Kruger National Park

This is it. Today is the day I’ve been the most excited for all week. Today, we visit Kruger National Park.

 

In case you’re not super well-versed in African national parks (no worries, most aren’t), Kruger is one of the world’s most renowned wildlife reserves. It has everything you could ask for in a wildlife park: lions, leopards, giraffe, elephants everywhere (they’re overpopulating the park and it’s actually a huge problem for the park managers, but I digress).

 

There’s a whole park of incredible animals out there, and today we get to see them all.

 

We’re all so excited for our morning game drive, the 5am wakeup call is almost more a blessing than a curse…almost. We all get ready in a hurry, hoping to be the first to get to the parking lot to load up so we can take first pick of the jeeps. Nearly all of Masebe squeezes into one bakkie, choosing the one located at the end of the line of safari trucks. We’re hoping that by being in the truck on the end, we’ll be the ones to lead the way into the park. After two weeks in Masebe, we’re pros at this. We know how game drives work: first one gets the best (and sometimes only) view of wildlife.

 

Turns out, though, we’re really just pros at Masebe game drives, because we actually wind up being the second-to-last to leave (oops).

 

We’re a little (over-)anxious about not being in the front, but all doubts disappear when our driver suddenly slams on the breaks and points left.

 

Mind you, we aren’t even in the park yet–we’re just driving alongside it. We really aren’t expecting to catch sight of anything until we get into the park, but there, right next to the fence, is a gorgeous male cheetah, trotting along enjoying the cool morning air.

 

We’re all in absolute awe. Here we are, not even in the park yet, and we see the second-rarest animal in Kruger. Cheetahs are one of my all-time favorite animals (just ask my friend Sarah, who I’ve been best buds with since Kindergarten: it’s all we ever talked about, played let’s-pretend about, or thought about for all of elementary school). All I can do is watch, enraptured, as the cheetah breaths in the soft dawn—mouth parted like a smile. All those perfect little black spots slide over his taught, wiry muscles as he walks briskly along the fence, taking in the sun-streaked horizon with bright yellow eyes. I don’t even take a picture—I can’t bear the thought of squandering even a second this brief sighting by trying to get my camera out of my bag.

 

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Luckily, Daniel gets a picture of him. PC: Daniel Dodero

 

After a few minutes, we sadly must move on so that groups behind us can see the cheetah, too. After getting to see the cheetah at all, though, we can’t really complain. Besides, with a start like this, today is bound to be a phenomenal day.

 

And indeed it is. We see so much on the drive, and it so completely blows all of our Masebe-trained minds that I’m not sure words will do it justice. So I’ll just have to use pictures…

 

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Zebra

 

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Guinea Fowl

 

We can’t have been in the park much longer than 30 minutes when we come face-to-face with this incredible lioness, trotting down the asphalt with a look surprisingly reminiscent of self-consciousness. A truck drives parallel to her (in reverse), taking pictures right next to her. We follow suit (though facing forward, thank you), following her as she continues down the road. Eventually, having all of us gawking at her in awe becomes too  much for her to handle and she turns, staring at the growing line of cars in surprise before walking into the bush.

 

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Wildebeest, or Gnu

 

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A Warthog. (It should be noted that every time we see a warthog, Nick yells, “PIGGIES!” which is why he’s tagged in every single warthog photo we have on Facebook.)

 

Not so skittish here…

The impala aren’t so skittish here…we can get within feet of them in the truck without them so much as glancing up.

 

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A young baboon feeling left out.

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A baby baboon honing its climbing skills…

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…or trying to, anyways.

Like Mama, like baby

Like Mama, like baby

 

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Vervet Monkey

 

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Young male kudu

 

After about an hour of incredible game drive sights, we make a quick stop at an outcropping that overlooks a dry riverbed. Here, orange-billed hornbills hop around near the benches and fences scattered at the edge of the site.

 

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Though people are—under no circumstances—permitted to feed any of the animals at Kruger, these little guys have obviously been fed by people in one way or another, so they hop fearlessly within inches of all of us, eying our hands for potential snacks.

