South to North Kruger National Park
We had a bit of a headstart on our trip, Shandelle and I decided to head to pop off to Blyde River Canyon for two sneaky nights before meeting up with the rest of the team and heading into Kruger. It had been a rainy, yet adventurous weekend already; the car was coated in a nice layer of mud from a few little off-road excursions. We planned to meet our travel companions in Hazey View. Wimpy would be our rendezvous point, we had a massive all in one wimpy breakfast in anticipation for 5 days of camp food! It was time to get going and begin our adventure through one of South Africa’s biggest tourist attractions, to see the more popular parts and the not so popular parts, this trip would reveal many beautiful secrets to us, that would change how we saw Kruger National Park, for the rest of our lives.
Day 1 Lower Sabie
We arrived at the Numbi Gate, excited for a spectacular week in the bush! The rain didn’t ease our anticipation, we had that wild enthusiasm that brings many a person to KNP, the day one thrills of being in the bush where every single animal you see is exciting, initially its “Oh an Impala!” after about… 30minutes its, “Agh no, not another flippin’ Impala.”. Our first big sighting in Kruger would actually also be in the Top 5 sightings of our whole trip.
We heard a commotion in the bushes, a dash of black and brown darting through the tree’s. Hyena’s running through the tree’s next to us! We came to a sudden stop to watch and see what came of the situation. They turned towards us, and headed for the road. It turned out to be 2 parents and their young pups. They walked through the road, playing with one another across the road, it was one of those experiences where you get to just turn off the car for a bit and enjoy what’s happening around you. Hyena’s are awesome creatures, there is a brazen badass aura around them, its funny to see them playing and behaving like domesticated animals, and so close too!
Our Drive through to Lower Sabie for our first night of camping continued, we did the traditional stop at Skakuza, we grabbed some stuff from the store and a quick toasted sarmie. When we got to the car, we realised something would put a stop to our fun for now. Abigail, one of our guests for the week had forgotten her phone at the Numbi gate. We called ahead and the staff managed to find it and kept it aside for us, as we wouldn’t be leaving back out that gate and didn’t have time to get there in the same day before the camp closed for the night, we had to detour to Numbi in the morning to fetch the phone and then head back past Skakuza, on our way towards Satara. With the stress of the moment passing, we got back on the road and enjoyed a quiet drive down to Lower Sabie to enjoy a magnificent sunset at the Sunset Dam.
Our first night camping in an unexpectedly busy campsite. We spent a decent enough first night in the Park, but the overly busy campsite wasn’t how I like to do things, I prefer the solitude of being in the bush.
Day 2 Satara
The Next day on the road promised to be a busy one, we had to backtrack all the way to the Numbi gate and then push through to Satara, all at the same time as taking it slow, exploring on and off the road, and obviously enjoying all the beautiful wildlife. We left early before breakfast, to get to Numbi, so by the time we got there we were ravenous creatures.
I pulled out the table, and gas cooker, boiled the kettle to get some coffee’s going. Right there in the parking lot we ate some packet pasta and had freshly ground coffee for breakfast! The best thing about overlanding vehicles is that you can pull off anywhere and sort yourself out! It was enough to get our spirits up for another drizzly day in the bush, but we had the excitement of Satara awaiting us. We were worried that the shops further north wouldn’t be as well stocked at Skakuza, so we decided to stock up on some fresh vegetables and stuff before we left.
Satara is renowned for its big cat sightings and as the landscape begins to transform form lush green vegetation to more open plains, you begin to see how it might actually be possible to see the animals now. We had a really long day of driving, and after leaving at 6AM, we only arrived to set up camp in the late afternoon. The great thing about setting up camp is that once it’s done, you have your own little village! The fire blazing in the centre while everyone sits around, drinking, eating and telling stories. There is something so pure about the experience. That night we would fall asleep to the sound of hyena’s cackling in the distance and a lion’s roar or two, now we were really in the bush!
