It’s 05:30 a.m. in the heart of Kruger National Park; darkness and the cold morning air are awaiting me, but the anticipation of what is to come is too thrilling to click snooze on my alarm. And trust me, I am not a morning person. I have been lucky enough to have the chance to spend eight days travelling in and around Kruger National Park. I was unaware of the amazing wildlife sightings I would witness and how much the country would touch my soul.
I have travelled to South Africa before. I did the more typical first-timer trip starting in Cape Town and travelled along the Garden Route up to Port Elizabeth for my first safari experience. Prior to my first visit, I wasn’t sure what I would think. At 21 years old, I was used to lazing on a beach with my friends. But it was probably the best holiday I’ve been on and still my favourite destination I have visited. So naturally, when an eight-day Kruger work trip came up with Natasha from our Frimley branch, I was eager to go.
Kruger National Park and the surrounding areas are huge. Covering more than two million hectares, that is approximately the size of Wales. It is South Africa’s largest park and is home to all the Big Five and much more. In case you didn’t know, the Big Five are the most dangerous animals to hunt – not the biggest as you might initially think – leopard, lion, elephant, buffalo and rhino. Game viewing is excellent in the area, and each drive offers something totally unique. These animals are, of course, in the wild, so nothing is ever guaranteed.
The park itself is lined by the Drakensberg Mountains. Making a beautiful backdrop to an early morning coffee stop or a sun-downer drink. It soon became a morning routine to enjoy a “ranger’s coffee” – a mix of coffee and Amarulla (essentially a South African version of Baileys) pre-8 a.m. in beautiful parts of the bush!
You can only have these stops in private concessions or reserves, which is worth bearing in mind when booking your South African safari. Kruger and the surrounds all offer the Big Five. During our eight days there, we ticked them all off, and our requests became more demanding to our guides – ‘a leopard in a tree’ ‘a honey badger’. Amused as they were by our strange requests, they still took them seriously, and we did manage to spot a Honey Badger racing across the road!
If seeing certain animals is a priority on your safari experience, you should consider where you pick your lodge.
At Singita Lebombo, on the far east side of the Park, you can see as many as 20 lions in one pride. A truly magical sight. We were lucky enough to see the pride stalking down the road at night, clearly hungry. A zebra approached accidentally into the long grasses lining the roads, and the lions were off on the hunt, desperate for the meal.
The sound of the Zebra’s thundering hooves and lions chasing whilst sat in pitch black in the vehicle was actually breathtaking. We daren’t make a move or even whisper. The Zebra escaped. Lucky… this time.
Thornybush is a private concession to the west of Kruger National Park, famous for its large herds of elephants. Having just taken down their fences to Kruger National Park, the movement of animals between areas was already in full flow. The elephants had already been in for several messy meals – ripping up trees and destroying bushes in various parts of Kruger and then returning.
Sabi Sands is the place to go if you want to see leopards. Beautiful animals. At Lion Sands, we were lucky enough to see one in a tree tucking into its dinner of an impala, with a hyena waiting beneath for any scraps. The smell and the sound of the crunching bones are not something I will forget in a hurry. Or, in Mala Mala, the smell of two male lions eating a buffalo they had killed earlier that day. It was gory, but that is nature. And something you do feel privileged to have a window, however brief, into how the animal kingdom works.
Our accommodation throughout was luxurious, staying at some of the most renowned lodges. Private reserves and concessions really are the way to go. These lodges employ the best guides – being able to spot a chameleon from 100 metres away in a moving vehicle was, to say the least, impressive.
The added benefit of being able to off-road for the Big Five and stop for a drink in the bush is also welcome.
Singita Lebombo first opened in 2003 and turned the safari experience as you know it on its head. Tents were replaced with eco-friendly glass and steel suites positioned above the N’Wanetsi River and overlooking the Lebombo Mountain Range. One suite also has a bed on the balcony so you can experience ‘sleeping under the stars’, a truly magical experience.
The continuing appeal of this property is its 13,000-hectare game-rich concession in a remote wilderness area. Truly a one-of-a-kind experience in Kruger National Park.
South Africa is a holiday for all the family. And these are rare to come across. Families would be better suited to Jock Safari Lodge, where we stayed for a night on our trip. The lodge combines the elegance of the colonial past with Zulu and Shangaan cultures. This place is also unique as you can explore the public Kruger National Park before it is open, but also have the privacy of the Lodge’s own concession, allowing you to off-road for the Big 5. The lodge is very sociable, sharing stories in the tree-house-style bar before dinner.
Another option in the Sabi Sands is Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge. This Lodge’s offering for families is second to none, with kids clubs open till 10 p.m. and a huge range of on-site activities that, if you are taking little ones, would be a great choice. You can also explore the bush on foot with the included bush walks for many ages. Or even from the swimming pool, which overlooks a watering hole where elephants come and gather.
I can still feel the cold air, hear the sound of the birds waking up in the morning and picture the African sun rising over the plains. I would go back in a heartbeat if I could. I must admit I put off writing this article for a while. It was possibly the best trip I’ve been on. The wildlife was outstanding, the people welcoming, and I didn’t think I could do the experience justice. And unfortunately, I can’t!
You must go for yourself to understand how South Africa touches the soul. Natasha and I, and our other Africa experts, will be happy to share our insights and knowledge with you to help you choose the best itinerary and safari lodge.
Contact us today.