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They seem most displeased that we have none…

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They get so close to us that I can barely focus on them with my camera’s big telephoto lens.

 

After our quick break and leg-stretch with the orange-billed hornbills, we hop back in the truck and soon come across two huge bull elephants. These boys make our elephant-encounter elephants look like miniatures, and they seem to know it too.

 

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This younger male comes towards us immediately, ears flapping confidently.

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Both bulls wind up munching next to us peacefully for a while—again, so close I soon lose the ability to focus with my lens.

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One of the bulls is missing a tusk, most likely from decades of fighting with other males.

 

No matter which park you go to in Africa, it’s incredibly rare to come across a rhino, thanks to their dwindling numbers. We, however, get lucky, and do in fact get to see one…it just isn’t alive.

 

The story of what happened to this rhino is unclear, but of the two stories we hear, both agree on one thing: the ultimate cause of death was lions. How the enormous male white rhino came to be weak enough to be taken down by lions is up for debate. One account says it broke its leg in a fight with another rhino, the other says it was shot and wounded by poachers, who failed to get either the rhino or its horns. No matter which version is the right one, no poachers gained any horns (hooray), but a rhino still died (nooo!).

 

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You can see the rhino’s ribs poking up out of the sea of vultures. Vultures that—say what you will—are an invaluable part of almost every terrestrial ecosystem.

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Almost as shocking as seeing a rhino carcass? Seeing the wingspan of these vultures (about 9 feet).

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Nature’s sentinels (slash garbage men…)

 

A little while later, we arrive beside a humungous water hole, and it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Animals from all over the park walk here for a sip of water and a look around.

 

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Impala—not as brave with the water as they are with our jeeps—tear around the watering hole every few seconds, spooking at nothing.

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Still, they are a lot easier to get a picture of than Masebe’s impala…

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A male impala with buffalo weavers on his back. These little birds pick the bugs off of most prey animals as part of a mutualistic relationship that helps both animals live longer/more comfortably. A bit about impala: male impala live with the herd of impala they’re born into until they reach maturity. Then they are chased off by the male leader of their herd and have to go find a new herd of their own. Male impala will lead a herd during mating season and mate with every single female. If another male wants his herd, the two males will fight, and the loser must go back to where he came from (usually a bachelor herd).

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A herd of zebra stampede down to the water, followed by a herd of wildebeest.

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Both herds kick up dust and play amongst themselves before settling at the bank to drink.

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A wildebeest eyes a monitor lizard curiously.

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A female waterbuck

 

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A pepper roller. Pepper rollers are close relatives of the lilac-breasted roller, which is arguably the most beautiful bird in existence.

 

“Drought—exacerbated by the irrigation of farmland (now __% of Africa)—can be catastrophic for animals that, once free to roam and migrate, are now stuck within the confines of increasingly small preserves”; “An elephent drinks water from a hole it dug in the ground. Though still adequate, water levels are much lower than average for the dry-season in South Africa’s Krugar National Park”

An elephant drinks water from a hole it dug in the ground. Though still adequate, water levels are much lower than average for the dry-season in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, mostly due to climate change and increased water usage by farmers .

 

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A male buffalo peeks out from behind some bushes.

 

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A Southern Ground Hornbill—one of the most endangered animals in Africa. These birds mate for life, but given their complicated imprinting and mating rituals, they are difficult to breed in captivity. When a male Southern Ground Hornbill meets the love of his life, he’ll pick up a stone—only the best will do—and follow around his potential mate with the rock in his beak. If she accepts, she’ll take the rock from him and they’ll start building a nest. If she declines, she’ll simply ignore him, and he’ll have to find either a better rock (sound a bit like our courtship rituals…?) or a more willing female.

 

Before we start heading back towards the exit of the park, we hit the jackpot: we see rhinos, and live ones this time. There are five of them (five!!), and though they’re far away, we can clearly make out these two—a couple of lazy lumps snoozing in the sun.

