Back to the Kruger

There is something very special about the Kruger National Park, something that keeps pulling us back,  constantly wanting more. Whether it’s the stillness of the early morning savannah as the huge orange sun rises through the mist or the excitement of spotting a pair of cheetahs by the roadside when you are the only car in sight, there really is nothing like the Kruger.

We returned for our fourth (and joint longest) trip to the park a couple of weeks ago. Having spent all our previous trips in the south and central parts of the park, this time we decided to see what the far north was like. But knowing that the south was where the most wildlife tend to be found we knew – for the sake of the children at least – we would need to spread ourselves out. Hence our trip started right in the south in a tranquil bushcamp called Biyamiti (no restaurant or shop, only a small number of guest cottages) and ended in the far north at Punda Maria. Along the way we also stayed at Satara, Olifants and Lataba.

Arriving at the park after a long drive from Pretoria we did what all Krugerholics do the moment they are through those gates – pick up a camera, get the binoculars handy, open the windows and breathe! Even though it was getting late, we still managed a few good sightings on our drive to our first night’s accommodation – including our first ever (fleeting) honey badger.

Then as we arrived close to Biyamiti this happened. Elephant jam!

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As you can see from the photo, it was getting dark and the camp gates would be closed in ten minutes or so…..the gentle giants even looked like they were going to settle down to sleep in the middle of the road at one point. But after a bit of polite revving by the car in front they eventually moved and we were able to get to the camp in time.

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Early morning coffee in Biyamiti

Those elephants set the scene for the rest of the holiday. I am not sure if it was the time of year or whether we spent more time in the centre and north of the park than usual, but we have never seen so many elephants! This included one of my favourite ever Kruger experiences when we came across a huge herd of them playing in a dam near Satara – all the youngsters literally jumping on each other in the water, the mums with their babies keeping watch from the edge. It was a magical site – I could have sat there all day and watched as they chased off a small group of buffaloes minding their own business, helped one of the baby’s out of some mud, and generally larked about like typical teenagers the world over.

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Elephant fun!

The next day though we had what has to be one of our top three wildlife sightings since we have lived in South Africa. We rose early to give ourselves the best chance of seeing something good. We were staying in Satara which is close to the S100 – a road that many consider the best road in the park for lions. At first we had one of those mornings of nothing…nothing…nothing….why did we get up so darned early….nothing….

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Sunrise in Kruger

…and then roud a bend a few cars clustered in a stop, always a sign of something good, usually a cat…

Someone in one of the other cars pointed up an embankment into the distance. “There’s a lion coming,” they told us. It was hard to make out but yes there were two ears bobbing along behind some bushes. It wasn’t that exciting at this stage and at least one of the other cars drove off. But she (we finally worked out it was a lioness) came closer and closer and then suddenly there was another. And behind it, another. And they just kept on coming and coming and walked down the embankment literally right past our car. And in the middle of the cats was a white lion – one of the rarest sites in the park (I am assured by those that know that this is the only one that is known of in the main part of the park; there is apparently another in Greater Kruger which includes the concessions at the edge).

 

We sat as they passed one by one and then we went round the corner and watched them all settle in the shade of a couple of trees. The white one seemed to be just one of the pack which was nice to see – I am guessing he had no idea he was any different from any of his brothers!

Following that sighting we didn’t think the Kruger would have anything better to offer on this trip but we would be wrong!

The next day started out as one of those quiet but perfectly pleasant mornings when you really don’t see much to write home about but still lots for your own personal amusement – like these buffaloes using a branch to scratch an itch.

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When suddenly down a long, quiet road we spotted two cars pulled up by the road. We drove up next to them but couldn’t see anything. I shrugged at the man in one of the cars, indicating that I was confused and he pointed down right in front of where they were parked. Cheetahs!

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And there they were, two of the most beautiful animals you will see in your life, just lying ther by the roadside totally unaware that they were being watched. The other cars drew off but we sat with them for about half an hour, watching as they stood up, sniffed and quivered at some impala up the road, willing them on to start a hunt so we would get the chance to see these magnificent creatures in full flight….

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They didn’t though and in the end we left them to it – passing just two cars on our way on to the main road, but enjoying watching the faces in the cars light up when we told them what was waiting for them just up the road.

