I woke up to some very mixed emotions. I couldn’t believe that I’d be leaving the Kruger today. For me, it’s honestly one of the worst feelings – knowing that in a couple of hours’ time I’d be outside of my favourite place in the world. I’d be leaving the place that feels like home to me. If you’ve never been to the Kruger Park before, you’ve probably got no idea what I’m on about. But for those of you who’ve stayed inside the borders of the magical wildlife kingdom that is the Kruger National Park, I know that you’re sympathising with me, because you’ve felt the same way in the past. There’s nothing quite like the Kruger.
I’d set my alarm for 7am. I thought a good sleep was in order before taking the long drive back to Gauteng. I was obviously also in no rush to leave, and it doesn’t take me long to pack up my campsite. I got up to make coffee and breakfast, and noticed that some of my neighbouring campers were also slowly starting the process of packing up camp. After breakfast, I packed up camp. It seemed to be over too quickly. The spot that had been home to me for the last couple of days was now nothing more than a parking space for my car. The campsites at Lower Sabie are quite dusty, and so once I’d packed up camp, I went and had a quick shower. My drive of denial was about to begin. I call it this, because I really do drive in a state of denial, refusing to acknowledge that I’m on my way out of the Kruger.
I stopped at the petrol station at Lower Sabie and asked the attendant to fill my car. I checked the oil and coolant levels, while the attendant washed the front and rear windscreen, and checked my tyres for me. It took the attendant forever to get all of this done. It was probably the slowest service I’ve ever had at a petrol station, and I was eternally grateful. Anything that would delay my departure was ok with me. I tipped the guy R5. I probably would have given him 10 bucks if he’d deflated a tyre or 2, and forced me to leave even later. Hanging out at a petrol station in the heart of the Kruger Park beats anything outside of the Park!
After this, I stopped by the shop at Lower Sabie. I’d read about “Kruger Park Passports” on the SANParks forums. For most of the week I’d been trying to decide if I should buy one or not. They’re essentially a handy way of keeping track of every camp, gate and picnic site that you’ve visited in the Park. It sounds a bit childish, but none of the people discussing them on the forums were children. I think it just appeals to the inner child that all of us adults harbour inside ourselves. I also think it’s healthy to entertain that inner child from time to time, and I eventually decided to go for it. I can now say that it was R55 well spent. If nothing else, it genuinely is quite “cool” to get it stamped wherever you go, and it immediately puts you on a mission to cover the entire Park! On my way out I got it stamped at Lower Sabie, Nkhulu Picnic Site, Skukuza, and Paul Kruger Gate. If I’d decided to do this from Day 1, I could have added Malelane Gate, Berg en Dal, Afsaal, and Tshokwane to my collection of stamps, but now I guess I’ll just have to re-visit all of those spots to get stamps from them in future! This certainly doesn’t bother me at all. Fortunately I’ll probably be able to do that in September this year.
Eventually, I drove out of Lower Sabie and turned right onto the H4-1 towards Skukuza. This drive is supposed to be 43km long, but I think I managed to cover more than 60km along the way, taking every detour I could! The H4-1 is also known as the Sabie River Road, as it follows the Sabie River all the way from Lower Sabie to Skukuza. Many people have had many great wildlife sightings along this road, but I haven’t been too fortunate on it in the past few years. There are many spots where you can turn off the tar road onto little sand loops that take you right up close to the Sabie River. I turned onto every single one of them. I even intentionally missed the turn-off for the H11 which is the last little stretch of road that takes you to Skukuza, and then on to Paul Kruger Gate. I just wanted to cross the Sabie River one last time at the H1-2 which has a concrete low-level bridge, and a magnificent view of the old Selati Railway Bridge that crosses the Sabie River and goes into Skukuza.
On the concrete bridge, I had a great view of the old railway bridge to the left:
And a lazy Croc to the right:
The drive down the H4-1 to Skukuza was a brilliant one. I saw a fair bit of game. There were quite a few Elephants and Buffalo about, along with the usual crowd of Impala and the like. I also saw a stunning Fish Eagle on a branch over the river with a small fish in its grip, but it was not the sightings that made the drive so good. As always, I’d been thinking about what it was that made the Kruger Park so special to me, and to so many others. I’d never needed to put it into words before. I knew exactly what it was, but had no idea how to say it. Knowing that I’d be blogging about it this time around, though, I felt like I had to work it out. And on this drive, I finally got it. I stopped at Nkhulu Picnic Site to get my Kruger Park Passport stamped, and then got back into my car. Nkhulu Picnic Site and its view:
8km later, I turned right onto the H12. Immediately after turning right, you cross the Sabie River via a very large bridge. My plan was to drive onto the bridge and admire the view, then drive over to the other side and make a U-turn, and come back to the H4-1 again to continue down to Skukuza. There are joints in the road as you cross the bridge which obviously allow for expansion and contraction and the odd bit of movement in the bridge so that the tar doesn’t crack when this happens. This is not uncommon – bridges all over the world are built like this. With my windows down, I began to cross the bridge. Looking out at the magnificent view before me, and listening to the sound that my car’s tyres made as they rolled slowly over the joints in the bridge, it struck me. I suddenly knew how to write down exactly what was so special about the Kruger Park. Man, I was excited! I wanted to stop right there on the bridge, get my laptop out, and start writing. But I knew two things: 1. – I was only looking for a way to waste time and delay my inevitable departure from the Park; and 2. – There was no way I was going to forget the words that were now etched into my mind. I finally had it, and I knew that when I eventually sat down behind my computer more than 3 weeks later (who knew it would take so long?) to write about Day 5 of my Kruger Adventure 2013, I’d be able to recall the experience and the words that came with it as though it had just happened. And I’m going to save those words until the end. They’re probably the only suitable way to finish this. Somehow, “The End” just isn’t quite going to cut it.
