One Short Weekend in the Kruger National Park

My last bit of time in the Kruger Park went by in the blink of an eye. Could I ever spend “enough” time in the Kruger, though? I doubt it. But one weekend was certainly not enough to quench my Kruger thirst. Any time spent there, though, is a blessing – and I’m certainly very grateful for even one quick weekend in the Park.

For those of you who read my post about the planning that went into this trip, you’ll know that my sister got married, and as a result we had family from all over the world descending upon our city, and although our time was very limited, we thought it was the perfect excuse to shoot up to the Kruger Park for the weekend.

Because this weekend coincided with the beginning of school holidays, the Kruger Park was quite literally booked to capacity. We arrived there on Friday the 20th of September, and if I’m not mistaken, there wasn’t a single booking open for the following night. But this is all very good news – the Park is very carefully monitored by a full-time team of scientists, and the result is that even when the Park is fully booked, it never really feels that busy.

What this meant for us, though, was that we got accommodation at Satara on Friday night, but the only other camp that had space for us on Saturday night was Berg-en-dal. If you’re not too familiar with the layout of the Kruger Park, Satara and Berg-en-dal are roughly 165km apart. Not too far, then. Until you consider that you can fairly safely assume that you won’t drive at an average speed of more than about 25km/h, making for at least a 7 hour commute between the camps. Had we bitten off more than we could chew? Not at all. But – we only arrived at Berg-en-dal at 17:45 – just 15 minutes before the camp gates close. The reason for this? Some of the most spectacular game-viewing I’ve ever had in the Kruger Park in one day. We’ll move onto all of that a bit later, though. Let’s start at the beginning for now.

We left Pretoria, the capital city of South Africa, and the city I call home at about 7am. Pretty impressive considering we’d all been at a wedding the night before! We were driving up to Orpen Gate. I must add that I haven’t been through Orpen Gate for many years, and the drive was extremely beautiful. Perhaps not as quick and easy as heading straight up the N4 to Malelane Gate, but worthwhile in its own right. Here’s just one of the many beautiful areas we drove through:

Drive Scenery LD C

 

The check-in at Orpen was handled by what seemed to be a private security company who were consulting for SANParks, and not by SANParks employees themselves. This was a bit disappointing because there was no cheerful, friendly “Welcome to the Game Reserve” that I’ve become so accustomed to when entering at Paul Kruger, Phabeni and Malelane Gates in the recent past. I guess hiring extra security is a good thing, seeing as poaching has become such a major concern, but the guards at Orpen Gate were anything but what the Kruger Park needs right now. Their casual, laid-back attitude meant that it took what felt like forever to get through the gate, and they didn’t bother to check my car’s boot, which I’ve found to be common practice at other entrance gates. Seeing as this is literally the only thing that was less-than-fantastic about the weekend, I guess it really isn’t a problem. My opinion, though, is that SANParks’ employees do a much better job at entrance gates than what this consulting security company did, and I think it’d be a much better idea for SANParks to create jobs for members of local communities rather than to hire outside help. Rant over, though! 🙂 Here’s a look at Orpen Gate:

Orpen Gate LD C

 

Once inside the park, we stopped at the shop at Orpen Rest Camp to grab something cold to drink  – temperatures of 36 degrees Celsius were a bit of a shock to all of us! From there, we headed on to Satara. By now, most of my family were pretty tired of travelling and although I like to drive as slowly as possible in the Park so that I don’t miss a thing, the pressure coming from behind me on the back seat was too much to bear and I had to succumb to travelling at the speed limit most of the way to the camp. The H7, which is the main tar road between Orpen Gate and Satara, is still damaged badly from floods earlier this, year so traffic is diverted along the S106 gravel road. This was a nice drive anyway, and we got back on to the H7 in time to stop at Bobbejaan Krans (Afrikaans for Baboon Cliff) which is a stunning lookout point, and you can get out of your car here to take in the incredible view:

Bobbejaan Kraans LD C

 

A short while later, we pulled into Satara Rest Camp. I’ve been longing to get back up to Satara for quite a while now, and it was so nice driving into the camp which seemed completely unchanged from the last time I was there. Here’s a look at the simple, unassuming entrance to Satara:

Satara Entrance LD C

 

Once checked-in, most of the family headed off to their rondavels, which are beautifully laid out in circles like this:

Satara Huts LD C

 

