I’m not going to sugar coat it. 30 hours of travel is brutal. But in spite of a lost boarding pass in Miami, navigating the maze that is London Heathrow, and a slight “security breach” (whoops) we made it. We. are. in. South. Africa. We’re sitting in the Priority Pass lounge at Johannesburg airport, waiting for our domestic flight to Skukuza. We’re sitting on the top of the world!
They say there are five animals that should be on everyone’s bucket list when visiting Africa, commonly referred to as the “Big Five.” Cape buffalo, lion, leopard, elephant, and rhinoceros. In fact, these five animals decorate the first five denominations of the South African Rand.
We arrive in Skukuza around noon and have a couple of hours to kill before picking up our room key. We’re too tired to do much more than sit at the cafe on the river, watching a cape buffalo graze and sun bathe.
We pick up our keys and settle in before heading out on our night game drive with guide, Lloyd. This is a big open air vehicle like an Everglades swamp buggy. Two guests, one on each side, hold spotlights which I’m sure works out better on some nights than others. Tonight’s light holders: not so good. But in spite of that by the end of the night we have seen two white rhinos, a herd of elephants, a leopard, a lion, a serval (apparently extremely rare), long-eared hares, many impalas, and a spotted genet. Wow! Not even twelve hours in the Kruger and we have already spied the big five!
Exhausted, we crash at 11pm, sleeping in a real bed for the first night in the last three.
Up at 6am for a full-day game drive. We are pleasantly surprised that it is Lloyd who greets us again this morning. Today we dub “hippo day” as it seems they are at every river and water hole we cross. We also see cape buffalo, lions, elephants, a leopard, impalas, baboons, monkeys, warthogs, giraffes, many beautiful birds, leopard tortoise, kudu, water bucks, steenboks, and oh did I mention hippos? I’m sure I’ve forgotten something! Our cottage sits on a beautiful property overlooking the river. Before I even go inside I walk down to the railing. Below me bathing in the river are seven hippos.
This morning we drive from Skukuza, located towards the southern end of the Kruger north to Letaba. We know it will take at least eight hours, so fortified with multiple cups of coffee and a good map, we head out at 7am. The roads are easy to follow: mostly paved with good directional signage. You would have to work very hard to get yourself lost.
It’s not that far in terms of distance; around 100 kilometers. But the speed limit is only 40 kph and you don’t want to go any faster as you are constantly looking from side to side for animals. Plus you never know when a rhino (or two), or a giraffe, or a hyena, or an elephant momma and baby might decide to cross the road in front of you.
You never know when you might spy a herd of zebra or black-backed jackal, or two young lions lying sleepy and bloated under a tree, the carcass of freshly-killed buffalo at their feet.
We stop for lunch at Satara, which is about half-way between the two camps. It feels good to stretch our legs and relax. The camps are simple to navigate. We find the restaurant (“Mugg & Bean”) with no trouble.
Today is our best yet in terms of sightings. I’ll just run down the list, starting with the Big Five. Cape buffalo, two white rhinos, elephants — so many I lost count — two young male lions on a fresh kill, a leopard, crocodile, hippos, storks, herds of zebra, herds of giraffes, black-backed jackal, impalas, kudu, multiple monkeys, steenboks, hyena, warthogs, 4 ostriches, wildebeest, adult fish eagle, red-billed horn bill, and many other beautiful birds I do not recognize.
We arrive at Letaba shortly after 4pm. The Fish Eagle house is spectacular. There is a huge great room with kitchen and bedroom wings on either side, each with two identical bedrooms. It sits on private property adjacent to the park border, over looking the river. It will be a wonderful place to spend the next four nights.
After driving for almost nine hours Tall Guy is exhausted and skips tonight’s game drive. We have a 3:30am wake-up call for tomorrow’s sunrise drive. I join the night group solo. We see a lot of small nocturnal animals: spring hares that look like a cross between a rabbit and a kangaroo, scrub hares, hyenas, an African wild cat, and the highlight for me: a chameleon!
Meanwhile back at Fish Eagle, TG has an adventure of his own:
As we were unloading the car the deafening noise of the cicadas was impossible to ignore. But we were in such a rush we barely gave it a second thought. Besides, once inside the house the sound softened to a dull hum. Click on the YouTube link below for one of the loudest insect sounds on the planet.
