After spending time visiting friends and snake parks in South Africa, Austin and I were about to arrive at the stunning wilderness that is Kruger National Park…
Kruger National Park was founded by Paul Kruger in 1926 with the amalgamation of two existing reserves after the need for a protected area dedicated to the conservation of wildlife became obvious to him. He knew that without such measures being taken, the incredible diversity of animal life in South Africa would be horrifically decimated by uncontrolled hunting and habitat destruction.
Kruger National Park encompasses 20,000 square kilometres of bush land, an area the size of Wales, bordering Mozambique and Zimbabwe. It is home to hundreds of thousands of large African animals and Austin was confident we would encounter many of the species I had not yet seen in our travels so far. I tracked our progress on a map with anticipation as we headed towards one of the most exciting parts of the world I could imagine.
After we entered the park in the late afternoon, we were given a map showing the various tracks and waterholes and the location of the camps. We were permitted to drive through the park between the hours of sunrise and sunset only, and we were required to spend the nights safely inside one of the camps. We paid the necessary fees and commenced the drive to our first camp, Satara.
I was immediately struck by the sheer volume of vegetation surrounding us. The trees and shrubs were richly green and so numerous that they were impossible to see through. As the landscape rose into a small hill I was given my first glimpse of the vastness of the national park. Dense bush stretched out to the horizon in all directions and I knew the trees must have been hiding lots of animals. A mere 14km from the park’s entrance, the first waterhole appeared. Austin turned the Suzuki off the main road and down the rocky track towards it. We made our way to the water’s edge, narrowly avoiding a small but determined night adder crossing the track in front of us. Parking beside the water hole, Austin pointed to two broad grey shapes breaking the surface of the water, and I had my first ever sighting of hippos. The two animals lazed side by side with only their backs, nostrils and ears above water, but I was able to imagine just how much of the hippos’ huge bulk was concealed under the surface. We could not observe the hippos for long as we had to reach camp before the gates closed at sunset, and so we turned around and drove back out to the main road.
After driving a few more kilometres, we could not resist stopping again when a lone bull elephant emerged from the trees on our left and began feeding four metres from the front of our vehicle. He was an older bull with torn ears and a very relaxed attitude. He fanned his ears and swayed his tail slowly back and forth as he ate contentedly. We watched the elephant for a few minutes before Austin edged the Suzuki past him slowly. The old elephant barely gave us a second glance, but Austin was then forced to circle wide to the other side of the track to avoid a leopard tortoise as it crossed the road. The nervous animal shuffled along as fast as its short legs would carry it and disappeared into thick vegetation on the other side. I realised the density of animals in the national park must be very high for us to have encountered so many in such a short period of time. Colourful lilac-breasted rollers and carmine bee eaters swooped onto the road to catch small insects that had settled out in the open, and grey louries flitted through the tree tops.
The landscape grew more and more dramatic and ever more beautiful as we made our way north towards Satara. We passed a wide river that was flowing fast, the water swelling almost to the tree line on either bank. The sound of the rushing water was pierced by the cry of a yellow-billed kite soaring overhead. On the other side of the river, we waited as a herd of seven elephants with small calves at foot crossed the track right in front of us and melted into the greenery on the other side. The track wound steadily through the bush and my eyes rapidly scanned the trees in my eagerness to discover even more animals.
Minutes after the elephants passed us, I spotted three white rhinos grazing on our left. Two were adults and one was a half-grown calf. All three had their heads down and were gathering grass with their lips. They were much bigger than the black rhinos that had previously seemed so large to me, and their square lips gave them a friendly and comical appearance. I turned and smiled at Austin only to find that he was looking at the ground beside his car door. Motioning for me to peer over him, I stared in silent wonder as a family of 20 chacma baboons casually strolled past the car. Many of the females had babies riding on their backs and their large eyes regarded us with curiosity. Unlike the baboons I had previously encountered in the Ugab riverbed in Namibia, these were entirely without fear.
In only a couple of hours, I had already seen two species, hippos and white rhinos, which I had never previously encountered in the wild before. Compared to the desert we lived in, this bush environment was absolutely teeming with life, and the many animals we had already seen had not been disturbed by our presence at all. We were literally surrounded by wildlife in its natural habitat. I began to regard Kruger as a paradise. We were visitors in the animals’ world and they graciously allowed us to observe them. There were countless rivers, streams, plateaus, escarpments, forests and grasslands to explore, and I had the love of my life by my side. I could not remember ever being happier than I was at that moment.
To be continued in Chapter 51, when the drive into Satara camp turns into a very close encounter with a lion…
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