I’ve spent the last week re-writing ‘War and Peace’. My version detailed a gripping journey through the beautiful Kruger National Park. I described every animal with an artists precision and relived my journey by describing every bump in the road. Re-reading my ‘masterpiece’, I quickly realised that I’d written a diary entry…and nobody wants to read that drivel. So here’s the best bits, the snapshots of our adventure that matter and the highlights of an amazing first day chasing the ‘Big-Five’ in Kruger National Park.
Our first animal sighting occurred not long after the sun had risen. Traveling slowly we came across a car which had paused at the side of the road. Excitedly, we pulled up behind them and lowered our windows slightly to get a better look at whatever they had spotted. Everything was quiet as we scanned the landscape around us. We were surrounded by plump green bushes sprouting from long, dry grass. An excellent hiding spot for animals. Nothing appeared and not a sound was heard. Disappointed we crawled on a little further, still clinging to a vein hope that something might appear from the grass. Then suddenly, behind us, a Hyena calmly prowled across the road. It was scruffy a looking animal with bedraggled fur, not at all handsome. It carried with it a curiously dangerous presence for such a small animal. He appeared to be hunting and quickly disappeared back in to the thick foliage, but not before we could grab this little snap.
We set a course towards Tshokwane and the Nkumbe viewpoint. As we climbed higher, away from Kruger’s sprawling Savannah, we came across a lone Kudu nestled peacefully in a patch of sparse looking trees above the road. To the untrained eye he looked, at first, like a large Impala. But his proud and assertive posture suggested otherwise. His persona was regal, and his tall spiraled horns made him look considerably dangerous. From his perch he watched us as we passed, never seeming phased, but always watching.
Further on, through sporadic gaps in the trees, we were elated to spot a group of Elephants as they trudged through the bushes. They walked in a perfectly straight line, never breaking their lazy stride. I watched in amazement as these colossal animals strolled by. The huge matriarch kept the line moving with absolute authority, like an irate mother who was late for church. She raised her ears in dismay each time the group paused. At the end of the line two smaller elephants, the infants of the group, came bounding out of the bush, lolloping their trunks in swings of youthful excitement.
Reaching Nkumbe viewpoint, we clambered out of the truck desperate to stretch our lifeless legs. But it was the view itself that nearly knocked us off our feet. We’d driven through some incredible scenery which grabbed our gaze at every angle. But now, standing above it all, we were treated to the most spectacular view. Beneath the eternal African sky an endless expanse of dry Savannah stretched off into the horizon. The sheer scale of what lay before us was a breathtaking reminder that we were in the real wilds of South Africa.
We descended from Nkumbe and headed to a watering hole in the hope it would be teaming with animal life. On arrival we discovered that where there was once luscious and fertile land, now sat a deserted, dried up basin. A spindly old tree was the centre piece of this deserted landscape. Its branches twisted and curled like ageing fingers. Alone, a tiny Impala grazed on scraps and abandoned birds nests were the only other evidence of life in this vacant habitat.
Back on the road we encountered two towering Giraffes walking through the bush. There was a grace about the way they moved. Like a princess learning to walk in heels, awkward, yet strangely elegant. They walked slowly giving me ample time to marvel at this magnificent animal. Their faces were comical and friendly in the most attractive way. A trim and neat skin encompassed their delicate frame. One Giraffe had a much darker complexion than the other. This, I learnt, was a sign of age. Cautiously they reached the road, bringing our truck to a complete stop. Suddenly the young one bolted cross the road, flailing its legs at curious angles. The older one waited until he was convinced of his safety before strolling across calmly, providing us with ample time to snap a few pictures.
With our attention completely focused on the Giraffes, we had almost neglected to see a small group of zebra standing by the roadside. Their iconic stripes were covered in dust and dirt, yet they remained almost hypnotic as the ambled through the short grass. It became immediately apparent as to why every time I’d seen a zebra on TV, it was being mauled by a lion. The zebra’s were portly to say the least, like stately ponies, short and tubby. There was no way these beautiful animals were outrunning a hunting lion.
We drove for a while with the windows down letting the warm air ruffle our hair. The sweltering afternoon heat had encouraged the animals to rest in patches of shade away from our view. We settled for the picturesque views and serene atmosphere as we trundled along a rocky road, eyes remaining fixed on our wild surroundings.
Rejoining the smooth tar-mac road back to Crocodile Bridge we were promptly halted in our tracks by a group of Elephants crossing the road. They emerged from the trees led by a small infant who bounced jovially with every step. The elder elephants labored across the road in no particular hurry, begrudgingly dragging their trunks along the ground. Despite a wrinkled complexion, their faces twinkled with a grandmother’s friendly grace. This was the closest we had come to an Elephant and their sheer size was put into perspective as they dwarfed the cars approaching from ahead.
A pack of idle Impalas were the last animals we encountered on our first day in Kruger. As we passed by, their heads shot up out of the dry grass to check us out. We weren’t a predator, but we had hoped that the early evening cool would lure out Kruger’s hunters. Today, it wasn’t to be. Kruger’s ever illusive cats had remained hidden. As we left, the Impala’s returned to their sunset feast, safe for now.
Today, Kruger had offered up some of its most beautiful residents. Tomorrow we’d be back in Kruger and on the prowl for cats. Another day chasing the Big Five.