Self-driving Kruger National Park |Part One – witnessing the BIG 5

We woke just as the sun was rising and enjoyed a nice hot coffee while scanning the river banks with our binoculars for wildlife. The river marks the southern end of Kruger National Park and a short drive from us was the Crocodile Bridge Gate where we could enter the park. The national park is basically all fenced off and while I was originally under the impression that it was basically a zoo because of the fences, I’ve since discovered that the park is the same size as Wales so these animals are most definitely wild and free. Our vehicle was checked on arrival for any poaching equipment like snares which are usually used to trap rhinos for their horns and elephants for their tusks.

DAY ONE

As soon as we entered the park it felt like we were part of a live wildlife documentary. Straight away we saw a crocodile lounging on the sandy banks of the aptly named Crocodile River and then we drove along a dry savannah with herds of impala and zebra, wildebeest and buffalo.

The zebras were so beautiful with their perfect stripes that continue onto their spiky mane. Next up were giraffes, standing so tall I could walk between their legs without touching their bellies…but of course I didn’t try that as you’re not allowed to exit your vehicle due to the dangerous animals. Although ironically there are certain picnic spots, historic sights and viewpoints where you’re allowed to alight your vehicle – with absolutely no protection from the wild animals. One of the giraffes had a hole in its neck with dried blood coming out of it which we suspect was caused from a fight with another giraffe, just the other week I saw a video of giraffes fighting and it was brutal with them thrashing their head into the others neck so their stumpy horns would ram into them.

There was a main tarmac road through the park but plenty of dirt roads to veer onto so that’s where we headed next. We continued to see abundant wildlife around every corner and one thing I hadn’t expected to see much of was pretty birds. It turns out that Kruger has around 500 species of birds and we really enjoyed spotting them. My favourite was the Lilac Breasted Roller which had fabulous purple and turquoise feathers. I really loved the hornbill birds too including the rare ‘Thunderbird’ which is endangered in South Africa due to the vulnerability of them being a ground bird.

We passed a few families of warthogs who look a bit like miniature rhinos with lovely little bums and big, ugly faces. The males have curved tusks while females have big white whiskers which look more like a flamboyant moustache. They look hilarious when they run as their thin tails go up into the air like flags.

We headed to a few viewpoints across the rivers and watering holes where we could see dozens of hippos. Some were resting on the banks with birds pecking their backs while others lounged in the water with just their faces or backs visible. We managed to see one jump off a rock and do some frantic dives up and down towards the others which was rather exciting. Crocodiles also roamed the waters-ways but I find them quite boring as they don’t really do much.

We spotted a leopard up in a tree but it was impossible to get a decent view, let alone a photo as there was too much foliage in the way. It all happened very quickly though as she came down the tree and vanished into the shrubbery within a matter of seconds. Throughout the national park are rest camps which are fenced off areas with accommodation, a souvenir shop and an eatery, usually set on the banks of a river. Some didn’t have any fences though which meant they were totally open to the wilderness so a lion could literally walk up to your table while you’re having a picnic – although I imagine most animals stay away from humans. Anyway, today we stopped at Lower Sabie Rest Camp and had lunch at a lovely spot above the river where we could watch elephants heading down for a drink. Considering we were in a national park I was shocked at how reasonable the prices were. A falafel burger with chips cost just £3.50.

We continued to see lots of wildlife after lunch including a lone lion that was just about to cross the road in-front of us until a stupid safari vehicle tried to turn around for a better view and spooked her. Luckily we saw more lions later on with two males sleeping in the dry grass right beside the road. We were literally a meter from them and they didn’t even flinch at the noise of the car engines, they were too busy enjoying their sleep. What an amazing first day!! By the time we headed back the weather turned and wind gusts were blowing debris across the road which meant the boys couldn’t have their braai tonight and had to cook on the hobs.

DAY TWO

Today we entered the park via the Malalane Gate and we soon found a pride of lions sleeping in the grass. It was hard to get a good view of them but we got occasional glimpses of the adorable cubs playing. After the lions we had a bit of a quiet morning so we headed to Berg-en-Dal Rest Camp to check out the waterhole but we just saw monkeys playing in the trees around the picnic area. There was a staff member holding a catapult and it was his job to prevent the monkeys from stealing peoples food. We spent a few hours driving along a dirt road, spotting elephants, hornbill birds, steenbok, waterbuck and a lone hyena who was much smaller than we expected.