Day 3 Letaba
Our morning started with a prebreakfast game drive, there is so much to explore around Satara. Our guests at the time didn’t have a 4×4 so we couldn’t go and do the Satara Eco 4×4 Trail, but I will be going back do that! Our drive wasn’t too thrilling, so we went back to camp, fired up the cookers and had a bit of a spoil… with sausage, bacon and eggs, oh and you can’t forget the baked beans!
Our drive through to Letaba was absolutely beautiful, the foliage around Satara, is just the perfect “Safari” landscape. Wide open expanses with low bushes, and just dotted with animals left and right. Ostriches, Elephants, Zebra, Giraffes, Lions, Leopard and a whole lot more would be on the cards for us this day.
About an hour or so North of Satara, we found a road that wasn’t represented on the Kruger map, a nice one-way dirt road, heading South to North linking Satara and Letaba. We were the only people on the road the whole time we were there! It was a beautiful dirt road, meandering a long a small river. It was like a small paradise, covered in animals everywhere, it was such a great drive, just as we thought it couldn’t get any better, right there in my peripheral I spotted a familiar silhouette under a tree… In disbelief, I stopped, reversed, and grabbed the binoculars. Yup, it was a cat. We were trying radio to our other vehicle to call them to see the Leopard, but we got no response. They kept driving off, they were about to just miss one of the best sightings of the trip! I didn’t want to drive after them, because I didn’t want to miss out of this opportunity to see this beautiful creature for myself. I had to get Shandelle to see this Leopard… we had been searching and searching for our first Leopard sighting for 2 years, It was going to happen today! So, I decided to risk it and I drove off to try and stop them, and get our radio’s back online so we could keep up communications. We now had to go back and find the exact tree in a row of hundreds where this Leopard was having a nap. It seemed as if we had stirred his slumber, we found him now standing under the tree, ready to walk off down the bank towards the river. What a great sighting, we were the only ones to see this spectacular Cat, get up and walk into the light and calmly walk down towards the River… A huge contrast to the usual 20 Vehicles surrounding the animal only to see it for a split second. We were on a complete high after that sighting. Excited to continue our journey along this strange beautiful road.
The one way ended, and we joined the road that would take us through to Letaba. To our surprise not even 5minutes later, we noticed two cars parked and watching something right next to the road. There lay a pride of Lions, concealed in the dry dead grass, under the shadows of the tree, we stayed and watched them play around, like our kittens at home. I am always surprised by how similar cats are, the only difference being their size at the end of the day.
We couldn’t have asked for a better drive, in terms of game and views, it was a pretty perfect day in the bush. Little did we know that the drive towards Letaba would impress us with rivers, that would blow our minds all day long. The landscape evolved before us, rapidly transforming from dry grey grass into what felt like a lush green oasis. Our first crossing over the Olifants river, we pulled off and watched the picture perfect moments, with the birds and buck sprawled all around the river. It was a truly stunning view.
The road from there would hug the Letaba river, from up high we watched as two herds of elephants met in the middle of the river for a play day, splashing and wrestling in the water under a scorching sun.
The heat would put our equipment to the test. My National Luna Dual battery system, would be put under some serious load trying to keep the fridge powered through the heat. The basic fridge I had kept frozen but after a while, the temperature began to rise, from -11ºC to -4ºC. The near 40ºC ambient temperatures at camp had us really feeling the heat.
Arriving at Letaba, greeted by a forest of Mopane tree’s. We set up camp, got dressed and went to get some delicious little ice-creams and had a sit in the pool! The sun began to set, we found ourselves a bench along the walk way, and sat looking through the curtain of tree’s down on the valley as the warm glow of the sunset paints the landscape, with the animals down below drinking from the river. You couldn’t ask for a more perfect day. Our night would be spent sleeping with a full moon lighting up the world around us and a glittering of stars up in the sky. Just another day in Africa.
Day 4 Shingwedzi
We had been driving now for 6 days on the road already, our guests only 3, but for them it was a bit challenging keeping up with task we had set, the days had long drives and I would say the week was more of an experience than say a holiday. For me on the other hand, I can drive and be on the road for ages, but 6 days had me a bit tired and just keen for a short drive and long chill for the rest of the day.
