Our final stop in South Africa was the famous Kruger National Park, world renowned for excellent game viewing. Some people had suggested we spent as long as a week in the park because it is so large and the landscape so varied, but we put aside three days and in the end it was the perfect amount of time for us. The park straddles the Mozambique border for about 350 km (where it is connected to Mozambique's Limpopo National Park) and reaches all the way north to Zimbabwe. Pretty much every South African we met during our travels told us we HAD to go to "The Kruger" and "oh, you will LOVE The Kruger!", and love it we did.
We arrived at the park late in the afternoon on the first day, so we had about an hour to do a quick drive before we had to get to our camp (the gates close at a certain time, usually around 6 pm, so you have to get in by then to avoid a hefty fine). Our eyes were tired from the 8 hours we had driven to get to the park, but we still saw giraffes, white rhinos, and impalas. When we got to our camp, we set up our tent and then headed to the restaurant for some surprisingly reasonably priced gin and tonics, which we drank on the patio while listening to lions roaring in the distance!
The next morning we got an early start for the long drive to the next camp. Distances may seem small in these parks, but speed limits are 50 kph on the paved roads and 40 kph on the unpaved roads, plus you'll often stop for 5 minutes or more when spotting wildlife, so covering long distances can be time-consuming. The camp we picked on the second night ended up taking us about 6 hours to drive to, but we were lucky enough along the way to see all of the "big five" (buffalo, lion, leopard, elephant, rhino). White rhinos (not actually white in color) were pretty much everywhere, as were warthogs, baboons, and giraffes. Impala, which look like small deer, were so ubiquitous that we quickly started calling them "snacks" every time we would spot a bunch, since they're popular prey for the predators. Several animals--especially baboons, rhinos, elephants, giraffes, and warthogs--had babies with them, which was pretty adorable.
After a couple hours on the road, we saw a large group of cars stopped ahead in the road and as we got closer we learned that there was a leopard sitting in a tree not too far off. This was one of our favorite sightings; there is something I find so majestic about all the big cats, but seeing a leopard hanging out on a tree limb is a very rare treat, and we relished the opportunity to watch it stalk around the tree's branches and laze away the day. Having binoculars was key, as the cats don't seem to spend time in trees that are very near to the park's roads.
Not too long after the leopard sighting, we again came to a group of cars stopped on a road, this time because four cheetahs were crossing it right in front of us! This was my personal favorite sighting: as I said, I just love the big cats, and I had not been expecting to see a cheetah (there are only an estimated 200 in the entire park), let alone four so close up. The neat thing was that they weren't running away from the cars and into the grass. Once they nonchalantly crossed the road, a few of them hung around on the side of it for a few minutes, and slowly they all made their way deeper into the plain. Later that afternoon, when we were very satisfied with our sightings and the only part of the "big five" we hadn't seen was a lion, I spotted two of them napping in the grass about two meters from the road. It was exciting to actually spot the animals, insead of just slowing down because we saw other cars who had already seen something. A few minutes later, satisfied with the day's success, we pulled into our camp.
That evening, we signed up for a night drive at the camp where we were staying. Since the camp gates close in the early evening, the only way to see animals at night is to go on a safari drive organized through the camp. While many of the animals we saw during this drive just looked like a red pair of eyes in the distance, at one point our jeep was right next to three large male lions who were napping. Our jeep's noise and lights woke them up, and they gazed at us nonchalantly as we stared back for about ten minutes. Being so close to lions can be pretty exhilarating; it seems that all they would need to do is jump up and we'd turn into snacks as well!
It was hard to top our first day, so for the next two we took it easy and didn't try to cover too much distance. In the middle part of the day, many of the animals rest, and thus game viewing is fairly difficult. All the camps have restaurants and almost all have swimming pools, so those are two ways to spend these hot hours. The further north we drove, the less varied wildlife we saw and on the third day we almost exclusively only saw elephants.
One question that a lot of people ask is "aren't you scared of camping in the middle of a game park?" The answer is no: the camps are fenced in, so it's not like a lion could come up to your tent and eat you alive. However, some animals such as vervet monkeys do run free in the camps, and one evening, we even saw an African wild cat, which looks mostly like a larger, meaner version of the domestic cats we're used to. One thing that is a little unnerving about the camp situation is that at night hyenas sometimes patrol the fences looking for a handout, even though there are signs everywhere reminding the humans not to feed the wildlife. We camped close to the fence two of the three nights we stayed in the park and both nights we saw (and heard) hyenas walking back and forth mere meters away from us on the other side of the fence!
Our experience in the Kruger was definitely rewarding, and I would recommend a visit here to anyone traveling in South Africa. The camps are set up well, the entrance fees are quite affordable compared to game parks in other countries (about $26/day), and it's easy to drive yourself around the park (during the day), obviating the need to pay for guided drives. We're looking forward to our next safari adventure in Tanzania!
General Info: The park can be visited in just a day, but 2-3 is better. You can reserve campsites and other kinds of accommodation online here. Wildlife drives can be booked at the gates and rest camps. For more info on the Wild Card, which gains you entry to all parks in the SAN system, see our Addo post.