 

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A mama and baby giraffe

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A leopard tortoise crossing the road right next to us. (“We brake for tortoises!”)

 

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A grey duiker bolts across the road in front of us.

 

On our way back out of the park, we pass the watering hole again. Ronnie, our guide, says there must be a predator nearby because the only animals at the watering hole are some sleepy hippos, the usual log-like crocs, and a few brave antelope.

 

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Soon though, these animals are joined by a small family of elephants (a mother and her three daughters) who confirm our suspicions about a predator being nearby when they raise their trunks, sniffing suspiciously. Even the youngest baby imitates her mother diligently, learning the skills that may one day save her life (and perhaps her calves lives, too).

 

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After walking around nervously with their trunks raised, the elephants decide it’s too dangerous, and head back in the direction they came.

 

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We leave Kruger after just a few short hours of safari-ing to get lunch back at our lodgment. We’re not too upset to go, though. We’re all getting pretty hungry and besides, we’ll be back again in just a few short hours for our afternoon/evening drive.

Lunch is delicious but we’re all anxious to get back out there to see more animals, so when it’s finally time to load back up in the jeeps, we couldn’t be happier.

 

Our afternoon/evening drive is set to be just as incredible as our morning one—if not more so. While it’s not technically Kruger (I don’t know the name, but it’s right across the street), it’s still amazing. This park has small bush paths instead of huge asphalt roads, too, which makes the experience seem more real somehow—more like Masebe, I guess.

 

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Near the entrance to the other park. (Caution: Kudu and other wildlife crossing. Limit: 40 kph.)

 

Our evening drive starts out pretty well. We almost immediately run into this enormous herd of buffalo. There are probably 200 buffalo, but despite being one of the most dangerous animals in Africa, they all mill about peacefully in front of the truck.

 

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A mama and baby buffalo. The mother appears to be melting, though I have no idea why—it’s 60 degrees out.

 

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A kingfisher looking for dinner in the nearby pond.

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Success!

 

Apart from the herd and the single kingfisher spotted just next to it, we see almost nothing for the next hour or more. After a while, it starts to seem like we’re driving in circles.

 

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A kudu runs from the sound of our truck as we continue to drive around aimlessly.

 

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At least the view is nice…

 

Ronnie comes through huge for us, though. Despite our hour of wandering, he soon gets a call over the radio that says to rush to a site that’s just a little ways away: there’s supposedly a male leopard with a fresh kill (probably a warthog), and it’s eating it up in a tree.

 

Oh yeah, and there’s a hyena there too. No big deal.

(It’s literally such a huge deal oh my goodness I am freaking out right now.)

 

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We arrive just in time to watch the leopard haul his kill up higher into the tree, panting from the effort and looking down smugly at the hungry hyena below.

 

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The hyena sits just below the leopard, staring up hungrily and watching for any dropped pieces of meat or bone.

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Every once and a while, the leopard will drop a bone while chewing, and the hyena races to snatch it up. Though bones sound like a predator’s worthless table scraps, they’re actually one of the hyena’s favorite snacks. Hyenas have evolved immensely strong jaws that can snap bones with ease, which is exactly what they do.

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This carnivore, though a phenomenal hunter, is also yet another invaluable garbage man for nature, usually eating the leftovers of other predators’ meals (though sometimes stealing  fresh kills from the predators, too, which is why our leopard is in this tree).

 

Even from where we are—way below the leopard on the ground and, furthermore, a decent distance from the base of the tree—we can hear the sound of the bones snapping and sinews breaking between the leopard’s powerful jaws.

 

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All too soon we have to leave so that other tour groups can get a chance to see these incredible predators up close. With the sun beginning to set, though, saying goodbye isn’t too terrible…

 

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With this, our time in Kruger (and whatever this neighbor-park is called…) is just about over. We meet up with the other group for drinks while watching the remainder of the sunset, all gushing excitedly about everything we’ve seen. After this, though, we load back up in the trucks and roll out. The drive back to our accommodations is freezing, but I couldn’t care less—today has been perfect.

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