Sunday, June 4, 2017

Wildlife safaris in Kruger, again

I have become quite fond of wildlife safaris since my trip to Serengiti in 2009. And having been on a safari once has made it difficult for me to see animals anymore in captivity in zoos. They deserve to be in the wild - where they can roam around as kings and can be themselves (yes, every animal however small, walks around in its natural environment as if it owns the place). After experiencing such scenes, its tough to go back to the constrained cages of zoos and be able to enjoy them.

In South Africa, there are many game parks - some big and some small, some private and some government owned. The private ones are very very expensive, so I didn't go to any of them (they generally cost around $400 per night or more). I went to Kruger once with my parents last year. But I was itching to go there again. Kruger is about 4-9 hours drive from Joburg depending on which part of the park you drive to. The north is supposed to be more remote and better for viewings given less crowds and the south is more convenient and touristy. Anyways given the long drive, both my visits to Kruger were to the south, though different parts of the park.

This time I went to the Crocodile Bridge area while staying in Marloth Park outside Kruger. We drove on Friday night from Joburg, taking the same route as always on N4. The overall drive was good except one part where we did not follow google maps to the Schoemans Kloof valley and took the main highway to Marloth Park. It turned out to be a one way road and we got stuck behind long trolleys for very long. And the trucks on the way were driving much worse than usual too. So the 4 hour journey turned out to be much longer than expected, almost 6 hours!

I don’t know why but there was a lot of police on the way also that day, much more than we had ever seen before. And it felt that there were very few good garages on the way to stop for a bite. So we kept looking but when we did not find any, we stopped in Nelspruit city for dinner, in the mall at Emnotweni Casino Hotel (part of the Sun group). All malls across the world have become the same now. So we saw the usual retail shops in the mall and went to Nando’s for dinner.

We had booked an airbnb in Marloth Park, which is a walled estate with huge holiday houses for the rich, sharing its boundary with the park. We reached quite late and crashed soon enough. But even in the short drive inside to our house, we spotted a herd of impalas, two kudus and an owl, already getting us excited for the next day! It felt nice to live in a house rather than a typical hotel. It was also a different experience living in the wild, with sounds of animals outside giving company. But the upside was the fresh air, the clear starry skies and the amazing feeling of waking up amid the wildness outside.

The gates for entering the park for morning safari open at 5:30 am. And even though we had reached late the last night, we got up early in the morning ready for the safaris at 6 am. We started driving towards the Crocodile Bridge gate, but before we got to the gate, we already started spotting wildlife within Marloth Park and got very delayed! Since Marloth Park is right next to the park, a lot of animals just cross across and can be spotted roaming around inside the estate.

Giraffe herds in Marloth Park
We saw kudus and giraffes running across the road avoiding cars. There was one huge group of 7-8 giraffes with 4 babies crossing the road - I have never seen such a big group together. And then there was a mongoose. These spottings delayed us so much that we got to the gate only by 7:30 am which may already have been too late! The drive towards the gate was fascinating by itself, especially in the morning just when the sun was rising. There were mountains far off playing games with the sunrays, and banana and sugarcane plantations stretching till those mountains. It was almost magical, being so close to nature so beautiful. By that time we were all very excited for the day lying ahead inside Kruger.

Once inside, we almost spent 12 hours on safari. The typical day for most people involves 2-3 hours safari in the morning and another 2-3 hours in the evening. It's especially easier to do that if you stay within the park. But since we were staying outside, we decided to stay in and drive the whole day 😇. Though honestly, we had tried that earlier also and did so again, but it doesn’t help much. The major spottings always happen in early morning or during sunset time as that is when animals leave their resting places to find food. Plus its too hot in the middle of the day anyways. But it was worth a try still.

Kruger panorama
We had a long day, driving from Crocodile Bridge gate to Lower Sabie Restcamp to Tshowane to Skukuza and then back out from Malelane gate. We drove through main roads and the off-roads. The whole area was a lot greener than my last visit in October last year, when it was all dry and brown. Now it was all green everywhere, the trees as well as the grass cover. We drove on mud roads and it was a lot better than my last visit - there was less dust in the air. And same as last time, there was no data signal inside the park, so its always good to carry a map with you. We were able to catch wifi along the edge of the park, but would lose signal as soon as we started driving inside.

We of course spotted the usual animals during the day - huge herds of impalas lazily crossing the road. There was one herd which kept crossing for 30 minutes, it must have had at least 200 in the herd! We spotted many warthogs families running around madly, with the little ones obediently following their parents. Many many giraffes eating tree leaves with a grace not seen in any other animal. And lot of individual elephants eating at the side of the roads.

