A Day in the Kruger National Park with Viva Safaris

The sun sets over an elephant in the Kruger.

It’s not until you start driving around the Kruger National Park that you realise just how enormous it is. It covers an area of almost 20,000 square kilometres, across 2 provinces – Limpopo and Mpumalanga, and is home to hundreds of animals, including the big five. When I first visited there 12 months ago I was under the impression (like I was when I visited a game reserve), that you drive in and the animals are wheeled out to see you, with your guide announcing the arrival of each one like some kind of zoo performance. “And next up we have a lion, and here comes the extremely rare leopard.” This is definitely not the case!

You can drive around for hours and not see a single thing. 

You’d be pretty unlucky, but it can happen.

When I say not see a single thing, I’m talking about not seeing any of the big five. You’ll likely see impalas, zebra and the odd giraffe, these guys are quite common, but once you see the first one of each, your guide will probably stop pointing them out, preferring to focus on the hunt for the big five.

On our recent safari with Viva Safari’s we were lucky enough to see the big five all in one day, with our guide James really pulling out all the stops to ensure we had an excellent safari experience. Here’s a recap of our day in the Kruger.

After a very windy and somewhat chilly drive from Balule Private Game Reserve, we’d finally arrived at the gates of the Kruger National Park – Orpen gate to be specific, one of the western entry gates to the park. We stopped to hand over our paperwork, rolled up the canvas sides of the safari vehicle, covered ourselves in sunblock (just in case) and anxiously clutched our cameras. We were ready for animal spotting!

Elephant at the entrance to Kruger National Park.
Elephant at the entrance to Kruger National Park.

As soon as we rolled into the park we encountered an elephant and then another elephant and then another elephant. Turns out there are now upwards of 11,000 elephants in the Kruger and in some parts of the park they’re becoming a big pest. Why you ask? Their favourite activity is eating leaves and when they can no longer reach the leaves on trees they simply push the tree over for easier access. I’m not kidding. As destructive as they are they’re still beautiful up close.

Vulchers hanging out in a dead tree.
Vulchers hanging out in a dead tree.

After the elephant experience we stopped to check out some white-backed vultures (the most common vulture in the Kruger) who were chilling in dead tree waiting for their next meal or perhaps digesting their breakfast. The sky was an amazing purple and black pre-thunderstorm colour, which looked like a scene straight out of a nature documentary.

Further up the road we came across what we thought was a dead Black Mamba, one of Africa’s most poisonous snakes. After a couple of minutes it started moving and we determined it was actually drinking water from a puddle on the road. James confirmed it was actually a female boomslang – another venomous snake, however several passers-by weren’t so convinced, insisting it was a mamba. I’ll let you guys decide.

Snake is the Kruger. Is a Mamba or a Boomslang?

And then the rain came.

When it rains in South Africa it’s not a misty, friendly sprinkle of rain, it properly rains, like big, giant, crazy raindrop rain that hoses down on you (sometimes horizontally), turning roads into rivers and safari tourists into drowned rats. It’s great to watch from inside your bungalow or from the dry safety of a lapa with a beer in hand, it’s not so great if you’re in a canvas roofed safari vehicle when you’re scrambling to untie the sides of the vehicle and cover up your camera gear. Initially I wasn’t thrilled by the prospect of wet pants but after a couple more downpours I gave up trying to keep dry, laughed it off and chalked it up to part of the experience.

One of the other side effects of rain in the Kruger (aside from having wet pants), is that it forces the animals to take cover so spotting them becomes increasingly difficult. When someone does spot something, everyone flocks to the site, as was the case with a nearby leopard spotting. Leopards are notoriously difficult to spot on safari, usually only revealing themselves when they’re hunting so we raced over to the spot where she’d been sighted only to find at least 10 other vehicles already in position and a dead impala in a tree. She was hiding in some long grass to the left of the tree, no doubt digesting her impala breakfast. It could be hours before she decides to show herself so feeling a bit peckish ourselves, we headed over to Satara rest camp to wait out the rain and find some lunch.

Left: Leopard spotting traffic jam in the Kruger. Right: The elusive leopard.
Left: Leopard spotting traffic jam in the Kruger. Right: The elusive leopard.

