The 2nd part of A Great Journey began with a wild week.
Monday in LA, Tuesday in Paris, Wednesday in Pretoria, a 29-hour long Saturday, and a Sunday Funday that ended inside my new tent & sleeping bag at Kruger National Park. Plenty of jet lag thrown in for good measure, but a good time, nonetheless!
Since my trip to the 2010 World Cup, I’d been wanting to return to South Africa. And Kruger was at the top of my list. It’s one of my favorite places on earth for a bunch of reasons:
1) You drive yourself around this immense park (the size of Israel!), which is infinitely cheaper and more exciting than the alternative. Though driving solo meant I had to focus on both driving and spotting animals, and that I couldn’t enjoy a cold one on the road, like many others were. Furthermore, paved and gravel roads are in good shape and driver courtesy is high.
2) Kruger is full of Big 5 – buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion, and rhino. It’s also full of an insane variety of other mammals, reptiles, birds, and insects.
3) From camping to glamping, there are clean, state-run accommodations for every taste and budget at Kruger, each with their own braai (wood/charcoal grill). Maybe it was a little pricey for a one-man tent, at around $20 a night, but it was worth it. All main camps have gas stations, well-stocked stores with competitive prices, pools, areas for day visitors to picnic, and a restaurant. Some even have small museums, exhibits, movie screenings, or well-lit watering holes for nighttime game viewing after the camp gates close.
And all of them had…
4) The cheapest laundry on my trip so far! Besides the freebies at the homes of friends or family, of course. I suppose it’s not a profit center, but it was a little crazy to wash and dry my own laundry for less than $2 at a remote place surrounded by exotic animals. It was wonderful. In contrast, I never paid less than $4 in South America.
5) The extras you can add for a nominal price. From sunrise, sunset, and nighttime drives lead by Kruger guides, to morning walks, backpacking, slackpacking, biking, 4 x 4 trails, and braais in the wild, there are a lot of activities to partake in.
6) Clean bathrooms! Fully-stocked with soap, toilet paper, and without awkward attendants. It was nice to not have to pay to pee after 7 months of being forced to. Of course, those clean bathrooms are few and far between, so I learned to be resourceful when unable to exit my car for long periods of time.
Lucking out on reservations allowed me to drive & camp my way through the park from south to north, and back again, over 15 nights. That meant a lot of driving, usually starting at 6 am and ending at sunrise. Animals are most active at the beginning and end of the day, so I took some long breaks at midday.
While some days were fantastic for viewing, others were relatively sparse. But that’s part of the fun of seeing animals in their natural habitat and not a zoo. In addition, the changing ecological zones and landscapes of the park kept things beautiful and interesting.
Plus, about halfway through my stay at Kruger, I got to explore the park on foot for 4 days on a fun, easy backpacking trail along the Olifants river. This was much needed after being behind the wheel so much, but it sure made it difficult to get back in the car. Some of my favorite sightings were:
My first-ever leopard. Elegantly walking by my car at a river crossing, I was in a rush back to camp (you get fined if you’re not back by the time gates close) and not really looking for game when it appeared. That beautiful animal stopped close to my window on a little hill, and I won’t soon forget the rush of locking eyes with it. I savored the moment and didn’t reach for my camera until it was nearly over. It was one of only 3 leopards I saw the whole time.
Massive rhinos near the road, munching on grass on a foggy morning. Seeing these beasts up close made me really appreciate their size and beauty.
Breeding herds of elephants. I ran into countless large herds of these majestics animals eating, bathing, crossing the road. And you gotta respect the mommas with their young and stay at a distance, because hell hath no fury.
The serenades in the dark. Falling asleep to the sound of lions roaring, zebras calling, and hippos whatever-they’re-doing. Waking up to birds and other mammals starting their days. Just a great African experience. Much better and more gentle than being awakened by dogs, donkeys, and roosters far too early in the first part of the trip.
An adorable, single baby elephant whom I slowed down to take a picture of! But I never did because just as I was about to snap, that little shit started trumpeting, moving his head from side to side, and charging me. Glad no one was behind me, because I dropped that sucker into reverse quickly.
Huge herds of buffalo up north. I’m talking about 150-200 of those bad boys kicking up dust near a road or simultaneously drinking at a watering hole.
A snake slowly slithering by my foot on a walk. Wayne, our guide, said it was not venomous, so I didn’t move and just watched it move around me.
Huge Baobabs! Truly beautiful trees.
A hippo gallavanting near our tents while we enjoyed a nighttime fire on the Olifants river.
A lion cub enjoying a kill near the side of a desolate gravel road. Just the two of us, which was great.
The honeybadger I encountered twice one night at Tzendze, the rustic campsite. I got a good look at him in the dark, through the mesh door on my tent, and was a little nervous. I know he was looking for food and I don’t keep any in my tent, but I was tense because I know they don’t give a f…
A massive bull elephant slowly walking down a paved road towards me, stopping a while, then continuing. I ended up having to go backwards for about a quarter mile. Ain’t nobody got time to get crushed and end up on YouTube, like my niece was hoping.
And, my last sighting of the trip. A momma rhino and her two mini-rhinos pooping on the road to Berg-en-Dal at sunset, before slowly walking away. Given the heavy poaching activity in the southern part of the park, it was a nice thing to see and a good note to finish on.
In conclusion, I truly got my fill of animals at Kruger, which was awesome.
But, after walking 6 or 7 miles almost daily during the first part of A Great Journey (and having a stand-up desk for 2 years prior to that), sitting most of the day was something I began to really dislike the last few days. I knew I was ready to go when I started talking to the animals.
I drove the length of the park my last day, starting in Punda Maria, to make headway towards Pretoria. Because of the Women’s Day Holiday, every camp was sold-out. So, I didn’t have a reservation for Berg-en-Dal my last night, but I snuck in and slept there anyway, rather than staying in Shingwedzi (since I couldn’t change camps). That’s the advantage of a having a small tent; it fits pretty much anywhere.
Although I had reservations for one more night, I drove to Pretoria the following morning. A few days later, I took off to Durban for some beach time, bunny chow, and my first rugby game.