Kruger National Park
I’ve accepted that some things in life are just simply unattainable in your 20’s, so never in a million years did I think I would be able to afford a safari before my 40’s – that has to be at least $10,000, right? Through Wild Wings Safari in South Africa, I was able to go on a 3-day safari for $700. I know, it’s a chunk of money, sure. But let’s consider what the $700 covered: I was picked up/dropped off five hours away in Johannesburg, provided with brunch and dinner, entrance fee, bungalow accommodation, and the entertainment of seeing hundreds of animals I’ve only ever seen in a zoo. Kruger National Park is one of a kind, and a must if you’re visiting South Africa. (If you’re interested in booking through Wild Wings, check out my discount code at the bottom of the post!)
I kind of look like that dude from South Park, don’t I?
Johannesburg to Kruger National Park
A five hour drive from Johannesburg only to be sitting in a vehicle for another five hours is… terrible.
The drive to the park was mostly boring, with flat terrain up until we had only an hour to the gate. Flat lands were quickly replaced with massive, lush mountains. And suddenly we were at the transfer spot where we met our safari guide Frank – who would be driving us through the park the next few days.
Excitement pumped through my veins as we transferred our baggage from the transport van to the safari jeep. Within the next half hour, our [luckily small] group of four would be in the park.
Entering the Park, 1/3
Not even five minutes in, our first spot was a zebra. I had a moment of thinking “wait, this animal isn’t behind bars!” It’s in its natural habitat. “These animals weren’t ‘brought in,’ they’ve always been there,” our guide Frank remarked. How incredible.
The only boundaries are the fences that go around the 7,523 mi² park. These fences are to prevent poachers from getting to them, and surrounding farmers from getting their crops eaten.
Zebra are rather skiddish – they are easily agitated by the safari jeeps and will gallop away if you get too close. I may be mis-calling their movement a “gallop,” because they’re more closely related to donkeys than horses. Our guide told us they’re also called “wild ass”.
I believe our next encounter was the incredibly saturated impala. With 150,000 large at the park, we saw them everywhere.
Our next big spotting was a lone, bull elephant. Male elephants typically keep to themselves unless they’re looking to mate. He looked sad, and lonely. I’m sure he prefers it that way, though.
Elephants will throw water or even mud on their backs to help keep them cool of the hot, African sun.
Very quickly we realized that there are animals everywhere and stopping for every single one would mean we would have less chance of seeing the Big 5.
The Big 5 are as such: Lion, leopard, cape buffalo, elephant, and rhino.
They are coined that term because of their notoriety to hunt back in the day (and even today, since there are poachers still at large).
Luckily, we’d already seen an elephant in our first hour.
We also saw baboons, more elephants, hippos, cape buffalo, and giraffes. My favorite moment of the day was when a herd of elephants crossed the street. One was particularly curious!
You need to be careful about big animals like this because if they get too curious, they could end up attacking the jeep, and you!
Giraffes didn’t like us that much. Such tall creatures, they would saunter off as soon as our vehicle stopped to look at them.
Four or so hours into our journey into the park, we were nearing our camp where we would eat dinner and retire for the night. As we got close, we saw more waterholes.
Suddenly we were at our bungalow for the night! Our backyard had a river where cape buffalo, elephants, impala, and hippos hung out. The hippos would make the funniest noises all through the night.
We had dinner prepared for us around 6pm and everyone pigged out. It was delicious, South African cuisine prepared by our chef John who went to a French-specialty culinary school.
Soon enough it was bed time, because we had to wake up at 4am to start our day.
Waking up for sunrise, the air was cool. Jackets and ponchos were put on only to be shed within the next couple of hours during the rise of the boiling, African sun.
Today was our lucky day, but it was also extremely hot. Cool morning hours were fleeting, and we had to head back for brunch. I didn’t want to stop at all, I just wanted to go, go, go. Three days is simply not enough to get your fill of safari. I don’t know if even a week would be enough.
Many of the “Lion King” animals were seen – giraffes, impala, wildebeest, zebras – Lions! So many lions. We were lucky.
Before we knew it, we had to go back to camp to eat brunch! Like I said, I didn’t want to go back. It stunk too because since it was such a hot day, we were taking a break from 9am until 3pm. I wanted to see everything! If it’s hot for us, it’s hot for the animals, though. I took a nap and then walked around camp. Even in our backyard, we were able to see cool creatures.
We even had a creepy cape buffalo skull in our backyard. Frank (our guide) told us there had been a bad drought a few years back, where many buffalo and hippos had died. Droughts in South Africa seem to be recurring, because when I was in Cape Town prior to my safari, they were in massive drought. Using water was highly discouraged.
Once the sun had gone down a bit, we went out for a drive again. Unfortunately, the two other girls decided to stay back because one of them got sick. It was just Elyse, Frank, and me! Kind of cool to have a “private tour” of sorts.
We’re lucky we went out, because we saw a mongoose, vervet monkey, and lions chasing a cape buffalo: all things we wouldn’t see again during our trip.
Sorry for the blurry picture… couldn’t focus enough in time.
Before we knew it, it was “sundowners” (what South Africans call sunset), so we parked the car at a watering hole near camp and watched the animals hanging out.
Lots of hippos doing their thing, two lions laying under trees, and dozens of impala.
We went back to camp for another delicious dinner prepared by John, and then it was bedtime already. I couldn’t believe how quickly time had passed us by – the following day we would wake up at 7am, have breakfast, then leave the park by 11.30am.
Last Day, 3/3
I was feeling a bit melancholy, as it was our last day on safari. Frank said to us, “Now when you see the animals, be sure to say goodbye to them” and when were seeing plenty, he said “they’re coming to say goodbye to you.”
Frank was rich with experience – every time I had a question, he had an answer. The unsung hero, he’s been doing safari for 27 years. I’m grateful he was our guide with Wild Wings Safari – if you ever go to Kruger, be sure to ask for him! He truly loves the animals and I think that makes a big impact on the experience.
Fortunately for us, on our way out we were able to see a number of things we hadn’t seen during our trip like cute turtles, a snake, and a monkey carrying her baby.
Frank picked up the turtle and moved it across the street so it wouldn’t get run over. Very kind of him.
Yikes! We weren’t sure if this was a tree snake or not… if it was, it’s very poisonous.
Our grand finale was a final herd of elephants crossing the road in front of us. There were probably fifteen or twenty of them clomping along. Elephants are my favorite animal, so it was very bittersweet to see as one of my last moments at the park.
Here was a family of stragglers:
My only disappointment was not being able to see a leopard, though they are notoriously elusive creatures. I spoke with someone after leaving the park who said “I’ve been on safari for ten days and not seen a leopard once. I’ve been on safari for one day and seen three.”
It was the only one of the Big 5 we didn’t see, and the one animal I had kept my eyes peeled for the entire time; that may have been my downfall.
Prior to my safari, I was buying some matching dish sets of the Big 5 and I wasn’t able to find the leopard dish, either. It may have been a foreshadowing.
The thing about safaris is that it’s not a zoo – you’re not guaranteed anything. It’s the wild. We were incredibly lucky to see everything we saw, and it was a beautiful, humbling, spectacular experience.
All I know is that I am going to go on a safari again in my life, and I will see a leopard one day.
Until then, I’ll hold on to these memories dearly.
If you’re interested in booking through Wild Wings Safari (which you should), use EB5-WIND for a 5% discount on Wild Wings safaris, valid for any bookings made more than 4 months prior to travel date, and EB10-WIND for a 10% discount on Wild Wings safaris, valid for any bookings made more than 8 months prior to travel date. Discounts cannot be combined.