The day had a couple more treats for us – a hyena eating a leopard’s lunch by the side of a river (the leopard only just in sight but the cheeky hyena in clear view)

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But then just around the corner, something in the road – a snake! I realise for some people this isn’t what they want to see but from the safety of our car I am always happy to see one, especially when it is later confirmed to be a deadly puff adder!

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We eventually arrived at my favourite camp in the park, Olifants with its fantastic view out over the Olifants river. But it was the antics of the baboons that occupied us more than the view this time – the cheeky monkeys had already broken into our neighbour’s cottage just as we arrived and were running around with rusks and oranges in their hands. Then, the next morning two of them made a raid on our breakfast table, using my eldest daughter as a spring board in their bold attempt (failed) to steal our packet of muesli! The baboons are quite a pest as they have learned to open bins, windows, fridges, car doors…but they are very amusing to watch!

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Cheeky baboon eating someone’s leftover braai

From Olifants it was on to Lataba which is proper elephant country – there is even an elephant museum here, chronicling the lives of the “great tuskers” – a number of giant males with huge tusks who earned fame back in Ye Olden Days (they have recently agreed on some new tuskers to take over the mantle from their reverent ancestors ). Everywhere we went – elephants! Not that I minded, I love elephants!

 

After Lataba we only had one more night in the park at Punda Maria in the north. It was a long drive up there and wildlife became scarcer but there was still much to see, including some of these huge baobab trees:

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And at some point on the road we crossed the tropic of Capricorn and found ourselves officially in the tropics – it did get noticably warmer as we went further north although it still cooled down at night to a pleasant sleeping temperature.

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And although we didn’t see any more of the predators (bar a lone hyena running down a dry river bed) there were still plenty of things to keep us amused:

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And so we came to the end of our epic trip. We wanted to do the last bit of Kruger right up into the corner where the three countries (South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique) meet. But in the end we simply ran out of time, and had had enough time sitting in the car. So we didn’t quite make it – but this means one thing is for sure: there’s a very real resaon to come back. Not that I think I will need much pursuading!

Monday-Escapes-2

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Five things South Africa gets right

South Africans, for some reason, have a habit of putting their country down. Not all of them, for sure – many are fiercely proud of their nation. But before we arrived here almost everyone had a story of a South African they knew from work or through their children’s school or just some bloke down the pub who warned them about the crime or the violence or the soaring costs or…..

Of course we ignored them all and came anyway and – as regular readers of this blog well know – are very glad we did. And what we have found here is quite a mixed bag: a beautiful country with mansions and shopping malls that could come straight out of the States or Europe, surrounded by some of the worst slums you will see anywhere. Busy restaurants with patrons spilling out onto the sidewalk, but beggars at every streetlight. A nation of many races where outright racism still happens blatantly and openly but is then called out from every corner. It’s definitely a paradox – and not like anywhere I have ever lived before.

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Soweto wash day

Of course I realise South Africa has a lot of problems. A lot – massive unemployment, poverty, some of the worse rape statistics in the world, HIV, corruption…..And yet there is plenty of things that this country does right, very right. But it isn’t always easy when you are in the thick of things to take a step back and look at your country objectively. And sometimes you need the perspective of someone who has lived in many places and therefore has a few yardsticks to measure by. So, from an outsider living inside at the moment, here is my list of five things that South Africa gets right:

Wayde van Niekerk, Caster Semanya, and other Olympians

It’s not just about the medals – all you need to do is read some of the back stories to realise what an incredible achievement the SA team is. Remember, they only rejoined the Olympic movement in 1990. Two games ago (Bejing) they only got one medal. This time they got 10, including two golds, and van Niekerk’s 400m world record. Plus, you only have to look at the names of the atheletes over the years to realise how times have changed. It really is a rainbow nation team – with the medalists reflecting this perfectly.

National Parks

It’s not just what’s in the parks – wildlife, mountains, waterfalls, scenery etc – but how accessible they are, what good value they are, what fantastic accommodation at incredibly reasonable prices they have. It means that even if you are feeling a bit broke you can still afford a few days away somewhere without necessarily having to break out the tent (although that’s always an option too). The only downside for me is how many there are – we could live here for years and still not make it to more than a handful. Maybe one day, when we’ve retired, we’ll return sans kids and really “do” South Africa properly. Park by park.

