I woke up with the sparrows, as they say, on Wednesday – my third day in the Kruger Park, eagerly anticipating what lay ahead. My first mission for the day was to pack up camp as quickly as possible, as I would be heading up to Lower Sabie. I’d packed up my gazebo, table and chair the evening before to help speed up the process and, thanks to plenty of practice, managed to get the rest of my campsite into the back of my car fairly quickly. After a quick stop at the ablutions to rid myself of the dust and ash that had covered my campsite, and now me, on the first evening due to firebreaks being burned around Berg en Dal, I was on the road. I’d filled up with petrol the previous evening, I had breakfast on-the-go ready to eat in the car, and I was keen for the drive up to Lower Sabie.
I had to choose between a few routes that would lead me to Lower Sabie. My first option was the S114/S25/S108/H5/H4-2 that followed the Crocodile River most of the way up. Option number 2 was to leave the Park via Malelane Gate, shoot up the N4 and re-enter the Kruger at Crocodile Bridge, following the H4-2 to Lower Sabie, and option 3 was to head all the way up the H3, and then cut across to Lower Sabie via the S112/S21/H4-1.
My heart was telling me to go with option A, but my mind was saying that the N4 outside of the park might be the quickest route to Lower Sabie because I’d be able to cruise at 120km/h along the highway, and this might be the best way to reserve a good campsite. After quite a bit of deliberation, and turning to the SANParks Forums for some advice, I decided that the S25 would be the best way to go. It’s a quiet, beautiful road that follows the river, and seeing as there are no campsites along the fence at Lower Sabie, and all of the sites are nicely demarcated, there was no rush. Here’s an idea of what driving along the S25 is like:
Not 1km from Berg en Dal, I had 2 beautiful White Rhinos cross the road right in front of me. What a fantastic sighting!
A short while up the road I decided to stop at the Berg en Dal day visitors/picnic area. This is certainly worth a visit if you’re staying at Berg en Dal, or even just passing through the area. It’s set amongst the rolling hills and after you get out of your car, each picnic spot is a short walk away, surrounded by nature, and offering a bit of privacy. You can even hire a Skottel Braai (gas BBQ), and cook some bacon & eggs for breakfast if you want. I think it’s certainly on my to-do list for my next trip through the Malelane Gate area.
To cut a long story short, the drive along the S25 is definitely the way to go. It’s a beautiful road, and although it runs along the Crocodile River for a large portion of the trip, I was absolutely oblivious to the fact that I was driving along the Kruger Park’s southern border. I found myself surrounded by beautiful scenery almost all of the time, and as promised by the SANParks “Forumites”, there was very little traffic along this road. In fact, I only got stuck in traffic once. Not the kind of traffic I’m used to in Gauteng, though, and I was more than happy to sit and wait for 10 minutes until this herd of Ellies moved out of the road.
Once I got to the H4-2, it was smooth sailing all of the way to Lower Sabie. Arriving at Lower Sabie, I was greeted by the most polite staff at reception, and a couple of minutes later, I was driving around the campsites, looking for the perfect spot. There were only 4 campsites available, and although they were all pretty similar, two of them were right on the edge of the camping grounds, exposed to some of the other accommodation types. Another campsite was missing a braai, and so campsite number 23 was the obvious choice. For the most part, the ground at Lower Sabie was softer than at Berg en Dal, and camp was set up in no time at all!
Spurred on by some low blood sugar, and the magnificent view from the deck at Lower Sabie’s restaurant, I decided to sit and watch the mighty Sabie River and order a toasted sandwich for lunch. Although it was a bit pricey for a sandwich, it was pretty good, and while I ate I watched a couple of Buffalo grazing near to me, and on the far bank, some hippo lazing in the sun, and a couple more Elephant too.
I haven’t been on a night drive in many years, and having only seen 3 of the Big 5 so far, I decided that I’d ‘up’ my chances of seeing a Lion, and maybe even the ever-elusive Leopard by booking myself onto Lower Sabie’s late night drive. I was told to meet in the parking lot with my indemnity form at 18:15 for the drive which leaves camp at 18:30 and returns about 3 hours later at around 21:30. The price was R262.60, and while I considered this to be fairly expensive, I was certainly very keen.
I spent the next hour or so relaxing at my tent, but after a short while, I could no longer ignore the call of the bush, and I was back in my car. I drove around the general Lower Sabie area, and came back into camp shortly before the gates closed at 17:30. I had a quick shower, dressed warmly, and grabbed a quick bite to eat before heading to the parking lot to meet our guide for the night drive.
Our guide’s name was Dingaan. He was friendly and knew the bush well. Leaving Lower Sabie, we took an immediate right-turn and stopped at Sunset dam. Although it was already completely dark, we were armed with 3 spotlights. We sat at the dam for a few minutes watching the Hippos, Crocs and a fairly large Herd of Buffalo on the opposite bank. There was a European tourist on our drive, and it was so refreshing to see how she was fascinated by everything we spotted!
While sitting at sunset dam, we heard the unmistakable roar of a Lion coming from the opposite direction along the H4-2, and Dingaan had us heading in her direction straight away. Passing the gates of Lower Sabie, we saw a Spotted Hyena running along the fence hoping for some scraps from a braai. Guests are by no means allowed to feed the animals, but unfortunately this happens anyway, and it is common to see Hyenas scavenging along camp fences. I love seeing Hyena – I think they’re fascinating creatures, and so this sighting was a highlight for me. It turned out to be just one of many highlights though! Not 5 minutes later, the diesel engine of the Toyota Hilux game-viewing vehicle we were on growled as Dingaan put his foot down. I looked ahead of us, and there, lying in the middle of the road was a gorgeous, big lioness. As we approached she stood up, checked us out, and walked off into the dense bush. We were only able to watch her for about 2 minutes before she was out of sight.
