Travel

A ride through South Africa’s Kruger National Park

You’ve never been on a real wildlife safari unless you’ve been to one in Africa. Here, you can spot a lion a few metres in front of your vehicle, and a wild hyena at the back. It’s the place where all those visuals you see in National Geographic or Nat Geo Wild come alive, in front of you. Here’s an account:

10 pm

An orchestra is playing outside my room. A tiny toad with its croak is competing for glory with the grunt of a big rhino. You can’t see them — it’s pitch dark outside my luxurious room at Sabi Sabi, a private game reserve near Kruger National Park — but you can hear them. In South Africa, these sounds are like a lullaby.

5 am

Breakfast is a quick affair, for everyone’s up and ready for a ‘game drive’. When I grab a quick cup of coffee, someone tells me, “You’re going to be lucky today. You will spot something.” When we head out, in an open jeep with a guard who wields a gun and a snazzy-looking hat, we certainly hope so.

A ride through South Africa’s Kruger National Park

As we trudge into the dusty forest, we’re greeted by more animals. A few impalas. A couple of rare birds. We’ve seen this all on television, we think, when the guard suddenly stops the jeep and signals us to look to our right. Out there, in the bushes, is a leopard eyeing us suspiciously. It then slinks into the wilderness. It was just a quick glance, but our day had already been made.

4 pm

As we sip tea after a tiring day of game drives, which included spotting rhinos and zebras, Stefan Schoeman, general manager, Lodges, at Sabi Sabi takes us through some interesting history of private reserves. “In the 1900s, this was all farmland,” he tells me, pointing to the greenery behind us, “But there were issues — wildlife got through the fences from Kruger. During the 1940s, this officially became a private game reserve, with the land being given off as payment for South African soldiers who fought in the Second World War, after which it was passed down generations.”

KRUGER FACTS
  • Nearly two million hectares in size, and among Africa’s largest game reserves.
  • Home to an impressive number of species, including the famous Big Five.
  • One of the nearest airports is at Nelspruit, which is about 400 kilometres from Johannesburg
  • The currency is the South African Rand; one Rand roughly equals ₹5

Since the fences have dropped now, the entire two million hectares of Kruger is home to the animals, and that includes the private game reserves. This means that an animal from Kruger could walk right into your lodge. Which is why you have to be accompanied by a guard at all times. “Animals have right of passage here in South Africa,” he adds. They certainly do, as I discovered later in the night, when a giant rhino grunted his way just behind my room’s back door. South Africa gives the phrase ‘being one with Nature’ an all-new meaning.

6 am

We bid goodbye to Sabi Sabi, which has seen several celebrity visits (I am told that Virat Kohli and Anushka Sharma stayed here recently), and head to Lion Sands, another big-ticket private game reserve. Another early morning, another hope of some sighting. Ben Ubisi is our guide for the day, and he’s as excited as us. “Heard of the big five? We’ll see them now,” he says cheerfully, as we make our way into the deep forest, anxiously mulling over what awaits us.

We find out within 10 minutes. “Shhh... keep quiet,” Ubisi tells us, as he signals to a tree. We look up, only to see several vultures circling around. Collence Khosa, Ubisi’s colleague and the man with the gun, perks up. “This means something,” he says, as he takes the jeep off-road into a clearing where we see two lions feasting on a giraffe.

A ride through South Africa’s Kruger National Park

“It’s the most magnificent thing you’ll ever see,” Khosa says, as he stops the jeep barely a few feet away from the feasting lions. We go silent for the next few minutes, and all we can hear is the sound of cameras clicking and the lions growling over their prey.

4 pm

Catching the lions might have been the most satisfying experience, but the evening holds a few more surprises. We catch a group of African elephants and rhinos taking an evening walk back home, and decide to follow them. “It doesn’t work this way back in India, right?” grins Khosa, as I warily ask him about the dangers of off-roading, “Since these are private reserves, we can go off the scheduled path and follow the animals. Of course, we take care not to disturb them.”

Apart from being a wildlife experience that ranks among the best in Africa, Kruger is also home to many historical and archaeological sites as well

Apart from being a wildlife experience that ranks among the best in Africa, Kruger is also home to many historical and archaeological sites as well  

I’m not complaining, as I feel like a scene from National Geographic Channel is playing live in front of me. After the African elephants, we catch a glimpse of the Cape Buffalo. Within two days, we have managed to spot the prestigious ‘Big Five’ — lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant and buffalo. It’s an ‘achievement’ that not many wildlife seekers get to boast of. It’s a feat that makes Kruger an unforgettable experience.

As my guide inside the forest says: “When you go away from Africa, you take a bit of it for eternity.”

The writer was in South Africa at the invitation of South African Tourism

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Printable version | May 6, 2021 11:30:23 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/travel/a-ride-through-south-africas-kruger-national-park/article26445934.ece

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