We switched on the porch lights and hurried off to dinner. We agreed that TG would meet me in the reception parking lot after the night drive — around 10:00pm. He planned to take a hot shower and just relax after the long day of driving. But who knew cicadas were attracted to light? Expecting a quiet evening alone at home, TG arrived back at Fish Eagle only to find the ENTIRE HOUSE COVERED with thousands of 4-inch buzzing bugs. There was no way to turn off the lights from outside the house, so opening the front door lets several hundred inside. He spent the entire evening getting them out of the house. Totally harmless, they look like giant flies and make a high-pitched screech when captured with a broom. We continue t find them the entire week. Lesson learned: when going out after dark in cicada country, do NOT leave the lights on.
Our sunrise drive on Tuesday turns out to be just the two of us. It is fantastic! Hippos fighting at the river’s edge, a great southern hornbill, herds of impalas, an amazing sunrise, and a most unusual bird: the red-crested korhaan. It walks around making a clucking sound, then without warning flies into the air and dead-drops like a clay pigeon. Less than 15 feet from the ground it takes flight again. We are so surprised by this we do not get a photo. Eric our guide explains this is mating behavior but rarely seen close up.
Back to camp for some breakfast, a nap, and shower before heading out for our afternoon walk. John Adamson, lead ranger at Letaba, leads our group. He drives us to the river’s edge where we get out of the vehicle and are given our instructions: stay together as a group, walk quietly in a single file, and whatever you do: DON’T RUN! It is thrilling to be on the ground, walking on the same paths as the animals. We see incredible birds, crocodiles, hippos, and even three cape buffalo. John points out a porcupine burrow with needles strewn about the entrance.
Wednesday morning we are up at 3:30. John meets us at 4:30 for our full-day game drive. As a park ranger he has access to all the roads, even the “no entry” roads, and he takes full advantage of this opportunity to give us a behind the scenes tour of the Kruger few ever get to see. On top of this, his passion is birds. He knows every bird in Kruger by call, by sight, even by nest. He has worked in the park for eleven years and between his stories, bird ID’s and general info the hours pass quickly.
We see elephants taking a mud bath, a group of wildebeest at a water hole by the power lines, lions, zebras, giraffes (including one bending waaaaay down to drink).
It is almost 5:00pm and we are far from Letaba. But no worries about camp curfew when your guide is the head ranger. I say I am happy we are still out and able to take a photo of the gorgeous African sunset. Then I joke “but it would be nice if I could get a giraffe against this brilliant sky.” A few minutes later we come upon a mother giraffe and nursing baby. We stop to take photos as the sky turns a beautiful orange-red. As we continue on our way, another huge giraffe is standing by the side of the road, looking towards the west, his long graceful neck and head perfectly silhouetted against the sky. I get my shot.
We arrive back at Letaba at 7:30. We have arranged for a private guide on Thursday. In order to get an early enough start, the plan is for our guide to spend the night with us at Fish Eagle. Armand is waiting in our driveway when we finally get back from our 14-hour day with John.
Out the door at 5:30am on Thursday for another full day with Armand. He is nervous. He knows we spent Wednesday with John Adamson, one of the best guides in all of Kruger. In spite of our assurances he does not want to disappoint us in any way. As we drive he talks about the mopani trees, which the elephants love to eat, facts about the birds we were seeing, and teaches us much about the ubiquitous impalas.
Impalas are everywhere and we are so used to seeing them we barely give them a second glance. But Armand explains why they are so clean (they groom each other), that they have voice boxes which allow them to mimic lions (which we listened for and heard), and how they all give birth around the same time of year (a survival technique that floods the bush for predators). I say I would love to see a baby impala. No more than five minutes later we do.
As we continue on our drive, a car from the other direction stops us. They have spotted lions six kilometers away. We head there, looking anxiously beginning at 5km. Nothing. Nothing at 6km, or 7, or 8. Armand suggests we head back to the river we crossed around the 4km mark. We are distracted by a red-creasted korhaan for a moment and then are on our way. As we get close to the river, we see a huge herd of cape buffalo gathered in the water. A lion races across the road in the blink of an eye. We are thrilled but the lion is gone so we drive down to the middle of the river bed to watch the buffalo.