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Kruger National Park at dawn

Water from the taps

I have lived in and travelled to a lot of places where you can’t just turn on the taps and drink. In Pakistan we couldn’t even use the water for washing vegetables – it all had to either come out of a bottle or be rigourously boiled first. But here in SA you can. I don’t know if this is country-wide and have no idea what it is like in the townships but certainly  the fact that clean water comes out of the taps is indicative that something is being done right.

Toilets

And in the same vein, roadside toilet stops are not the nightmare they can be in some countries. I have encountered toilets so bad, peeing in the bushes was definitely preferable. Here though they are almost always clean and usually have plenty of paper. We’re travelling to Mozambique in a couple of months – I am already nervous about what we will find there…

Radio

Okay, specifically one radio station: Five FM. Back home in the UK I have pretty well given up on radio. Sometimes I will listen to it for the news or current affairs shows but for music, there isn’t really anything that floats my boat. Either it’s trying so hard to be hip and trendy and down with the kidz that I’ve never heard of any of the songs (and the presenters jar appallingly with their attempts at cooldom) or it’s full of the sort of awful music from about 15 years ago that they think we’re interested in. And not much in between. Here, 5FM is fresh, funny, and plays fantastic music – with no ads! I don’t know how they do it but I have heard more good music on 5FM in the year since we arrived than I have in about the previous ten years in the UK. I suspect this is one I will be streaming over the internet when we leave for good.

So those are just a few things I think South Africa gets right – I can think of many, many more but now it’s over to you: please tell me in the comments section below some of the things that YOU love about this country. Or if you are not South African, do not live in South Africa or have never even visited South Africa, I would love to hear what your general impressions are of it. Good or bad…

 

 

Self-drive Kruger safari with kids: the beginners guide

I won’t pretend to be an expert on Kruger, one of the largest and best-known national parks in the world. There must be millions, if not squillions, of words already written about this amazing place – not to mention the many photographs taken and published by Kruger-lovers around the globe.

No, I certainly am no expert, after all, we have only been once and then for only six days. However, as a total beginner, there were a few things I would have found useful to know before we left – especially for those who, like us, were taking children. So, here is my guide to how to survive a Kruger self-drive holiday with kids.

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Warthoglets – December is a great time to go to Kruger to see lots of newborn animals

Plan plan plan

The first thing you need to do before booking your trip to Kruger is to plan ahead. A long way ahead. If you are self-driving and staying in SANPark (South African National Parks) restcamps (as we did), you may need to book your accommodation up to a year in advance. If you are staying in private lodges (which are a lot more luxurious but not what this particular post is about) you can probably book closer to the date of travel. But the restcamps are extremely good value for money starting as low as £20 a night – which is what makes Kruger so accessible. And so affordable.

You may be stuck with certain dates to visit the park/South Africa depending on the age of your kids. But even so it is worth looking at what different times of the year are like: the summer (the northern hemisphere’s winter) can be extremely hot in South Africa: temperatures in Kruger have been reaching up to 43 degrees celcius this week. The winter tends to be a lot chillier at night but can still have lovely sunny days. There also tends to be less vegetation, making it easier to spot wildlife. School holidays will always be the busiest time – take a note of South African school holidays.

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Where to stay?

So once you have decided when you want to visit Kruger, I suggest you start thinking about how long you want to be “on safari” for and which camps you want to visit. To help with this, have a look at the SANParks website – their Kruger section is a wealth of information, including forums where you can ask any question you like. I also used guidebooks, maps, personal recommendations, TripAdvisor…..

Even so, it can be incredibly confusing to decide where to go. For a start, think about distances. As a rule of thumb you will probably travel at about 25 mph in the park – speed limits are low on all the roads and you will have many interesting things to stop and look at along the way. Five or six hours in a car at a time is enough for most people, so you probably won’t want to travel too often between distant camps.

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Braai’ing at the Oliphants rest camp

For our first trip we decided to stay at just three camps – Lower Sabie for one night, Oliphants for two nights, Satara for two nights and then back to Lower Sabie for another night. This gave us the chance to explore the more popular southern part of the park, which is best known for having a higher number of animals. We thought with children it was better to see as much as possible – going for any length of time without sitings could get a little tedious for them.

In terms of what is on offer at the restcamps, the SANPark website has all the details. Accommodation includes very nice rondevals and bungalows (ranging from 2-bed up to larger family guesthouses), cheaper rooms without kitchens, permanent tents and campsites. We always went with the rondavels, which each had bedrooms, bathrooms, fans and aircon, kitchenettes and somewhere to sit outside with a cold beer and watch the sunset. They weren’t luxurious, but they were comfortable and clean.

