African adventure – part 3 – Kruger National Park

Tuesday 16 April we were up early, had breakfast, did a last minute walk along the waterfront and then checked out of our hotel. At 8 am Francois picked us up to take us to Cape Town Airport for our Airlink flight to Hoedspruit. We checked in, cleared security, waited at the gate for our plane to land, were boarded quickly and suddenly we were excitedly on our way….

The flight was really comfortable however, as we were coming in to land, the plane suddenly accelerated and the landing was aborted. The Captain explained that there had been animals on the runway so they had asked the ground crew to clear them before we attempted to land again. Only in Africa LOL. Finally safely on the ground we got off the plane to a wall of heat. We walked to the arrivals area, was met by our driver who then escorted us through the chaos of the baggage collection area…. Was completely manic including some very inquisitive monkeys! Reunited with our bags we took off towards our accommodation at the Thornybush Game Lodge which lies in it’s own nature reserve within the Kruger National Park. Very quickly the tarmac disappeared and we were on dirt roads – we didn’t expect to see anything en route – but suddenly we came across some impala and then, to our complete surprise, two leopards walking along the road. Amazing!

Arriving at the lodge we were introduced to all the staff, quickly checked in and shown to our room. Well room is not really the word for our own luxurious oasis of a detached individual lodge sitting above the dried-up riverbed.

We dumped our bags, got cleaned up and headed back along the path to the main lodge to meet our ranger, Sarah (from Manchester), and our tracker Kenny. We were served a cuppa before trying out our customised open-sided vehicle and meeting our fellow travellers Gretchen & Steve and Patty & Tim (from the US). We then headed out for our first evening game drive. OMG what can I say about this – we saw two leopards (a mother and son) with a kill up in the tree to keep it safe from other predators. We also saw elephants, lots of deer, giraffe, rhinos and hippos.

After admiring the scenery and wildlife, we stopped for sundowners in the bush and had a nice cold beer watching the sun go down.

Heading back towards the lodge we were driven along the local airstrip (for lodge guests who just happen to have their own plane) as this is often where animals hang out early and late in the day. Back at base we headed to our room and were escorted by another ranger whose job was to ensure our safety before going out on overnight poacher patrol. Although our lodge was surrounded by security wire it was open to the riverbed so we could and did come across animals on the lodge paths – fine in the daylight – but you don’t want to spook them (or ourselves) in the dark! The Kruger National Park borders Mozambique to the east and Zimbabwe to the north so its borders are pretty porous. Sadly poachers remain a threat to animals and humans alike if they get in the way of their search for elephants and rhino. Quickly we got cleaned up and then returned to the main lodge where we had a fantastic braii (BBQ) dinner. Afterwards we returned to our room (escorted again) with a large glass of wine in hand (this place is an ultra all-inclusive experience) and enjoyed some time in the quiet on our balcony before turning in for the night. What a fabulous first day!

So a bit about the rangers – Sarah was extremely knowledgeable and passionate about all manner of flora, fauna, animals and bird life alongside a wealth of information about bush craft. And that’s without the normal customer services / health and safety / rifle training etc. Anybody reading this who may be interested in this type of role can find out more at Sarah was ably assisted by Kenny our tracker who would sit very exposed at the front of the vehicle checking out prints on the ground. Sarah had completed vigorous training both on and off the job including more than 100 meetings of each of the big five whilst on foot! She said that, in her opinion, the Cape Buffalo were the most dangerous animal she had encountered when walking through the bush. She multi-tasked at all times – on the radio talking to other rangers, following Kenny’s information on tracks, navigating the unmarked and unnamed roads (apart from a map in her head) and listening out for animal and bird calls. She was also fluent in Afrikaans – being married to a South African – and the way she was able to switch languages was incredibly impressive. We were very lucky to have been allocated Sarah and Kenny as they worked well together and were constantly trying to give us the best experience of our lives. Oh yes, a walking safari option was available as well as game drives but as I couldn’t run or climb a tree (a pre-requisite) we declined to take up this offer LOL. We were also very lucky with our fellow travellers – we all got on well, enjoyed a drink and a laugh, and there were no problems at all. We did offer to rotate seats but they could see I was struggling to climb in and out at the front of the vehicle so they were happy for us all to remain in the same seats throughout our safaris – great gang! Hope to see them again another day on our travels. As an aside, some of the other vehicles were not so lucky with a few personality clashes, and some guest behaviour stories were hysterical…..

Wednesday morning awoken by our daily 5.30 am call we headed to the lodge for a cup of tea (and cake if you wanted it) before heading out on safari. We saw lots of lions and cape buffalo this time – OMG so very exciting to see the animals up close and personal. The lodge has a great system in that the rangers are constantly on the radio to each other and, if there is a significant sighting, they tell each other and we would drive towards that area. However they ensured that no more than two vehicles were there at any one time to ensure that the animals were not crowded out. Fantastic! We also stopped in the bush to watch the sun come up along with a coffee laced with Karula. How decadent?!? Oh yes and Richard of course had to try out the tracker seat!

