The Fantastic Kruger National Park

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Published: December 2nd 2023

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Lion and Lioness ReturningLion and Lioness ReturningLion and Lioness Returning


Kruger National Park

Dear All

After a lovely time in Africa-in-Miniature Swaziland, I flew back to Johannesburg for the last time on a Friday afternoon at the end of August. I realised that I had now been to this airport six times in all my travels, including a trip ten years earlier when I was transiting through the airport, but I had not yet visited the city. This was planned towards the end of the week, and I was looking forward to finally exploring this much-maligned metropolis proper. The 40-seater plane again was fine, and I cannot fault Airlink’s amazing service. Flying in a small plane does feel much shakier, bumpier and more fragile than a larger plane, so I wasn’t going to miss that part much! I checked in again to my accommodation there, which had really grown on me. Returning there almost felt like returning home again after adventurous forays into the African bush, and I was reunited with my full set of belongings once more. The taxi driver there was great, a 62-year-old retired gentleman who said he drove his taxi for pleasure. He had two grown-up children who he had brought up himself as a single parent since their

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Kruger National Park

mother died when they were young, and they now both had good careers and were doing really well for themselves. I thought the chap, Victor, was a real inspiration, and I let him know this. It was a real pleasure and honour to have met and spoken with him. Hiring a car for my South African Road Trip was just great, but now travelling by public transport I remembered why I love this kind of travel so much. Without the enclosure of your own private vehicle bubble, you really get to meet so many more people, and learn so much more about the part of the world you are travelling in. It is true what they say, you can learn so much about a place from the back of a taxi cab, lol!

Settling in for the evening and re-packing my smaller backpack once more, I was getting excited about heading to Kruger the next day! This part of my trip was building up a bit in my mind, after meeting several travellers along the way who had already been there. I was hoping I wasn’t building myself up for a disappointing climax, and fortunately as I will relate

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Kruger National Park

below this was certainly not the case – quite the opposite! While I had done game drives and bush walks twice on my journey thus far, first in the Addo Elephant Park of South Africa, and then in the Hlane Royal National Park of Swaziland, I felt that Kruger would be an actual safari in the true sense of the word now – “safari” is Swahili for “journey”. I had booked myself with a tour agency for a full four days and three nights in the Kruger National Park, as opposed to booking accommodations and activities separately in my previous two experiences. This was a little package tour I had booked in the midst of my independent travels.

The tour company picked me up around 10am at my accommodation in Johannesburg, along with a very pleasant family from New Zealand, the father of which actually grew up in South Africa and this was his first time home in around 21 years. It seemed to be an emotional time for him, meeting up with family members and rekindling his childhood memories. Along the way on our seven-hour drive to Kruger, we stopped off at the most amazing service station I’ve

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Kruger National Park

ever been to, overlooking a waterhole with countless antelope, zebra, rhinos, buffaloes and ostriches! There was even a view over it from the gents’ toilet while you’re going to the loo! We later stopped for lunch at a place called Dullstroom, which was anything but dull! It was both tourist central, with seemingly everyone going to and from Kruger stopping off there for lunch, as well as the Sunday lunch hangout for locals enjoying one too many beers and braai. I had my classic, and still very cheap, steak and fries there, and thought I was seriously going to miss my steaks when I go back home as I’m certainly not willing to pay UK prices for them! Then around late afternoon, we arrived at our camp for my first night’s accommodation – the cute and rustic Tremisana Lodge in the Balule Game Reserve. While this was not part of the Kruger National Park proper, dating back to its creation in 1926 as South Africa’s first national park and forming 7,500 square miles of pure African bush in the east of South Africa, it is part of what is today called the Greater Kruger National Park, whereby in the late

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On the way to Kruger

1990s Balule, along with Klaserie and Olifants Game Reserves dropped their fences, increasing the wilderness area by another 1,500 square miles. In 2002 this region was extended further east- and north-wards to incorporate Mozambique’s Limpopo National Park, and Zimbabwe’s Gonarezhou National Park, respectively, to form the the massive Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park. This international conglomeration of national parks today forms a whopping 13,500 square miles of protected area. For comparison, the Serengeti National Park of Tanzania only forms 5,700 square miles of protected wilderness, while Kenya’s Masai Mara forms a mere 600. This place was seriously special, and I was very excited to be there!

Upon arrival at the Lodge, myself and the Kiwi family met up with the other minibus that was bringing 11 more visitors in tandem with us from Johannesburg – two Belgians, two Germans, a family of three from Barcelona, a couple of Basques, a French-Canadian solo traveller, and a solo US traveller who was living in Morocco. They were all so very friendly and wonderful people, and all intermittently became my travel companions at various times during my time there. I was so glad that everyone was friendly and peaceful, as I do feel

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Service Station on the way to Kruger

a bit nervous at times meeting my fellow group members in such circumstances in case they are not too friendly, and you have to spend intense amounts of time with them.

