It was freezing as the safari guide was driving us toward the Kruger Gate in the dawn. The game-viewing vehicle didn’t have a window, so we wrapped ourselves tightly in the fleece blankets yet the chilling wind still managed to sneak through the cracks. It was necessary for game viewing though to make sure we woke up so early – this is when the animals were active. The first 20 minutes of driving were rough; once we entered the Kruger National Park and the sun came out, we warmed up and I was excited in anticipation.
My trip to Kruger National Park
I shared earlier in The 101 Travel Guide of What You Need to Know about Kruger about how to get there, what to see, and where to go. When I was planning my trip to Kruger I was a bit overwhelmed with so much information and I had no idea what to see and do. When I finally had a better understanding of traveling in Kruger it was time for me to make some choices.
First, we decided to stay for 4 days in the area. We signed up for a morning safari and a sunset safari, just to guarantee that we had sufficient time to see all kinds of animals while we were there; we were prepared to sign up for more safari tours or a self-drive in the next couple of days if we couldn’t see the animals on the first day. Luckily, we almost saw all the animals that we hoped to see on the first day, and we went to the Blyde River Canyon instead – that’s a story for another day.
Secondly, we stayed at the Sabie River Lodge, which is a cozy safari lodge about 20-minute away from the Paul Kruger Gate. We stayed outside of the park because it gave us a bit more freedom to go out at night (in the end we didn’t). The staff was friendly, the outdoor shower was great, and we could see hippopotamus occasionally going by in the river in front of the lodge.
Lastly, we had a car when we landed at the Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport. It was possible to enter Kruger with your own vehicle, yet we decided to join the lodge’s safari game drive and I thought it was the right decision. The safari guide knew the directions and experience, and guides would communicate among themselves to get first-hand information on the whereabouts of the animal sightings. I reckoned that it would be a lot more difficult if we were driving by ourselves and looking for directions.
When to go for the best game viewing
Kruger opens all year round, and each season has its own highlights. There are pros and cons to each season. In general, game viewing could be at its best during the dry winter months (May – September) as the weather is more comfortable and no rain. The grass is low, and the trees are sparse leaves that offer better visibility.
What time to go
I mentioned in my last blog post that the park opens at 5:30 am in the morning. While private vehicles are not allowed to enter the park in the evening. Visitors could sign up for the night safari to maximize their chances of seeing different kinds of animals. Usually, the animals are the most active from dusk till dawn and we saw 4 of the big Fives in the morning, and we saw leopards in the evening on the same day.
Africa’s Big Five, and the other cats and dogs
Kruger has a wide range of wider animal genres ranging from the commonly known zebras, antelopes, giraffes, and Hippopotamus to smaller animals from porcupines, baboons, guineafowl to birds. It seems as though everyone who comes to Safari wants to see Africa’s Big Five: Elephant, Lion, Rhinoceros, Leopard, and Buffalo. Together with Cheetah and Wild dogs, these seven are the most popular animals in Kruger (the entrance or rest-stops in the Kruger has a giant signboard that indicates the sightings of these seven animals), and it is probably the only thing that people would chat about in the park to a stranger “Did you see the lions?” “where did you see them?” “I saw a big group of elephants today!”.
Amongst the seven types of animals, sightings of the more “friendly” Elephants and buffaloes would be less challenging. Seeing the big cats, like lions, cheetahs and leopards may need a little bit of luck or a very good safari guide. It doesn’t mean that seeing the other animals was any less fun; it was true, though, we were less and less excited when it was the 19th time we saw another waterbuck jumping in the grass… at the same time, I learned a lot about these fascinating creatures.
The Elephant is the world’s largest land mammal, and weighs up to 7 tonnes, and reaches heights of 3.3 meters at the shoulder. The African Elephants have massive tusks and the elephant trunks, to me, are the most extraordinary feature that sets the elephant apart from any other animals in the world. First of all, the trunk is both an upper lip and a nose. More, it gives the elephant two fingers at the tip of the trunk. The trunk, like a human tongue, is a muscular hydrostat – a boneless muscular structure that provides the dexterity no other animals have. It also has eight major muscles and it is so strong that it can push down trees and lift them with ease. The trunk could reach branches almost 20 feet high, it is a built-in snorkeling tube, it possesses a phenomenal sense of smell, it is sensitive to vibrations, and it is a social tool to greet and caress. It was amazing to observe from a distance how elephants use their trunks on their “typical” day.
