Searching for the “Big Five” in Kruger National Park

The final stop of my spring break adventure was Kruger National Park, one of the most famous game reserves in the world. (Don’t worry – I’ll go back and post more about Mozambique later!) Kruger is also one of the largest game reserves in the world, roughly the size of New Jersey or Israel. We entered the park via Malelane Gate and immediately saw elephants, crocodiles, giraffes, water buffalo and white rhinos on the way to Berg-en-dal, our campsite. It was crazy to just casually drive by all of the animals. I could have sat and watched them for hours, but alas we were all hungry for lunch and continued driving.

Our tour guide Bruce was really great about announcing when we found animals and telling us fascinating information about them. When we arrived at Berg-en-dal he said: “And on the right you can find a family of Afrikaners.” That pretty much summed up the camp: lots of white people in matching safari outfits. But staying in the camp was really strange for a completely different reason. We were not allowed to leave the camp after 6pm or before 6am. During those hours there was no way for us to leave our fenced in compound. It felt like the opposite of being in a zoo, where the animals were fenced in and you are free to roam about. In Kruger the people are the ones fenced in. Besides feeling slightly claustrophobic, I admired the way South African National Parks Association worked to guarantee the preservation of land and animals – their well-being came first. Also monkeys and honey badgers roamed the camp and that was pretty awesome.

My main goal in Kruger was to spot all of the “Big Five.” These animals are considered the most dangerous animals to hunt on foot and include: lions, leopards, elephants, black rhinos and cape buffalos. Unfortunately I never found them all. Technically I saw three – lions, elephants and cape buffalos – but I saw zillions of white rhinos so I could possibly fudge a little bit and say I saw 4/5.

On the morning of September 11 I rose at 4:30am to the sounds of lions and crawled out of my tent to get ready for a morning walking tour through the park. It was still dark when our vehicle left the gate (you can leave the camp if you are with a guided tour) and watching the beautiful African sunrise was incredible. Our guides Stanley and Peter drove a group of six of us to a special trail where we were then allowed to get out and walk through the bush. We had to walk in a single file line so as to minimize our impact on the environment around us. Because we were walking we cover very little ground in the park compared to a driving tour and saw a lesser amount of animals. We were able to spot a spotted hyena, several white rhino, and a few varieties of antelope. Although I was definitely underwhelmed by rhino at this point, feeling a rhino running was a remarkable experience. We were so close to the second rhino we found that Peter threw a rock at it to make it run away… and I could feel the ground rumble. Rhinos are also the most awkward animal I’ve ever seen. Watching it run didn’t even seem real.

My favorite part about the walking tour was finding all of the treasures we could never see from a safari vehicle. Stanley taught me more about animal poop than I ever thought I could know (yay new party conversation starters). We walked through rhino poop dumps, analyzed hyena and rhino footprints, discovered an elephant skull and rhino skeleton, and even viewed bushman paintings from over 150 years ago!

Later that day Bruce took us out on an afternoon game drive, on which we decided to play an animal sighting drinking game. You had to drink according to how rare the animal you found was – so a springbok would equal 1 drink, a leopard 5 drinks, and all the animals somewhere in between. It was hilarious and so much fun. Again – I never thought I’d see a day where giraffe and elephant sightings were just casual.

After that my friends and I took a nighttime game drive with Stanley. Our whole objective was to finally find some type of cat (leopards, cheetahs or lions) and thankfully our wish was granted at the end of the drive! Nighttime drives are actually really complicated. There are 2 lamps on the safari truck that people use to shine into the bush, but otherwise everything is completely dark and you can’t see anything. So we all had to stare into the trajectory of the light and search for the reflection of an animal’s eyes. We had lots of false alarms, but when we did find animals they were so close! As our time was almost up at the end of the tour Stanley got a call on his radio that another vehicle had spotted lions! Needless to say I was freaking out and wanted to go right away, but Stanley insisted on letting us have a pee break at a campsite instead. I was really concerned that we were going to miss our chance and exclaimed “Lions don’t wait for anyone!!” – but thankfully they did wait.

We came across a pride of 5 female lions, who were right on the side of the road. Our vehicle was completely silent as we cut the engine and watched intently. At one point a lioness walked really close to the vehicle and nearly lunged at us! We all freaked out and screamed… but then begged for her to do it again. Much to our delight two of them also started playing and jumping on each other. Earlier in the day I was really disappointed when we didn’t come across cats in the walking tour, but after getting so close to these lionesses with no fence in between I’m really glad I didn’t find them on foot. They are huge! And the lionesses, like the badasses they are, do all of the hunting. So I definitely don’t want to get in her way!

Kruger was an incredible experience and I could have happily spent my entire 10-day trip there. I have so many more stories and facts about animals but there is no way I can write about it all! Hopefully in the upcoming days I can fill you all in on the rest of my travels in the past weeks. And in the meantime if you want to know more about animal poop just let me know!

Love to all.

PS: If you have a few minutes I recommend watching this video. It was taken by some people on a game drive on Kruger! I wish I could have seen something as crazy as this while I was there!

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