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South Africa*Kruger National Park

Africa has been on my bucket list for a long time. It FINALLY happened and man, what a fantastic experience. I can’t wait to go back.

I saw the Big Five – Lion, Leopard, African Buffalo, Rhino and the African elephant within the first few days of starting our safari. My favorite, the leopard. WOW, which we were told, pretty much lets you see it when it wants you to see it. Otherwise, good luck. Thank you Ms. leopard, I was in awe.

There were thirteen of us in the group, not including Lucky, our tour guide extraordinaire. We called ourselves the Lucky 13. 🙂 In the group were my parents and 10 other Americans. We had this trip planned for 2020 but you know what happened then. The company we went with was OAT travel and I have to say that the interior of the trip (the safaris, the excursions, helping us with the visas, transports, hotels, etc.) was fantastic. But the exterior (the OAT online/ in office staff, the information, etc.) was not so great. We received different information every time we called, which we had to do because it took weeks to get back an email response. And because of that misinformation, my parents and I ended up paying about $1000 more because of things we needed to add – hotel rooms, flights. But that is all I will say about that because this post is about the fabulousness of our Africa experience.

First up is Kruger National Park. We were in three different National parks – Kruger in South Africa, Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe and Chobe National Park in Botswana. All of them were a bit different. OAT broke up each safari stop with a more restful place so it wasn’t all safari safari safari. We stayed in each place for three nights and then would move on to our next adventure, the trip in total (with our Cape Town extension) was almost a month long.

We flew into Nespruit from Johannesburg and stopped at a road side market on the way to Kruger Park. I bought some delicious macadamia nuts and a handmade carved wooden statue of a kudu. And I must add that I NEVER saw that again – the kudu statue nor someone selling the nuts. Some people didn’t buy anything because it was our first stop but later regretted it. So if you like something and especially if it’s a road side event, BUY IT. Don’t just think that you will see something like it again. Here are the two men who make the wooden animals. They were so happy to talk to us about their craft.

We drove inside Kruger National Park which is the largest of South Africa’s parks, with a total area of 7,500 square miles, Kruger is also one of the largest parks in the world. Bordered by the Limpopo and Crocodile rivers, the land spreads a stunning 200 miles at its widest point. Once inside the park we switched vehicles to take us to Buffalo Rock Camp. About 10 minutes from camp we saw a beautiful elephant just hanging out. The welcome committee! When we arrived in camp, we were shown to our tent/cabins where we had a little time to unpack. Isn’t it lovely? The bathroom with shower was in the back – it was outside but had a roof and walls that had an opening at the top.

Then we met back up for a drive out – Saw many impalas, a few warthogs, an African eagle and some hippos playing in a lake. Next, stopped for a sundowner drink of Amarula Liquor which is a cream liqueur from South Africa. It is made with sugar, cream and the fruit of the African marula tree. Then it was dark and we drove back with a spotlight on to try to see night animals. We did see two hyenas finally. It was cold! We all called it a night after dinner since we had a 5:30 a.m. wakeup call. We were given a hot water bottle (which they called a bush baby) to keep us warm. Since it was dark you must be escorted to your room by a person with a rifle and a flashlight. That night I heard some animal making strange sounds out there. The camp is completely open so animals can walk through at any time – hence the people walking you to your room when it is dark with the rifle. If it’s light out you can walk to the lodge yourself – It’s only about 75 feet away. Just be sure to give a good look! 

The animal noises I heard at night were hyenas fighting. WOW. Such a strange noise. We left around 6:30 a.m. where one of our first sightings was A LEOPARD!!! OMG what a gorgeous creature. Simply amazing. He was perched on top of a termite pile and stayed there for at least five minutes while we were all trying to take pics and get a closer look with the binoculars. Just look at this beautiful creature.

