Camping is not for everyone, but it is a cheaper alternative and allowed us the luxury of an extended journey around parts of Southern Africa. As you may know by now, we travelled to many of the National Parks of Kwazulu-Natal, before heading off to Namibia and Zambia via the Kalahari desert. Our last sortie in South Africa, and a place we have returned to many a year, was in Kruger National Park. The size of Wales, Kruger stretches along the border of South Africa and Mozambique and up to Zimbabwe in the north.
All in all, we’ve met some wonderful down-to-earth people who have now become good friends; conversely, we’ve encountered people who have very different concepts of personal space and will almost camp on your groundsheet in their desire to claim the ‘perfect pitch’ next to the fence – irrespective of how close to your site they are! Camping can be a hot dusty, insect-ridden affair, uncomfortable at times, but equally rewarding at others. Imagine the late afternoon as the sun sets, the shadows lengthen and the heat dissipates, the ice cold beer or wine dripping in condensation and the wilderness stretching away into the distant hills! Aaah the beauty of Africa! Time for another beer – just to quench the thirst and wash away some dust of course!
Each morning was pregnant with promise, as we left the camp before sunrise. The dawn colours streaking across the sky and soft hues of the pink, peach, orange or yellow sunlight made this our favourite time of day. Searching throughout the “Golden Hour” or two, we would stop for breakfast under a tree, next to a river or at a picnic spot. Fortified with tea, coffee and rusks (or chocolate biscuits if we felt we had earned them!) we would set off for another few hours before the heat of the day drove us back to camp to sit in the pool or lie in the shade until late afternoon. We would rouse ourselves and stash a few “frosties” into our 12V freezer – for the thirst later! Returning just after sunset and it would be Braai-time! A traditional African evening would be spent around the fire cooking, drinking and telling stories. Beer, boerewors and …campfire stories, you could say! (Boerewors is a long flavoursome or spicy sausage usually wound into a spiral and cooked on a fire).
Like our fellow campers, our night-time visitors in the Kruger campsites have been equally varied and interesting, ranging from unobtrusive and very appealing Owls, Genets (both large and small spotted), African Wild Cats and Bushbuck; to raiding and often destructive Jackals, Honey Badgers, Monkeys and Baboons; to the gorgeous big-eyed Bushbabies that look exceptionally cute but also have the gene for a good raiding party! Although as you might imagine, a Bushbaby raid is a more genteel affair than that of a Baboon!
The Jackal eating Karyn’s walking shoes and our cutlery Tupperware container in Etosha was easily surpassed by a little family of Bushbabies. We had been lulled into a false sense of security when camping in Punda Maria (the most northerly campsite in Kruger National Park), as once dusk fell the Baboons and Monkeys disappeared (on their guard as the night-time meant the threat of Leopards was too much for them to ignore). Our guard was therefore down! We had a wonderful barbecue one evening, cooking extra food for the following day. We went to shower, leaving a delicious cheese-filled wors (sausage) wrapped in tinfoil to cool in the evening breeze blowing through the back of our semi-closed-up bakkie. On our return, our empty tinfoil wrapper was on the floor, with no sign of our sausage… Puzzled, we shut everything up and went to bed. We then heard scrabbling around outside. On investigating, some beautiful Bushbabies, with the most gorgeous huge eyes, were in the tree above our bakkie – clearly eager to continue their feast! Lesson learned!!! (We later discovered that it wasn’t only the cheese wors they had found, but our box of savoury biscuits too – with a trail of biscuit crumbs and greasy pawprints left all over the truck as evidenced after the following day’s dusty drive! Luckily our fruit was stored in the front of the bakkie – as this is one of their favourite foods.)
The entertaining shenanigans of the campsite helped to compensate somewhat for the very slow and challenging game viewing. Our conclusion is that the 3 or 4 years of drought in South Africa – not to mention the sustained and chronic poaching – have all taken their toll on animal, bird and insect numbers. We knew that the north of the park, where we first based ourselves, generally had fewer animals; however, we did not expect to have whole days during which we saw very little – in spite of 6-10 hours in the car, starting before sunrise each day! Luckily the Elephants sustained us: they provided hours of entertainment, drinking, swimming and playing in the water; mock charging (especially the youngsters with attitude) when we approached too close; and the youngsters learning from the adults in the herd as they copied their behaviours.
The huge herds of Buffalo in the north were impressive! We saw herds of 100+ and 200+, as well as ‘dagga boys’ – old males, usually living on their own or in small groups of 2 or 3. They could often be found wallowing in a muddy waterhole, cooling off during the heat of the day. (This results in their colloquial name, as ‘dagga’ is cement: the mud dries to a cement-like consistency before they rub it off against a tree or rock, in an attempt to remove ticks and other parasites.)
