One of the most famous parks in South Africa and I believe the countries first national park. My only previous experience of Africa before this trip had been to Morocco so I hadn't seen any of the African game species before now, little did I know what I was in store for and how frequently I was to return. The natural wonders of South Africa were introduced to me by a work colleague and she helped me to travel independently to the park which in 1992 was a little tricky. It seemed that you couldn't actually book any accommodation in the park unless you had an address in South Africa. At this time the park didn't have any website or e-mail so no on-line booking could be made, it was down to faxing to check availability and then making a booking and then hoping that suitable flights were available. Booking confirmation was returned via the South African address. Given the ease of internet bookings these days it is incredible that only just over a decade ago such we had to go through such seemingly archaic procedures.
So after getting all the travel details sorted out I was off on an overnight flight from Heathrow to Johannesburg where I would pick up a hire car and then drive to the park for my first nights stay. The overnight flight part of the plan was key as really you wanted to ensure that you were safely in the park during daylight hours and the drive from Jo'berg to the park is around 5-6 hours although the roads are being improved.
The African bush, a spiritual experience?
Now I don't really consider myself to be a spiritual person, life is what you make it and all that, but there is just something about the African bush that sends a shiver up your spine. My work colleague told me that she thought it was something to do with the roots of humanity originating from Africa and really I never gave it a second thought until I entered the park and the bush proper. I know it sounds daft but you feel like you are at peace, 'hakuna matata', whenever I enter the park my spirits are lifted and all my troubles just disappear. I know this sounds corny and is probably just related to an adrenaline boost of excitement but that's what happens, to me anyway.
Kurrichane Thrush, a shy but common bird, easily seen within the camps.
September in the southern hemisphere is springtime in the park and is the start of the rainy season which runs through until March. So in September there is little water in the park which makes for good mammal viewing as any water you do come across will hopefully have some animals near to it. Needless to say though the park does look very dry and as seems to be so common across the world and Africa especially is usually in a state of drought.
With the park being so large it includes several different geological regions that affect the type of habitat which can be broken down into 5 different types, mixed bushwillow woodlands, thorn veld, delagoa thorn thickets, knob thorn/marula savannah, Lembombo mountain bushveld. Each of these habitat regions has it's own specific flora and fauna and this makes for a varied wildlife experience.
September is the beginning of the wet season, but it hasn't rained yet!
Water is life and a lot of the waterholes in the park are very dry.
This hippo is lying in a man made water hole, many of which exist in the park. The tree line in the background denotes that some moisture exists deep down but the river that should be there is dry. Hippos get sun burnt and I don't know how this one got through the day in temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius.
This is a more typical encounter of a hippo, there is a young animal at the back.
There are some wonderful view within the park, this one is taken from Oliphants camp of the Oliphants river, needless to say in a very dry state.
Elephants are water lovers too and this protective mother and calf have managed to find a drink in the heat of the day.
I was sitting in the car at a water hole just waiting to see what might turn up when suddenly a group of elephants burst out of the bush and raced toward the water tanks. They must have been very thirsty and appeared to be relishing their drink in the heat of the day. I always wonder if the little one was just able to reach into the tank to get a drink?
Baobab trees amongst the dry landscape.
Within the Kruger there is an excellent series of tarred roads and dirt tracks along which you drive at slow speeds, max being 40km/hr along the tarred and 30km/hr along the tracks. To be honest you really do not want to drive as fast as these limits because you will miss something, so going slower not only benefits the wildlife in reducing the inevitable accidents but also increases your chance of finding something. There is definitely more road traffic in the south of the park as it is more accessible to weekend trippers and has the larger of the camps including the administrative centre at Skukuza. The south also has a larger density of different mammal species which keeps the masses in the area and certainly it can get interesting when say a group of lions is discovered near to the road or a leopard is found in a tree as a traffic jam of maneuvering cars blocks the road in both directions. For the most part though people are well behaved although there are exceptions.
Within the park there are many rest camps where you can stay for the night and also get snacks and meals and information about what is being seen in the local area. The camps are also great places to do a bit of birding as you can get out of your car, which when outside of a camp or rest area is forbidden. This is for your own safety, after all with lions, leopards, hippos, buffalo and elephants out there you be a bit of a nutter to start wandering around.
Impala Lily, flowering inside one of the camps, normally flowering in July, when cultivated it can flower well in September.
To be honest the Kruger Park experience is very civilised, you drive around in your car, there are very pleasant camps with good food to enjoy and as long as you abide by the rules the whole experience is amazing.
Dinner is served in the Oliphants restaurant.
In the heat of the day, it is best to just relax in one of the camps and being someone who cannot really sit still, especially when I'm on a foreign trip in search of wildlife, my relaxation takes the form of still looking for that wildlife experience. So I tend to stretch my legs and wander around the camps on the lookout for birds.
Acacia Pied Barbet
Back on the road again outside of the camps and you start to look for game. Initially it might seem that the bush is empty and you just don't know where to look. There are a number of things to try and look out for that might help you find a good sighting. Vultures can be a good indicator that some predators are around, maybe lions. Vultures have excellent eyesight and a good sense of smell. So a group of vultures soaring or gliding in a line or even just sat in tree might be worth investigating.
This is a lappet faced vulture, one of the larger species.
The prey species in the bush outnumber the top predators and lets face it just about everyone wants to see a lion or a leopard, in fact most people want to see the big 5, that is lion, buffalo, rhino, leopard and elephant. By travelling around slowly you can ensure that you have the best chance to find things yourself like this wonderful cheetah that blends in so well with the dry grasses. In fact there were two here as another joined this individual whilst I watched it.
Cheetah relaxing and blending into the dry grass.
Most people in the park are not birders and are there to see the game and any of the more obvious large birds like vultures. Whenever I stopped to check out a bird or spent a while looking at something people would think I had found a mammal to see and would also stop and ask me what I was looking at. When they found out it was a bird then inevitably just drive on.
Getting onto the road early in the morning would sometimes find a redcrested korhaan stood in out in the middle. I guess it would make it easier to see any predators and sometimes would be a good vantage point from which to call and take advantage of any insect road kill.
It was always good to see mixed groups of animals and birds at any water hole, here elephants and impala mixed and drank together.
Sometimes around the edges of the pools the odd goliath heron lurked although they are generally uncommon throughout the park.
Blacksmith plovers are usually quite noisy especially when they have young around, they are quite fearless and have been known to defend their nests against wandering elephants who come too close.
Two species of oxpecker occurs in the park the redbilled has a general distribution throughout whilst the yellowbilled has a more northerly distribution with some localised groups in the southern part of the park. Whilst they perform a useful service in removing parasites I guess it must be a little painful to the host as sometimes you can see they get a little annoyed and with a shake of the head any oxpeckers fly off only to return. It has also been observed that oxpeckers drink the blood of the hosts from which they remove the parasites so there may be a darker side to them.
Giraffe with oxpecker friends, or are they?