Kruger National Park: South Africa’s largest game reserve

The Kruger National Park needs no introduction so Bevan and I spent some time exploring this famous park to find out what all the fuss is about.

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South Africans love the bush. I’m not sure exactly why that is, considering a vast percentage of us live in urban areas and our connections to the bush consist of possibly the occasional holiday. Maybe there is a sense of propriety and national pride in the fact that Africa is the last of the continents to still have its megafauna. Africa, and maybe parts of India and Australia, but what is a tiny-eared Asian elephant compared to the mighty tuskers in Africa, or a Kangaroo compared to… OK, those are pretty unique.

Whatever the reason, the bush is a truly magical place that calls to something in the heart of most South Africans. Maybe the allure of the bush is less about a place than it is about a feeling –unbroken horizons and the freedom of unconfined space, the relief of new rain on hot earth, life in its rawest form given and taken in a daily struggle for survival, and the reestablishment of man in a cycle of life that is greater than daily deadlines and rush-hour traffic.

The Kruger National Park

A familiar sight in the Kruger National Park
A familiar sight in the Kruger National Park

South Africa has some truly incredible wild places. The flagship of these is undoubtedly the Kruger National Park. This is the country’s largest reserve and one of its oldest, and is internationally recognised as one of the top 10 wild places in Africa.

The Kruger National Park is two million ha in size and encompasses land that stretches from southern Mpumalanga into northern Limpopo – an unbroken wilderness that is 360 kilometres long and 65 kilometres wide. Most recently the Kruger National Park has been extended to include land in Mozambique and is an example of one of South Africa’s transfrontier parks.

Although the management of parks that extend across national borders is complicated, and vulnerable to instability and changes in policy in partnering countries, it is an attempt to reinstate natural migratory channels that Africa’s mammals would once have been free to follow. Nature doesn’t follow artificial lines that have been drawn on a map!

Fish Eagle perched over the Kruger National Park
Fish Eagle perched over the Kruger National Park
The Bateleur: Our favourite bird.
The Bateleur: Bevan’s favourite bird.
Two Hyena take some time to play
Two Hyena take some time to play.

The Kruger National Park draws millions of visitors annually. This means that the park can get quite busy, especially in the southern regions where access is easiest.

The huge size of Kruger however means that there are still places where you can feel like the only person alive in the world, and sit for hours on an incredible sighting without being jostled for position by other cars that arrive.

If one was to use some natural imagery, vehicles in the Kruger National Park are like scavengers prowling the road network, looking for a good sighting. The sighting is the kill that attracts them in and the presence of one car attracts another, and still another as the excitement spreads. The more vehicles that you have to share a sighting with the less of the sighting everyone enjoys, with the exception of the early arrivals who have claimed a prime spot.

Scavenging for Lion sightings
Scavenging for lion sightings

In nature and in the case of visitors to the park it’s always preferable to be one of the few than one of the many. This is why we spent most of our time in the far northern regions of the Kruger National Park, based at Shingwedzi Camp.

Because of the extent of the park, the landscape and habitat varies with latitude. The south is generally wetter and greener. The middle around the Tropic of Capricorn is full of Mopane trees, while the north is more bushveld with the appearance of Baobab trees in the far north.

There are a LOT of Mopane trees in the Kruger National Park.
There are a LOT of Mopane trees in the Kruger National Park.

Exploring the north of the park

Kruger’s Shingwedzi Camp, set on the banks of the Shingwedzi River, is a lovely place from which to explore the northern regions of the Kruger National Park. Owing to the heat of the day, Bevan and I committed ourselves to far earlier morning wake up calls than we had previously been used to in order to be back from our game drives before the high temperatures really set in. This meant that the midday hours were free for sleeping on a rug in the shade or lazing by the pool in camp, ready for another foray into the bush towards evening.

We were rewarded with some incredible sightings for our effort. We had three separate lion sightings in one day. In both instances coming upon lion within a few meters of our vehicle. It is one thing to see these beasts from afar, quite another to have them look you in the eye from a couple of meters away! I am telling you, windows have never been wound up quite as quickly!

Apart from the initial thrill, lions are actually quite a boring animals to watch, especially during periods of inactivity. Like other cats, lions spend a large amount of the daytime sleeping. During these periods, the most exciting activity an onlooker will get to see is the flick of a tail or the twitch of an ear. They’re still a very special sighting though and we spent a fair amount of our drive time simply observing them.

The most excitement we got from these young lions
The most excitement we got from these young lions.

In contrast, one of our most exciting sightings came from the humble Crested Francolin. The calls of these birds pervade the bush throughout this northern region of the Kruger National Park, and they are frequently seen scratching through the grass on the sides of the road. Summer must be breeding season for these birds, because we came across a few males chasing each other round and engaging in boxing matches with each other. These fights provided much comic relief for Bevan and I until we started photographing these matches and realized just how violent they can be! These birds can really pack a punch as well as a solid, karate-styled, airborne kick at their opponent.

The high-flying antics of the Crested Francolin
The high-flying antics of the Crested Francolin.

We also saw some fairly large elephant herds in the area. It always amazes me how an animal that big can blend seamlessly and soundlessly with its environment. Even with only a thin scattering of bush, elephant could be a few meters off the road but completely hidden. This meant that we had to exercise a lot of caution when there was evidence of elephant activity in the area – this is one animal you don’t want to drive upon unexpectedly.

To our relief though all of the animals we encountered during our time in the Kruger National Park were very relaxed with our presence and we could enjoy the experience of being close to such large animals.

A herd of elephant taking shelter from the heat.
A herd of elephant taking shelter from the heat.

Surrounded by Nature

Life pervades every area of the Kruger National Park. Even in areas that are highly disturbed by human activities, like within Shingwedzi Camp itself, Nature had her way.

We were entertained daily by the tree squirrels that would bound through camp, chasing low-flying insects or seeking them out in the dirt. The trees were alive with starlings, hornbills and owls at night, and if you were observant there was always something to see.

Our final surprise came on the day we were leaving. Packing up the tent, we discovered that a mouse had dug a burrow under our tent and had been living peaceably below us for the last few days. Removing the tent, the roof to its dwelling, sent it into a flurry of confused activity as it scampered between our feet, desperately seeking shelter for its suddenly-exposed and vulnerable state. We moved it to a patch of bush where it would have shelter from aerial predators and left it in peace.

Our time in the Kruger National Park had come to an end, and now it was our turn to find a place to set up a new home. Because of our position in the far north of the reserve, the next adventure is to venture out into Limpopo and spend some time exploring that province. We will no doubt have plenty of stories to share, next time!

We would like to thank Nhlanhla and his SAN Parks team for hosting us while we were in the Kruger National Park. We really appreciate the chance to have spent some time in one of South Africa’s national treasures.

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