each other in awe of what we had just experienced and sighed out loud before turning on the car and heading for camp. What an unbelievable first afternoon in Kruger! We couldn’t wait to see what the next few days would bring.
The camp we stayed at was one of the rest camps within The Kruger park, called Pretoriuskop, on the South end of the park. The park is so large, they have multiple camps throughout. We stayed in a small hut with two twin beds and a small brai grill out front. It was a large campground with tent sites or huts for sleeping, shared flushing toilets, a single restaurant (Wimpy – a burger joint with sky high Disneyland type food prices), a little general store, and even an outdoor pool. Each rest camp was like its own little village, surrounded by a tall fence, to keep the wildlife out. Although we were not camping among the wildlife, it was very cool to be sleeping on the same land, with only a wooden fence to separate us from the wild. I really enjoyed how close you felt to the animals, hearing sounds of some of them in the night, yet completely safe within the camp.
Day 2: December 8
December in South Africa is summer, so we were there right in the heat of the summer. We woke up and headed out extremely early the morning of our second day on safari, because we knew that more of the animals might be out before the heat of the day. We were tired, but extremely motivated by our desire to see more giraffes, elephants, and all of the animals we hadn’t seen yet! We packed snacks, because the only places to get food were inside of the rest camps, which were fairly spread out in the park. After loading the car up, we were on our way!
The week leading up to our trip I had been praying everyday that Heavenly Father would bless us to see a rhino while we were at Kruger, because I love rhinos and really wanted to see one up close. I think they are so adorable. As we drove around I kept saying a prayer in my heart, and hoping with all the hope I could muster, that we would see a rhino. Mid-morning, maybe 10 am we came around a corner and there was a rhino on the road just up ahead!! I couldn’t believe my eyes! There was a car in front of us that was moving around and I think it scared the rhino and it ran off into the bushes. The brush was so thick, when we pulled up, we couldn’t see anything. That rhino was long gone. I was excited that we had seen him for a minute, but also bummed that we didn’t get to see him well or for very long. As we continued around around corner, I couldn’t believe it, but we saw a mama rhino and her baby ahead of us on the road! I was so happy I started to get emotional. They didn’t stay long, but long enough for us to watch them both saunter into the trees. As the mother rhino walked, I could see her muscular body with every step. I think that is one of the reasons I love rhinos, they are so strong, cute, smart, and beautiful animals. I felt overwhelmed with gratitude. My prayers had been answered!
Throughout the day, we saw giraffes, elephants, kudu, tons of amazing birds, warthogs, impala, etc. We stopped and sat by the Sabie River for a while and got to see the the backs/ears of a few hippos basking in the river. Their ears were so cute, wiggling above the waters surface. Hippos are portrayed in children’s books and movies as cute and cuddly, but I have heard that hippos are actually really aggressive. We didn’t get to see that side of them, but we were glad to see a little bit of them enjoying the afternoon floating down the river.
There was an app that we downloaded that allowed us to see where people were sighting specific animals at specific times. We got an alert saying that wild dogs had been spotted, and the location wasn’t too far from where we were at the time, so we drove to them. When we arrived there were tons of cars, so we knew we were in the right place. As we drove around the cars, along a curve in the road, we saw quite a few wild dogs resting/relaxing beneath the shade of some trees. They were only a few feet from the car and they were so cool looking! Their coats were two-tone and spotty. They seemed to enjoy each other’s company, because most of them were sleeping with their heads resting on a buddy’s back or head. They were all cuddled up together. We stayed and watched them for a while as they rested and some of them paced around a bit. Neither of us had ever seen a wild dog before, and seeing them so close and in their natural habitat was a neat experience.
Mid-afternoon we stopped so Rob could take a short nap, because our rental car was a manual (which I didn’t know how to drive) so he had to do all of the driving. We had gotten up so early, and it was very hot and muggy, and by mid-afternoon he was exhausted. While he slept, I continued to watch for animals. I didn’t want to sleep for fear that I might miss out on seeing something spectacular! While he was asleep, I heard noises coming from the front of the car, what sounded like something clunking around inside the dash. I felt really nervous about the sound, because I couldn’t tell if it was underneath/outside the car or somewhere way too close for comfort! The most nerve racking part of it was that I had no idea WHAT kind of a thing was making that awful noise. The sound was on my side of the car and sounded like muffled scratching. I tried to stay calm and not make noise, because I wanted Rob to be able to sleep, but I was terrified!