I went to the campsite to find the right spot for me. When I made my booking, Satara only had campsites without electricity available, which wasn’t a problem seeing as we were only going to be in this camp for one night, and I could charge my phone in the car in any case. Camping without power turned out to be excellent. Satara has a huge camping area, but according to them, only 15 sites available without power. What I discovered is that there’s enough space for at least 30, and maybe even as many as 40 powerless campsites. What this means is that although Satara was fully booked, I had a lot of space to choose from, and I settled on a spot one row back from the fence, on a bit of an “island”. There was probably enough space for at least about 6 campsites, but I had the island all to myself. One row back from the fence, close to the ablutions, plenty of space, fairly soft ground – what more could you ask for? I wish I’d been able to stay for longer. The only thing I really use electricity for when camping is for a light and a little fridge I have which keeps meet and drinks and things fresh and cool. I’m pretty sure I could do without those things, and I certainly think it’d be worthwhile, based on how much space is available at Satara. Anyway, here’s my campsite. Much more humble than normal, but seeing as I was only sleeping there for one night, and all of our cooking would be done at the rest of my family’s accommodation, this was more than sufficient:

Satara Tent 2 HD no C

 

Here’s a bit of an idea of what Satara’s campsite looks like. Bear in mind, it was the beginning of Spring, but there had been no rain yet, so it was still very dry. I can only imagine how beautiful and green it probably is by now:

Satara Campsite Collage LD

 

3 of us took a drive before supper. Although we hardly had any time in the Satara area, I really wanted to get as far down the S100 as possible. If you follow @LatestKruger on Twitter, or use the fantastic “Africa: Live” app, you’ll know that the S100 alone probably offers some of the best game viewing in the whole of South Africa, and I really wanted to try and capitalise on this!  We didn’t manage to get more than 5km down the gravel S100 before having to turn back to camp, but it was a beautiful drive, and we spotted a couple of big tuskers which was great:

Satara Tusker LD

 

We were booked onto the Satara night drive that evening, so we had an early braai (BBQ), and then got ready for the drive. It was a nice, warm evening and the drive was pretty pleasant. It was very different to the one I went on at Lower Sabie earlier this year though, in that we were on the back of a big truck that seated a lot more people than the bakkie (pickup) I went in at Lower Sabie. Also, we were the only South Africans on the drive, and the guide’s focus seemed to be much more on entertaining the guests rather than actually spotting any game. He drove very quickly, chatted loudly and in the end, apart from many Impala, all we saw was one African Civet, one Hyena in the distance and 2 boomslangs in a tree. It was a bit disappointing because the area around Satara is generally considered one of the best in the Park for spotting the large cats. But it was pleasant and entertaining none-the-less, and the following day’s game viewing more-than made up for anything we might have missed out on while on the night drive.

I was up at about 5:30 the next morning. The first thing I noticed was that the hot weather from the day before was gone. Saturday and Sunday turned out to be much cooler than Friday had been. I quickly packed up my tent and had a shower, only to find that the rest of the family was a lot less enthusiastic than me! When I got to their rondavels they seemed to have only just risen. But with a bit of encouragement and some good coffee from my Aeropress, we were on the road in no time – out in the magnificent Kruger National Park.

Aeropress Satara

 

I figured that driving more than 165km and spending almost the entire day in the Park would probably yield some pretty good game viewing, but I had no idea how amazing the day ahead would turn out to be.

We headed straight down the H1-3 towards Tshokwane Picnic Site, which was  our first scheduled stop. If I remember correctly, the drive between Satara and Tshokwane is about 45km or so. The first 30km were really pleasant. Lots of antelope, a few elephants and some ever-entertaining baboons were about. The scenery was breathtaking as always. It’s so never-ending that one can so easily begin to take it for granted in no time at all. But take a look at this picture for a moment. A lot of people are so concerned with finding the Big 5 and things that they forget to appreciate the simple things, when in reality, the simple things are probably just as beautiful in their own way:

Zebra Landscape LD

 

About 25km from Satara we turned off the tar road and drove down to take a look at this iconic Baobab tree:

Baobab Very LD C

 

But then, about 14km from Tshokwane, lying in the dry Nwaswitsontso River bed, we came across not one, but four of the fastest mammals on earth! Relaxing in the morning sun, was one adult female Cheetah, and her 3 cubs. I believe that female Cheetahs generally have a litter of 3 to 4 cubs which live with them for the first one and a half to two years of their life. As you’ll see in the photos, the 3 cubs were lying together initially, and their mom was lying some distance away with her back to them. We were guessing that the youngsters had been a handful, and their mom was now taking a timeout. But they all came together eventually, slowly and playfully making their way down the riverbed. We followed them until they were out of sight. I don’t really know how long we watched them for – probably more than half an hour! But the experience was so surreal, I don’t think any of us were keeping track of time. It’s been a long time since I last saw a Cheetah in the wild, and I’ve never had a Cheetah sighting quite as incredible as this one. I hardly even remember the next 14km that we drove to Tshokwane, I was just so taken aback by our amazing cheetah sighting!