Location of the rooms can also be important. In some camps, for example, you can stay right on the perimeter with fantastic views of rivers, out onto the park, or the sun setting in the evening. Take a look at the maps to see where each bungalow is placed and chose the one closest to the views. At least, that is what my recommendation would be!

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Elephants on their way to the Oliphants river, viewed from our bungalow

The bungalows all come equipped with plenty of kitchen equipment – pans, cutlery, plates, various types of glasses, Braai tongs etc. Also dish clothes, washing up liquid, all sheets and towels…..the only thing they didn’t have which we would have found very helpful was a colander for draining pasta and potatoes…

Eating?

As with all holidays, mealtimes are very important. As we were self-catering we knew we would have to bring a certain amount of food into the park with us. We also didn’t have much room in the car so we decided to divide our meals between cooking for ourselves and eating in the restaurants in the camp (all the ones we ate at were run by the local franchise Mugg and Bean, which is generally pretty good). We had a large ice box, bringing a ready cooked meal for our first night and then some frozen meat for subsequent nights. We were able to re-freeze ice packs every night as each kitchenette included a fridge freezer.

There are shops selling food in the camps but they are quite basic so don’t rely on them to stock up too much. They did have quite a lot of wine and beer choice though! We bought bread, rusks, frozen yoghurt, milk and other bits and pieces in the rest-camp shops and also restocked on the one occasion we left the park to try and get our car fixed (a long story!).

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Cheeky monkey at a picnic stop

Most days start early so we made sure we had coffee, hot chocolate, flasks, rusks etc so could stop for a coffee break after an hour or two at one of the picnic or get-out stops. Many South Africans have a full-on cooked breakfast mid-morning but as nice as it looked, it also seemed like quite a faff. Sitting with a cup of coffee or picnic lunch watching elephants washing in a river below was certainly worth doing though!

Getting around

Of course if you are doing a self-drive safari, you need something to drive around in. We drove our seven-seater car up from Pretoria as my parents were staying so we needed the space. If you are coming from overseas, you will need to hire a car. The roads in Kruger are excellent, all either tar or relatively smooth gravel (with some corrugated parts). You won’t need a four wheel drive but I would get the most comfortable car you can afford – you will be spending a lot of time in it!

Many people fly into Johannesburg and hire a car from the airport. If you do this, be aware that it is a long drive to Kruger so you might want to plan to stay a night in Joburg before you leave for the park or along the way. There are lots of places on the road to stop to eat, stock up with food and fill your car with petrol. There are also petrol stations at some of the larger rest camps.

Another choice is to fly to one of the airports near Kruger, from which you can pick up a hire car. This cuts out a lot of travelling if you are only in South Africa for a short time, but of course adds cost for the extra flight.

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You won’t need a big car to see the big animals….

We did come across one breakdown in the park, plus heard stories of a few more, so make sure you know what to do if you did get car trouble. There is a mechanic based in the park (at Lataba) who will come to you if necessary. We know this because the airconditioning in our car stopped working halfway through the holiday. We did try and get it fixed but in the end we just went with the open-window option. It probably made for a better experience as we really were up close with the sounds, sights and even smells of the bush! But make sure you have some way of communicating and keep the numbers of the camps and parks with you at all times, particularly as you get closer to dark.

Also make sure you get a good map and/or route book. We used this one that I bought in Pretoria before we left for Kruger – it details every single road in the park, with information about what you can see and a star rating to give you help in planning your route. There are smaller and cheaper versions available to buy in the park itself.

You can also book game drives and walks (although the walks are generally only for children aged over 12) from the camps at very reasonable prices. The evening and night drives in particular can be a great way to see the park after dark as the camp gates close to the public after sunset.

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The sun sets on 2015

What will you see?

This I can’t tell you because this is the beauty of the self-drive safari. You just never know what is round every corner – it could be an empty road, or it could be a road full of baboons or zebras!

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You will almost certainly see plenty of these:

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But hopefully you will also see some of these

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As well as the above, plus another two excellent leopard sightings, we also saw plenty of lions – including two who just trotted out of the bush ahead of us and disappeared up the road with us following slowly behind; two serval; lots of hyena, countless hippos, giraffes, zebras, wildebeest, buffalo, elephants, impalas, steenbok, kudu, waterbuck, crocodiles, monkeys, baboons, mongoose……it really was non-stop wildlife.