Moving along, we took a left-turn onto the H10 and crossed the Sabie River. Climbing up the slope, we came across a female Elephant and her calf crossing the road. The spotlights upset the Elephant quite a bit, and she wasn’t afraid of letting us know about it! One of the passengers was quite frightened by her, but Dingaan assured her that the Elephant’s behaviour was nothing more than a friendly warning.
We turned left onto the S128 and drove for about 10 minutes, not seeing much. We then turned around and on our way back to the tar road, we spotted 4 Porcupines. When we reached the tar road, we spotted a Side-Striped Jackal which is quite a rare sighting, and we all enjoyed sitting and watching it in the silence. Moving further up the H10, we spotted the first of four African Civets. This one was sitting in the short grass eating its dinner. We couldn’t see what dinner was, but we could all hear small bones being crunched! At this point, Dingaan told us to switch off our spotlights and just sit in darkness. There was only a tiny sliver of the moon shining in the darkness, surrounded by the most beautiful stars and the Milky Way. Sitting there in the darkness and silence was one of the nicest experiences – I feel like I could have sat there all evening!
We then moved along the H10, until we reached the S29 which loops all the way back down to where we spotted the Side-Striped Jackal near to the Sabie River. Although we didn’t see much along this road, we did have a couple of interesting sightings. First, a giant Martial Eagle, perched up high in the branches of a dead tree. Then we spotted a Hippo miles away from any water, and our guide, Dingaan, told us that male Hippos have to patrol their territories at night, and will cover up to 30km on foot, while the females stay closer to water. During one night, a hippo can consume up to 100kg of grass. Hippos also mainly laze-about in the water during the day, and graze at night because they have very soft, sensitive skin which needs to be kept out of the harsh African sun. Dingaan was full of interesting facts! A little while later, running down the middle of the road, we came across a Honey Badger. The Honey Badger, or Ratel, is known as one of the most formidable and fearless fighters. Its skin is tough enough to withstand bee-stings, its front feet are armed with powerful, knife-like claws and its jaws and teeth are extremely robust. I was certainly very happy with this sighting!
It was now getting late, and the closer we got to the Sabie River, the colder it got. I was grateful for the blankets provided! The other guests on the drive had stopped chatting, and even Dingaan had grown quiet. Apart from a couple of Buffalo and a brief Hyena sighting, we weren’t seeing too much anymore. We were nearly back at camp, when the gentle purr of the diesel Hilux was interrupted by an older guest yelling “LION!”. We backed-up a bit and lying just next to the road in the grass was the beautiful Lioness we’d seen earlier. Lions are absolute killing machines, covered in muscle, and deserving of the title “King of the jungle”. But it was wonderful to see this lady at peace – relaxed and alone on the side of the road. Dingaan told us that Lions sometimes have family feuds, not unlike humans. When this happens, the offended, or even offending Lion will leave the pride and take a couple of days off on its own, to calm down. Once it’s gotten over its grievance, it will meet up with the pride again. Being alone makes it harder for the Lion to catch its prey, as they usually hunt in groups. The advantage, however, is that whatever the solitary Lioness catches, she can keep all to herself, whereas under normal circumstances, she’d have to share her kill with the Pride which, in the Kruger Park, averages between 11 and 12 members.
Eventually the Lioness grew tired of us and wandered off into the bush. Dingaan said it was unusual for a Lioness to be so shy, but it confirmed that she was most likely spending some time away from the pride. We drove back to camp, which was only 5 minutes away. We’d had an extremely successful drive, having spotted amongst other things, Buffalo, Crocodiles, Hippos, the same Lioness twice, Hyena, Porcupines, a Side-Striped Jackal, Elephant, African Civets, a Honey Badger, a Martial Eagle, Giraffe and a Spotted Eagle-Owl.
Arriving back at Lower Sabie at about 21:40, I made my way back to my tent. It was cold and I was feeling exhausted after my long day. But I was by no means ready to go to sleep. I didn’t want to let go of the moment. I tweeted “#LowerSabie night drive was amazing. Tired & freezing, but most of all feeling very content. #KNP is the most wonderful place on earth!”. I had finally put my finger on exactly what it is that’s so special about the Kruger National Park. I just didn’t have the words to describe it. Even now, I’m not 100% sure about how I’m going to write it down in my account of Day 5.
But sitting outside my tent under the stars, I was happy. I can’t say exactly why, but I actually felt a bit emotional – and I’m not an emotional guy. I was overwhelmed by this magnificent creation. I allowed the thought of having to go back to Gauteng in two days’ time to creep into the back of my mind. It genuinely dampened my mood. Why? Because driving back to Gauteng, I wouldn’t be going home. Sitting out here under the Kruger Park night sky, listening to the roaring Sabie River in the distance, I was at home.
Eventually the many hours spent on the road during the day, the hammering-in of 18 pegs earlier in the afternoon that hold my campsite together, and the ice cold air got the better of me, and I dragged myself off to bed. Something about Day 3 had brought me to love the Kruger Park even more than before. My alarm was set for early the next morning. There was no way that I’d be sleeping for any more time than was necessary. I wasn’t going miss out on a single minute more than I had to. I was home, and I was going to make the most of it!
And that was Day 3.