I must be honest (would a liar tell you he was lying though), my first trip to the Kruger National Park was not as well thought out as it should have been. It was at the end of 2006 when 3 of my friends, my brother and I decided to take a trip. We would leave Friday after work, drive there, spend Saturday in the park and then return on Sunday. And so self catering accommodation was booked, supplies procured and The Tazz (my first car, a maroon Toyota Tazz so legendary that it is simply known as The Tazz) packed and we were ready. Or so we thought anyway. I was already working in Sasolburg at the time, so I left at around lunch time, drove the 50 minutes in to Johannesburg to fetch my brother who was still in Benoni at the time and meet my friends so we could head off together. My friends were late so my brother and I decided to drive ahead, with an expected 5 hour journey getting us to the accommodation just before it got dark, with the hope that the friends would be able to catch us on the road. I remember that it was a rainy start, which was fine as the first part was on the N12 which is quite a good freeway. However about half way through by distance one has to get off the N12 and head off on smaller, less used routes and the rain and the mist started becoming a major cause for concern.
Then we hit the first snag, road works just after Belfast that made the road stop and go and literally cost us a couple hours on the road waiting to get clear. By the time we did get clear, dark was setting in and I guess getting lost in the back routes up to Orpen was inevitable. Navigating the seemingly myriads of routes between White River and Klaserie we eventually found ourselves at a T-junction that the directions we had said to turn left at but the signs said to turn right at to go towards Orpen gate where we thought the accommodation was at. It turned out that the directions were correct, not because the signage was incorrect, but because the accommodation was actually a good 40km from the actual gate with some 10km of dirt road to traverse before getting to it. We eventually got there first, at around 10 o clock, 4 hours later than we had actually planned. And then we found the accommodation had no electricity, only basic sleeping amenities and only a few gas lamps that only served to attract millions of insects. We were out of our elements for sure…
However the trip into the park on Saturday made up for the drama of the Friday. We entered at Orpen gate, drove through to Satara rest camp for lunch and then down through the park to Paul Kruger gate. Without a plan and knowing where to stop or where the good game viewing locations were or indeed what to look for, we were lucky to see many of South Africa’s big game close up for the first time. One particular encounter that remains in the memory banks to this day was being blocked off by a large elephant bull who was enjoying his lunch on the side of one of the main roads, the size of which I am still to see since. Sitting in The Tazz which is not the biggest car made the encounter even more impressive. Once out of the park we used the roads through Hazyview and Bushbuckridge to get back to the accommodation, which did redeem itself a little on our return from the long day on the road in mostly 40 degree heat with a deep pool that helped cool us off. The trip back on Sunday was a more laid back drive with time enough to spare to even allow a stop at Echo caves for a bit of spelunking and Pilgrims Rest for breakfast.
It took nearly 7 years between trips to make my return to the greater Kruger Park area and I think the second trip could not have been more chalk and cheese from the first. My friend Maja was visiting from Holland and I wanted to show her what my beautiful country has to offer. The Kruger Park was an obvious stop on the two week travel itinerary. With some better planning ahead of time and the discovery of the Bushscapes website (Bushscapes), which allows discounted rates for South Africans at periods when occupancy is not to capacity, I managed to book a fully catered stay the Kapama Southern camp at a great price. The drive was much better, leaving Johannesburg around 8am after learning my lesson after the first trip allowing for any unforeseen delays. A GPS to avoid getting lost again and being in my Kia made the drive quite pleasant in fact.
Kapama is a smaller, private reserve in the Klaserie area, again not inside the park itself. However, the reserve together with the neighbouring reserve of Thornybush and some of the others in the area have opened up their fences to the Kruger Park in certain areas, allowing some of the park animals to wonder in. The experience at the camp can only be described as a luxury bush experience, with all meals catered and two game drives a day. We got to the camp at around 2pm, were checked in and then got together again at around 3pm for an afternoon high tea before heading off on our first game drive with the extremely knowledgeable guide and tracker team of Gary and Remember. Evening game drives ran until past dark and as well as the game we got to see a few spectacular sunsets and the Milky Way in its full glory, uninterrupted by the light pollution that dims it in the city. Morning drives started at 5:30am, requiring a 5am wake up (which wasn’t a problem because, as I have said, I am very much a morning person) to get out early enough to have the best chance to see the wildlife. Probably the best part of both the morning and afternoon drives was stopping half way through, getting out of the safari vehicle and having tea and rusks in the middle of the bush. One morning almost immediately after seeing a leopard walk past on the prowl for his very own breakfast.
