Flying into Nelspruit in Eastern South Africa, I rented a car and drove through Blyde Canyon and the Drakensberg escarpment, making my way to the Lowveld below. Lowveld is Afrikaans for the areas below the central South African plateau, which is at about 1,500-2,000 meters above sea level. One of the more famous national parks in this area and Africa, Kruger hugs the Mozambique border to the East and occupies more than 7500 square miles in the Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces.
Though I can only compare photos, Kruger appears different from the more iconic Serengeti and other game reserves to the North, with their wide vistas and vast herds of game. The South African version seems to have a denser scrub/tree landscape in place of the open savannahs of other famous African parks, and perhaps less dense animal populations.
Village on the way, Timbavati section.
I stayed in the Timbavati section of Kruger, in a tented camp that turned out to be a lot more comfortable than expected. The camp is a little different from many other operators in that they offer walking safaris, typically 3-4 hours in the morning when the wildlife is at its most active. While a 4-hour stroll may not sound all that impressive, you have to experience what it means to be on the ground in an area where you are lower on the food chain. Kruger is not the kind of place you just wander into — there are far too many predators here. The huge cats are of course a concern, but you are probably more vulnerable to big herds of buffalo, elephants, hippos, rhinos, and hyenas. So for many, the only way to see the wildlife is from a jeep.
Young lions. Foreplay.
Common but fun bird, the South African Hornbill.
While I enjoyed a couple of these drives, I zoned out quickly from the passive, almost TV-like experience. It is true that you’ll see more wildlife from cars, but the whole experience just felt too canned to me. Walking, on the other hand, provided a whole other angle. On the ground, your senses are on high alert, and you get an understanding of your size relative to the animals. Just a walking among the gigantic animal droppings (the dung from elephants typically weigh in at 20lbs!) will scale you down to size.
Elephants have poor vision and can only see clearly at short distances up to about 10 metres (33ft). Instead, they rely on other sense to gauge where threats are. This is, of course, important to consider when moving around the huge animals…
On the walk, sneaking up on a water hole, early in the morning.
Elephants are messy critters, plowing down vegetation in their path.
These guys usually only come out of the water at night, foraging. Don’t get between them and their precious water hole when they run for cover.
Herd of buffalo.
This time of year the river beds are completely dry. Elephants and other animals still will find residual water by digging into the sand and exposing the water table below.
Being on the ground also affords you a view of the smaller inhabitants and the flora. To me, the more interesting aspects of the walks were not the “big 5” animals but rather the various members of the finely tuned ecosystem. Kicking up dust, watching a Mongoose scurry into his hole and smelling fresh Giraffe dung all contributed to feeling like a participant in the environment rather than an intruder on the hunt for that elusive leopard.
I will miss the dinners around the boma (campfire) at Shindzela Camp where I met people from all over the world while watching elephants come down to the nearby water hole. At night, critters wandered through camp since it was not in a fenced area. I will probably not get to return to Kruger as there are so many other destinations on my list, but I can’t praise this place enough.