Rob woke up not long after this and we continued on our way. As we were driving, I didn’t hear the noise anymore, so I assumed whatever the imposter was was gone – I was very WRONG! About an hour later we pulled over and turned off the car to watch a nearby elephant grazing in the grass, when out of nowhere the scratching sound re-appeared, much louder this time, and something burst out from under the dash onto my foot!!! I screamed and threw open the door, which is a GIGANTIC NO NO when you’re on a self-drive safari! I was so terrified I reacted without thinking to get the thing out (totally forgetting that there were two large African elephants right outside of the car)! Rob yelled for me to close the door! After I closed the door, in a state of sheer panic, I saw the culprit of the scare slowly and calmly walking itself along the road and off into the grass – a little beatie-eyed dung beetle. OH MY WORD, yes a dung beetle about gave me and Rob both a heart attack, and so much more emotional damage, but phew, it was gone and we were fine, other than pounding hearts and a few minutes later we were laughing hysterically about the whole thing! Haha – you never know what you’ll run into on safari!
At each rest camp, there are activities/guided excursions you can sign up for, that include things that you cannot do on your own, such as, a morning walk, morning drive, sunset drive, night drive, or a bush braai. We signed up for a night drive for R626/per person (about $42 US), as we thought it would be really cool to possibly see some of the animals that were more likely to come out at night. Rob especially wanted to see a leopard, and the group that went on the night drive the night before us saw one, so we were really hopeful!
We showed up around 17:00 hours and piled into a big open air truck with a canopy overhead with a bunch of other people and headed into the dark of the night. The cool night breeze was so refreshing after a long brutally hot day. It was a little scary being out in the open air in the wild, not knowing what was lurking about in the dark, but a thrilling adventure at the same time!
Our first sighting was a family of hyenas along side the road just outside of our camp. The baby hyenas were cute, even with their sharp teeth. One of the passengers was given a big light and assigned spotlight duty, but halfway through the drive, we all noticed that no spot lighting was happening… turned out the woman was sound asleep and snoring loudly, haha!
As we continued to bump along the road, we saw some jack rabbits and quite a few owls. I know you’re thinking, you’re on a safari in the deep of South Africa and getting excited about owls, uhh…?? We felt a little bit the same way when the driver first stopped to point out an owl, as we sat up in our seats and peered over the front of the truck, expecting something exotic that we had never seen before! The owls were cool as their eyes were huge and their heads would move so robotically with the motion of the spotlight.
Although we thought the owls were neat, we were really hoping for some bigger more discreet night animals, particularly a leopard. The whole drive was an hour long, but the time flew by and we were bummed when we realized we had turned around and were headed back to camp. I was still optimistic that we would see a leopard on the final stretch of the drive, but to our disappointment, we didn’t see a leopard that night. But just before we returned to camp, right next to the road, we saw two HUGE African or Cape Buffalos chowing down on tall grass. Seeing them so close to us really put their enormous stature into perspective. We would NOT survive a single night in the wild! :}
That night when we returned to our rest camp, we were starving. We had prepared a little meat and some ears of corn on the cob to have a little braii (bbq) out under the moonlight. We grilled the the corn (one of my childhood and still to this day favorites) and kudu meat and enjoyed our dinner out in the open air. It was a perfect night with the fire, a warm meal, and quiet conversation under the stars. These outdoor, back to the basics evenings spent outside in nature are some of my very favorite memories in life, without any distractions to detract from the purity of best friends bonding and building memories for a lifetime to come.
Day 3: December 9
Saturday morning we found a watering hole and parked there early in the morning, hoping to see some action. It felt like we were watching The Lion King in real life. Different animals would come to the watering hole at different times and watch and wait for an opportunity to drink, but you could see how leary many of them were as they approached. As we watched the surface of the water, almost completely still, we could see at least two crocodiles lurking just beneath the waters surface. If you weren’t extremely observant, it would be easy to not notice them at all. After I saw the crocs, I understood the cautious approach most of the animals, especially the impalas (tiny little deer-looking animals), as they attempted to quench their thirst. It was really fascinating to watch, but I was also on the edge of my seat, terrified that we were going to witness a brutal murder at the waters edge. It truly is survival of the fittest/smartest in the wild.