With bellies full of pizza and least 1 of the big five ticked off our list we headed back to the leopard sighting spot. This time the crowds had thinned out a bit and we managed to catch a glimpse of her in the long grass. 2 down, 3 to go!

Lions were next on the list, and within half an hour James had found us not one but two lions – a lion and a lioness, who had been sighted in the same spot for the last few days after pairing up before the rains arrived. They were just that little bit too far away to get a decent shot so we employed the iPhone plus a pair of binoculars trick (which James had used to snap the leopard) to capture a reasonably good shot.

Lions chilling in the Kruger National Park.
Lions chilling in the Kruger National Park.

3 down, two more big five to go.

After two successful cat sightings James was determined to find us some more animals, so we set off along one of his favourite routes – a long road near a dried river bed. Not too far along the road we came across a group of zebra and quite near to them a smaller herd of buffalo who pushed our big five count up to four.

Zebra enroute to a watering hole in the Kruger National Park.
Zebra en route to a watering hole in the Kruger National Park.

Further down the same road we came across a lone kudu, to which Neil relished in the chance to share his “why is a kudu called a kudu” story. The answer being that when he jumps over a fence or some scrub his balls slap together making a “kudu” sound. James, being the seasoned guide that he is had already heard this story and offered up his own explanation, that being when the kudu stands atop a hill and looks across the valley at the female kudu’s he says to himself, “I kudu you, I kudu you and I kudu you.” Very funny.

Two White Rhinos in the Kruger
Two White Rhinos in the Kruger

We were all laughing so much we almost rolled right past two rhino’s chilling in the muddy leftovers of a watering hole. I couldn’t believe our luck. The previous day we’d visited the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre (more on that later) and seen four gorgeous baby rhinos who’d been abandoned and then rescued after their mothers had been poached. We’d heard from the guide at the centre about how rare these animals were in the wild so to see two of them roughly 200 metres away from our safari vehicle was amazing! I couldn’t believe we’d ticked off the big five in one day. I felt very blessed.

We carried on up the same road and spotted a group of giraffe and then right by the road a group of African Wild Dogs, one of most endangered species in Africa. You know it’s a rare sighting when the guide gets his camera out to snap them!

African Wild Dogs
African Wild Dogs

There must have been a pack of at least 10, sleeping, playing and digging in the scrub right next to road. Also called the African Painted Dog, they are intelligent cooperative pack hunters. They’ll frequently urinate on each other to disguise their smell and trick their prey into thinking they’re one animal. They then hunt in a pack, breaking off just before the kill. If whilst they’re chasing their prey and the front dogs tire, those chasing from behind will move up and take their place. According to Wikipedia nearly 80% of all wild dog hunts end in a kill; by comparison, the success rate of lions, is only 10%. After watching them playfully interact with each other, it’s hard to imagine they’re such aggressive hunters.

Thunderhead cloud forming over the Kruger National Park. It later dumped a crazy amount of rain and hail on us.
Thunderhead cloud forming over the Kruger National Park. It later dumped a crazy amount of rain and hail on us.

As the sun started to set and a huge thunderhead dominated the skyline, we made our way back towards Orpen Gate. I figured our animal viewing numbers were up but we were soon treated to a group of zebra’s crossing the road and two more herds of elephants – the first a mother with two young elephants, one very small and another a few years older and then another herd almost in exactly the same place as we’d seen them upon entering the park earlier in the day. It was a magical end to an excellent day in the Kruger.

Wanna hunt for the Big 5 in the Kruger National Park?

 

Anyone can take a vehicle into the Kruger and self-drive safari. You enter the park through one of the park gates (opening times vary depending on the time of year), register your vehicle with the park rangers, pay the conservation fee and drive around. As long as you stick to the designated roads and only exit your vehicle within the designated areas or camps you shouldn’t come unstuck.

Our day in the Kruger was included as part of our 3 night/4 day safari tour with Viva Safaris. More details about the tour options, inclusions and costs can be found on their website – linked at the top of this post. I’ll be posting more details from our safari experience over the next week or so.

DISCLAIMER: Viva Safari’s didn’t ask me to write this post, nor did I tell them I write a blog or was intending on blogging about this activity. I wanted to share our Kruger experience with you all because it was one of the most memorable things we’ve ever done whilst travelling and if you’re thinking about a safari in the Kruger you should definitely think about going with Viva.

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