On our 6 drives we managed to see all of the Big 5. The elephants, for most of the time, managed to evade us, moving quickly from day to day. The lions were easier to find and we even watched an unsuccessful hunt. We almost ran into the rhinos, who mocked charged us, by rounding a corner too quickly on the trail of the leopard. But the guide and tracker’s sharp eyes and excellent bush knowledge also allowed us to see some of the smaller animals in the reserve as well as learn the tell tale signs of certain animals. I can now tell when a heard of elephants have been in an area because of the way they break down the trees and strip the branches of bark. And when I find a rhino midden which can often be along the road, I know to be on the look out for rhinos in the area.
The time between morning and afternoon drives allowed us to head out of the reserve into the Kruger park proper on one of the days, entering through Orpen gate once again, and through the Panorama Route on the second. The Panorama Route was probably the better day trip, as the scenery was epic. The Three Rondavals at the end of the Blyde River Canyon, which has quite a bitter sweet story to it’s name, God’s Window and Bourke’s Lucks Potholes are all worth stopping at, getting out and taking in the view.
Maja looking out over the Three Rondavels in the Blyde River Canyon
The canyon itself is meant to be the second largest in Africa and one of the largest in the world. Leaving the reserve on the last morning really was tough and I promised myself that I would be back as soon as I could. (See my gallery from that trip here: Kruger Park 2013 )
In September last year I made good on that promise. The primary reason I had to visit is that I had just purchased my latest camera body, the 7D MarkII and I wanted to test out both the camera as well as a lens that I hired. After failing to get hold of the newly released 100-400mm F4-F5.6 MarkII lens, I hired a 70-200mm F2.8 MarkII and a 1.4x converter and headed off to the park for a 3 day trip. It was the first time staying within the park itself, and as luck would have it I stayed at a satellite camp of the Orpen gate, the Tamboti tented camp. At R500 per night the accommodation offered was basic yet adequate, a raised tent on the banks of the Timbavati river that sleeps 4, a fridge and braai area at the tent and communal ablution facilities a short walk away. I booked a morning and an afternoon game drive and enjoyed them both, getting to see 4 of the Big Five, missing out on a Rhino sighting but being pleasantly surprised to pick out a leopard right next to the safari vehicle on the night drive.
The camp setting was spectacular and I was told of leopard sightings on the dry river bed being a regular occurrence. I did not see the resident leopard though, and although there were signs of elephants having been on the river bed as well I did not see the herd either. On entry, one of the warnings given was to make sure that all food items were either locked inside the cupboards in the tent or better still, in the cage that the fridges were housed in. The reason for the warning was that baboons sometimes got into the camp and could be quite destructive in their search for food. Seeing the resident troop across the river on the first afternoon as they settled in for the night was quite alarming and I kept hoping not to have any run ins with them. Luckily they stayed away, and the only visitor I did run into was Genet who followed me around a little too closely for my liking. What was already noticeable though was that the park was already very dry. I had initially put it down to the late arrival of the spring rains. However, the rains never arrived in any substantial quantities for most of the summer. South Africa has been in the grips of one of the worst droughts in its history which has taken a significant toll on the countries wild areas.
The reason for the trip proved to be worth my while in the end. I fell in love with the 70-200mm lens, with it being the first ‘white glass’ I shot with and eventually bought one a couple months later. I then added a 1.4x converter as well and I am still impressed by the image quality. The lack of photography skills is on the part of the photographer, though in my defense I was still learning to use the equipment. (See some of the pics that I took here: Kruger Park 2015 ) But the trip also re-ignited an almost violent urge to return, to book a few days leave on the spur of the moment and drive, so don’t be surprised to see another Kruger gallery soon. I have to admit, over the years I have fallen in love with the Kruger Park and that’s with only seeing one part in and around the Orpen/Satara area. I can’t wait to discover all the other parts of the park I have not yet seen!
A word of advice on getting to the park. The last trip in September saw me take the now familiar route down the N12 towards Belfast and then switch to the R540 towards Dullstroom and Lydenberg. This however was not the best of routes as large sections of construction and detours off the R540 leave you on very dusty sections of roads frequently used by truckers throwing up dust clouds making overtaking impossible and driving slow and treacherous. Driving back from the park, I opted to take the longer route via Tzaneen and Polokwane and paid a few more tolls but found this to be safer and easier driving. The SANParks website (SANParks) does give warnings to road works as well as protests that may be happening along the route and it is advisable to give this a check before setting off on any trip to the park. Drop me a comment or message if you are looking for any advice and I will try my best to help.