Before we came on safari, we were so focused on the idea of seeing big African animals we had never seen in the wild before, we didn’t even think about all of the little critters and creatures we might see along our journey as well, one of those being the dung beetle. As we were driving, we noticed something moving purposefully along the side of the road in the grass. We pulled over to take a closer look and to our surprise it was a dung beetle doing what it does best – rolling a ball of dung 5x its size up a hill! This was fascinating to watch. Two little beetles, one working hard to roll the ball up the hill and the other clinging to the side of this ball of dung rolling along having a crap load of fun! 😉 As odd as this sounds, we were taken back by this and totally blown away by the strength and determination of the little guy slowly but surely making his way up the hill with this enormous ball of dung. I know we had been scared to death by one of these dung beetles just a day before, but we hadn’t had the opportunity to see him or his buddies in action and it was really cool! How often do you see an animal literally living up to its name?? We now know exactly why the dung beetle is called the dung beetle and we will never forget what we saw this day. Humbling and almost hypnotizing to watch him at work. This was one of many unexpected but incredibly interesting of our encounters while on safari.
We stopped at the Lower Sabie River camp for a cold drink and for me to get my wiggles out – did some squats outside the car in the heat, just to add some sweat to the already sweaty mix in our tiny rental. No time is a bad time to get ripped, why not get ripped in the wild. 😉
We continued our journey down the road near the Sabie River and had some very sweet experiences this third day. This one was very unexpected and so special to me.
While at the Lower Sabie River rest camp refueling, we heard talk of a group of rhinos nearby. I was tickled pink by this news! Rob and I quickly got on our way in search of the rhinos. As we neared the location the rhinos were proposed to be, I was so filled with anticipation, I wasn’t sure what I might do if we did in fact find these alleged rhinos – scream? pass out? wet my pants?? To my great delight, we pulled up to the open field of the sightings, and there they were, not two or three, but a whole family of rhinos, 2 adults and 3 babies! When I saw this precious family of rhinos my heart filled with gratitude and I was instantly overcome with an indescribable feeling of joy. I was jubilant. As we sat and watched them interact with each other in the sunshine, I couldn’t help but think about the family unit and the strong ties we each have to our own families. We feel driven to watch out for, protect, and love so deeply those who are apart of our tribes (our people). It’s a beautiful relationship with bonds that run much deeper than we often fully comprehend or know how to express. Although these strong, powerful animals have thick skin, I see a tenderness and love for one another in them, and it was so touching to watch. There are so many connections from us as human beings to the world around us if we take the time to see them. Our lives are beautifully intertwined, and I believe we are all linked to one another as we are all created by a loving Heavenly Father. I am so grateful my prayers to see rhinos on safari were not only answered, but far exceeded what I had hoped for. God is so good. So very good.
Even though you drive a lot when you’re on safari, it doesn’t feel like a burden or much of an annoyance, no matter how long you drive, because you never know what you might see along the way, and so there is always a feeling of anticipation and excitement for what may be ahead! I imagine if you are on safari for weeks at a time you would get tired of driving, but since we were only in Kruger for 3 1/2 days, we were jazzed about getting in the car and making our way into the bush everyday. I’d say 3 1/2 days was a perfect amount of time for us for a safari. We didn’t feel short changed, and we didn’t feel rushed or pressed for time.
Rob’s biggest hopes, after seeing giraffes and elephants, was to see lions and cheetahs, and a leopard. Thanks to the sighting app, he got an alert about a sighting of a pride of lions a little ways North of us, so we headed there straight away! We neared the area of the sighting and there were cars lining the road in both directions; most of them stopped, gazing intently into the trees. We waited in line and finally got into a position where we could see the pride of furry felines lying in the bushes, beneath the shade of a group of trees. We turned off the car to decrease any extra noise and took our time enjoying the unbelievable scene before our eyes. There were at least 8 lions, a mix of males and females, maybe only 50 feet away from us and I was sitting closest to them in the passenger seat. Most of them were sleeping, but I had recently watched a YouTube video of a family on a self-drive safari and they had their doors all closed, windows rolled up, but had forgotten to lock their doors and a lion opened one of their doors!!! I had that image in my mind when we pulled up to the lion’s resting place, so when Rob rolled my window down (window closest to the lions) to get a better look, I got SO SCARED!! I kept imagining one of the lions waking up, darting to our car, and clawing my face to death. Needless to say, one of the lions woke up, but none of them were interested enough in me to come rearrange my face. All joking aside though, the lions, even in their lazy state were fascinating and beautiful animals to observe. The males main of hair is so thick and bushy and the female is so much lighter in color; gorgeous and impressive animals.
Our last day at Kruger was bitter sweet. We were excited for the other places we were headed to explore, but sad that we had to leave this amazing place. Kruger was life changing for us.