Weekends at Askari, we had free time on Saturdays and Sundays. Our first weekend there, some of the other volunteers had the idea to go away for the weekend to Kruger National Park; we quickly all jumped on the idea.
Kruger National Park is, simply, amazing. The largest national park in South Africa, it’s roughly the same size as Wales. It’s known for having amazing wildlife, oodles of elephants, and rare sightings. And it did not disappoint!
Within about an hour of entering the park gates, we saw our first elephant (not hard to do – Kruger has over 20 000 elephants. They technically have too many elephants – good for people like me, who love to see them, but bad for biodiversity).
My first ever elephant!!
The first day included more amazing sightings.
We pulled over where some other cars had stopped. Turned out they were looking at lions! Sometimes the best way to find wildlife is to just look for stopped cars.
One of my favourite sightings was this group of elephants. Among them there was the TINIEST ELEPHANT. It couldn’t have been more than a month old, and it was so taken care of by the other elephants. As it walked, it was helped along by its mum and another female elephant.
At one point there was a small kerfuffle to the left, and the elephants formed a protective huddle around the baby.
It was amazing to see how gentle these giants were with such a little one.
This spot was also amazing because we stopped to look at the elephants, but it seemed the longer we looked, the more appeared. First the baby elephant, and then a hippo, and a Goliath Heron, and a crocodile!
Goliath Heron, the tallest heron in the world:
That afternoon, as if we hadn’t seen enough that morning, we were gifted with MORE LIONS!
And a Black-backed Jackal! I spotted this one, but actually had no idea what I was looking at when I saw it. I pointed and started babbling: “It’s a – a- coyote – fox – thing!”
I believe they call this a “zebra crossing” (hehe):
That first day in Kruger was probably one of the hottest I remember. It was boiling hot, and we spent the whole day sitting in the car, baking. At one point, our poor car started overheating and we had to turn off the A/C for about an hour. We melted.
Luckily it cooled down later that night. We camped both nights in the park. Camping was a bit different than I was used to. In Canada, you get an assigned site number within the campsite. In South Africa (or at least in Kruger), we were given circle B. Circle B had about twenty or more spots in it; you basically just picked the best one available, in a free for all.
The second day, we woke up at five a.m., not wanting to waste a minute in the park.
We had another lucky day. It started out with Ground Hornbills, a rare bird sighting:
Next we saw an elephant, a little ways off the road. We stopped to look at him, and after a few minutes, he started ambling over. We sat in complete silence, holding our breath, as he approached our car, checking us out.
He was probably only 10 metres away at one point. Luckily he was a very gentle giant!
After that, we took a gravel road off the main route. We were really hoping to see a leopard that day, and we figured they might be hanging out a little off the beaten path, maybe by the river. We drove this gravel road for about forty minutes before finally returning to the main, paved road. Within fifty metres on there, a car was pulled over. Looking at – you guessed it – a leopard.
It was like it had been waiting for us:
Our day was made. A close elephant sighting? Ground Hornbills? Leopard? Could it GET any better?
Well, it’s Kruger, so of course it did.
One thing about Kruger is that there’s a rule you aren’t allowed out of your cars. Wherever there is a campsite, or store, or gas station, it will be completely surrounded by tall fences and gates to keep the animals out. There are a few select places in the park’s open system where you can get out of your car, as well, such as overlook points and fenced-in lookouts.
At first this rule seemed a bit extreme. And then one time we stopped the car to look at some wildebeest, far away from us. Just wildebeest – we’d seen plenty by that point – so nothing too exciting, but we thought we’d stop anyway. If I’d been allowed to, I might have gotten out of the car to get a better angle.
And then one of my friends glanced in the opposite direction, yelped, and we all just about jumped out of our skin when we saw it – three lions, which had climbed out of a ditch to our right, and were strolling casually towards our car!!
The posse approaches:
They passed right in front of the car, ridiculously close. One even laid down for a few minutes right in front of us!
Lionesses hanging out after scaring us half to death:
Later we saw the cutest Vervet Monkey & baby:
And then we saw a SECOND LEOPARD:
We stayed in the campsite again Sunday night, and woke up once again at five a.m. the next day. We had a few more hours to spend before we had to leave Kruger.
We were rewarded once again for waking up early, this time with our rarest sighting of the weekend. We saw WILD DOGS.
Wild dogs are extremely, extremely rare. If you lived there, you’d be lucky to see them a few times in a lifetime. We caught three of them, napping under the shade of the trees, escaping the hot sun:
Moving around for a minute:
And back to napping:
And then we saw spotted hyenas. Another trio, napping in the shade, trying to escape the heat of the morning:
There are three hyenas in this picture, believe it or not. I’m lucky that the people I was with had excellent bush eyes:
Grinning over at us:
Later that morning we left Kruger and headed back to Hoedspruit, to return the rental cars and go back to Askari. It was an amazing weekend. We saw all of the Big Five animals in two days (Big Five refers to the five animals for which, when you’re hunting them on foot, you have a 50/50 chance of surviving: lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo, and leopard). I had seen my first elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo, jackal, hippo, crocodile, wild dog, spotted hyena, and 35 new bird species. It was a VERY good weekend.