How we do Kruger

In days gone by we would travel around all day – first out of the gates at dawn and last in in the evenings. We would stop off for breaks at picnic spots or rest camps but how we did it, I don’t know. Maybe as one ages one’s priorities change.

We began our Kruger visits by staying in huts/chalets with their delicious smell of thatch. It was easy, we could afford it, but it had some drawbacks. Nowadays it has become more and more expensive and one also has to live out of a suitcase. I remember with amusement how annoyed was my father-in-law in 1982 by the exorbitant cost of a hut – R12/night (R6pp) Furthermore huts are only available from 2pm onwards which can be trying when arriving hot and bothered at a new camp.

In 2012 Renette and I made what I consider to be the best decision possible for Kruger. We bought a Jurgens Penta caravan. When one considers that one saves over R1,000/night then it takes but a few weeks to pay off the cost of it. One has every comfort – an air/con, a heater, stoves, microwaves, deep freezers, a work desk  and even a TV if one is that way inclined. One is thus totally weather and creepy-crawly proof whilst being that much closer to the sounds of the night. One of my  highlights of the day is to walk back from my evening shower with the brilliant stars overhead and the murmur of the campers around me. Someone once said to me that the problem with camping is that one cannot choose your neighbours. Well after the many nights spent in Kruger’s campsites I have yet to find an objectionable neighbour. On the contrary, Kruger campers are usually well behaved, considerate and like minded folk. At the beginning of 2017 we spent 36 days in the park travelling from top to bottom. It was a trial run for us and we were both sad to leave at the end. This year 2018 we will spend another ten weeks in Kruger in total. In 2019 we will be spending – wait for it – 5 months from January to June travelling the length and breadth of Kruger. Interested people will be able to tap into my blog.

It is so easy for us Saffers to lose perspective. Yes, it is irritating to see lax management and shoddy standards but when compared to the rest of Africa, Kruger is excellent value for money – especially if one camps or caravans. The online booking system is just so good and everywhere we go we find helpful, cheerful staff. The litter next to roads has all but disappeared and speeding by service vehicles and park employees is not a general problem. For me the biggest irritation is the poor MTN 3G Mobile internet coverage throughout the park. Be warned, Vodacom is far superior.

With some justification one will often hear people complaining that Kruger is not for them because of the crowds and the commercialism of the place – especially in the south. BUT…. if one learns how to avoid the crowds then it is quite possible to enjoy quiet sightings – even by oneself close to Skukuza. Kruger is all about “when, where and how”.

Of course with camp gates opening at 4.30am in summer, there are far fewer diehards about at that time and even roads such as the Skukuza-Lower Sabie (H4-1) will be deserted at sunrise. We sat with this leopard with scarcely another vehicle in sight for some time at sunrise at 5am on this the busiest of Kruger’s roads.

In wintertime, 6.30am is a far more reasonable hour and I will not travel on a popular road where any exciting sighting will lead to an immediate traffic jam with frayed tempers. It is just not for me. What has more recently compounded the problem is that all the tourist bakkies are radio linked allowing  for them to flock in to anything worthwhile, desperate to show their tourists the Big 5. So we have developed a tactic whereby we are early out of the gates and travel quickly (not speeding) to a distant road where we can then dawdle at leisure without seeing another car for a good couple of hours.

I can remember this tactic paying a huge dividend along the Nwatimhiri Road (S21) one morning where I came across two mating leopards in the road and I was with them for almost an hour before the first car arrived.

Certain unwritten rules apply in Kruger, one of them being to respect those who take the trouble to get up early to leave the gate ahead of the pack at opening time. One just does not overtake them but allows them to lead and encounter first whatever the road may deliver. Occasionally yobbos will abuse this but mostly people in Kruger are well behaved. If ever the dictum “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” applies then it does so in Kruger. It is all about consideration and politeness. Unfortunately, tour bakkies are desperate to show tourists the Big 5 and can overstep  the mark, as does the occasional rude person. But in general people behave well in Kruger.