Wild buffalo herd
We also spotted a huge buffalo herd across the road next to the river. I saw a lot more wildebeest and zebras than my last trip where we had barely seen a couple. We saw some hippos in the water, but none outside given how late we had started the safari 😔.

Vulture atop a treetop
In every trip to the bush, you end up seeing something different from all your previous ones. In the first half of the day, it was vultures - I saw lots of them sitting alone and observing miles around from right on the top of trees.

We had a lunch stop at Lower Sabie Restcamp when we got tired and the weather became too hot. It felt nice to sit under cool shade and eat something cool. We had lunch at Mugg and Beans, which was an open air restaurant just next to the river. And I could see some buffaloes, an elephant, a hippo and 3 baby giraffes very far off. It was a nice feeling to have my ice-cream with wild animals walking around 😁.

The camp felt like a nice place to stay, they had mud huts right next to the river where you can stay and observe the wild animals coming for a drink, right from the comfort of your room. These camps now also have maps where visitors can put markers to show where they recently spotted the big 5 or the other rare animals. I don’t know if they had them when I went there last time. But we found it so helpful this time. We checked out where cheetahs, lions and rhinos had been spotted and left soon on their trail.

Elephant crossing
The next stretch of our safari was relatively boring and we did not see anything out of the ordinary. We saw a herd of elephants who has recently wallowed in the mud and looked brown rather than grey. Guess they were also feeling too hot and preferred to be dirty with mud to beat that. And then we spotted many larger than usual groups of giraffes (even up to 8) with so many babies in their group.

Impalas huddled under the bushes
We saw 4 male kudus walking around together and they looked impressive from afar with their huge horns and confident gait. We went to one lookout point and two waterbodies. But all we saw were a few hippos and a crocodile in one of the waterbodies. And the usual impalas were sitting in large herds under small bushes in groups of 1-10 to avoid the heat.

Rowdy velvet monkeys
A bit bored, we made a quick stop at the Tshowane picnic area for a quick snack and break from the sun. And there for the first time I saw velvet monkeys. They should instead by called "rogue monkeys". There was a group of at least 10-12 of them and I must say they are the most active and rowdy monkeys I have ever seen! The entire time we were there, they were running around, jumping on the roof, fighting and so on. I don’t think they stopped for even a second the entire time. We had to be quite careful to avoid them stealing our food.

Our next stop was Skukuza Restcamp, again without spotting anything but after that (which was the typical evening safari time), our sightings again improved.It helped that we checked the sightings map at Skukuza. Our next sighting was the highpoint of this day - two lionesses sitting under a tree. We were there for about 20 minutes and witnessed some cool scenes. First, the lionesses just kept sleeping. Then they both got up, walked a couple of feet and slept again under a different tree, with ones head on the other’s body.

Then one impala started walking towards them, slowly, unaware. One of the lionesses woke up and started staring at it, intently and silently. The impala kept walking towards them and we were expecting a kill… But then a warthog sped out of nowhere towards the scene and shooed the impala away! By this time, the other lioness had also woken up.

The warthog and the lioness spotted each other, and there was a few seconds of a standoff between them (very brave of the warthog). It felt like he would stand his ground but then he ran away, as suddenly as he had appeared. The lionesses woken out of their sleep, walked around a bit and finally went back to sleep again, under the shade. It was very interesting to see this weird scene in the jungle. Am guessing it happens all the time, but for me, it was very very interesting. I am sure thats not the reason, but it almost felt like the warthog saved his friend, the impala from the lionesses!

Queen of the jungle, in all its majestic glory

By this time, it was time to leave. The park gates close at fixed times (6 pm nowadays) and if you do not reach the gate by then, apparently they don't let you out! So we started driving towards Malelane gate to get out by 6 pm. And then the sightings started delaying us, one by one. We first ran into a wild dog standing on the road. The cars in front of us scared him and he ran away very quickly, but I still remember the standing ears and the lean body, staring at the cars. It almost felt like a hyena to me, and also was the first time I had seen a wild dog so close.

Lazy rhino grazing
By this time, we had seen 3 of the big 5, but not the rhinoceros or the leopard. And then in the last half an hour before leaving the park, we kept running into rhinos after rhinos. First was a group of 3 rhinos far off behind grass and bushes and we kept waiting there the whole time for them to come out. Disappointed after wasting so much time unsuccessfully, we left and then ran into four rhinos lazily eating grass in the open along with a few elephants, zebras and wildebeests alongside. It was so late and getting dark that we had no time to photograph them and we left soon enough.

