Kruger National Park: unforgettable family vacation (part one)

Readers know that my family and I love to visit the Kruger National Park in South Africa.  We’ve been many times, and we hope to return again many more times.  I’ve been going to the Kruger since early 1991; once I got a taste of it, I was hooked.

Where else can you see such a variety and number of African wildlife in natural habitats on a completely self-drive photo safari.  That is, you can book it yourself, rent a car from AVIS once you get there, and drive yourself all over the Park, which is 300 miles long and 50 miles or more wide.  No need for expensive guides; no, the Kruger maintains 12 self-contained “Rest Camps” complete with restaurants, grocery and curio stores, gas stations, and all manner of private accommodation.  The individual bungalows are called “rondavels” and are heated and air-conditioned, with private showers, toilets, hot and cold running water, and electricity.  Almost all come with a fridge (many with a full kitchen) and a porch. 

The cost is extremely reasonable, but I am not going to get into that here.  Instead, I’m going to jump right into the trip itself and post reports made on the spot during the first two days of our recent 10 days in the Kruger.  Next week I’ll post another daily report or two, and so on.

We booked Delta because they now have a nonstop flight Atlanta to Johannesburg, so it’s just two hops to get to South Africa, the first from RDU to ATL (one hour), and the second one, DL200/201, is an extended range 777 that stays aloft for over 16 hours one way (about 8400 miles). 

That’s a long way and a long time in coach, but I’ve done that four times since August, all in coach, and not only survived, but recommend it.  Well, OK, I recommend the first four rows of coach, which are called “Economy Comfort” and have 4 extra inches of legroom and 4 extra inches of recline.  But every coach seat is equipped with a super-duper entertainment system (over 200 movies, plus games, plus HBO and other TV selections–you’ll never get bored). 

Our kids loved it, and so did we.  The routine is: drink plenty of water constantly, doze, watch a movie, read a bit, nibble a little (the food was actually good), nod off again for an hour or so, hit the WC, drink more water, stretch for a few minutes in the mid-cabin space, drink more water, watch another movie, sleep some more, read another few pages, stretch, hit the toilet again, nibble, and so on and so forth.  In what didn’t seem like 16 hours, we were landing.

Only drawback of the Delta flight is that it gets in in the afternoon, and it’s impossible to connect for the 50 minute puddle jumper from Jo’burg to the Kruger Mpumalanga Airport (airport code MQP), the gateway to the Park (the small airport is near the town of Nelspruit). We booked rooms at the Airport Grand Hotel which were very adequate, clean, and served a killer buffet breakfast (included in the $128 room rate).  Also included is a free shuttle bus between the airport and the hotel.  It leaves from the shuttle bus area (every porter can point the way) on the half hour and departs the hotel for the airport on the hour.  The bus runs from about 6:00 AM until past 10:00 PM daily.  We recommend the Airport Grand Hotel.  It’s a darn sight cheaper than the on-airport hotels, too, which are more like $500/night.

Next morning we caught our South African Airways Airlink RJ to MQP and arrived around 10:00 AM.  There we picked up the VW diesel van I had reserved (we rent the van for reasons which will be explained) and headed for the Kruger.  It’s an easy 66 kilometers (about 40 miles) to the Malelane Gate of the Kruger and about 100 kms (about 62 miles) to the Crocodile Bridge Gate of the Kruger, our point of entry to the Park.

That got us inside the Kruger National Park, and here are the first two days of reports:

Kruger Nat’l Park, South Africa, Day 1 (March 29, 2012)

After overnighting in Johannesburg, we flew this morning (50 min flight) to the Kruger Mpumalanga airport & picked our Avis car (a VW diesel van). About an hour later we entered the Kruger National Park through Crocodile Gate near Komatipoort, which is the border town to Mozambique.

Entering the Kruger at Crocodile Bridge Gate

Inside the Kruger Park speed is limited to 50 KPH (30 MPH) on paved roads & 40 KPH on unpaved roads. The park has an abundance of both tarred & dirt/gravel roads, all in superb condition for any vehicle.

Example of excellent gravel roads in the Kruger

It’s autumn here in the Southern Hemisphere & temps in Jo’burg (elevation over 5000 ft) had been in the 60s F. However, the Kruger is in the Lowveldt near the Indian Ocean & semi-tropical (the Tropic of Capricorn cuts through the middle of the Park). Lots of bananas, papayas & sugar cane are grown outside the Park. It was over 90 degrees F by the time we reached the gate.

In our first hour in the park driving to our first overnight camp (Lower Sabie) from Crocodile Gate, we spotted 8 species. After checking into our family bungalow at Lower Sabie, we left the A/C on full to cool it off, had a quick lunch (including a couple of delicious Castle Lagers on draught), and headed out for an afternoon game drive.