As a photographer one quickly learns of the richness of the light in those precious first two hours after sunrise and then again before sunset. And what pleases the camera must surely please the eye. Without a doubt sunrise is my favourite time of the day. Leading up to midday the light becomes more and more harsh so that good photos are difficult to come by. Of course thin cloud or a strong haze soften the sunshine allowing good photos well into the day.

The slower one drives the more detail one is likely to see. We probably go no faster than 20Kph. After about four hours our concentration begins  to wane, the light deteriorates and it is then time to return to camp for a swim, for some birding, hopefully editing photos or just for relaxation with a book. Our days of driving all day are now thankfully long past. Yes, the further one travels the more likely one is to come across huddles of cars at a sighting of probably lions resting in the shade but…… nothing can beat one’s own sighting of something on the move without  any interference from other tourists.

And then it is out in the late afternoon as the day cools and one can enjoy the beautiful Kruger sunsets. My great regret is that my knowledge of butterflies, insects generally, frogs, trees and grasses is not what it should be and I miss so much as a result. Birds have shown me how richly the ‘dull’ gaps between the normal game sightings are filled if one can appreciate the smaller inconspicuous things.

I must confess that  I have a temperament that quickly tires of something. Which is why, under normal circumstances, I should eventually become bored in Kruger. But I am blessed to have the perfect antidote – my photography. Every day I set out with keen anticipation as to what may lie in store for me to photograph – and in Kruger the possibilities are almost endless. To photograph a new bird or get a great photo is thrilling, giving me that very necessary edge that I need – so I am never, ever bored.

I travel with me big 800mm lens alongside me with the other two cameras within easy reach and poor, long-suffering Renette ready to make way in an emergency. My Nikon equipment has been truly superb. I now use a D4S camera and a 800mm fixed telephoto with a D3S and 200-400mm zoom as a backup and my faithful Photoshop for processing. At this time of my life I am truly blessed to have a hobby that stimulates me so greatly.

The older we get the more we prefer to sit quietly at waterholes or on bridges and watch the passing show. It is here that one sees the fine detail – the interaction between the bird and animal.  Be it Biyamithi weir, Transport Dam, Sweni Causeway, Welverdiend water point or Nkaya Pan, we can sit for hours with hardly a dull moment.

If one asked me for my favourite months to visit Kruger then I would have to say December until the end of March for the migratory birds, less people, desolate roads and the swimming pool for exercise. Then May-June and mid-July to mid-August for the glorious lowveld winter weather outside of school holidays. If I could pick the worst month then I would say it would be October when the camp gate times, opening and closing,  are inappropriate and the weather is hot, windy and unpleasant before the onset of the rains. But Kruger is always lovely and everyone goes there for their own reasons.

Which are our favourite places in Kruger?  Last year we did a leisurely tour up and down the length of Kruger. Yes, the north is far more remote which suits us but I am afraid that I do find the mopane tedious and largely sterile. Shingwedzi is a beautiful camp and the S52 and S50 river roads are very scenic, particularly with their enormous trees. Unfortunately Punda Maria is too far from Pafuri making it difficult to reach the magnificent Luvuvhu river road (S63) in good photographic light. Letaba is probably the most beautiful camp in the Park but the surrounds with extensive mopane spoil it for me. Coming south across the Olifants river, the plains opened up and the herds of animals appeared and we were so happy to reach Satara. Satara embraces everything I love about Kruger – the great grassy plains, the teeming herds of animals, the well treed river roads and the stream pools. In fact Satara to me has everything, all the animals and birds in a landscape that is pure Africa. The campsite is large and sprawling but does lack shade. Popular Lower Sabie is great for animal sightings and the roads are varied and extensive. The campsite though is cramped and limited. Skukuza  is becoming perhaps too busy although one can escape to Lake Panic and Biyamithi. Pretoriuskop is scenically a lovely camp but with limited game viewing prospects. Bergendal has wonderful game possibilities and is very underrated whilst Crocodile Bridge is lovely but has heavy traffic on its limited roads.

So dear reader, “different strokes for different okes” and the way we do Kruger may well leave some of you aghast. But that is the way we personally do it and it is the way that we love it and which keeps bringing us back for more.