Safaris around Kruger Park

Sometimes a trip ends without leaving lasting memories. This is not the case for the days spent around Kruger Park doing safaris: in all honesty it has been one of the best experiences of our lives.

Being in the nature sharing instants with wild life takes you back to the time of childhood, when you look at the world with new eyes and everything you see and learn is so wonderful and perfect. This has been the spirit that has followed us in South Africa and that we took back home with us feeling blessed to have experienced it.

… And then there’s Mother Africa. Everything is amplified. The sky is bigger, and faster. Thunderstorm so terrifying as if bombs exploded. Stars sparking like diamonds in the dark night. The peacefulness of sunsets made us forget to have ever spent our lives someplace else.

itinerary (part 2)

5 – Early departure from Cape Town, fly to Johannesburg and drive to Nelspruit for overnight stay at Loerie’s Call Guesthouse.

6 – Drive 3 hours to Elandela Private Game Reserve, afternoon safari.

7 – Early morning safari and day trip to Kruger Park to see elephants.

8 – Early morning safari, then drive 1 hour to Vuyani Safari Lodge for the afternoon safari.

9 – Early morning safari and drive 1 hour to UmVangati House. In the afternoon, boat trip to Blyde River Canyon (pre-booked by hotel).

10 – drive 7 hours to Johannesburg through Panoramic Route, and fly back.

map

5 – transfer from Cape Town

After our flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg in the early morning, we still have a long way driving to Kruger (6+ hours) so we decide to break the trip in 2 parts. In the first part we drive 4 hours to Nelspruit and spend the night at lovely Loeri’s Call Guesthouse.

6 – first safari

The following day we drive another 2.5 hours to reach the first safari destination: Elandela Private Game Reserve.

On the way to the reserve we notice tourists on the side of the road staring at a lake… and there it is, from the middle of the lake, two cute ears and small round eyes appear… a hippo! This is our first unexpected (huge) animal encounter, and indeed something that will stuck with us for a long time. Realizing that what you have seen countless time on TV is standing right in front of you, and it’s real, is not as easy as it seems. Finally, let’s face it, despite what most people think, hippos are sexy.

As we reach the gates of Elandela and we drive to the reception on the Lake Side, we start spotting wildlife: impalas jumping around, giraffes checking the situation and shyly moving away, buffalos crossing over.

As we are welcomed and taken to our room, we see signs around the lake warning not to go beyond a certain point as, once again, hippos are in there and are potentially dangerous. These animals are very territorial, and responsible for the highest human kills in Africa, more than 2.000 a year. They look clumsy and awkward, but they can actually run faster than Usain Bolt, reaching 60 km/h! These ‘lovely’ creatures kill with their massive jaws whatever they simply aren’t bothered to have around.

In the afternoon, as we get on the open Land Rover for our first safari, the ranger takes us to two baby Rhinos, Rocky and Clover. They both survived the tragic event of having their mothers brutally killed by poachers. In order to keep the them safe, they are kept within an enclosed territory nearby the premises of the reserve, and are often monitored and taken care of. It’s so wonderful to see how intelligent and gentle these creatures are as they respond to the ranger’s call and stroll towards the gate to get cuddled up.

Rhino horns are in very high demand in Vietnam at the moment. It’s not clear what’s the main reason, if because Vietnamese think crushed horn can cure diseases like cancer, or because it has become a luxury item that affluent people drink to limit the side effects of hangover. At any rate, Rhino’s poaching is a huge issue in South Africa considering that a horn is worth around 300.000 dollars. This instigates the action of criminal gangs as well as corruption at all levels, making it a lost battle. From 2008 Rhinos deaths surged at a high rate, from 83 illegal kills to 668 in 2012. From 2013 there has been more than 1.000 deaths per year. In 2015, 1.175 Rhinos have been killed in South Africa, of which 900 in Kruger Park alone. Thinking that these innocent creatures are soon to be extinct to poaching is shameful. Read more here.

In our first safari, Rocco, the owner of the reserve, is our knowledgeable guide. He introduces us a little of botany showing trees in connection to who eats them, and making us understand how the bushveld works as a whole system. For example, we learn that Marula Tree is Elephant’s favourite. From the fruits of the same plant it’s possible to obtain a local liquor, called Amarula. Towards the evening we see a group of ggiraffes and are allowed to walk in freedom around them at sunset, they are very shy, what a unique experience!

7 – second day of safari and trip to Kruger

The next day, during the early morning safari, we are guided by John and are able to watch a female Rhino with her cute calf, as well as five White Lions of which a mother and her four cubs. 15 old months lions are very large by our standards! They are simply lying in the grass occasionally annoying one another or yawning in laziness. Lions hunt at night and sleep through the day.

Later on we go to Kruger National Park to look for elephants: as we enter from one of the gates we see a huge elephant right next to us looking massive, and giving us a sense of wonder. During the day we watch many more.

It’s important to give elephants space as they are reserved and could turn nasty if they felt invaded or not free to go. Even more important is to understand if a bull is in musth, that is, looking for females, showing black secretions running down its ears and loosing urine, as they are dangerous and could charge you. Elephants live in matriarchal societies where elderly females make decisions and guide the family. Bulls instead live on their own and only look for females when in musth.