On the way back to the lodge we were looking forward to breakfast but ended up driving along the river bed to find that they had set up a bush breakfast for us! Absolutely fabulous food and service. OMG thank you guys – we understand that not everyone gets this opportunity but as all six of us in the vehicle were staying for four days they had set this up as a surprise. And what a treat it was!

Back at the lodge we went back to our room to get cleaned up and catch up on our sleep. At 1pm we were called for lunch so wandered back via some of the public areas and came across a few critters enjoying the lodge.

Lunch was great and we enjoyed that whilst watching the naughty monkeys in the trees around us and enjoyed the sight of an elephant walking the river bed beneath us.

After lunch we hung around in the main lodge enjoying a few drinks before the 3pm meet (and afternoon tea) in preparation for our next safari. We saw lots of elephants – including a very close encounter with a young male who decided we looked interesting and had to be scared away by Sarah. He was so close that the guy in the back of the vehicle was able to get a selfie on his phone with an elephant. Not an every day occurrence to be sure! We also saw more hippos who are pretty funny when interacting with each other in the water. Did you know that they don’t actually swim but run very fast underwater? Another interesting fact is that they spray poop in each others faces to assert their dominance and territory. Yuck!

We met some more rhino – many of whom had been dehorned. Sadly this reflects the fact that poachers remain active in this area – and the lodge try hard to ensure their safety. The rangers don’t like dehorning the animals but it is a necessity. In terms of other ranger interactions with the animals there is no veterinary service, this is a wild environment, and the animals are left to their own devices where the strongest survive and the weakest succumb or get eaten by predators!

Again we stopped for sundowners as the sun went down over the bush and saw our first zebra in the dark but we weren’t able to get photos at this stage. We returned to the lodge and had dinner before then having a few beers and early to bed having been escorted back to our room. Had been a long tiring day. Oh yes you will have noticed that we were wearing fleeces or jackets on our game drive photos and that was needed before the sun came up or the sun went down as it was quite chilly whilst the days were blistering.

Thursday again followed the same routine with an early game drive where we were delighted that the moon was still up – this was a pretty exciting morning drive. We saw lots of giraffes, wild dogs (which are quite rare to see), hyenas, wildebeest, zebra and three lions stalking a huge herd of buffalo. Adult cape buffalo are dangerous and difficult for lions to kill but they seem to have perfected the technique here in the Kruger. This was followed by lunch, a relax on our balcony and then the afternoon safari.

During this game drive we were tracking the lions we had seen earlier and the whole gang decided to forego sundowners as there were sounds that indicated that the lions might have made a kill. So we followed the noises and suddenly we were amongst the buffalo with a large pride of lions stalking around. The buffalo were clearly scared and unsettled by the presence of the lions and there was a young one who had been injured – so might explain the screaming noises heard earlier. We stayed out as long as we could but, sadly, the night was drawing in and it was too dangerous to stay out in the bush as this is when the armed poachers move into the area.

We drove off to be met by the fantastic sight of the whole of the lodge staff who had set up this magical evening for a bush dinner. OMG fantastic food, endless supply of drinks, and great company. What a fantastic night in the bush. The whole experience had been beyond our expectation and we weren’t finished yet! This place, the staff and this lodge in particular, was just absolutely fabulous.

Friday morning we headed off to see if we could track the lions again – we found them sitting very near to the buffalo herd who were clearly exhausted having being tracked for 40kms overnight by the increasingly aggressive lions. We sat and watched for a while before heading off to see what else we could see when the news came in that the lions had made the kill. So we quickly returned to find the lions feasting on a full-sized buffalo. We were so close to them as they tore into the carcass – not for the faint hearted – but we were glad not to have witnessed the actual kill.

We left this pride of lions to their bush breakfast and continued driving around before returning for breakfast, lunch and then the evening game drive. By this time we were pretty blaze about seeing more leopards, rhinos, hippos, crocodiles and lots of beautifully-coloured birds along with some not so pretty ones LOL.

Saturday morning was, sadly, our last morning in the Kruger. We headed out for our early morning drive and finally came across lots of deer, wildebeest, zebras, warthogs and mongoose. That completed our safari and certainly we felt that we had been lucky enough to have seen everything that we could have possibly have hoped for.

Sadly the final safari was over way too soon, we returned for breakfast at the lodge, finished packing ready to be picked up at 11.45 am for our flight. We said our sad farewells – had been the most fabulous experience – and took off for the airport. It was a long and hot wait after checking in – where the woman manning the counter decided not to return our passports which we only realised when we went to go through security. Returned very quickly to the desk to find that they had been secreted away…..hmmmm…. guess that was a deliberate attempt to keep them then. Not great! Eventually it was our turn to board our flight back to Cape Town and this brings part 3 of our African adventure to a close. Please return soon for another chapter.

Bye for now Jan

PS – thank you to everybody for your kind wishes regarding my recent hip surgery – this went off well (although had a blip in recovery requiring a blood transfusion) but delighted to report that mobility is ahead of schedule and I’m feeling pretty good now. So onwards and upwards!