It was a different Kruger trip in several ways …….
(Yep, here come the bullets – I can’t help it, I’m a QS, we like things to be ordered) –
- The booking was a last-minute one instead of the usual micro-planned, 6 to 12 months ahead booking we have always stuck to – I suddenly had this desire to wake up in Kruger on my birthday and scanned the availability of the camps, ending up with 5 nights in Olifants and a further 2 in Skukuza, starting in the last week of August this year
- It was just Gerda and myself – the first time we have been on our own in Kruger, going back to our first visit with Gerda’s parents as newly weds in 1972. Since then we have made umpteen visits with our kids, with friends, with birding groups, even with clients and latterly with our grandkids adding to the delight.
- We had no fixed plans other than to enjoy ourselves and take it at a relaxed pace
- Ummmm that’s it with the bullet points……..
So what is it about a visit to Kruger National Park that makes it so special to ordinary South Africans like us, who keep going back for more, year after year, literally for decades?
With time to think about it during our week in Kruger, I can put it down to the several parts that make up the quintessential Kruger trip, starting with –
For us, any holiday starts with the road trip which, if you tackle it in the way that we prefer, becomes an integral part of the holiday. We could have travelled to our Kruger destination, Olifants camp, in one day, but including an overnight stop at Phalaborwa, close to the entrance gate, meant we had a full day to get organised and travel at a relaxed pace.
It also means there is time to stop for coffee and lunch and to slowly ease into holiday mode. At our first stop at Kranskop on the road north, Gerda’s enthusiasm in identifying the weavers we spotted there helped to shift the focus from the “must do’s” that dominate life to the ” do what you feel like’s”. They were Village Weavers and for the next half hour on the road Gerda grilled me on the main differences between the most common genus Ploceus Weavers, covering Southern Masked, Village, Lesser Masked and Cape Weavers.
There is also enough time to take in the character of the surroundings and the road being travelled on, which changed as we progressed –
N1 highway all the way to Polokwane – predictably smooth and comfortable, not requiring much effort beyond maintaining concentration
Polokwane east to Moria and beyond – busy double road through end to end built up area, the road requiring utmost concentration even at low speeds with a stream of pedestrians crossing, taxis stopping unexpectedly (although we have long learnt to expect it), wandering dogs and goats. Beyond Moria, which accommodates an estimated 1 million people during the Easter pilgrimage, the road enters rolling countryside for some relief
Through Magoebaskloof and down to the lowveld, the road twists and turns and drops all at the same time for perhaps half an hour until it flattens out as you approach Tzaneen
Suddenly it is fruit and veg growing area with roadside stalls offering produce at prices way below the city supermarkets – avos galore (bag for R50 / $3.50 ), sack of potatoes (R30 / $2 ), tray of tangerines (R30 / $2 )
The last stretch to Phalaborwa gradually changes to game farms and bushveld, the road down to a single lane with no shoulders.
The overnight stop in Phalaborwa was at La Lechere guest house in the suburbs – a good choice with neat, comfortable rooms and a full English breakfast to set us on our way the next morning.
We entered Kruger before 11 am and made our way slowly to Letaba camp, where we planned to lunch.
The route from Phalaborwa to Olifants camp
I tried to think what entering Kruger means to me and the only comparison I could come up with was that of entering one of the great cathedrals of Europe – the sudden calmness that spreads over you, the splendid surroundings that seem to envelope you, the happy thought that it’s been like this for a long time and is not likely to change.
We explored the side roads around Masorini on the way, stopping for a while at Sable Dam, which has a bird hide that can be booked for overnight stays.
On the way back we could not resist a “short cut” road signposted Track for high clearance vehicles only, low maintenance , which was true to its word – a unique experience, not having driven on a proper 4 x 4 track in Kruger before, except with rangers in their vehicles.
The track ran for 5 km and took us through an area dotted with exceptionally large termite mounds, some as tall as a double-storey house, with a pointy top giving them the appearance of rondawel roofs from a distance. I suspected the large size of these mounds – certainly larger than I have ever encountered – had something to do with the type of soil – white/grey in colour and very sandy.
Our route did not produce much in the way of special animal sightings, but as usual the bird life made up for it with several interesting encounters –
- African Hawk-Eagle spotted by Gerda in a far-off tree
- Yellow-fronted Canaries in a group, flitting from tree to tree
- Various Swallows in one spot – Lesser-striped, Red-breasted and White-throated Swallows
- Crested Francolin scurrying off when we stopped nearby
- Groundscraper Thrush rather unexpectedly in the middle of the bush (you get used to seeing them on lawns in Suburbia so it comes as a surprise when they choose a more barren natural habitat)
- A soaring African Fish-Eagle patrolling a dam
Elephants made an appearance as we crossed a bridge near Letaba, heading to small pools of water for a refreshing drink. They have a way of looking like they are enjoying every sip of water.
Lunch at Letaba was fish and chips (there goes our credibility) and ahead lay the last stretch before Olifants, which went quite quickly.
The state of the Letaba River was a bit of a shock as we could not recall having seen it so dry, even after the normal dry winter months – another sign of the severe drought that most of Kruger has experienced for the last few years.
By 5 pm we were settled in our pleasant rondawel – we were prepared for the lack of kitchen facilities in the rondawel, knowing there would be a communal kitchen nearby, however we had not thought of bringing a kettle, so resorted to buying a cheap stove-top model that worked well, albeit slowly, on the communal hot plate.
We enjoyed tea while taking in the incomparable view from our small stoep – I patted myself on the back for choosing a perimeter rondawel which looks over the Olifants river far below.
The rondawel is typical of the accommodation in many Kruger camps – hardly luxurious, in fact the kindest description would be basic, but I had already decided that this was part of the charm of Kruger, almost like camping but with solid walls around you, comfortable beds and a small bathroom at hand.
With no kitchen (I probably would have booked a rondawel with a kitchen if one had been available) cooking happens on the braai, washing up is done in the communal kitchen and the simple task of making tea and coffee becomes a drawn-out ritual of sorts, all at a much slower pace than home and in the pleasant surroundings of a well looked after camp.
Even the view as you lie down to sleep is quite soothing (before the lights are off of course) …
Still to come in “Kruger Unplanned” – more about the drives, the wildlife encounters, the birding highlights and just chilling