Leaving Kruger we are very lucky to see a leopard. A number of cars have already stopped by the tarred road when we arrive there. Spotting leopards is rare considering they camouflage very well in trees, and even knowing where the leopard was, it was still hard to see to the naked eye.

By the time we get back it’s dinner time, and it looks like rain is finally falling, after the incredible heat of the day, and 2 years of prolongued drought. As we grab a traditional dinner by the fireplace outside, and staff performs local dances and songs, rain starts pouring down at last. Magic happens: guests frantically run inside and gaze at staff that keeps singing and dancing in total amusement under the thunderstorm… the more it rains the louder and more excited the singing becomes. Some guests can’t stand on their feet any longer and decide to join the dance under the rain, letting go of everything and embracing the spirit of Mother Africa.

8 – next private reserve and safari

The following morning, after a whole night of terrible thunderstorms, we are headed to our next destination: Vuyani Safari Lodge. We don’t think safaris can get any better… but they actually do.

On the first afternoon safari we get on the Jeep under ponchos in the drizzle and off we go. For each vehicle, in addition to a ranger there’s also a tracker, although we still don’t understand why. During that safari we have the privilege of watching a group of cheetahs, a mother with 2 adorable cubs. Being one of the most endangered species in Africa, this time due to predators, cheetahs need to check the surroundings at all times. We are also able to spot other more common animals like groups of impalas, beautiful female and male kudus, and vultures.

9 – last safari and Blyde River Canyon

The following morning as the alarm sets off at 4.45 am, we are about to witness something that truly impresses us. As the tracker spots lion tracks, trackers from various jeeps gather around and leave the vehicles to go into the woods on foot. On foot in the woods, with a stick? Really? Apparently they are going to track lions down.

After 2 hours not only they find them, but they wait for them to finish their meal and leave the site taking what’s left: a wildebeest’s hearth. ‘So you know, this morning I was tracking lions and found the remains of their prey that we could maybe have for lunch?’!

We are seriously excited about what’s going on, and as we are going to watch adult lions at last. As the jeep reaches them in total off-road over bushes of all kinds, there they are. A huge male and a female sheltered by the bushes, trying to take their nap. Once you see a male lion, and he looks straight into your eyes, you know why they call him the king.

As the ranger tries to get us a better view, the atmosphere gets tenser, no one dares talking… Our guide tells us as long as he doesn’t worry, not to worry… but we all do, nonetheless. As we get closer and closer and take vegetation down with us, the jeep rumbles more loudly, and so the female lion that stands up and ROARS.

After we get even closer, around 5 meters away, the male lion stands up too to see what’s happening. He moves a meter away and decides to sit back down, careless. We are not sure invading lion’s space is a  v e r y  g o o d   i d e a, but our guide is calm. We sit there and stare in silence at these beautiful creatures that instill in us total respect. The female’s paws are the size of a human’s leg. The male’s head is as large as the wheel of the Land Rover we are sitting on. They simply don’t care about us. What a moment.

As we leave lions trying not to get stuck in the bushes, it’s an escalation of events, and we find cheetahs having their meal right next to the road. They too, took a wildebeest down, although a youngster.

This time it’s two brothers always sticking together. While one of them eats, the other checks and listens. 20 meters away a jackal is impatiently waiting for its turn to eat but doesn’t dare getting too close as it could get killed. Cheetahs are too busy eating and worrying for predators to care about us, so we stand 2 meters away looking at these majestic animals doing their things.

Surprisingly, it’s not disturbing to watch them eating another creature. In fact, we don’t see much blood around because they drink it while they are at it. Besides, as the rangers explains how the carcass gets eaten completely by a myriad of animals after them, it’s a perfect circle of nature that doesn’t waste anything.

On the way back to the resort we realise we never expected to see so much and have such a wonderful experience.

Unfortunately our safari time is over. We spend our last night at gorgeous UmVangati House in the heart of Blyde River Canyon, the third largest canyon in the world. This is the perfect setting to wrap up the incredible South African journey. The hotel is located in a beautiful setting with break-taking view of the mountains and the surrounding nature, and the family run service is excellent.

In the afternoon we join a boat cruise on the River Canyon, which is very informative. We manage to see hippos, kudos, and even crocodiles. In the evening we salute South Africa over a few glasses of local wine, and yummy dinner at candlelight.

10 – back to Johannesburg and fly back

The next morning we drive back to Johannesburg taking the Panoramic Route, to see the Canyon from another perspective. After 7 hours and a few wrong turns, we make it to Tambo International Airport. If you decide to take the same route go down to the N4 motorway as soon as possible: we found roads to be full of potholes.

Here we are, finally arrived at Johannesburg Airport. Petrol: checked; return car: checked; return GPS: checked; documents: checked; last gifts: checked. Fly back: NOT quite ready!

It has been a truly amazing journey, we’ll miss South Africa for sure – despite its many contradictions – and would love to go back one day to see more of it.

 

 

 

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