We had a short drive ahead of us, I decided it would be a good day for a poitjie. We arrived at camp at about 2pm, I got to making a fire and getting the poitjie started, while the girls went and hopped in the pool to keep cool. The facilities at all the camps sites so far, had been outstanding, the stores were well stocked and the prices were cheapz. It was really surprising, especially considering we had now entered the quiet part of Kruger, I had assumed that the quality of the facilities would decrease as we go further north. It seemed instead that the further north we travelled, the more we found people who were passionate about KNP. It would be an early night for us, enjoying a few beers, a lekker poitjie and listening to the hyenas as we fell asleep, resting up for another big day in the bush.
Day 5 Punda Maria
It was a scorcher of a day.. Temperatures hitting over 38ºC made it difficult to be comfortable. It was one of those days where the windows get wound up, the AC gets put on and the music blares while coasting through some dirt roads towards our camp. We wanted to arrive early enough to be able to go for the famous Punda Maria Sunset drive. We were greeting by the most awesome spectacle, the campsite sits right next to a massive watering hole, which was full of a herd of elephants cooling down in the water and playing in the mud, they would enjoy their banter for the whole afternoon right next to our campsite.
Getting to camp just after midday really made setting up camp a bit of a pain, and with it being our last night in Kruger, it was the last thing we wanted to do! The heat became unbearable, and it was time to grab a cold beer and take a dip in the pool. In the pool we got chatting to another camper who was there with his brother and father for their annual 2 week escape to the bush for a birding bonanza, the recommended that if we were going on the sunset drive, to try and see the Pennant Winged Nightjar, apparently a rare and very specific occurrence in the birding world.
When setting off on our sunset drive, it was a unanimous decision across all the guest to see the Pennant Winged Nightjar. Off we went bumbling a long in the game vehicle, it was nice to have a drive where it wasn’t me behind the wheel, allowing me to keep my face pasted to my camera, getting to take some photos and put the Fuji 100-400mm lens that Fuji lent me to work. I always find it great to have a game ranger guiding you through the bush, their knowledge of all the intricacies of the natural world fascinate me.
The sun really began to set now, we neared the spot where the Pennant Winged Nightjar is supposed to fly out of the treeline and give us a spectacular show. Camera ready in hand to get some awesome pictures, waiting patiently. 5 minutes go by, then 10, then 15… Our group now aching for the sighting with almost no light left. The sun sinks behind the horizon, only a faint glow still in the air… Not enough light for photos of the beautiful creature, we decide to continue driving along wracked by disappointment. In burst of excitement someone shouts “ There!” and there he was, blasting between the tree’s, through the sky and back down and around, his speed was incredible… The trail feathers zooming through the sky with real majesty. The amazing thing about the Pennant Winged Nightjar, is that they only come out for about 20-30minutes a day and generally around 6:30pm for a couple months of the year, before they head back up to Nigeria. They fly in a great display to attract the attention of the female. With the case of the three at Punda Maria, its two male’s fighting for the mating rights with one other female. It was an amazing sighting, it’s incredible to think of how far these creatures travel to find love, how hard the fight for the right to have offspring and continue this beautiful cycle.
We slowly drove back towards our camp, not without interruption however. A brooding female elephant gave us a bit of a scare at one point with a little of a charge out of the bushes at us, we all jumped but the game ranger had everything under control as she zoomed off away and out of the matriarchs territory. The excitement of our game drive would see us to an early night, listening to the lions roaring at the watering hole nearby, with the contrasting idea that tomorrow morning we would have to leave the park had me feeling conflicted..
Home sweet home.
We had a slow and easy drive up to the Pafuri gate, but we had reached our goal destination! We went from the lowest camp in the park, all the way up to the highest camp. A lifetime mission accomplished, although small in the world of overlanding, it’s a milestone in the right direction.
In summary, all throughout Kruger National Park, the game, the facilities, the staff, well everything actually was really great, and it makes me a proud South African to know that one of our major National Parks is in good hands and rivals anything I have experienced overseas! Congratulations SANParks for having so many world class parks!