Suddenly a lion bursts from the thicket behind us and charges the buffalo, sending them off in a stampede up the side of the bank. The lion skids to a stop, water and mud flying everywhere. He turns back and trots to the other side, where he is joined by three more. The buffalo are gone but the lions stay long enough for us to take many photos. It is a National Geographic moment we can hardly believe. I say “See? Nothing to worry about with us.”
With absolutely no pressure for the rest of the day we end up seeing multiple elephants and at the end, a beautiful leopard very close to the road.
Today is TG’s and my 33rd wedding anniversary. We’re on the road by 4:30am. We are driving back south to Skukuza today to begin our long journey home and want to detour past the “Nat Geo” lion spot, which will take us a bit north. No lions this morning but we do see two playful hyena cubs, little balls of energy under the watchful eye of momma. Further along we see a group of baboons with many babies. And even further, another antelope calf standing close to its mother.
A very baby-ful morning so far. Then a fantastic spy: a pair of secretary birds! These are extremely rare, skittish birds and we are lucky to see them. I fire off a quick shot and catch one in flight.
We stop to stretch our legs at a small picnic spot overlooking a waterhole. Two cape buffalo are resting by the water’s edge. The area is fenced, and a lone guard stands watch. A reminder that a small fence is of no use to a charging elephant or lion.
We turn off the main road to take a gravel road the remainder of the way to Skukuza. A huge herd of cape buffalo are standing off to the side.
There is a car stopped ahead, looking at a small group of elephants partially hidden in the thicket. Fifty yards later we see more movement. More elephants. This appears to be a much bigger herd. TG backs up a little but suddenly they veer towards us.
They burst through the thicket and cross the road directly behind our car. A steady stream of at least fifty, including several babies so small they must be only a few weeks old. We watch, scarcely daring to breath. Mother elephants are extremely protective of their young and we do not want to do anything to agitate them. We wait until they are long passed before TG starts the car and we move on.
Further along the road is blocked by a herd of zebra. We spy a baby amongst them. While waiting for them to cross, four giraffe amble through. More roadblock.
We arrive in the general area of Skukuza too early to check in so we continue our drive. A white rhino crosses the road ahead of us. We stop for photos. A car flashes their lights so we roll down our window. The lady tells us of lions ahead. Sure enough, there is a pair of magnificent adult males, sleeping in an open field on the side of the road in clear view for all to see. We watch them for a while with no action and agree to give it another 15 minutes. At minute 13 one lifts his head and looks our way.
Total animal list for today: waterbucks, kudu, impalas with calf, hyena with cubs, klipspringer, baboons with babies, zebras with baby, elephants with babies, wildebeests, ostriches, leopard tortoise, giraffes, secretary birds, hippos, warthogs, cape buffalo, pearl spotted owl, red-crested korhaan, male lions, white rhino, and many more birds we cannot identify.
Our cottage at Skukuza overlooks the river so after we drop our bags I walk to the railing. There is a herd of elephants with babies grazing below me. The eyes and ears of a hippo are breaking the surface of the water, and a pair of impala are picking their way through the rocks. I watch until it’s too dark to see.
We do not want to waste one second of our time here in Africa. Our rental car is not due back until 11:00am so we are up at 4:00 for one last game drive. TG has a “feeling” about rhinos this morning. We follow the same route we saw the rhino and lions yesterday. No rhinos but we do see three beautiful kudu and a hyena runs alongside the car so close we cannot get any photos. We see lots of elephants again, some very close to the road.
Up ahead we spy first one and then a second rhino. It appears to be a mother and calf, grazing some distance apart. Spread among them are several impalas also grazing on this quiet morning.
Usually a sighting like this creates a traffic jam but it is still early and we are the only car on the road. We are able to maneuver for the best possible angle. Suddenly the baby flops down on the ground. Momma looks up and ambles over. As we watch, she gently nudges the young one encouraging him to stand up. Not nap-time now. They move away, disappearing into the thicket. Three big ranger-guided vehicles pull up. We tell them about the rhinos but fear they arrived too late to see anything.
This trip has exceeded all expectation. We keep pinching ourselves to make sure it has not been a dream. It is hard to get our heads around the fact that the animals we see belong here. This is their home and we must stay in the “cages” (cars).