A trip to the Kruger National Park feels like an evolution of life itself. One never knows what to expect. On a great day, one can spot the Big Five – lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and Cape buffalo – in less than 30 minutes. On the flip side, nature can let you toil for days on end with no sighting of even the Little Five – elephant shrew, ant lion, rhinoceros beetle, buffalo weaver and the leopard tortoise. My mind switches between these realities as the diesel engines rumbles towards Nelspruit.
What is the alluring secret of the Kruger that keeps attracting adventure seekers since the first tourist cars drove in this park in 1927? I asked myself as the lowveld sun lifts up; rising up through a cleft of two silhouetted mountains, the result resembles a giant arty chandelier. I fumbled for my phone for a shot. It’s not the best of photos as my attention was more on the wheel.
We sweep through the hilly Hazyview; past pine tree plantations, past banana tree farms and the sequenced green macadamia nuts shrubs. We leave Hazyview town just before the morning rush, heading to the east. The sunrise reminds me why this province is aptly named Mpumalanga – place of the rising sun. We slowed down in a characterless village, only memorable with standout names. At a road intersection one signage read ‘Stress-free Lodge.’ Another pointed to the left, ‘My Sister’s Tow Company.’
Arriving at the Kruger Gate just after 7am, it was already scorching. I complain to the gate security officer as if it was his fault. The heat in the Kruger is always a great conversation starter. “We are used to it my brother,” he said.
“Where are you off to?” he asked.
“Skukuza Camp will be our home for the weekend,” I answered.
He inspected the trailer in no hurry. He realised the anxiety on my face. As if spurred by it, he slows, walking with the gait of authority.
“What are you carrying in this trailer?” he asked.
“Are you moving a city?” he interjected my answer.
I chucked aimlessly.
“You are telling the truth, we have tents, beds, fridges, food for 60 people for the whole weekend,” I answered in detail, hoping to conclude the conversation.
“Don’t you have firearms in this trailer?” he pursued.
“No Sir, we don’t.”
He let us go after this mini cross-examination.
My mind was on setting up camp before the arrival of a glamping group organised by Glamping Adventures. It’s a Herculean task that takes up hours of back breaking labour. My mind was also on the programme of the weekend and a little bit of supplication to the gods of Kruger to be generous with us. It’s a long trip to the Kruger and travelling to only see the verdant green would not be enough for the expectant travellers. Recent heavy rains have transformed Kruger from the usual grey, almost bare bushveld into a lush habitat.
We set camp under the relentless sun. Under these extreme conditions, my body retreated into an adaptive mode. It would carry the effects of the Kruger heat a week after – a perpetual feeling of dehydration. Such is the Kruger sun.
At night, Kruger personifies a different character, one that commands silence even from the vociferous of campers. Campfire stories took us to until 10pm and one by one; some in pairs retreated to their tents. In this silence, occasionally broken by barking wild dogs, yodelling birds and very distant nocturnal sounds, I finally take it all in. The flickering lights in the camp are too isolated to pollute the pitch-dark night. The sky is emblazoned with stars; itself looking like one huge, black fabric swathed with countless shades of black. I appreciate each episode of breeze wave here.
I reflected on my eternal fear and love for predators. I drifted into sleep trying to piece together how the Tsonga people had an unrestricted co-habitation with the wild here before 1926. This is the proclamation year of the Kruger National Park. There should be alchemy between humans and wild animal, I concluded.
The following day was the day I met Chester. Burly, and of a dark hue and humour, he would be one of the two drivers to guide us into the park. “This park is over two million hectares, so chances are that we might not see anything,” he said with a slight cheeky smile, lowering our expectations. His caution is met with hushed grunts. Driving in a 23-seater safari vehicle, I chose to sit just behind Chester. I aim to hear everything he will say.
Before long, we spot two giraffes, one dark, and the other lighter. “How do you distinguish a male from a female giraffe?” Chester asked. A response came from someone sitting just behind me: “It is the colour, if its dark, it’s male.” Laughter spreads across the vehicle. For giraffes, it’s more about the rounded forehead and the horns that distinguish the sex. A male horn has bald horns at the end.
Another giraffe sighting would draw a comical scene. One giraffe gave us an equivalent of pageant show. She moved to the left, turned back to the right, stopping at the middle of the road and turning her head towards us and proceeding with the gangling walk. “Zozi, Zozi, Zozi, Miss Universe,” went the chant. I laughed quietly, thinking if Zozibini Tunzi, the reigning Miss Universe knew that at this moment, her name was the centre of revelry, inspired by a giraffe in the Kruger.
At each turn, we would see elephants in their majestic monstrosity. “We have more than 20 thousand elephants in the Kruger,” said Chester. “This is more than the park can handle.”
“How do they count these elephants in a park as big as this?” asked Karabo Sephoti.
“They use a block system,” answered Chester.
It was these nuggets of wisdom and shots of humour that kept me intrigued. At one time, Chester referred to a grazing kudu as “moving biltong” and zebras as “donkeys in pyjamas.”
A clan of spotted hyenas rested by the roadside. Chester said hyenas eat almost anything. They are efficient scavengers of predator kills. “They laugh their way to grabbing a kill from predators,” he said. “Most importantly they help in mitigating disease in the park as they eat any dead animal.” We proceeded leaving this group; one mother hyena looking unbothered, feeding its unbothered cubs.
After spotting countless impalas and zebra, were now heading for camp. It was surely certain that the cats were elusive again. Dusk moves in fast, twilight dissolving by each minute and Jupiter illuminated more by each shade of darkness. Chester looks set to go. With impressive side spotlights, he said these would help with night sightings. Everyone sat back, chatting about the day and the drive and looking forward to dinner.
“Lion, lions, lions!” exclaimed Chester. This demanded attention. We looked, left, right, and front, back in anticipation and fear. Right in front of was a pair, a couple. “They are on honeymoon,” said Chester. “They are on a mating season. If we are lucky, they might do the act in our presence, let’s be patient.”
Camera shutters clicked endlessly. Whispers filled the vehicle. “Lions can mate up to 35 times a day,” said Chester. This drew a huge gasp. Some praised the strength of lions. Others challenged the men in the vehicle to have similar stamina. “It’s only baboons, porcupines, dolphins and humans that have sex for pleasure; the rest, it is a seasonal activity for procreation,” concluded Chester.
It was hilarity as we left the lions be, heading to the camp. The strange facts of the lions mating season dominated campfire stories that night. I had my own answers why the Kruger keeps attracting almost a million visitors each year. It is its mystery of the unexpected. I thought of the suckling hyena cubs and the darting zebra foals. This all resembled the regenerative power of the Kruger. It keeps giving, and its allure gets stronger.