VW diesel van at our rondavel at Lower Sabie Camp

Altogether it was a very lucky day. We saw 3 white rhinos (2 separate places), too many elephants to have counted them all, zebra, impala, giraffe, wildebeest, 8 different groups of warthogs (total of 31 pigs), 14 ostriches, vervet monkeys, baboons (of course one can see plenty of those in the NC General Assembly), crocodile, leopard tortoise, hippos, several species of hornbills, lilac-breasted rollers, grey louries, glossy starlings, long-tailed shrikes, carmine bee-eater, at least species of francolin, Maribou stork, & 2 unidentified kingfishers.

Warthog family

No big cats today, but back at Lower Sabie Camp a leopard was spotted (pun intended) right below the outdoor pavilion where we dined.

Off to bed now (6 hrs later here than Raleigh). No pictures; sorry, but AT&T has no discounted service agreement in South Africa & charges 20 bucks per MB of data. Email words, however, are cheap, so, I will send reports like this one intermittently.

Kruger Nat’l Park, South Africa, Day 2 (Mar 30)

We all caught up on our sleep last night & missed my 500am alarm to go on a 530am game drive. No matter; we were out the gate & headed north for Satara Camp (our accommodation tonight) by 640am.

It was only about a 60 mile drive if we’d gone direct, but we took it real slow, stopping often to watch animals like elephants 15 ft away by the side of the road, & we took many side roads (gravel roads) by the rivers to improve our chances of seeing animals.

I’d stocked up on food & beverages at the Lower Sabie camp store last night, filling the Coleman cooler we brought with us from home (a free checked bag, thanks to Delta & South African Airways). Ruth also brought some energy bars & other snacks from Raleigh, so we didn’t stop for breakfast.

Once at Satara, we had lunch & checked into our Family Cottage (D86), which has a thatched roof covering a very large porch, a huge living room, full kitchen, & 2 bedrooms (sleeps 5-7). It turned even hotter today, so we cranked up the A/C in the cottage before taking the kids to the camp pool for a quick dip.

While they swam, I filled the VW van’s tank with diesel & stocked the cooler with ice, soft drinks & beer for our afternoon game drive.

Whenever we are on dirt/gravel roads, I give young Will (age 13)opportunities to drive the van. It’s a 5-speed manual, & he needs to learn a stick shift. Since the speed on unimproved roads in the Kruger is just 40 KPH (about 25 MPH), he can’t wreck the VW easily unless he collides with an elephant on the road (which, admittedly, he almost did this morning).

In my youth in eastern North Carolina, our dads could take us out to practice driving on country dirt roads before we were 16, but we Americans have become too safety-conscious to do that now. Will’s driving skills are already quite good after just 2 days here. (Confession: I’ve let him drive on previous Kruher trips since he was old enough to sit in my lap.)

Another stellar game-viewing day! Amazingly, we saw 4 of the “African Big Five” animals: Lion (we saw a big male & huge lioness close to the road), Cape Buffalo (a herd of several hundred), Elephant (way too many to count at many different locations), and another White Rhino (like yesterday, very close to us). If we’d seen a Leopard, it would have been a clean sweep of all Big Five.

Kudu (male) with trademark spiral horns

In addition to those 4 species, we saw a large Spotted Hyena (as he loped by the car, Clara quickly closed her window, showing excellent survival instincts), many Hippos, many Giraffes, more Warthogs, lots of zebras, several herds of Wildebeest, beautiful Kudus at several places, hundreds & hundreds of Impala, several large troupes of Baboons, a few Vervet Monkeys, a lone Bushbuck, many Waterbucks at several locations, an African 5-lined Skink, and an unidentified Mongoose.

Spotted Hyena says hello

Birdwise, we saw a large group of Ostriches, 3 Saddlebilled Storks, Geese (either Spurwing or Egyptian, I couldn’t tell which), a magnificent Secretary Bird (they eat snakes & stand over 3′ tall), Maribou Stork, too many Francolin to count, several species of Doves, many Lilac-breasted Rollers, Long-tailed Shrikes, Hornbills (Yellow-billed & Red-billed), Guineafowl, Glossy Starlings, a tree full of unidentified Vultures, scads of LBBs (Little Brown Birds), a Black Korhaan or two, a Pygmy Owl, many large but unidentified eagles swooping overhead, & a lone Carmine Bee-eater.

Lilac-breasted Roller looks for a meal

At least those are the ones we made note of. Perhaps you can understand why we love the Kruger so much & come as often as we can.

This afternoon the beer tasted mighty good as we drove around in the 39 degree C heat (by my mental calculation, about 102.8 degrees F). It’s not usually so hot here this time of year; the torrid temps spawned late afternoon thunderstorms which are currently rumbling around us.

With such a spacious place to enjoy tonight, we cooked dinner & ate on the porch instead of dining at the Satara Camp restaurant. But I enjoyed a delicious Kudu meat pie there for lunch. I counted myself lucky because Kruger game dishes made from Kudu, Impala, Buffalo, Eland, Gemsbok, & similar native protein are always popular & run out quickly.

Better go in & to bed. I’m sitting barefoot on the porch enjoying a last brew, & the kids have warned me that scorpions are scurrying in the yard nearby.

Tomorrow we drive north to my favorite Kruger camp, Letaba, where we will spend 2 nights.

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