Lower Sabie Rest Camp
Kruger National Park
Kruger National Park
This morning, the six of us were ready to leave the city and get to Kruger National Park.
For some perspective, Kruger is very long from north to south and it consists of 19,485 square kilometers (about 7,523 square miles). It is one of the largest game reserves in Africa and it is larger than over 40 countries. From north to south is about 440 kilometers (around 275 miles), and we won't be venturing into almost half of the northern part of the park.
Back to the "getting there" part. We loaded the rental van and made our way to the airport in Cape Town. After delivering the van, since it was a domestic flight within South Africa, it was a relatively easy boarding.
It was a fairly short flight into the Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport in Nelspruit. As we landed at the tiny airport, we all started getting excited as we got off the plane.
The airport makes you feel like you've really arrived in Africa with its thatch-roofed construction and hut-like interior.
We retrieved our bags and then waited as Jackie & Tony did the paperwork for our rental van. Jackie had reserved a large Toyota Quantum like the one we had in Cape Town. However, that's not what they had for us.
We ended up with a smaller Nissan "people mover" as they call the passenger vans in South Africa. As it turned out, the Nissan was more comfortable and easier on fuel, but the big problem was getting all of our luggage in. It was like solving a puzzle every time we had to completely load up and move from camp to camp.
We would be staying at five different "Rest Camps" in the park as shown on the map below.
Fortunately, Linda & I brought smaller bags than the others, and we were able to squeeze everything in, although there were limited variations on how it all fit. I ended up being the designated van loader for the rest of the trip as it seemed I was the only one that could remember the puzzle solution.
The other problem was the lack of ability to open the windows in the back for animal viewing. The Toyota had three tiny sliding windows, and the Nissan had only two, slightly larger, sliding windows. It made photography from the back seats a challenge.
Once we accepted the fact that there wasn't much we could do about the van, we loaded up and drove toward the town of Malelane taking note of the Impala right outside the airport gate. It was about a 65km drive (about 40 miles).
In Malelane, we found a large, very nice grocery store - Malelane SUPERSPAR - and the ladies went inside to shop. The plan was to grill (or "braai") as much as possible for dinner and have breakfast food on hand for our three weeks in the park. We wanted to avoid the expense and repetitiveness of eating at the camp restaurants any more than necessary.
Now, the camps all have groceries, but they vary in quality and selection and their shipments are limited. So, the prices are more expensive and you may not find what you are looking for if you don't happen to shop at the right time.
It wasn't easy trying to figure out what to buy for six people for 21 days, so the gals spent a good hour or so in the grocery.
Tony and I walked to the nearby liquor store (they call them "bottle" stores) to stock up on supplies for each evening's cocktail time before dinner. Ed stayed with the van. With an armed guard on a tower in the parking lot, we got the feeling it was probably a pretty good idea that we didn't leave the van unattended.
I didn't mention it earlier, but back in the states, the ladies had all purchased rolling animal-print carry-ons that were insulated and doubled as coolers. Once the shopping was complete, we loaded all the stuff that needed to remain refrigerated into the carry-on coolers and a couple of other collapsible coolers that Ed & Marilyn brought.
Now the van was really packed and we had groceries stashed in every nook and cranny.
From Malelane, it was only about 5k (3 miles) to the Malelane Gate on the southern tip of Kruger National Park. Before entering the park, we stopped on a bridge over the Crocodile River and took in the view.
It was greener than I expected, with a mountain range I didn't expect, and wildlife to look at right there. At that moment, everything changed.
Though our time in and around Cape Town was fantastic, now we were in our element. This is what we came for. Our bodies relaxed, everything slowed down, and we were quite happy about what we were about to experience.
I was hoping to see a Crocodile - well, mark that off the list. There were at least a half dozen lounging in the afternoon sunlight or submerged below the shallow water.
In addition, we saw a Saddle-billed Stork, Water Thick-knees, a Green-backed Heron, and Egyptian Geese (from left to right below).
Linda & I are birders, and pretty much every bird we saw was new for us. Now we're more of bird hobbyists than really serious birders, but we enjoy them more than most people, and we were certainly more interested in the birds than our four traveling companions.
The other thing to note at this point is that I rented a telephoto lens for my Nikon DSLR from LensRentals.com for this trip. It was a 50mm - 500mm lens and it was about $400 for the four weeks including a damage waiver and shipping ... and it was worth every penny.
That huge lens became affectionately know as "The Bazooka" among the group.
Now in Kruger National Park, you are only allowed to get out of your vehicle in rest camps and a few other designated areas like picnic sites. So, most of the photos you will see were taken from the van, and I didn't have the ability to use a tripod. Instead, I got a big ol' bag of rice at the grocery store in Malelane, and I used it as a camera support in the open window when I was using the big lens. It worked beautifully.
With that said, often the animals were so close, the big lens was useless, so I had a second Nikon DSLR with its standard kit lens so I wouldn't have to constantly change lenses.
Okay, sorry about that little tangent, but I thought some may find that information useful.
