Kruger National Park: bottoms up

Text: Eddie Botha
Photographs: Eddie and Jennifer Botha

Memories: The Kruger National Park. The year, 1982. I was seven years old, and our family headed to the Skukuza camp over the December holidays.

I remember how we drove into the camp, looking for a camping spot. And there, in the most prime position, was an empty lot. Lush green grass, while the other occupied stands were barren.

We pitched camp, my dad delighted at our luck at finding this prime position. However, two nights later, we found out exactly why the stand was open. A heavy thunderstorm, and guess where all the water ended up…

Okay, so back to the present. One of the main reasons why I wanted to go back to Kruger was to show my Malaysian-born wife elephants in their natural habitat, and not in the Singapore Zoo, where she first saw one.

For the trip we took custody of the Honeydew Toyota Land Cruiser 70 SW used for the Leisure Wheels Safari tours. Our abode was to be a rather large Eezi-Awn rooftop tent.

The Cruiser is fitted with a beefed-up suspension, RV bullbar and winch, snorkel, Front Runner Windcheetah roofrack, spare-wheel carrier, big BF Goodrich off-road tyres, a dual-battery system, custom inverter system, a built-in safe, a handy drawer system for the rear load area… just about everything that can be added.

By 4.30pm on the first day of our trip – after a leisurely drive dictated by the Cruiser’s lack of speed, we clocked in at the Malelane rest camp, the most southerly camp in the Kruger.

After a traditional braai, we happily settled into the spacious tent, the bushveld’s soothing sounds lulling us to sleep.

Day two – Malelane to Pretoriuskop

We were rudely awakened, early, by the very close roar of a lion. This was it! So we packed up in double-quick time and made for the gate, where we turned left.

But alas, no lions. We found out later that had we turned right we would have found a pride of lions that had just killed an impala, only five minutes from the gate itself…

As we headed in the direction of Crocodile Bridge, we started seeing more and more impalas. Then, after another two hours of seeing nothing other than birds, and some elephant pooh, and not even impala, we came across them: 10 elephants, grazing just 5m from the road!

We spent 15 minutes there, just watching, the sighting making up for those two hours of seeing nothing.

We started to see more animals. Giraffe, rhino, kudu and buffalo. We drove along the river and saw a car parked to the right of the road. They were looking at lions, less than 10m away! A young male, and three large lionesses. They are so well camouflaged that you could easily drive right past them. If the other cars weren’t parked there… This was one of the highlights of our Kruger experience.

For lunch we stopped over at the Hippo Pool, where you can get out of your vehicle, as there’s an armed guide in attendance. A hippo, three elephants and some crocodiles kept us entertained as we ate our pre-packed lunch.

Incidentally, it’s very important to calculate your travelling times at the speed limits to avoid being fined for arriving at the camp after 6pm. The times vary according to season and travelling charts are readily available.

Arriving at the Crocodile Bridge rest camp, in the southeast of the Park, we were informed that there was not a single open camping spot in the south of the park, for at least three nights!

There was space at Pretoriuskop, however. Only one problem. It’s not exactly around the corner from Crocodile Bridge. And at 40 km/h it would take a while. So we headed out, sticking only to tar roads.

We saw quite a lot of game – reedbuck, black rhino and many interesting birds. Shortly before arriving at Pretoriuskop, an interesting turn-off caught our eyes: Shitlhave Dam. We decided to have a look.

And did we discover the mother of all sightings there! A herd of probably 80 elephants, bathing on the opposite side of the lake, and five lions lying in the open, on an embankment. What a day!

At Pretoriuskop we pitched our camp among eland, guinea fowl and monkeys keeping a weary eye on the big Toyota. This hilly area receives more rain than most other parts, and is lush and green. We enjoyed Pretoriuskop, and the abundant game in and around the camp.

Day 3 – Pretoriuskop to Skukuza
This leg was a relatively short one, so we booked two seats on a game drive that left late in the afternoon from Skukuza. But alas, what a disappointment. The guide didn’t pitch, and the driver knew nothing about the animals.

But there is some good news. We complained to the camp’s management, and they immediately undertook to refund us. A feather in their cap, then.

Overall, we did not enjoy Skukuza very much. It’s too commercial, and impersonal.

Day 4: Skukuza to Tsendze Rustic Campsite
We were up very early for the long drive to Tsendze, in the queue at 5.30am waiting for the gate to open at six.

Driving the 209km to Tsendze would take us almost 12 hours, at an average speed of 25 km/h. The sightings were getting fewer as we headed north. Even the abundant impala seemed to have disappeared. Finally, near Satara, we saw what is probably the most elusive Kruger mammal of all: a leopard. It was about 200m from the road, but we were happy to have seen it.
Setting up camp at Tsendze Rustic Campsite, we befriended a couple from Polokwane. That evening, around the campfire, we pondered the meaning of Cruiser, of our forefather’s traditions, and later the meaning of life.