Both Black and White Rhinoceros could be seen in Kruger. The Black Rhinoceros, together with the Javan Rhinoceros and the Sumatran Rhinoceros, are victims of poaching and they are all endangered species in its five extant rhinoceroses. Therefore, it’s more likely that visitors could view a White Rhinoceros on their safari. But hey, White Rhinos are mostly found in southern Africa (with some in Uganda and Kenya), but the chance of spotting them in Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, or Tanzania is pretty slim. Black Rhinos, though rarer, has a wider coverage to Central Africa (which means it is even more sparsely populated and much harder to find), so don’t feel bad if you couldn’t find a Black Rhino.
How to distinguish a Black or a White Rhinoceros? Despite their names, the White and Black Rhinos are pretty much the same color. “White” came from the sound “whyde” in Dutch (which means wide) because White Rhinos have broader shoulders, wider lips, and less aggressive than Black Rhinos. Black Rhinos were only named “Black” for the sake of separating them from the “White”.
Cape Buffaloes could be easily found in Kruger, sometimes they are drinking by the pond, or they are just lazing on the grassland in a big herd. Same as Hippopotamus, the hot-tempered Cape Buffalos are reportedly one of the most dangerous animals in Africa as they kill more humans than other animals. Buffalos travel in herds that make the annual game migration in Serengeti much more spectacular, seeing them moving in big groups on the grassland. While the Buffalos in Kruger don’t move, be careful not to anger anyone of them as you are observing them from afar.
One of the most unforgettable experiences is seeing the majestic lion in Kruger. They are probably the best-known big cats in the world as they are claimed “the king of the jungle”. Truth be told, most lions live in the savannah or grasslands. Though lions are probably not the strongest, and fastest, or the agilest among the big cats, they are loud. A lion’s roar could be heard up to 8 kilometers away, and they hunt larger animals like zebra and wildebeest (and sometimes they battle a buffalo or hippo).
We were very lucky to have had multiple sightings of lions during our time in Kruger, we were able to see them just relaxing in the grassland and it was such an incredible experience to be able to see them up close!
Leopards are shy (huh, yeah), and elusive. They are also nocturnal so visitors might have a better chance of spotting them on an evening safari. They are extremely hard to find in the wild, luckily, areas like Sabi Sand in Kruger is a great habitat with a naturally high population of leopards, and I saw a few of them in one night.
Springy and fast, Leopards are also astounding strong and are skilled tree climbers, which makes them much harder to find. Since leopards are very solitary and spend most of their time alone, it was pretty exciting to see two leopards drinking and frolicking by a pond, just something that I don’t typically see in a zoo.
The slender and beautiful cheetah is critically endangered and it’s really difficult to find. Consider yourself super lucky when you find spot one in Africa. They could be spotted in South Africa, to open landscapes in the Serengeti in Tanzania.
Cheetahs don’t climb like the leopard, but they are the fastest land animal in the world. They can reach a top speed of around 113 kilometers per hour in just 3 seconds – that’s faster than a sports car accelerates! The sprint usually lasts more than a minute as it takes a great amount of energy.
African Wild Dog
Even our safari ranger was excited to see them. He said the African Wild Dogs are rare and he hadn’t even seen them for a month. Now that I go to the website and realize that the population of African wild dogs is actually much smaller than other big cats! It was a very special sighting and we were very lucky. Wild Dogs (or painted dogs, or hunting dogs) are notoriously social and live in packs with distinct hierarchies. They are called the more effective predators in Africa with their smart hunting tactics, constant communication, and large pack size.
They are hard to find because they are endangered; and they are nomadic, traversing up to 50 kilometers in one day. The African Wild Dogs roam the open plains and sparse woodlands of sub-Saharan Africa, and they are mostly found in Botswana.
Nyala, Waterbuck, Kudu
Apart from the Big Fives and big cats, there are a lot of other beautiful creatures in the wild. Like Nyala, Kudu, and Waterbuck. These antelopes have their own distinctive features that make it interesting and fun to tell their differences when spotting them.
A Nyala is shorter and darker than the Kudu, and the corkscrew spiral horn makes the Kudu unable to be mistaken. The number of spirals on the horn also indicates the age of Kudu. The waterbuck has a white and round marking on its butt, which the guide told us it’s called the “toilet seat”.
I have also seen alligators, zebras, baboons, turtles, and colorful birds while we were looking for leopards and lions. One of the best moments was when I saw two owls were “communicating” with each other on the top of a tree at night. It was an incredible day I can’t wait to go on another safari very soon!