Our drive to Kruger was pretty smooth – impeded only by the discovery of Caty’s underwear flapping along on the roof rack when we stopped for petrol.
We drove to our lodge first, to unburden the car, and then zoomed off to the Malelane gate entrance of Kruger National Park, about ten minutes away. The security guard looked in the boot of the car to make sure we weren’t bringing any alcohol in, but shuffled to the driver’s seat looking sheepish. Charlie wound down the window to ask if there was a problem, and the guard asked him to step out of the car. I started pouring with sweat. Charlie went to the boot with the guy, and roared with laughter. The guard needed to look inside our cool box to check for booze, but Caty’s underwear had put in another special appearance, and was draped over the lid. Happily, we were soon on our way, driving into the park, eyes peeled for wildlife. It was my very first game drive so I was enormously excited.
And I wasn’t disappointed. That afternoon we saw rhino, giraffe, elephant, buffalo, wildebeest, hippo, and, incredibly, a leopard! I spotted the leopard (pun intended) first, and could barely get the words out in my excitement. She strolled along the tree line about 15 feet away from us, before marking a tree with her scent and disappearing into the bushes. We all scrambled for our cameras, but she had gone.
Even Caty and Charlie, old hands at this safari lark, were incredulous at the number and diversity of animals we saw that afternoon. They laughingly warned me not to expect that every time we did a game drive on our trip. In that one afternoon we saw four of the Big Five – I was absolutely ecstatic. We were so busy enjoying ourselves, that we lost track of time. The gates closed at 6pm, and we were pretty deep into the park. Caty “Speed Demon” Batten was behind the wheel, and we were soon flying along the dirt tracks, with Charlie speed map reading while I bounced around in the back squeaking excitedly every time we flew past a rhino or giraffe. At one point we screeched round a corner and only narrowly avoided a bull elephant – which would definitely have done us more damage.
We made it to the gate with about three minutes to spare, thanks to Caty’s rally driving skills, and headed back to the lodge, where we were going to meet up with some friends from Tofo who had arrived a couple of days before us to do Kruger. We played Top Trumps of sightings – their wild dog beat our leopard. We then got an early night, setting alarms for 3:30am the following morning to ensure that we were first in line when the gates to Kruger opened at 5am.
Hilariously the same guard came up to inspect our car. He recognised us from the previous afternoon, pointed at our boot and said, “is it safe?” In fact, we had masses of booze in the car at that point, because we weren’t returning to the lodge that evening. Caty had this time strategically draped underwear over cool boxes to deter the guards from looking too closely. I was under strict instructions to keep my mouth shut – the other two knew I’d give the game away if I spoke, being such a scaredy cat and stickler for the rules. If the guard had looked more closely he’d have seen the sweat trickling down my brow.
It was a pretty slow start this time, and we crawled around the tracks for a couple of hours not really seeing anything except lots of impala. After a while, with only impala and the occasional waterbuck sighted, we began to feel slightly put out, prompting Charlie to remark that “the only impala I want to see is one being dragged up a tree”. However, it soon started to pick up, and we saw giraffe, hippo, elephants having a bit of a barney, some younger elephants enjoying a mud bath, a pack of hyena, with cubs chasing each other, and then, we hit the jackpot: wild dog. We heard them first, calling to each other in their squeaky, whooping voices, and we stopped dead and cut the engine. One dog then appeared in the clearing in front of us, and we froze, staring at it. The dog called to his or her pack again, and we saw several other dogs, regrouping in the patch of trees next to the track. We watched them for several minutes before they trotted off into the bush. It was pretty awesome. Then, just to round off an exciting morning’s game drive, we came across a large male lion sprawled by the side of the road. We were absolutely certain that he was dead, because he was so still, and so close to the road, and his legs were at awkward angles – it looked like he could have been hit by a car. However, lions tend to spend a great deal of the day asleep, especially after a meal, and this one’s belly was very swollen, like he’d just polished off a large antelope. Being the biggest and fiercest cat in the bush, they can pretty much drop and sleep wherever they like – they don’t need the protection of trees or anything like smaller cats do. So hopefully, he was just having a kip after a big meal!
We then headed to Lower Sabie to have brunch, overlooking the river where elephant and hippo were roaming around. I had smoked salmon and avocado, two things I had been craving since leaving the UK! It was strange to be in a huge restaurant knowing that we were effectively surrounded by some of the world’s biggest and deadliest predators, but Kruger is pretty well set up for tourists so it’s not that surprising. It also means that the park is accessible to people who don’t necessarily want to be roughing it out in the African bush. The dirt tracks are well maintained and you don’t need a 4×4 to drive around, and the tracks are well sign posted. This was going to prove to be in stark contrast to our later adventures in Zimbabwe!
We then said goodbye to the others, who were scattering back to New Zealand, the US and Mozambique, before the three of us started our afternoon game drive. It was a slow start again, but perhaps we were spoilt by the amazing sightings of the morning and the previous afternoon. We saw leopard tortoises, families of ostrich (the babies were adorable), several cheetah, including a cub, and lots of zebra, elephant and giraffe. We even saw a couple of juvenile male lions lying by the side of a lake together, and two big males snoozing near their kills – one of which was a huge wildebeest. I thought I’d be more squeamish about seeing animal carcasses, but it was so awesome to see lions in the wild that I didn’t mind.
Kruger was absolutely mind blowing, especially for a safari newbie like me. As we drove out of the gates at the end of the day, a huge male lion strolled across the road in front of us, utterly unconcerned by us. He must have been about 10 feet away from our car, and even after he had disappeared from sight back into the bush, we sat there staring after him, delighted and astonished by the perfect end to our game drive.
We eventually picked our jaws off the floor and drove to Swadini campsite at the foot of the Drakensburg Mountains, where we had a pitch booked for the night. Night had fallen by the time we arrived, and our car was besieged by huge insects attracted to the headlights, and they hit the windscreen, windows, bonnet and roof it sounded like gunfire. I was driving, and could hardly see where I was going for all the corpses littering the windscreen! This was my first experience of *proper* camping and this was not a promising start – I’m not wild about bugs, especially kamikaze bugs the size of footballs – and I began to wonder if I could spend the night in the car. We sprinted from the car to the reception, trying to avoid being dive-bombed, only to discover that the insects were also going nuts inside, too. Thankfully, after driving on to the campsite itself, the insects had given up their chase and we were able to put up our tent without their assistance.
We managed to park in the front garden of someone’s caravan, and an old man came out to inform us that we were blocking his entrance and the accessibility of the emergency services(!), and this was where I realised that the diplomacy and charm of my two friends was going to come in very useful. I was all set for an argument about the space, but instead Caty apologised and wondered if he would mind awfully if we pitched there anyway, assuring him that there was still room for a vehicle to get past, while Charlie grabbed a couple of beers from the boot and offered them to him and his wife. All of which meant that the formerly grumpy old man was soon wreathed in smiles and benevolence, and even lent us his camping light, which was far superior to our head torches and meant we could actually see what the heck we were doing as we erected the tent and cooked dinner – mashed potato, (veggie) burgers and baked beans, washed down with red wine and beer. It was a beautiful night, and thousands of stars twinkled above us as we sat round our campfire reliving our Kruger game drives. A huge praying mantis kept hopping around which made me slightly uncomfortable but I played it cool so the other two wouldn’t notice which totally worked until it landed on my chair and I shrieked and leapt three feet into the air…