It was a good night, and a great camp too.

Day 5: Tsendze Rustic Campsite to Shingwedzi Camp
There was no rush to get to Shingwedzi. We had a lovely breakfast, shared with a horde of pestering hornbills.

Tsendze camp has a natural layout and offers lots of privacy. We liked its smaller size, modern and practical communal kitchen and ablution blocks, and the fact that it’s not commercialised.

We continued the journey north, to Shingwedzi. This camp was, according to the information, only 63km from Tsendze, indicated on the chart as two-and-a-half hour drive. We took the Shongololo loop in an effort to see animals. But, as we had discovered by now, just as one gets the despondent… a herd of more than 200 buffalo, next to the river.

From there we drove to the Kanniedood river section. This road leads up past Nyawutsi, along the Mozambique border.

We reached Shingwedzi at sunset. It was stunningly beautiful. The camping area was only about half full and we chose a spot near the communal kitchen and ablution blocks with electrical supply.

We had a short and quiet evening with red wine, and a head lamp-lit dinner. We crept in early as the next morning we were to head all the way up to Pafuri, 124km away.

Day 6: Shingwedzi to Pafuri gate
We decided to make our last stretch in the park last as long as possible, so we headed out on the Mphongolo loop, which runs alongside the Mphongolo River, up to Babalala. This was a great detour and we saw a lot of animals, including lots of impala.

Back on the main road at Babalala, the scenery changed rapidly, and at times it was extremely scenic. The animals were fewer, though, but we did see three elephants and a snake, as well as several birds. This included a hamerkop, a saddle-billed stork, and to our delight, a lilac-breasted roller.

And so we arrived at the Pafuri gate, with Zimbabwe’s mountains in the distance.

It was the end of our Kruger National Park odyssey.

Kruger National Park. Memories.
Was the visit to the Kruger a worthwhile experience?

Oh yes, it certainly was. And it won’t be 27 years before I visit it again.

The park is clearly setting an example for other state institutions and parks, in the way it is run, and how its friendly staff go about their business. Sure, the little glitch with the sunset game drive happened, but it was immediately sorted out, and the latter part is what is lacking at some other institutions.

You get this everywhere in the world.

The month of August proved a great time to visit the park too. The grass is relatively short, the temperatures are bearable, and animals are concentrated at water sources. The southern half of the park provided ample game viewing, but in the northern parts was less populated. One regular Kruger visitor, whom we befriended on the infamous sunset game drive, told us that poaching in the northern parts is largely to blame for this. Apparently poachers from Zimbabwe, and to a lesser degree from Mozambique, regularly venture into the park, shooting and maiming, and eating or selling the wildlife meat.

Bookings in advance are certainly recommended. We thought the park would be deserted thanks to the financial recession, and no public holidays. Alas, the place was filled to the brim. And just keep the 2010 Soccer World Cup in mind if you plan on heading Kruger’s way. Apparently the place will be catering mainly for international tourists, and locals will have to wait out the influx of dollars, pounds, euros, and so on.

Before our Kruger experience, Jennifer couldn’t quite grasp why I wanted to come here. Surely a zoo is a more cost-effective and less time-consuming way of seeing all of nature’s animals?

For some people, sure. But after our trip, she had to admit that nothing beats the excitement and exhilaration of a sighting in the wild.

Where the animals belong.

Kruger, a proud history
In 1898, the president of the former Transvaal Republic, Paul Kruger, created the Sabie Game Reserve. This was to control the widespread hunting practices of the time, accompanied by diminishing animal numbers. James Steven Hamilton became the first warden of the reserve, in 1902.

In 1903 the Shingwedzi Reserve was also proclaimed. With conservation ethos gaining popularity, the Shingwedzi Reserve, Sabie Reserve and farms were combined to create the Kruger National Park in 1926. The new park was officially opened to the public in 1927.

In 2002 the Kruger National Park, the Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe, and the Limpopo National Park in Mozambique were incorporated into the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park. This area now covers about 35000sq km, and is the first phase of a massive transfrontier initiative that will eventually cover 100000sq km.

Malelane – Rating 5/5
Described as a satellite camp for the larger Berg-en-Dal rest camp, Malelane camp is the only one situated on the actual boundary of the Kruger Park, on the banks of the Crocodile River.

Camping: 15 tent and caravan sites, all with power points. From R130 per site, and R42 per adult (children R21), per night.

Bungalows: Five with four single beds each (one has three beds only). From R575 per bungalow, and R124 per adult (children R62), per night.