I had just enough time for a quick rest in my rustic, but very comfortable, chalet, before a sunset game drive that evening. We saw a number of impalas, and at least 20 elephants in four separate sightings. We didn’t see anything else despite trying very hard, so I came to call it the Elephant Drive! We all had a wonderful candelit Braai dinner after the sun had set under a Marula Tree, famous for bearing the fruit which forms a main ingredient in the delicious South African liqueur called Amarula, and which became our aperitif for the evening. While sitting outside under the stars, a hyena actually came and visited us merely a couple of metres away which one of the guides showed us by torchlight – had she not shone this, you would have had no idea it was there watching us! It was just so incredible to see it up close, and while they are generally considered one of the “Ugly Five” (along with warthogs,

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Service Station on the way to Kruger

wildebeest, vultures and storks), I thought it was just gorgeous, with beautiful colouring and a fascinating face. We got back to the Lodge around 9.30pm, and I was straight to bed as it was going to be an early 5am start the next morning and it had already been a long, but wonderful, day.

Indeed, my 5am alarm call the next day was quite rough, and it was really quite tricky to get going in the morning. Coffee and biscuits were served at 5.45am, and we then began a sunrise game drive and bush walk. We saw some more elephants, and some zebra, and on our bush walk to and along the Olifants River, we saw crocodiles and hippos, while sitting on the river bank enjoying a snack and drink – amazing! We also saw some kudu on the way back, which really are very large animals! I unfortunately hit my head quite hard on a tree branch as we were climbing out of the river bank, which drew a bit of blood and formed a big bump, but I appreciated the amount of sympathy offered from my fellow travel companions, who all said it made a very large

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Tremisana Lodge, Balule Game Reserve

“thunk” sound.

A highlight of this drive and walk was when an elephant came literally inches away from one of the guides who was sat on a very exposed seat on top of the front bonnet of the safari vehicle. He just stood there staring at him for what felt like ages. It was heart-stopping and nobody breathed, but in the end the elephant surprised us all by jumping and taking a quick step back before moving hurriedly away. The driver-guide had a joke that he did this as the guy was just so “stinky” – I thought this was hilarious! Another memorable thing was simply walking single file, six of us visitors with two guides, one armed with a rifle, through lion and leopard territory. This felt unnerving, but then I think you kind of get used to, or even complacent, with it. Finally, one of the guides shared with us a local custom of lighting elephant dung on fire and breathing in the smoke, to do away with colds and clear the airways apparently, which it certainly did! I passed on his demonstration of eating the grassy parts of the dung though, despite his assurances that the

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Tremisana Lodge, Balule Game Reserve

elephant digestive system is so poor that a large proportion of what they eat isn’t actually digested. I also learned why the white rhino and black rhino are named as such, and it’s got nothing to do with their actual colour. Apparently it’s because since the white rhino grazes on grass and keeps it head to the ground mostly, it keeps its babies in front of it so it can see them while grazing, just as European people carry their babies on their front, in front of them. Black rhino on the other hand eat leaves and branches from trees, and thus while eating, they are looking up and behind them so keep their babies behind them in order to look after them, just like African people carry their babies on their backs. Fascinating!

We had a delicious late breakfast upon return to camp, then some seriously-needed chill time in my chalet and around the lodge’s grounds, before a sundowner drive at 3pm. The sundowner drive was rather disappointing – we saw some more elephants, and a giraffe in the far distance, but that was about it. I think my fellow guests and myself all agreed that our time

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Balule Game Reserve

in the Balule Game Reserve was rather disappointing, and we heard that other visitors both before and after us had seen lions and leopards. Ah well, that evening we were moving on to a different camp closer to Kruger, for a full game drive in the actual Kruger National Park the next day. We had hope.

Myself, Steve the very nice solo US traveller living in Morocco who I got along with, and the very friendly family from Barcelona, were driven around sundown to the next accommodation we were staying in – Marc’s Tree House Lodge, named after a previously resident rhino called Marc apparently. While others were staying in the Tremisana Lodge with chalets during their time there, we had booked the slightly cheaper one-night-lodge and two-nights-tent budget-friendly option, and indeed, my next accommodation was tented, right in the middle of the African bush! When I first booked it I purposefully chose it as a more authentic Kruger experience, camping out there under the stars, but upon reflection, and remembering previous safari camping experiences, the surrounding animal noises all night, and the fact that only a piece of canvas protected you from the wild animal hordes, I had

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Balule Game Reserve

quietly had kittens over this for a number of weeks before. It indeed turned out a little disquieting, but I was so glad I did it still, and really loved the experience.