After my profound experience, I did cross the bridge and make a U-turn as planned. Coming back over the bridge, I listened to the sound of the tyres bumping over the expansion joints once again. I looked out at the mighty Sabie River that brings life to the Kruger Park like a giant artery, and I knew I was right.
I turned back onto the H4-1 and carried on towards Skukuza where I was going to stop for lunch. I tried to look at everything that I drove past. Knowing my trip was almost over, I just wanted to absorb as much as I could. I wanted to fill my heart and my mind with the Kruger Park, hoping it would be just enough to last until next time. I stopped for almost every bit of wildlife I saw. I took detours to delay me as much as possible. I saw tree-stumps and rocks and stopped anyway, just to make sure they weren’t some kind of creature. Despite my best efforts, I soon drove into Skukuza. The drive had taken a couple of hours, but it was all over too quickly.
Arriving at Skukuza, I decided I’d first take a drive to the campsites, as I’d stayed here on my first solo trip to the Kruger Park in 2011, and had really enjoyed it. I saw the spot I’d camped at and briefly considered checking the SANParks website to see if there wasn’t just one night available. Surely I could stay just one more night? But rationality got the better of me, and I knew I couldn’t. I have a life outside of the Park that I had to get back to.
From here, I drove on to the restaurant/shop area. I arrived at the same time as a large group of young school children on a bus. It brought back fond memories of when I’d visited the park as an 11 year old boy on a school tour. We’d stayed at Maroela Camp in a couple of big army tents. That was 14 years ago. Was that where my passion for the Park came from? No way. It was something that my parents had been nurturing and cultivating without knowing it since I was a baby. I loved watching the kids posing for photos at the statue of two Kudus attached by the horns, locked into their disagreement. The children were so happy. Did they have any idea of the extent of the greatness, vastness, heritage and legacy that they were surrounded by? Probably not at all. But that didn’t matter. They were being educated. Their teachers were creating an awareness about the Kruger Park. And who knows what that might turn into for the children one day?
I had to pass the big group of school children on my way to the cafeteria for lunch, and on my way, I was greeted by plenty of high-5’s, waving hands and shouts of “hello”! I first sat on a bench by the Sabie River for a while, and then went and ordered a toasted sandwich for lunch. I wanted this to carry on forever. But time was ticking by, and there was no sense in driving back to Gauteng in the dark. Once I’d finished lunch, I went and got my Kruger Park Passport stamped at the shop, and then said goodbye to Skukuza – the headquarters of the Kruger National Park.
Skukuza is only 12kms away from Paul Kruger Gate. No matter how slowly I drove, this was all going to be over too soon. Fortunately I still had two stops left on my agenda. First was the Lake Panic bird hide, and second was a spot very near to Paul Kruger Gate. On my Kruger Adventure in 2012, I’d spotted a beautiful female Leopard on the S3, about 1km off of the H11, lying in a dry river bed. I was also on my way out last year, having driven up to Paul Kruger Gate from Pretoriuskop, when I spotted her. I was the only person there, she wasn’t more than 20m away from me, and I sat and watched her for about half an hour, uninterrupted. I knew that there was practically no chance of that happening again, but I was going to have a shot at it anyway. I had nothing to lose, other than a few minutes, and time spent in the Kruger Park is certainly not lost anyway.
On my way down the H11, I noticed how some of the flood damage from earlier this year is still very obvious in the Park.
Before long, I reached Lake Panic bird hide. You can get out of your car here, and I absolutely love the little walkway down to the hide. The fact that you can never really see too far ahead of you because of how the walkway winds down to the hide, coupled with the name “Lake Panic” is always a bit of a thrill!
After spending a little bit of time looking at Crocs and Hippos, I walked back to my car. The drive back along the sand road to the H11 was interrupted by some Elephants in the road, but it was a traffic jam that I was happy to sit in! Another lady watching the Elephants had stood up through the sunroof of her car, which is not allowed, because you could find yourself in an extremely dangerous and compromising position – especially with Elephants around. But after a short while, a guide in a game-viewing vehicle drove up and told her to get back in her car.