Fauna and flora to look out for: Rhino, leopard, fish eagle, wild dog, giant sycamore fig

We liked: The fact that it was small and quiet, and a bushy kind of bush experience.

We didn’t like: Not much…

Important notes: The camp is managed from the Malelane Gate, and there is no reception at the rest camp itself. Phone 013 735-6152

Pretoriuskop – 4/5
As the Kruger’s oldest camp, Pretoriuskop is set amongst spectacular granite outcrops, and named after Willem Pretorius, a member of Carl Trichardt’s 1848 expedition to Delagoa Bay. He is buried in the hills near the camp.

Camping: 45 tent and caravan sites, some with power points. From R130 per site, and R42 per adult (children R21), per night.

Huts: 76 rustic huts in various configurations, some with fridges and air conditioning. Communal ablutions. No utensils. From R195 per hut per night (sleeps two).

Bungalows: 52, with ablutions (including showers or baths), air conditioning, refrigerator and communal kitchen. From R540 per bungalow and R124 per adult (children R62), per night.

Family cottages: Five family-style cottages with fully equipped kitchens, air conditioning and living areas. From R1085 per cottage, R216 per adult (children R108), per night.

Guest houses: Two large and luxurious guesthouses, with multiple bedrooms and bathrooms, fully equipped kitchens, and televisions with limited DStv channels. From R1895 per house, and R370 per adult (children R185), per night.

Fauna and flora to look out for: Sable antelope, Lichtenstein’s hartebeest, black rhino, kudu, brown-headed parrot

We liked: The historical significance of the camp, and the abundant game. The campsite was also very good.

We didn’t like: A bit too commercial and crowded for our liking
Phone 013 735-5128/32

Skukuza – 3/5
This is the Kruger’s largest rest camp, and also the administrative headquarters. Situated on the southern banks of the Sabie River, the camp features a host of activities and facilities.

Camping: 80 tent and caravan sites, with and without power points. From R120 per site, and R42 per adult (children R21), per night.

Safari tents: 20 permanent furnished canvas tents on stilts. Communal ablutions and kitchens. From R285 per two-person tent per night.

Bungalows: 198 of various configurations, and luxury levels. From R620 per bungalow per night (sleeps two).

Guest houses: Four large and luxurious guesthouses with river views, with multiple bedrooms and bathrooms, fully equipped kitchens, and televisions with limited DStv channels. From R1075 per house per night (sleeps four).

Fauna and flora to look out for: Fruit bat, thick-tailed bush baby, warthog, spotted hyena, purple-crested loerie

We liked: The range of facilities and activities were impressive.

We didn’t like: Way too commercial for our liking.
Phone 013 735-4152.

Tsendze – 5/5
Located about 7km south of the Mopani rest camp, Tsendze is the newest accommodation in the Kruger, with the aim of providing a rustic experience within the natural environment. With abundant trees, birdlife is prolific. Another attraction is Alexander, a big tusker elephant that calls this area his home.

Camping: 30 tent and caravan sites, no power points. From R150 per site, and R42 per adult (children R21), per night.

Fauna and flora to look out for: Ground hornbill, buffalo, elephant, brown snake eagle, waterbuck

We liked: Everything. A back-to-basics kind of place. Beautiful and modern ablutions. Stunning place.

We didn’t like: The fact that we had to move on after just one day.
Phone 013 735-6535/6

Shingwedzi Rest camp – Rating 4/5
Located in the northern part of the park, Shingwedzi aims to provide a more rustic experience. The scenic drive along the Shingwedzi River towards the Kanniedood Dam is said to be one of the most rewarding in the park.

Camping: 50 tent and caravan sites, with power points. From R130 per site, and R42 per adult (children R21), per night.

Huts: 12 with communal ablution facilities, and a communal kitchen. From R270 per unit, and R84 per adult (children R48), per night.

Bungalows: 66 with ablutions facilities and air conditioning. From R505 per unit per night (sleeps two).

Cottage: One luxurious four-bed unit, with air conditioning, kitchen, and fridge/freezer. R745 per night.

Guesthouse: One large and luxurious guesthouse that sleeps eight guests, and has a river view. It has all the conveniences, including air conditioning, limited DStv stations, and fully equipped kitchen. R2020, and R370 per adult (children R185), per night.

Fauna and flora to look out for: Giant eagle owl, elephant, African rock python, spotted hyena, green pigeon

We liked: Most of it. But after Tsendze even Shingwedzi seemed a bit too crowded for us.

We didn’t like: The fact that it was our last night in the Kruger.
Phone 013 735-6806/7

General information:
* Report rule breakers and other incidents to KNP’s Emergency Call Centre on 013 735-4325
* SANParks central reservation office Tel. 012 428-9111; [email protected]