June 25th 2012
We headed out from Pigg’s Peak north, to the Jeppe’s Reef border crossingto get back into South Africa. I could not have had an easier border crossing, we simply pulled up, got our books stamped and drive through, no questions asked, no search of the vehicle, just a friendly “hello”, and “safe travels” to bid us farewell. We were finally on our way to Kruger National Park, a place I has stored away in my memory as a child as a seemingly endless Eden filled with every African animal one could imagine. We were unfortunately coinciding with the winter break holiday of South African schools and everything in the park was booked solid. I knew the park was popular, but with it being the size of the country of Wales I had figured there would’ve been at least a few options in one of the many camps scattered throughout the park. Sarah came to the rescue though. Her travel coordinator for her field camp, Nicole, was South African, and her mom had just purchased a place in Marloth Park just outside of Kruger to rent out as a bush lodge. Nicole’s mom gave us a more then generous discount, which we were extremely grateful for, and allowed us to be their very first guests. We got there and lifted our jaws back up into our mouths as we parked our car under the stilts that held up the huge house. Everything was brand new and immaculate, thatched roof, hardwood floors, and beds for atleast sleeping 10 people. To cap it off it was only a short drive to the Southern gates of Kruger. The deck stood out from the house to make a little stilted hide with a bed and a hammock that overlooked the private lion sanctuary of Marloth Park. The first night of our four-night stay we spent curled up in the bed outside listening to the roar of lions out in the distance somewhere in the dark.
June 26th 2012
We both hardly slept at least I know I hardly slept, with the anticipation of our first day at Kruger. We were up early around 5:30 a.m. and made some lunch for the day and got to the gate around 6:30 a.m., a half hour after it opened. We were off to a flying start, seeing a hyena not 10 minutes into the drive, followed by a herd of buffalo, three white rhinos; a small herd of elephants, and an all but too brief glimpse of a lion almost all within the first 2-3 hours. The bird life, and small mammals seemed to fill in the gaps; Eagle owls, Lilac Breasted Rollers, Magpies, Coucals, Kingfishers, Warthogs, Impala, Steenbok, Kudu, and much, much more. The mornings are by far the best times to see things. By the mid-afternoon heat your best bet is to find a watering hole and stake out and have some lunch. We ended at a nice spot, a little crowded with people on holiday setting up their afternoon braai areas, but it was a good view of hippos in the water, and waterbucks on the shore.
After lunch we continued along and found a group of about 8-10 giraffes that we kept company with for a while. We continued on, spurred on by another hot tip from a passing motorist about possible lions further up the road. Without hesitating we ventured further on eventually finding a young male lion. He almost perfectly blended in with the scenery with the exception of an ear poking up out of the grass to give him away. He was just lounging on the ground not more then 25 feet from us taking in the setting sun. It was quite surreal and we seemed to be lost in the moment as the lion would occasionally turn his head towards us and look with disinterest.
We had failed to notice the time of day and our distance to the gate. It was 4:50 p.m. and the gate closed at 5:30 p.m. and we were much more than 40 minutes away. The gate policy is quite strict since driving in the dark is quite the hazard for people and animals alike. There is also been an increase of Rhino poaching so unauthorized activity after the gates closed probably looks suspicious. We cruised a little bit over the suggested speed limit hoping there might be a grace period or a sympathetic ranger who would let us through since it was our first day at the park. As the light faded our drive seemed to take forever and we finally made it to the gate at 5:50 p.m. to locked gates and a ranger standing there with a flashlight. I am sure we hadn’t been the first late arrival they had had in their history. The ranger opened the gate for us and gave us the phone number of the head ranger, Neels, to whom I would have to call to explain why I was late and the consequences. After a bit of talking I managed to dissuade him from applying the 1500R fine, and instead getting a very very stern warning. They took our license plate number to be sure it didn’t happen again. I will have to apologize in advance to the next person who rents the car and takes it to Kruger. I used their one freebie. We made the drive back, exhausted; we ate, and passed out so we could be fresh for tomorrow.