Cheetah Collage LD

 

When we arrived at Tshokwane, we were all very ready for breakfast, and each of us ordered the “Bush Breakfast” from the restaurant. While a lot of people (myself included) feel that some of the menu items in the Kruger Park are overpriced, the Bush Breakfast is a very good deal for only R40. We enjoyed breakfast and were only interrupted once by the local bacon thief:

Fat Monkey LD C

 

After she tried to steal some food right off our table, I grabbed a broom and kept it next to me. The monkey got the message and kept her distance!

From here, our plan was to quickly pop up to the phenomenal Nkumbe lookout point, and then turn around back in the direction of Tshokwane, quickly stop at Orpen Dam, and then turn left onto the H1-2 in the direction of Skukuza – the headquarters of the Kruger National Park. In the last 7 years I haven’t been to the Kruger Park once without stopping at Nkumbe. It really offers the most amazing view! Orpen Dam is also stunning, and we spent a lot more time there than what we’d planned. Here’s the Nkumbe Lookout Point:

Nkumbe Lookout LD C

 

And this is Orpen Dam:

Orpen Panorama LD with C

 

Back on our way towards Skukuza, and ultimately Berg-en-dal, we had more good game viewing. We popped in at Leeupan, which has lived up to its name in the past (Lion Pan), but offered no such luck this time. No problem, though, because a little while later – about 16km from Skukuza, we spotted a massive male Lion! He was fast asleep in the fairly dry Sand River bed. It was an amazing sighting because the visibility without binoculars was very low, but with them, we all got a very good look at him. Unfortunately I have no proof, because the distance proved too great for any of our cameras, but we saw him! About 4 years ago, my sister that recently got married  and I popped into the Kruger for a quick day trip from White River and we saw 2 Lions in almost exactly the same spot!

A little while later, we arrived at our next scheduled stop – Skukuza! It’s always great to stop at this big, bustling camp. I’ve camped at Skukuza on a few occasions in the past, and it was nice to be back. Once again, I was surprised to find that the shop was offering a huge bag of Kudu biltong for only R40 – a good deal in my opinion! So we bought a couple of these to fuel us until our next stop, which was going to be at Afsaal Picnic Spot. We then sat under the big trees that line the Sabie River bank, and had something to drink while watching Elephants and Buffaloes grazing down near the river.

Back on the road,  and in the 72km that followed, we saw 8 Rhinos. They were all amazing sightings, and we all have a renewed appreciation for these giant creatures because of how they’re being affected by poaching. This was probably the highlight of the 8 that we saw:

Mom & Baby Rhino LD

 

Another highlight was seeing two Spotted Hyenas just before Afsaal. Hyenas are always busy, and always seem to be on the move, but these two hung around for a good while, and actually got so close to our car at one point that we could literally smell them! It was a fantastic sighting!

Hyena LD

 

We did then stop at Afsaal quickly, but just to use the bathrooms. We then got moving again, bearing in mind that it was getting late and I had to set up a tent and cook supper on the fire! We ditched these plans, though, about 7km along the tar section of the S110 that leads to Berg-en-dal. What lay ahead of us right in the road was the highlight of the day. This is, of course, saying a lot – after seeing 4 Cheetah, a huge Lion, a couple of Hyena, 8 Rhinos, Elephant and Buffalo. But what lay ahead was the number-one most endangered carnivore in South Africa. We were the first car to arrive on the scene of 6 African Wild Dogs standing in the road. We were just over 3km from Berg-en-dal’s gate, and we followed this pack almost all the way to the gate. They were on the move, and marking territory. A huge traffic jam built up behind us, and we eventually managed to get past the Wild Dogs, who weren’t waiting around for anybody. We were hoping to give some of the cars behind us a chance to see them, but we were the only car that managed to get past them. We moved up ahead of them, and they followed us until probably 500m from the gate, where they eventually turned off the road.

Wild Dog Collage LD

 

It was one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had in the wild. I do remember seeing Wild Dogs in the past, but I couldn’t have been more than about 12 years old when I last saw them. We drove into Berg-en-dal at 17:45 – 15 minutes before the gates closed. It was already getting dark, and I still had a tent to set up, but I was happy to do that in the dark. We’d had the most unreal day on the road.