Rhino's ass
And then we saw another rhino next to the road showing us his ass. And then another one, even closer! By this time we were so late, we stopped stopping and had to drive above the speed limit of 40 kmph to get to the gate in time! We were still about 7 mins late and the guard let us go out with a warning, phew! But it would have been fun to see what one would do if you have to spend a night in the jungle not being able to get out 😆.

It was a bit of a drive to get back to Marloth Park along the highway as we had exited a different gate. But with a beautiful sunset behind us, it was a fun drive. We had dinner at Jabula restaurant within Marloth Park. The ambience was nice, a restaurant in a wooden bungalow in the middle of the wild. But the food there was quite average. Also there were loads of mosquitos there and for the first time in South Africa, I had to put mosquito repellant to avoid them.

Day 1 drive route:

Vultures drying themselves in the sun
We spent the second day also in safaris inside the park, again entering from the Crocodile Bridge gate. The day was a little less exciting though, because we started the safaris late and left the park by about 2 to drive back to Joburg. We did not have any major spottings this day. The day started with the usual giraffe herds running around on the road in Marloth Park, this time it was a group of 7. When we entered the park, we saw baboons on the river bridge running with their babies. And then vultures again, this time stretching their wings on the treetops after the rain last night and drying themselves in the sun.

Crocodile River
We drove along the river a bit but just missed a lion who had been spotted 5 mins before us. We saw him walking with his tail in the air and then lost him completely 😔. We saw two rhinos lazily move towards a road and then vanish under the bushes. Then a tortoise, walking slowly along the road, trying to run away from us. And a turtle (for the first time in the wild) in a small stream crossing the road, swimming furiously. We also for the first time spotted about 2-3 herds of impalas that day which were all male (the male has the horns, and generally there is one head male and a few baby males in any herd). I found that a bit weird.

Elephants too close for comfort!
We did run into a herd of elephants which was a bit of an adventure. They were crossing the road and there were multiple babies with them. While silently walking across, at one point the matriarch just turned and started moving towards us on the road! It was a tense few seconds where I stopped taking pictures and closed the windows. We were a bit scared to start the car to run away but thankfully she turned and went back to where she was walking. But those few seconds made me realise that everything said and done, in the jungle - anything can happen!

Hurt waterbuck
We stopped at Pretoriuskorp Restcamp for a quick sightings map check and then left soon enough. We saw a lone red hartebeest grazing on a hill. And on one road, we ran into a hurt waterbuck which could barely walk. He was standing in the middle of the road. We waited for it to slowly walk away, but I left thinking that it would definitely fall prey to predators by the end of the day 😔. We also saw a fish eagle perched on the top of a tree, near a water body - I have heard they are amazing hunters and quite rare to spot. Then we drove twice through an area where some other people had spotted a pride of lions with multiple cubs, playing and creating a scene, but we could not spot them 😖. So as I said, a very average day.

Moods of Kruger
We drove up a couple of mountains and saw beautiful landscapes, of cities nearby, the endless park and so on. We did not spot too many birds this time. The most common was a blue bird which we saw everywhere. And guineafowl always on the road, trying to run away stupidly! But nothing more significant on the bird side either. Overall it had been very very hot this time and had been tough to keep the windows open most of the time. Still we drove with our windows open a lot but apparently you are not supposed to(?!).

Driving through townships 
outside Kruger
We finished our safari and left from the Numbi Gate by around 2 pm and then google maps took us through a few townships before we hit the highway at Nelspruit. The townships though obviously not rich felt very very picturesque, perched on top of mountains with breathtaking views. It was a nice fresh drive back. We again stopped at Emnotweni mall in Nelspruit for lunch and then onwards to Joburg (the mall shops had closed by 3 pm because it was Sunday)!

The drive back was uneventful and this time we went through Schoemans Kloof, smartly. It was all green and picturesque, with the orange plantations everywhere. We stopped at their shop but they did not have fresh fruit juice, as advertised on the billboards.

Sunset driving
The drive back to Joburg had many beautiful vistas and valleys (as usual). There was a bad rainstorm on the way and we couldn’t see anything for some time. Then it all got better by itself and got light suddenly! I wish there is some way to capture all these vistas that I drove through in my time in South Africa, it is so difficult to capture all these brilliant memories.

Anyways, it was a nice weekend in the bush. I know lot of people find Kruger too touristy. But for its a convenient and comfortable way to see animals in their natural surroundings. And I can see myself being back there again, soon...

Day 2 drive route:

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