Sunday, August 10, 2014

We Visited Kruger National Park - 14 May to 17 May 2014

Kruger National Park is one of the largest game reserves in Africa. It covers an area of 19,633 square kilometers. This makes it 5 times the area of Goa or half of Kerala. It’s really huge.  On 26 March, 1898 ‘Paul Kruger’President of the Transvaal Republic, now known as South Africa, proclaimed the establishment of a "Government Wildlife Park." This park would later be known as the Sabi Game Reserve and was expanded into the Kruger National Park in 1926.

Kruger is managed by South African National Parks (SANParks) (extremely informative) which is the leading conservation authority of all national parks in the country, responsible for 3,75,1113 hectares of protected land in 20 national parks. Truly the flagship of the South African National Parks, Kruger is home to an impressive number of species: 336 trees, 49 fish, 34 amphibians, 114 reptiles, 507 birds and 147 mammals.

The whole area is serviced by 31 different camps providing accommodation, restaurants, safaris and other facilities for game viewing. An advisory recommends what game each camp offers for viewing. Our requirement was to see the ‘Big 5’ (Lion, Leopard, Elephant, Rhino and Buffalo) and we chose ‘Satara’ – which is also the biggest camp. It is situated in an excellent game viewing area, with the bush relatively open and the animals plentiful and diverse. The camp itself has a rustic charm, with the bulk of the accommodation set out in a series of circles. Different types of accommodation are available to choose from – Campsites, Bungalows, cottages, houses etc. We booked 2 bungalows. The rooms are comfortable, clean and basic. The rooms come with an AC, fridge etc. The entire camp is protected by an electrified fence. Once we were woken up in the middle of the night, thrilled to hear the repeated roaring of a lion, very close to our room – only to find out the next morning that they had been on the prowl just outside the fence.

Tid Bit: As the story goes, Satara Restcamp owes its name to an anonymous Indian surveyor who was sent by the citizens of the newly proclaimed Transvaal Republic, who split up the region for settlement. On his map, the surveyor marked the area that is present-day Satara with the Hindi word 'satra', which means 17.

We hired a Toyota Corolla in Johannesburg and drove to Kruger via Nelspruit. The driver is easy and really picturesque. There are a number of gates through which one can enter Kruger. We took the Orpen Gate and departed by the Malelene Gate. We left early and reached the gate by 3pm. All gates to Kruger close by 4.30pm.

There are a number of safaris. One can choose from the early morning, sunset, or night safari – one can go on a night walk with the warden into the forest. Private cars are allowed in designated areas at specific times. There are a number of rules, dos and don’ts which everyone needs to observe during the entire stay. This is where a self-driven car comes extremely handy. On all the three days, before or after the safari we would travel in our car chasing the game based on the warden’s advice and public report of any sighting of the elusive Big 5. The overall excitement and the anticipation of sighting game make these outings really remarkable. In spite of driving endlessly for over three to four hours at a stretch, one does not get bored on account of the sheer anticipation of a sighting. You find yourself alert, and keep scanning the landscape, much like a personal bodyguard who scans the crowd for a potential threat.

Two restaurants including 'Mugg and Bean' dish out excellent food and in addition one can hire all the things required for a barbecue pit located outside the bungalow. In some places, kitchen facilities are also provided. The camp works overtime to provide excellent facilities to the entire tourist population. Overall it is an experience to be relished.

In all, we spotted hordes of zebras, wildebeests, giraffes, elephants and buffaloes. On one of our self drives, we encountered a herd of elephants and one of them pinned us with his gaze for quite a while, standing as close as 20ft away from our vehicle. (My biggest worry was the damage to the Hertz rental car and the cost of repair :/) We saw hyenas, wolves, jackals, ostriches, porcupines, hippos, rhinos, owls, eagles, buck deer, vultures, impalas, steinboks, kudus, Mongoose and a single leopard sighting.