Wild Dog LD C

 

We had a lovely evening in camp – I did a beef fillet on the braai for us at the family hut, and later that evening, I returned to my tent, and tried to post some pictures on Twitter and on the Africa: Live app, of our incredible sightings that day. I didn’t have much success with this because apparently the cellular network I’m on provides the least coverage out of all of our South African cellular networks when in the park, but that just left me with more stuff to post when I got back home – which essentially let me live out the experience a little bit longer. I must add that if you’re going to be in the bush anywhere in Africa – not just in the Kruger, then the Africa: Live app is must-have! As far as I know it’s available for free in the iStore if you have an iPhone, and on the Google Play Store if you’ve got an Android. I’m on Android, and apart from my poor network connection in the Kruger Park, the app runs beautifully!

The Africa: Live app is a live game sightings map that shows you what animals have been seen near you in the last 24 hours, and allows you to easily and immediately share  your sightings with thousands of other wildlife-lovers “watching” the map around the world (as well as your Facebook friends). By using the app, you can also help to generate crowd-sourced data for use in conservation research. A great new addition to the app is that it now also includes detailed offline maps of the major parks in South Africa (which is useful when your network provider lets you down like mine did), and one of the biggest bonuses for me is that it comes jam-packed with tons of extra information, like an extensive animal field guide, gate opening times as well as park contact details. The app also recently was awarded “Best Travel App in Africa” in the Africa App Quest Awards 2013, sponsored by South African Tourism and Visa International. So, quick app review: 10 out of 10 for the guys at Africa: Live, in my opinion! Go check them out at: www.wildafricalive.com

Back to the Kruger Park now! Although I’d gone to bed with about 60% battery left on my cellphone, I’d forgotten to switch my 3G off, and my poor phone obviously spent the entire night searching in vain for network. So my battery died, and my alarm didn’t go off the following morning. I overslept by about an hour, but it didn’t matter at all – I still showered and had my tent packed up by about 8am. The extra hour of sleep also did me the world of good, and I felt like a new man that morning. The great thing, though, is that if you’ve read my review of camping at Berg-en-dal, you’ll know that I was a little bit disappointed by this camp last time I was there. It really wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t nearly as good as a lot of the other Kruger Park camps I’ve camped at in the recent past. Although I spent only a short while at my campsite this time around, it was really fantastic to be back there and although I still have many camps in the Kruger to check-off on my bucket list, I’m looking forward to the next time I go back to Berg-en-dal. This was my humble home at Berg-en-dal this time around:

Tent at Berg en Dal LD C

 

After camp was packed up, I went and fetched the rest of my family at their huts and we stopped at the restaurant to grab some toasted bacon and egg sandwiches. From here, we headed to the Berg-en-dal Day Visitors/Picnic area to enjoy our breakfast. Berg-en-dal’s Picnic area is probably about a 10 minute drive away from the camp, in a very secluded, private and beautiful spot. The sandwiches were great, it was lovely to be with the family, the view was utterly breathtaking, and I was in my favourite place in the entire world. Just recalling this memory now is making me miss the Kruger Park a lot. I’m not sure when I’ll be there again – possibly at the end of November, but I’m still not 100% sure – there are a whole lot of other things that need to fall into place here in the real world first!

After breakfast, we realised we’d forgotten to drop off the keys to the 2 huts that the rest of my family had been staying in so we popped back to Berg-en-dal to drop them off. We then drove down to the Matjulu Dam, and made our way back to the H3 via the gravel section of the S110. It was so wonderful being out in the Kruger Park. Man, I love that place so much! It was also nice being there with a bunch of my family for the first time in about 4 or 5 years. When we got to the tar H3, I knew that was basically it! 4 more km, and we’d be on the wrong side of the Crocodile River. I drove very slowly, and nobody objected. We stopped for literally everything we saw, or thought we saw! And then we left through Malelane Gate, which was manned by SANParks employees, which as I said earlier, is a lot better than the contracting security company. This is Malelane Gate from the inside:

Malelane Gate LD C

 

The Kruger Park had been phenomenal as always. I’d grown to love it even more than before. As seems to always be the case in the Kruger, I saw things I’d never seen before. But you know how it can happen that you’re really hungry, so you have a small snack, but end up feeling even hungrier as a result? Well, that’s what this weekend did for me. I was hungry for the Kruger Park before we got there, but now I’m starving! On the morning we left, we had one last highlight somewhere along the roughly 30km of road we covered – spotting these two beauties on World Rhino Day. We sat and watched them for a while, all of us aware of the tragedy that is Rhino poaching. I said a quick prayer for these 2, and the rest of their population as well – and with that, our weekend in the Kruger National Park was over.

 

Rhino Pair LD C Lilac Breasted Roller LD C

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