My parents, who came with us, are big bird fans and managed to clock up around 120 different types of birds during the week. Even though the rest of us aren’t so keen, there were some birds that we all agreed were interesting enough to stop for:

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Ground hornbills – sort of half turkey, half crows….with red faces….

And what about the kids?

Of course, all parents know that when they plan a holiday they have to make sure the children will be happy – or everyone will be miserable! A self-drive holiday like this can be difficult with small kids: generally you will be in the car for hours at a time; you can only get out at designated spots so no unscheduled toilet breaks; and there isn’t an awful lot to do at the camps in between drives. Here are my tips for taking kids on a self-drive safari with you:

  • Don’t take your children at all unless you know they are ready for it. I don’t want to give an age as every child is different, but I wouldn’t have taken our just-turned eight year old before this year.
  • Book camps with pools, especially in the summer. We found a dip in the pool after a game drive was a fantastic way to cool off and also for the kids to let off steam. Some of the pools were less busy, and nicer, than others – our personal favourite was the one at Oliphants as it wasn’t too crazy. Satara, on the other hand, was bursting with people. We were there at the busiest time though.
  • Have lots of pens, paper, books, tablets etc in the car to keep your children amused when pickings are sparse outside the window.
  • Don’t forget snacks, especially for the early morning drives. We found the behavour of our youngest improved dramatically once we had given her something to eat in the morning. Always keep lots of water in the car too. We took hot chocolate to make for them at the morning stops when the adults had coffee.
  • Invest in some child-friendly binoculars and possibly a camera for them before the trip. Make sure they have got the photo they need before moving on – we learned from our mistakes that to do otherwise could lead to tantrums! There are bird and animal-spotting guides for children available in the shops at the rest camps, as well as lots of books, some games etc.
  • Remember that malaria can be an issue in this part of South Africa. There are generally more mosquitos in the summer when it usually rains more (although not this year, when we are in the middle of a pretty devastating drought – which did at least keep mozzies to a minimum). Some people chose not to take any prophylactics at all and just use spray and cover up as much as possible. We decided to use the pills, but certainly speak to a health professional about it before you chose what to do.
  • Be flexible!!  I know this is such a cliche but this should be the case for every holiday with children and in particular something like this. You may want to get up at the crack of dawn every day to get the best chance to see animals; but it might not work out if your kids won’t get out of bed. You could take it in turns to stay behind with the children if there are enough of you. If the children are getting grouchy in the car, try and find a place to get out for a stop and let them move around a bit. If this doesn’t help, consider calling it a day.
  • If things do go a bit pear-shaped, remember that you are still having an experience that you will almost certainly all look back on fondly. Your kids will be gaining so much from being in a place like Kruger and observing the animals in their natural habitat that you can forgive the odd difficult moment knowing that the overall benefit to all will be immense. Kruger is a very special place and any child who gets to go there is very lucky indeed 🙂

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Enjoy the small things

Finally, I wanted to mention something that I think is so important to your overall enjoyment of a self-drive safari, which is not only to look out for the “big stuff” (the predators, the Big 5, the rhinos etc) but also to enjoy the small moments. Some of our favourite memories from our holiday included watching a newborn wildebeest calf wobble to its feet as the vultures and jackals circled, then trot off after its mother leaving disappointed scavengers in its wake; a water hole surrounded by frustrated zebra desperate for a drink but unable to get close to the water thanks to the group of hyenas who had taken up residence in the pool; and a group of monkeys including tiny babies bouncing all over Satara rest camp early one morning like a group of rowdy pre-teens, the older ones jumping up and down the trees and rough-and-tumbling with each other, the youngsters mimicking their elder siblings from a much safer height…..

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Baby monkeys learning to play

All in all, it was a magical holiday. Not only did we see a fantastic variety of wildlife as well as plenty of beautiful scenery, we also spent some really quality family time together away from all distractions like phones and computers (there is wifi and signals at the camps but I decided just to turn my phone off for the duration!). It was a real escape, a perfect opportunity to recharge our batteries and the best possible start to our first full year in South Africa.

I have already started planning our next trip there!

Have you been to Kruger, or on a self-drive safari? Do you have any tips to add? If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to ask me 🙂

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