Sunday, March 10, 2013

Kruger National Park

The watch alarm gave a timid beep. 4:30 am. I leaped out of bed and grabbed my clothes.

That alone should give pause to those of you who know me. An early bird I am not. Yet during my month-long stay in South Africa, my alarm beeped at 4:30 am four times, and each time, I hopped out of bed. Three of those times were so that I could do the early morning feed with the marmosets. This time was different. This time was Kruger.

And so at 5 am, I left the hostel and hit the road for Numbi, the nearest gate to where I was staying in Nelspruit. Funnily enough, several people had tried to explain that I should not go via Numbi but instead drive further north to the next gate, since the drive would be prettier and through fewer townships. Since I had no concerns about driving through the townships, however, and I preferred to spend as much time as possible in Kruger, I stuck with my original plan, arriving at the gate shortly after 6 o'clock. Following a quick registration process and armed with my trusty R35 Visitor's Guide, I was off again, ready for a day of whatever wildlife I might see. (The Visitor's Guide is well worth the miniscule price - full of maps, approximate driving times, and info about the animals you may see). With only one day to spend at the park, I knew that I would cover just a fraction of the park's 20 000 sq km so I wanted to make the most of my time.

I quickly left the main road, taking one of the gravel roads which would lead me from Numbi up to the Dolspane Road. I drove slowly in the early morning light, carefully taking in as much as I could. I paused at several watering holes, hoping that the early hour might let me see signs of life, but nothing. Undeterred, I kept going.

My first glimpse of Kruger's animal life came just as I turned onto the Dolspane Road. Standing in the road ahead of me were three zebra, their tails swinging in perfect synchronization. My camera was at the ready so I slowed and started clicking. Satisfied that the day was off to a good start, I kept going. Only twenty minutes later or so, my path was blocked again, this time by an elephant.

This would be the first of many elephants that would cross my path during the day, and each time I marveled at the silence. I'm not sure what I expected, perhaps a crashing of undergrowth as these magnificent beasts tromped their way through the bush. Instead, each one caught me completely by surprise, appearing as if from nowhere to cross the road in search of more tasty greenery. They were a photographer's dream.

So there you have a description of how I spent most of the next eleven hours - driving through parts of the park, stopping at the lodge areas only long enough to buy gas, some jerky, and a present for Nic.

I loved the peace and solitude of being out in the park on my own, just me and nature, and the anticipation of what I might encounter next.

I followed the road from Skukuza Camp along the Sabie River down to Lower Sabie, past Ntandanyathi towards Crocodile Bridge, then up the Burne Road to meet with Napi Road, which would lead me back to Numbi Gate.

Occasionally I would pass another car but more often than not, especially in the afternoon, I could drive for quite some time without seeing another person.

In addition to elephants and zebra, I saw wildebeest, hippos, a wide variety of deer and antelope, warthogs, monkeys, giraffes, tortoises (I feel compelled to include them since I saw so many) and birds in an array of colors.

Some tourists might have considered the day disappointing since I didn't see rhino, lions, or leopards, but for me, the day was as close to perfect as it could get.

And as I neared the gate late that afternoon, ready to make my way back to Nelspruit, it seemed wholly appropriate that the last animals I should see at Kruger were a troop of vervet monkeys, making their way down the road. It was monkeys that had brought me to South Africa; it was only fitting that they should wave me goodbye.


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