Back on the H11, I knew my trip was close to being concluded. I just had one more spot to visit. I drove down the H11, and as Paul Kruger Gate came into view, I turned left onto the S3 and soon reached the spot where I’d seen the Leopard the year before. Obviously, she wasn’t there. I looked up and down the dry river bed and in all of the surrounding trees. No sign of her. It didn’t matter. I could picture her lying there in the sand as if it had happened a couple of hours before. Everything was the same. I was driving the same car, looking through the same binoculars. The surrounding bushveld seemed unchanged and I had the same Leatherman strapped to my belt. All that had changed was my heart. Last year, I thought there was no way that I could possibly fall more in love with the Kruger Park. My heart had loved the Kruger Park to its fullest capacity. But this year, my heart no longer just loved the Park to that extent. This year, my heart belonged in the Park.
I made a U-turn, and crawled back to Paul Kruger Gate. I would have been out-run by a tortoise. But all too soon, I was through the Gate and outside of the Park. I took one look back at the Gate.
I then looked off to the left at the statue of Paul Kruger – once President of this stunning land.
Why had Paul Kruger, from 1889, fought tooth and nail for years to have this land set aside as a sanctuary for wild animals? What had he stumbled upon that was so special? Back then, most of South Africa was undeveloped, and all of it was very beautiful. It still is. Why was Paul Kruger so interested in this bit of the Lowveld? Had he experienced, more than 100 years before me, what I was experiencing in June 2013? I think so. So what is it?
I come back to that question again. All creation is beautiful. Some of it is utterly spectacular. I’ve been in the unbelievable Okavango Delta. I’ve stood on top of Table Mountain. I’ve gazed upon the wonder that is the Knysna Heads and hiked through the Knysna Forest. I’ve flown at low altitude in a small aeroplane over the Waterberg Mountains – another popular game reserve area in South Africa. I’ve climbed to the top of Mont-Aux-Sources, and seen the bottom of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. All of these are breathtaking. All of them stunning. They’re unique and special in their own ways. But what they all have in common is that none of them are the Kruger National Park.
Writing the name “Kruger National Park” made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. It gave me a bit of a lump in my throat. Why on earth is the Kruger National Park so special? The simple answer: It just is.
Driving over the H12 Bridge that crosses the Sabie River, listening to my car’s tyres bumping over the expansion joints, I realised that in the Kruger Park, it just sounds different. It’s not like doing it anywhere else. The air in the Kruger Park smells different. The bush looks different. That potato smell that sometimes wafts through the air in the Kruger Park? It just smells better in the Kruger Park. The 147 mammal, 507 bird, 114 reptile, 34 amphibian, 49 fish and 336 tree species that call the Kruger Park home do occur elsewhere in the world. But it’s together that they make the Kruger Park so special. It’s the old saying of the “Whole being greater than the sum of its parts”.
No one will ever be able to say exactly what makes the Kruger Park so special, because it’s not one thing. It’s millions of little things working together in perfect harmony to create the incomparable Kruger. The unique combination of wildlife, nature, sights, sounds and smells that you find in the Kruger Park is just right. If you’ve been there before, something inside of you has just resonated with what I’ve written. If not, I dare you to go there, and come back unchanged. It just won’t happen.
I love the ocean. Not much beats sitting on a white beach staring out at the sea. But whenever I’m at the ocean, I get the sense that if I lived there, it would lose its appeal to a degree. It would become normal. This doesn’t happen to me in the Kruger Park. The more time I spend in the Kruger, the greater my desire is to stay there – to spend more time there.
When you leave Skukuza you come to a cross road. There are no-entry signs to the left and right, accompanied by signs that say “Finance”, “Human Resources”, “Marketing”, etc. Every time I pass these signs, I think about sending my CV to SANParks. These are all things I’m qualified to do. Will I send them my CV? I don’t know. I’m not really sure how my passion for the Kruger Park is going to manifest itself. But what I do know is that my desire to be there is growing all of the time. This is probably most evident in the fact that I’ve just written more than 3000 words about one day in the Park, especially considering that I don’t particularly enjoy writing nor have much spare time on my hands.
All I know is that, as my dad says, the Kruger Park is the greatest game reserve in the world. It just is. I love the bush, and have spent a lot of time in many different game reserves, and nothing has even come close to comparing to the Kruger National Park. For now, I’m going to carry on doing what I do. I’ll keep up this blog, and will continue to raise awareness for the Kruger Park through @ExploreKNP on twitter. Although I’m a completely rational person, given the opportunity, I’ll follow my heart when it comes to the Kruger Park – not my mind.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my Kruger Adventure 2013 as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it. It’s been so good to recall all of my experiences and share them with a few people. Keep an eye on this blog, follow me on twitter, or drop me an email on firstname.lastname@example.org. Please also feel free to leave a comment below. I’d love to hear about why you love the Kruger so much.