Walk on the wild side - a Kruger safari, South Africa

by zara

One of the world’s greatest game reserves, the Kruger offers good value self-drive safaris with numerous side activities to discover the park and its wildlife

A river walk

"I have only had to use it once in 1,003 walks", our ranger reassured us as we admired the gleaming rifle slung casually over his shoulder.

"On an elephant," he continued. "Took four shots."

Whether this was as reassuring or not was open to question; nevertheless, we treaded our way down to the Oliphants River, scattering impala in all directions.

A leopard was glimpsed as it slunk away.

"Cats are the biggest cowards of all," he said, which was heartening as I had seen three lionesses the day before in this area from the bridge.

We paused at the hippo pool, its occupants betraying little of their bulk as they flicked inquisitive ears at us. The river ran in streams to all sides, sluggish and shallow now at the end of the dry season. It was hard work walking on the hot sand, the soft light of dawn rapidly disappearing, and we were happy to get back to the shade of the river bank.

Snapping branches alerted us to the presence of elephants. It was a breeding herd and quite nervous. I was glad to stop 20 metres away: I had no wish to discover whether our ranger could improve on four!

As we circled back to the truck, he pointed out a hippo path and the difference between black and white rhino dung - samples were readily to hand! It had been an enjoyable and informative walk and, although nearly all the Kruger camps run bush walks, this one from Oliphants has the added advantage of being on a scenic river.

Ins and Outs

The Kruger is only six hours by car from Johannesburg. We stay en route at the Funky Monkey Backpackers, a friendly place with great pool and bar in Nelspruit, a town just west of the park (102 Van Wijk Street; dorms 130; smart doubles 300 per person). It has a good shopping centre for stocking up on supermarket and camping supplies.

Park entry is 160 rand a day each; for longer visits, buy the Wild Card (1065/single, 1850/couple, 2495/family of four). This gives free entry to all South Africa and Swaziland national parks for a year, a bargain for an extended stay.

We combined camping and rondavels/bungalows. Campsites are well equipped with kitchen blocks and boiling water dispensers (handy for those early morning game drives!). At only 150 rand a site (up to six people), they are brilliant value.

Nearly all the 20 camps, which are spread throughout the 350km long park, have swimming pools: great for cooling down through the day. The nicest are at Lower Sabie, Shingwedzi and Skukuza day visitors pool. Annoyingly, Oliphants does not have one: it would be the ideal place for an infinity pool!

Rondavels have comfortable ensuite bedrooms, outside eating areas and fridges; use the brais (BBQs) provided especially as park restaurants are fairly average (though the buffalo meat pies at Nkuhlu picnic site between Skukuza and Lower Sabie are good!)

A double/twin will be approximately 600 - 750 rand: a frontage view or perimeter spot is best. My favourite are Lower Sabie and Skukuza which have lovely river settings with superb game viewing; Oliphants, high above the river with wonderful views (get rondavels 1 - 13 or 106 - 111) and Mopani, beautifully built in natural woods with a great location above a huge dam; the game viewing is difficult but it is a nice place to relax. Shipandane, a bird hide nearby can be rented by the night; watch out for mossies!

For all camps, booking opens 11 months before (Central Reservations Tel: +27 (0)12 428 9111. www.sanparks.org) though outside school holidays you may be able to just turn up.

The camps organise day and night drives at between 160 - 170 rand for three hours; I prefer the bush walks for better trained rangers and a different perspective.

Other activities (full details on website above) are mountain biking from Oliphants, overnight walks, 4 wheel drive tracks in your own (hire) vehicle including one of five days following the Mozambique border north to Parfuri (the adventurous could enter Mozambique here to return south). There are also free films nightly in some camps and the elephant museum at Letaba is excellent.

The Kruger is at its most scenic on the rivers with much scrub in between to the uppermost Crooks Corner: three countries meet here at the Limpopo river and anyone evading the law in the old days could duck into the neighbouring country! It has one of the prettiest river areas with huge shady trees and a lively game strip but it is a long way with limited viewing en route, so if time is short, stick to the southern half for the easiest sightings. The ‘Big 5’ (elephant, leopard, lion, rhino and buffalo) are throughout, plus the rare wild dogs.

The rains arrive

On our last night the rains came, preceded by a violent hot wind with distant lightning and thunder that rolled ever closer. As the first heavy raindrops fell one could smell the earth coming alive once more.

It was still raining the following morning on our final game drive. We expected little but it was actually quite eventful: several cold snakes were warming up on the road, including a large puff adder. Two cheetah were scent marking their territory, though one of these beautiful elegant cats had a broken leg swinging uselessly: a reminder than there are no happy endings in nature.

We revisited a lion kill at a waterhole, the giraffe’s head in the water with a lucky crocodile enjoying an unexpected treat. The lions were still there with some lively cubs: this prize would provide them with days of feasting.

We got out of the car at a lookout point on the way home for breakfast then were sent scurrying back rapidly when we heard a lion roar just below us: sometimes the wildlife is just a little too close for comfort!