After a fairly quiet day things suddenly perked up when Neil spotted a rhino!! Our final big 5 animal! It was near an elephant who didn’t look happy about the encounter and began flapping it’s ears so the rhino took the hint and charged off. We spent quite a while watching the rhino and realised we were running out of time as we needed to exit the park by 6pm so we turned back and low and behold the pride of lions we’d seen earlier had finally woken up and were in the middle of the road!! The road was blocked with cars behind them but we were the first car to arrive from this direction so we pulled to the side and had a fantastic view. A couple of lions were laying on the road and gradually more joined them! It was absolutely crazy, we had 5 adult lions who were slowly followed by 4 ridiculously cute cubs!!

After laying on the warm tarmac they all got up and began walking our way. By this point they were less than a meter away from us so I was trembling with excitement and adrenaline. Sadly we had to keep doing our windows up for safety so my photos aren’t the best but boy was it an experience to witness. Some of the lions got a little boisterous with one another, growling and scrunching up their noses to reveal their pointy teeth.

The lions laid down again and the cubs began crawling atop the adults like they were an obstacle course. We watched them for another 5 minutes until they got up and continued their walk down the road. We couldn’t believe how lucky we were, what a sighting!

As we made our way to the gate we had three rhinos cross the road in front of us! It was two adults and a lovely young one but the light was really starting to fade by this point. What an incredible day though!

DAY THREE

We didn’t think yesterday could be topped after our lion encounter but a collection of cars further up the road was a sure sign that some exciting wildlife was ahead. A polka-dot leopard was laying in a tree with a fresh Impala kill hanging from a thick branch. I have no idea how she could pull the animal meters up this tree and then position it in a way where it didn’t fall down. The impala’s head was hanging over the edge with blood dripping down it and a huge hole in her body where the leopard had been eating.

It was hard to get a good view of the leopard so we shuffled around a bit with the other cars and managed to find a much better angle. She was sleeping when we first arrived but she soon got up and started feasting on her kill until her mouth was covered in blood.

The sightings didn’t stop there, we headed up a dirt road and came across a pack of wild dogs which are quite rare. They were resting in the grass and there were a few adorable pups in the pack. We pulled over and watched them for about an hour, occasionally one would get up and walk around a bit, I guess checking the area is still safe for the puppies. Apparently wild dogs are quite rare so we were very lucky to see them as there’s only about 200 in Kruger.

We left the dogs and continued driving up the dirt road where we spotted something in the tree ahead of us. Hanging from the branch was another dead impala. This time there wasn’t a visible leopard but he or she was most likely sleeping in the grass below while keeping an eye on her dinner.

Further along a big herd of elephants crossed the road and we watched two fighting bulls. We’re not really sure if it was play fighting or serious but it was very exciting to witness. We spotted a new bird on the way back, it was a huge secretary bird which was about a meter tall and very well camouflaged in the dry grass.

When we got back to Marloth Park we decided to swing by the Amazing View Restaurant to book a table as they have a fab view of the crocodile river and Kruger National Park. As soon as we pulled up I spotted something black running across the grassy banks of the river. We hopped out and noticed there was a second dark animal and they were chasing an impala. At first we thought it was hyenas but it was actually wild dogs which are extremely vicious when they kill animals. Unlike the big cats in the park which kill and then eat, the wild dogs eat while the animal is still alive and trying to escape. So before our eyes we watched as one bit the back leg of the impala and the next dog grabbed another leg. The poor impala was desperately trying to get away but more dogs started running down to join them and they all began tugging and ripping the impala to pieces. It was brutal. But also fascinating to witness wildlife being truly wild.

While the dogs were feeding two hyenas began approaching and trying to grab a piece of the meat. One ran off with a fleshy bone but there didn’t seem to be much left, the dogs absolutely devoured it and all had bloody faces and chests.

We decided we may as well eat in the restaurant now so we could enjoy the sunset and river view. It was a really special spot to have dinner, there were elephants and crocodiles right below us in the river and hippos snorting in the distance. The sun was turning the sky pink and while our eyes weren’t strong enough to spot the wild dogs on the grassy slope anymore, we occasionally got glimpses of their reflection in the water when they went for a drink.

What a crazy few days of wildlife spotting. Now we’re going to make our way north to explore a different area of the park over the next few days.

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