It was approaching 5:00 p.m. and we still had to go through the entrance gate and get to our camp at Berg-en-dal another 10k (6 miles) into the park. In October, the camp gates close at 1800 hours or 6:00 p.m. and you have to be inside the gates by that time or you may subject to a very stiff fine.
We stopped at the Malelane Gate hoping to purchase our Wild Cards and Kruger National Park booklet with maps and animal/bird checklists. But they were sold out of the booklets and they informed us we would have to buy the Wild Cards at our first camp.
Kruger National Park charges a daily conservation fee. For foreigners like us, the fee is about $25 per day per person, $50 per couple. That would be over $1,000 for our 21 days in the park. Alternatively, we could purchase a Wild Card for $282 which would give us unlimited access to all the South Africa parks for a year. Basically, at the current exchange rate, it was better to purchase a Wild Card for any stay of 6 days or more.
While at the main gate, Tony showed me a wildlife sighting board.
At every entrance gate and camp there is a wildlife sighting board with colored magnets indicating where in the park certain species were sighted that day and the day before. The colored magnets were coded for lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos, buffalo, cheetahs, and wild dogs. We learned to check these boards each day.
After leaving the main gate, I thought we'd just get to our camp and the adventure would begin in the morning. I didn't even take the time to dig out the long zoom lens I rented.
In fact, I asked Tony - "Okay, Tony, what are we really going to see during our time in Kruger? We watch all the wildlife shows on TV, and I know those people often spend days and weeks trying to get photos and videos of wildlife. So, in the real world, what will we see?" Tony's response was simple, "You'll see everything."
Well, it wasn't long before we saw our first Impala.
That wasn't unexpected as Impala are the most common antelope in the park, and I was thinking "Yeah, okay, but Impala are everywhere. We saw several near the airport." In fact, Tony had already tried to use his "You have to count the impala" trick he springs on all newcomers.
But not long after that, we saw our first rhinoceros (hereafter called simply "rhino" for the rest of this trip) - a White Rhino with a baby.
Of course, we were hoping to see rhinos and we were hoping to see baby animals (it's spring in the Southern Hemisphere), but we had no idea we would see this just minutes into the park.
The excitement was boiling.
Then, as we drove there was another rhino, and another, and another. They weren't all where we had a good, clear look, but we saw them, and this one was quite visible.
That little stretch of road produced twelve rhino sightings (even Tony & Jackie were surprised), and it soon became clear that 1) we would have to resist the urge to take photographs of every single animal, and 2) the low expectations I carried into the park were going to be way, way too low.
After seeing all the rhinos and even waiting for a couple to cross the road in front of us, we really needed to pick up the pace to get to camp before the gate closed.
Just before we got there, we spotted our first elephant. It was distant and it was getting dark, but it was our first.
We made it to Berg-en-dal Rest Camp with just a few minutes to spare. It took a little time to check in mostly because the process of buying our Wild Cards took longer than it should.
Once we got our assigned accommodations, we checked them out and agreed on who would go where. We got everyone's luggage where it was supposed to go and unloaded the groceries at Jackie & Tony's bungalow where meals would be staged.
We learned quickly that not all the bungalows have the same amenities or equipment (dishes, glasses, pots, pans, appliances, etc.) But other than that, they were pretty much the same.
Here was the interior of our bungalow.
None of them are particularly fancy, very basic really, but they all had kitchens with refrigerators, and tables, chairs, and braais (grills) on the patios.
We gathered at Jackie & Tony's place where Tony got the fire going. It was our first braai in the bush and Tony had it going on. We were having steak and boerewors (boer = "farmer", wors = "sausage").
We had some cocktails and were taking it easy while dinner cooked. It was a scene that would play out just about every night for our three weeks here.
Then, while we were sitting there having a good time, something caught my eye. It came closer and we saw that it was a big, beautiful cat called a Genet.
I had just read about these nocturnal cats in a book so I was really excited to see one .... up close .... on our first night. Wow! This one was a Large Spotted Genet and was quite curious.
What a gorgeous animal. It hung out with us for a few minutes before disappearing back in the bush. Tony & Jackie confirmed this was a very special sighting, and they said it had been years since they'd seen one.
We never felt threatened, but it sure brought home why Jackie & Tony insisted that we bring good flashlights (or "torches" as they called them) for walking in the camp at night.
After dinner, though it is not recommended, Linda & I took our torches and walked around the fence enclosing the camp to see if we could see any eyes reflecting on the other side of the fence. We came upon a plaque that indicated a ranger had been killed on that spot by a Leopard many years ago. We continued on, but that certainly made us even more cautious.
We took just a few more steps when we heard crashing in the bushes which nearly gave us a heart attack. We breathed a big sigh of relief when we saw it was an antelope - a Duiker (we later learned from the blurry photo I got). We had intended to walk all the way around the camp, but we cut it short after that.
Back at our bungalow, we did a little reading and called it a night.
It was a fantastic beginning to our time in Kruger National Park.
At the end of each day's post, you will find lists of animals and birds that we saw (most likely through binoculars) but for which we didn't or couldn't get a photo.