High on my to-do list for many years was to visit Kruger National Park in South Africa, and when it happened, as part of a month-long trip to the country for my sister’s wedding, it was every bit as exciting and fulfilling as I had hoped and imagined. It was one of those trips that had a profound effect on me and all of my family. Incredible sights were witnessed, and extraordinary memories made. Of all the places I have visited, Kruger is certainly on my re-visit list for a future date.
Kruger National Park was established in 1898 and is one of the oldest and largest game parks in the world. It is the place to see the safari’s ‘Big Five’: lions, buffalo, leopards, rhino and elephants.
The park measures 350 km from north to south, and 60 km at its widest point. It covers a total area of 1,948,528 hectares. There is an extraordinary variety of wildlife in the park, made possible by the huge range of habitats, and the ecosystem is constantly maintained in its natural state, so there is no feeling of being in a managed park. In other words, it is true Africa.
Five rivers traverse Kruger from west to east, 147 different species of mammal live there, 33 types of amphibian, 49 species of fish,114 reptilian species, 507 species of birds, and 300 different types of trees.
August is a good time to visit Kruger as the grasslands are dry and short, and the trees bare, thus allowing much better visibility of the animals. The surface water is restricted to rivers and artificial watering holes where the animals congregate.
The drive from Johannesburg to the Phalaborwa Gate of Kruger was filled with excitement and anticipation. We had seen many films and documentaries about South Africa, and the African bush, but nothing really prepares you for what awaits. There is a surreal feeling as you drive, knowing that before long you will be in a heaven-sent place surrounded by the most magnificent creatures on earth.
Out journey to Kruger took us to places of exceptional beauty on one hand, and to places of appalling poverty and deprivation on the other. We saw shanty towns that literally went on for miles and miles. As we passed these places we couldn’t help but feel enormous privilege, and yet a certain guilt about being able to be there for such a remarkable trip.
At one point along the way, my son became extremely ill. Luckily, there was a hospital in Phalabowra, which was to be our entry point to the park. It was a real stroke of luck to have a hospital in such a remote place. But even the hospital experience became part of a fuller understanding of South Africa.
It was basic to say the least, with antiquated equipment and facilities, and a feeling of a place that had been left behind by the 21st Century. Basic antibiotics prescribed to my son were apparently far out of reach for the locals because of cost. This made me deeply sad, and enormously grateful for what I had in life.
Suspected malaria was ruled out after blood tests, and several hours later we were on our way. So off we headed with trepidation, but were assured that Park rangers would come to our rescue if needed.
We eventually arrived at the Mopani Camp which was to be our base for the duration of our stay in Kruger. Mopani was so named because of the abundance of Mopani trees in the area. The camp is one of many inside the park. It is surrounded by the Pioneer Dam, which allows you to see a large variety of water birds.
Our accommodation in the park was a lovely guest cottage, with all the modern conveniences needed for easy living. The camp has a large shop, a swimming pool, restaurant, and many other facilities one might need.
There is a lovely peaceful feeling about being in a place like Kruger. From the moment we entered the park, we were transfixed. Long drives, some lasting all day were a joy, even for young children, because frankly when you are looking out the window hoping to come across a lion, elephant or zebra, time passes in a flash, and you become consumed by your surroundings. Everyday we drove for miles, the park animal identification book, map, and binoculars making things easier to identify and find.
There is also a feeling of slight uneasiness. On one hand, you are running on adrenalin and feeling at one with nature, and on the other hand, you are constantly aware that this can potentially be a very dangerous place, if you fail to behave sensibly.
On one occasion, a male elephant, in protective mode of his babies and their mother, decided to charge our car, as a warning to move on and leave them in peace. For a few moments, that was really terrifying! Another scary moment was getting out of the truck and almost stepping on a snake — but all in all, if common-sense prevails, the experience is magnificent.
An early morning guided safari around the park was a joy. Heading off at 4am, still dark, and watching Africa and all its wonders come to life was an experience I will never forget.
The area is known as “Mpumalanga” – Land of the Rising Sun, and no place could have a more fitting name. Listening intently for the sounds of the animals, looking out for dung markings to see which ones may be around, and having the advantage of the wisdom of a professional guide made for a perfect few hours. Watching elephants simply knock trees down effortlessly, being mesmerized by the graceful movements of the giraffe, being spellbound by the sighting of the elusive lion hidden in the camouflaging grasses , all made for an exceptional time.
Stopping in the middle of the bush on a long days safari to have a picnic was a surreal experience. The very prospect of doing this terrified me, until I realized it was a designated spot to picnic, with an armed guard sitting there in the middle of no where with rifle in hand, just in case! The only animals that came our way were the Bush-buck, and we shared our picnic with them.
Catching the last rays of the setting sun whilst barbecuing outside our cottage in the evenings, or eating dinner on the terrace of the restaurant and hearing the distant roar of a lion or other animal, whilst gazing at the night sky always littered with stars, was aw-inspiring.
Seeing so many crocodiles lazying about by the rivers, or coming upon animals drinking at a watering hole were moments I will never forget, the peace interrupted only by the occasional crashing of a hippo or rhino into the water. And all the while the soundtrack to the bush seemed to be bird song in the form of whistles and whoops and the strangest of noises, often from the Go-Away-Bird, who seems to be saying just that when he decides to be heard.
Africa is without doubt a magical place. It penetrates your very soul, inspires you, mesmerizes you, and sends you back from where you came, a different person, with a profound appreciation for life, for all humanity, for all the wild creatures of its of this captivating place, and for the natural world. And it leaves you with a deep feeling of gratitude for having been able to experience it.
Here’s a link to my personal site, Dispatches From Dublin.