Tid Bit:Our Safari warden told us that giraffe has great height and expansive vision, but it cannot obtain sensory input from the ground. The zebra on the other hand can smell advancing predators at the ground level and see them under trees, but cannot see danger from afar.Zebras often graze in mixed herds with Giraffe which gives heightened awareness of potential predators.It is not uncommon to find few Wildebeest mingling in their company.

We finally left the camp early morning on 17th May towards Malelane Gate. Our spirits were really low as we were departing Kruger without sighting any lions. In spite of our best efforts, the King remained elusive. As our guide had told us, “the animals are always on the move – covering huge tracts of land every day – sighting is a matter of being in the right place at the right time – nothing is certain”. 
All of a sudden a car from the opposite direction stated flashing his headlights and asked me to stop. He told us in broken English that we should take the 2nd crossing to the right and proceed a little ahead to see the lions. We were left speechless at the turn of events – the Gods had certainly answered our prayers. With muted excitement and bated breath, hardly daring to believe that we had a chance of seeing a lion, we took the turning only to be confronted by a fork. We took the right fork and went ahead for almost fifteen minutes without any sighting. We then retraced our path and took the left fork – lo and behold, I screamed and the magical words came out – ‘There it is!.’ We stopped breathlessly.

There, in all his majesty, was a lion coming towards us, with a lioness in tow. The lioness walked past the car and lay down behind our car. The lion stopped next to our car window and just stood there looking into the distance. What a magical, overpowering moment! He posed there for five minutes, peaceful and without any sign of aggression. He invoked no fear whatsoever – only wonder and awe. Clearly it was the defining moment of our entire SA trip; a once in a life time event. After standing for a while, the lion sat down beside the car – as if to say ‘see me to your heart’s content’.  We had spent 17-18 hours in the past two and a half days looking for him and there he was! As if he had come just to meet us. Tawny eyed and glorious, with signs of old fighting scars on his face, we could not get enough of him.

A little later, almost an eon to us, the lioness got up and casually walked towards the thick growth. The lion rose and followed her obediently but leisurely into the undergrowth. (As we men generally do). In seconds, the clearing was quiet again.

As we left the clearing, we could not take the grin off our faces if we tried. Our hearts were full of happiness. We had been fortunate, thank the Lord! Contented, we left to go onward to the Malemane Gate

Finally we said Salani kahle, Totsiens, goodbye to South Africa and its natural beauty, people, forests and animals.

Now for a few interesting game photographs

A very interesting rock formation - on the way to kruger

Wild Boar crossing our path

A Mongoose on the prowl

An extremely graceful animal

Male Ellipsen Waterbuck posing for us

Female Ellipsen Waterbuck 

Fascinating sunrise on our dawn safari

A Tower of Giraffes - luminescent eyes 

White Backed Vulture 

This was really close for comfort

Kudu, another type of African antelope

Blue Wildebeest 

An eagle about to take off

Hyena on prowl

A group of Vultures

A Vulture on the look out - see its size

Horn bill

A Tower of Giraffes - day time

A herd of Wildebeest and a dazzle of Zebras

A lonely Tusker on heat

Total darkness,strange animal rumbling -The pleasure of cinder fire, charcoal smell and chicken aroma in the company of good friends - an explosive combination - add a bit of J&B with ice - you are on

Cape buffalo - a herd can take up to 20 minutes to cross the road.Stop your engine and wait.

Female Ellipsen Waterbucks 

A pod of Hippos
Lioness makes the approach

The King makes his appearance

looking ahead aimlessly - least bothered

Nose to nose - who is the real Jat
Decides to sit and pose - see a part of the car 

Straddled between the King and the Queen

Blue bird

Ostrich at a distance

Our Cottage

All in a circle caption

View from the Mugg and Bean restaurant

Another view of the close encounter - this was seriously bad

Rhinos near Camp Skukuza

Photo op mother and child
Absolutely thrilled. Jai and Navin at the Skukuza camp Wooden Banana restaurant
Slightly out of sync after ravaging a full African breakfast

On the way back - Typical village scene

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