My digs for the next two nights was an actual bed in fact, along with a fan, table and light, in a fixed tent with canvas all around, but perched on a concrete and brick foundation – there were also netted-windows that could be opened by unzipping the various parts of the canvas. The toilets and showers were a short walk through the African bush away, so I kept an empty plastic bottle in my tent at night to avoid midnight loo trips and potential animal encounters at night. The tented area was actually a long five-minute walk away from the main restaurant area, which was lit when there wasn’t loadshedding, but was pure darkness when there was. Signs at the camp entrance and along the walking route warn visitors to be careful of buffalo, rhino and leopards while in the camp – that didn’t do much good to my imagination making my way back to my tent after dinner! It was so sad to hear that

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Balule Game Reserve

during the c-word fiasco there, the three resident rhinos were killed by poachers. Ah, the gift of lockdown-mongers that just keeps on giving, and an absolutely avoidable situation had such so-called leaders considered anything other than dodgy statistics. That evening we had a lovely braai dinner with beer, before actually a really nice sleep surrounded by loads of nature’s sounds – it was a wonderful first evening in the bush, despite my fears!

The next day, my full one in Kruger National Park proper, was just absolutely incredible, and definitely a great climax of my whole South African journey. I was so glad of this, particularly after my time back in Balule being rather disappointing. I joined Steve and the Catalan family, along with an Italian family of three, on an amazing safari in the Central Kruger region entering via the Park’s Orpen Gate. By far the biggest highlight of the day was seeing a paired lion couple, male and female, at the end of a hunt and starting to feast. When we arrived, the lioness had her jaws on the neck of a poor baby buffalo that was still moving, just as the lion was returning, apparently from

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Balule Game Reserve

having scared and chased the rest of the herd away. Before tucking in, the male then chased away the female before starting to feast on their catch while the poor female had to watch from a distance. We returned about an hour later, after lunch, to see both male and female returning to the kill from a separate area – apparently they’d gone away to make some love, and were now returning for some food.

Another highlight was seeing a group of hyenas, with one of them crossing the road right in front of us and then trotting along right next to the vehicle. I still find their faces fascinating, and am torn between whether they are iconically beautiful are seriously terrifying. We also got to see a herd of buffalo, one of them crossing the road in front of us, hippos with two of them playfighting, a crocodile, giraffes, zebras, elephants, warthogs, and lots of antelope including impala, inyala, wildebeest, bushbuck, waterbuck, steenbok and kudu. We had two rare bird sightings with a saddle-billed stork, and a group of ground hornbills, along with lots of regular hornbills, nicknamed “zazu” in those parts. It was a magical day, and

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Braai under the Marula Tree, Balule Game Reserve

was almost worth the wait after the paucity of sightings back in Balule. I headed to my rustic tent bed that night very satisfied with my day in Kruger, and also looking forward to the serious luxury of my lodge back in Johannesburg the next day.

My final day on this wonderful Kruger safari could have started with an early 5am wake up call for another morning bush walk, but I chose the comparative lie-in until 6am option instead. Fortunately I didn’t miss much, as there were no leopard sightings from those who did it, just a few more antelopes, and some rather unnerving fresh hyena tracks heading towards our tents the night before – I’m glad I brought my empty plastic bottle…! After packing my bags, breakfast with a lovely sighting of a great kingfisher, and check-out, myself and Steve left the lovely Catalan family back in the camp for one more night, and joined the Belgian couple we began the safari with, who were actually there on their honeymoon after having married back in Belgium just two weeks before, as well as two new Italian couples, one of which I met the next day in Johannesburg, to

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Balule Game Reserve

make the seven-hour journey back to the city once more. On the way back, we stopped off at the amazing Blyde River Canyon, third largest in the world after America’s Grand Canyon and Namibia’s Fish River Canyon, at 16 miles long and 800 metres deep. There were some truly breathtaking views to be had at the Three Rondavels Lookout Point, so-called after three small mountain formations in the shape of local African rondavel huts in the distance, where we stopped off for a short while. Lunch was at the same place in Dullstroom again, with surprisingly steak and chips back on the menu for me again, before we began our drop-offs back in Johannesburg. I felt blessed to have met such wonderful people on this safari, and if anyone’s interested, I highly recommend the company I chose to explore Kruger with – Viva Safaris! They were seriously organised, with very friendly, professional and knowledgeable staff.

I was back in my accommodation in Johannesburg again once more, this time for a full three nights, and two full days, rather than just brief one-night stopovers. I seriously appreciated the excellent lighting, and en-suite bathroom which felt like a luxury. This was

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Balule Game Reserve

to be my final stay on this amazing South African summer adventure 2023. I was looking forward then to exploring the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria during my last few days, and was also beginning to look forward to going home again at the weekend!

So, until my next and final entry for this epic journey, thanks for reading, and all the best for now ????

Alex






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