We also saw lots of mating animals – we guess that autumn means mating in preparation for spring-time births. Bearing in mind our limited viewing of animals, particularly predators, entertainment was provided by a pair of mating Lions who mated every 15-20 minutes for a 3 day period! (Ouch!) They leave the pride, to disappear somewhere secluded, and then do nothing but mate and sleep for the period while the lioness is in oestrus. You can see the deterioration in their physical condition over this period, as they do not eat at all unless some prey literally walks past them!
One of the African Icons and evocative sounds of the African bush is the African Fish Eagle. Calling in a duet, their cries echo across the rivers and lakes. Just beautiful. We were privileged to see some magnificent Fish Eagles relatively close, as well as a majestic Martial Eagle with a full crop. Their huge yellow eyes piercing and scary-looking!
And, after weeks of looking for our favourite birds, finding a very cute Pearl-Spotted Owlet, a Scops Owl, some hunting Lilac-breasted Rollers and a Pied Kingfisher, were all real treats.
Young animals are always cute! They amaze us by being perfectly formed and ready to run and escape predators within minutes of being born. Young Zebras always seem filled with exuberance and energy… They are innately curious and interested – in spite of the adults’ attempts to shield them from external eyes.
Young Elephants are similarly heart-warming: they are protected by the herd and often sheltered from view, but seem keen to assert their independence and thrust themselves into the centre of the herd’s activities. We saw a tiny elephant use his trunk, wrapped around a tree trunk, to give him leverage to hoist himself up the final incline of the steep slope from a river. They are highly intelligent and adept learners. They have a very strong social and family instinct and the whole herd will rally round to help each other, especially a youngster in trouble or under threat.
Baby Hyenas, one of Karyn’s favourites, are very engaging. They are born black, and only develop their spots when they are 2-3 months old, gradually changing from their dark newborn fur (to conceal them in their dens and in the shade of trees) to the more mottled and spotted lighter colours of the adult Hyena.
We thought the central and southern areas of the park would provide more prolific game viewing; however, we were sadly wrong! Parts of Kruger, particularly around Satara (traditionally the predator-rich core of the park, because of the plentiful savannah grasslands), looked like a barren desert wasteland. It was really sad to see the stark effects of the sustained drought – particularly as rain won’t fall again until about October (and then only if the drought breaks).
We were, however, thrilled to finally see some White Rhino. These prehistoric-looking behemoths are always a privilege to see, and we were relieved to see that the chronic poaching over the last few years had not led to their total demise.
Other highlights were seeing a pack of Wild Dogs resting under some trees, and seeming to enjoy some playful interactions with one another. All play is learning – whether it’s with another Dog, or with a stick!
The pressure on water, and rapidly diminishing waterholes, has left Hippos badly affected as the males are very aggressive and will fight – until death if necessary – to stake their claim to their waterhole. We saw several Hippo carcases, and a badly injured Hippo walking to try to find a new waterhole. However, Hippos also provided us with some lighter moments: we enjoyed seeing these Terrapins sunning themselves on a Hippo’s generously sized back!
Seeing big cats is always a heart-stopping, adrenaline-filled privilege which provides an absolute surge of joy – particularly when you consider the size of the park and how the odds of seeing these majestic animals are so small! We were very blessed to see Lions, Leopards and Cheetahs during this trip.
We also encountered a very different smaller animal – a Civet – which neither of us had seen previously. Civets are usually nocturnal, so to see one so clearly was a real treat! They are strange yet strikingly beautiful cats, with almost a combination of Hyena, Cat and Racoon-like features.
Our month in Kruger National Park was hard work (yes, we know… we can hear your groans now, as it’s a holiday, not traditional ‘work’!) with early starts and long hours in the car, and many a frustrating day with no or little game to be seen. However, it was also a real privilege to be able to spend an extended period of time in the restorative natural beauty of the bush. In spite of the drought, when we consider the range of magnificent trees, uplifting sunrises, and beautiful and majestic animals and birds we did see, we feel very blessed indeed.
All our camping kit and our bakkie await us in Africa, tucked away in the shade until we return. Once Africa is in your blood it is very difficult to stay away. We would do it all again, and for longer, and travel further if we could afford it!
Our fantastic year out has almost reached its end, so it’s back to reality for us now… We return briefly to the UK to catch up with family and friends, and then we plan to head to Spain, to see whether we are able to combine some of the elements we’ve enjoyed most this year with forging a new life there: more quality time together, more sunshine, an outdoor and healthier lifestyle, and a better work-life balance.
Thank you very much for your friendship, support, updates and feedback which have sustained us during our travels. We will keep you updated about our adventures (and the natural beauty, as well as the challenges we face) as we settle in to our new lives in Spain…
Richard and Karyn.