So now we’ve seen three of the Big Five – c’mon lions and rhinos! We went back for lunch and headed out after that for some more sightings where we saw zebras, giraffes, warthogs, steenboks (they are so cute), hyenas and near the end we stopped to take a picture of the sunset and there was a HUGE baboon in a tree with lots of baboon family around. After about ten minutes they started heading down the hill towards us – we were outside of the jeep taking pics of the sunset!!! We quickly made our way back to the Jeeps and watched them move from the hill to the other side where it was higher and rockier. Really cool to see the whole family progression. Do you see the big guy in the tree? And some of the family too his right and the ground.

The national park is home to 147 species of land mammals—the highest number in Africa—including all of the “Big Five” (lion, elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard, and rhinoceros). Thousands of zebra roam Kruger as well, but no species can keep up with the impala, which number more than a million here. On this day the park was having a few free to the public days so the park was a bit busier than normal but the cars needed to be out of the camp by sundown. We were driving around 6:00 pm and there were cars driving by us so fast. Why? They needed to leave! It was almost sundown and they were going to be fined. But as karma has it a huge pack of buffalo were crossing the road and just stood there. They were not going to move out of the road so they were definitely going to be late.

OAT Travel likes to include discussions about sometimes difficult topics. That night we gathered at the lodge for an enlightening conversation about gender stereotypes in South Africa’s game lodges—and how more and more women are challenging these outdated stereotypes that still exist in the game lodge and conservation world. The conversation was led by a female game ranger at Kruger. We learned that less than 30% of entry-level nature guides in South Africa are women—and in more specialized roles such as trail guides, less than 8% are women. And just 13% of head chefs in South Africa are female. She shared what it was like for her to break into this traditionally male-dominated industry. Kudos to her for being determined and fighting for what she wanted.

More animal noises last night! Wake up call person said to be a little careful because there were hyenas and possibly a lion in the area! Yikes. That got my attention. This was our last day in Kruger and we still hadn’t seen a lion or a rhino. But Lucky said he was feeling lucky. 🙂 We headed out again at 7 a.m. and within fifteen minutes we were rushing to see another leopard! As I’ve said, they are not that common to see so it was a treat. She was beautiful. Hanging out on a fallen tree for about five minutes before she decided she was tired of us.

Then not even thirty minutes after seeing the leopard we found ……. A pride of around 8-9 lions gathered around a buffalo kill. AMAZING. There were two large male lions and two female and then a few cubs which were around 3-4 months old. Just chowing on the buffalo (sorry and thank you mr buffalo). The older males were fighting a bit about whose turn it was to get a bite with a vulture circling overhead. They were about 90 feet away and in the brush so it was hard to get a really good picture but so cool. And the sounds!!

So luck was on our side. Next up, a rhino. The guides knew where they liked to hang out. It was about an hour or more drive but it was worth it. Because there it was, the first one was pretty far away walking through large bushes but I got a picture. The other was by a watering hole but it just wanted to rest in the shade and show us its backside. The Big Five – CHECK.

And that was our adventure in Kruger National Park. We arrived back at Buffalo Rock Camp around 3:00 where we relaxed until 5:30 – it was hot! Then it was a discussion about elephant dung (which was EVERYWHERE). It was actually very enlightening. Here are a few uses for elephant dung: If you forget insect repellent you can burn a dried piece of dung to keep insects away. You can also burn it and inhale the fumes to get rid of a headache or a nosebleed. Lucky actually did this because he had a headache and he said it went away! And as it turns out, elephants are a great source of biogas. This is due to their herbivorous diet and the large amounts that they excrete daily. Their dung produces gas for stoves, heat and can even generate electricity. Good job elephants! How about a picture of one from Kruger for you.

A HUGE thank you to everyone at Buffalo Rock Camp, especially JB and Nico – you made the experience so nice with your warm hospitality and happiness. I love that the place is powered by solar energy, leave the smallest possible foot-print in this pristine wilderness. That night we had a dinner under the stars, good conversations, some wine and went to sleep dreaming of the all the beautiful animals that we had already seen.

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